Foreign Policy

The End of the American Century

It's time to practice Jeffersonian libertarianism at home and abroad


Though its first decade began with a security nightmare in lower Manhattan and ended with an economic collapse blocks away on Wall Street, the 21st century can still bring greater peace, prosperity, and individual liberty if American libertarians seize this moment in history. We must echo President Dwight Eisenhower's "military industrial complex" warnings in his January 17, 1961 farewell address and we must counter the "American Century" conceit still plaguing us from Henry R. Luce's Life magazine editorial of February 17, 1941, the 70th anniversary of which is now upon us.

The contrast between Eisenhower's historically informed wisdom and Luce's jingoistic missionary zeal offer an opportunity for serious discourse beyond the empty choices presented by bloated government liberals and big government conservatives. Both "sides" pretend they want to downsize the fat federal beast, just as they both sell interventionist foreign policy with flag-waving "support the troops" propaganda.

More alike than not, Democrats and Republicans serve the narrow interests of the "government affairs representatives" who infest Washington's K Street lobbying firms. They pander to both the procurers of middle- and elderly-class entitlements and to the rent seekers from scare-mongering national security industries, who profiteer from a permanent state of empire-building and elective warfare.

Unfortunately, it has now become mantra for 2012 Republican nominee wannabes to drop a Luce-style reference to "American exceptionalism" into every nascent campaign speech, op-ed, and FOX News cable-babble. They're attempting to create a GOP theme to counter the second-term ambitions of what the populist, nativist right considers a "less-than-American" president, Barack Obama, who made the mistake of saying in an April 2010 press conference outside the U.S. that, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

Obama qualified that remark to assure his worldwide audience that he, too, worships at the altar of the High Church of American Exceptionalism, but it was too little, too late. The neo-con artists, think tank directors, and weekly journal editors who live for an endless state of war seized on Obama's words. They went on the attack to please their oil and defense-contractor friends, in service to the interests of the religiously-defined nation-state of Israel, and supported by the Rapturist hallucinations of certain domestic Christian fundamentalists eager to ascend into the clouds to meet Jesus via their self-fulfilling prophecies about Armageddon in the Holy Land.

Those of us blessed with the classical liberal meme stream inherited from the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason can do the human race a favor by using the Eisenhower and Luce anniversaries as a teaching moment. We can illuminate just how much liberty has been lost due to today's permanent state of warfare, which not only Eisenhower in 1961, but James Madison two centuries earlier, warned against. We can define how Luce's pre-war jingoistic "American Century" proclamation, in his immodestly named Life magazine, contributed to a post-war sense of New World entitlement. Luce's conceit encouraged Americans to think of ourselves as God's policemen to the world, and to obsess about our right not only to whatever our rapidly expanding middle-class incomes could buy, but also to what politicians could hand out via federal, state, and local taxes—and a massive deficit-spending spree.

"American exceptionalism" is a slogan used in many ways. With modesty, it describes an exemplar nation, setting an example for indigenous movements for liberal democracy and free markets (perhaps even in Egypt and Iran right now). But more often, it is employed by warmongers and nation builders to justify the projection of American hard power. This approach has been sorely abused by many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and—sorrowfully, for me—Barack Obama, who now echoes President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's anointment of America as "the indispensable nation."

As we witness the rise of great middle classes around the globe, empowered by the democratization of information, finance, and technology, America is at a stage of history when we should disenthrall ourselves from the notion we are at the center of human existence. We have become the problem in so many places because of our over-bearing presence. We need to step back and put the individual, not our nation-state, at the center of the universe.

Executive director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, Terry Michael's writing is collected at his "thoughts from a libertarian Democrat" personal web site,

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  1. Nice article TM. I suspect we’re going to get a smattering of comments like “WTF what liberal nonsense.”

  2. It was a decent piece. Not sure why you think someone would call it liberal nonsense.

    1. Well, see the post immediately under this.

  3. This guy is exactly right. What good has America ever done? We must realize that, as a nation, we are no better than the Greeks or the Somalis or the Chinese. We aren’t perfect and they aren’t perfect, which makes us exactly the same. Only through the acceptance of these facts can we take our place as equals among midgets.

    1. So, basically, the Bigger Dick Foreign Policy at work. We need to spend unaffordable amounts of money nation-building so that we can prove that we’re better hung than the Chinks.

      1. I, for one, enjoy being better hung that the “Ch..ks”. Being hung like a light switch ain’t much fun I hear. Maybe, you could shed some light on the subject?

    2. “As a nation”


      What does it mean to be a “better” nation, and how is that different from being a “better” race?

      The collectivist is strong in you.

      1. RyanXXX|2.16.11 @ 8:49PM|#
        “What does it mean to be a “better” nation, and how is that different from being a “better” race?”

        This is a joke, right?

    3. I think too many individuals mis-understand what American exceptionalism really is. Yes it has been used by many to propagate a world where America must dictate its will upon the world. But at its heart it means this. Americans or no different than Europeans, the Chinese, Indians, or Iranians. What American exceptionalism is, is that the nation was founded on the concept of individual liberty, and that is what makes America exceptional. No nation to date has seen the meteoric rise in wealth that America has, and unfortunately has been assaulted by our government these past decades. If other nations adopt those concepts of liberty than they too will see an increase in their fortune and well being. What we need to do is fight this idea that American exceptionalism entails us fighting wars all over the world.

      1. america fought to make the world safer for itself and its interests. that meant taking on facism and communism and now islamism. if the first two had operated unchecked and spread, it would have been the worse for us.

        what you don’t get is that “liberty” requires power. someone always wants to take it away. that’s just how things are. the liberty of western europe depended on the US being able to stop the USSR from invading it. India is growing because the US would not let China or other communists have it. a weak US means a weak west. nations don’t live on their own, they have allies. and the US has done a lot to increase democracy and prosperity. we supported those when we could or at least we supported the not so bad against the really awful.

        at this point, the US seems likely to become a third world nation with a majority population that is not interested or able to create wealth but that wants a lot from the government. that is a recipe for increasing division and strife and poverty.

      2. I agree with k200k, that’s how I always understood it. No nation, up until that point in 1776, had made liberty a cornertone of its political existence.

        It’s why people around the world looking up at the sky still believe in America.

        Americans ARE different than Greeks, Somali’s and so on. Spare me the cultural equivalency.

        I can’t believe Marshall would ask “what has America has done?” Are you kidding me? THE 20TH CENTURY BELONGED TO AMERICA and as a Canadian all I can say is that was a good thing.

        I understand there was some bad in there but the good changed our lives – eg through technology and innovation.

        I don’t get why Yanks beat themselves up so.

        As for the paragraph:”Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and?sorrowfully, for me?Barack Obama, who now echoes President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s anointment of America as “the indispensable nation.”

        Did the author actually believe that Obama was from the Jefforsonian lineage? If so, man, he bought a bit that never was. Why would anyone think Obama was a man of liberty? NOTHING in his past and thin political experience suggested that. Never mind any writings he may have written proving this.

        Obama is by and for the state. Nothing else.

  4. Eisenhower not only warned against the ‘military-industrial complex’, he worked his butt off trying to the the socialist Euros to carry some of the load to defend themselves. He got nowhere.
    So while the Euros continue to gripe about US military dominance, they do absolutely nothing to provide any of their own.
    I’m tired of defending their sorry butts. Close the damn bases, get the troops home, and if the bear looks west, why, tough stuff.

    1. And Japan. It was a slightly different case, since the racism of the times meant that US gov’t didn’t want Japan to re-arm (of course, neither did the Chinese).

      It’s a bit different now, though.

      1. “It’s a bit different now, though.”

        *WAY* different now.
        Can you imagine the Japanese economy if they actually had to pay for their defense instead of passing out dough to the government cronies?
        I’m tired of cute Japanese kids floating paper swans in Hiroshima on August 6th. Those kids wouldn’t have been born if the Allies had invaded; there’s wouldn’t *be* any Japanese.

    2. I read that Eisenhower originally planned to say “military-industrial-congressional complex.” The legislature has to be at least somewhat involved.

  5. Ohh! What a great idea?

  6. in service to the interests of the religiously-defined nation-state of Israel

    Fail. “Tribal,” not “religious.” An ethnic Jew can never go to shul, never keep Kosher or the sabbath, and still be able to get Israeli citizenship by virtue of being in that ethnicity/tribe.

    1. Eh, that’s contradicted by the fact that most Palestinians are semitic just like most Israelis. Ethnically they’re the same

      1. LOL, are you joking? Jews and Arabs have been separated ethnically for thousands of years. They’re the same in name only.

        1. Jews and Arabs are both panethnicities, and therefore made up of a lot of separate ethnicities – some of which overlap.

          1. Yes, but do those panethnicities overlap anywhere? No.

    2. So the black flasha Jews from Ethiopia and the white ashkinazi ones from Europe are the same ethnicity?

      1. No, one group is stupid as fuck and the other is highly (not Haile) intelligent.

      2. Same tribe, yes. And yes, there’s been some good evidence of genetic connection.

        1. I would hope so, both being Homo sapiens and all…

      1. Key word: fathers. Tribal membership is matrilineal.

        1. Actually there is a dispute over this. Traditionalists want to keep it patrilineal, which is how it worked in Biblical times. Matrilineal membership os fairly new.

  7. Some people believe that the U.S. is exceptional because of its written commitment to liberty in our founding documents.

    Considering there isn’t a single government in the world besides us who has even come close to forming a government with libertarian ideology, I think you’d just better back of on your hackneyed and uninformed attack on American exceptionalism.

    1. You ever heard “actions speak louder than words”?

      North Korea calling itself the “Democratic Republic of North Korea” does not make it a democratic republic. Saying “America is a free country” does not make it a free country.

      And no, I’m not comparing America and North Korea. I’m saying a “libertarian-ish” founding document does not make us exceptional if we just ignore it, which we have been.

      1. RyanXXX|2.16.11 @ 8:53PM|#
        “You ever heard “actions speak louder than words”?”

        See below; revealed preferences.
        I’m *not* arguing that the US has held to constitutional standards, only that as bad as it is, it’s *still* better than the alternatives.

    2. OK, so the US Constitution has a uniquely libertarian character. How does that justify current US foreign policy?

    3. “I think you’d just better back of on your hackneyed and uninformed attack on American exceptionalism.”

      And as evidence, why, just count the emigres in both directions.
      Revealed preferences.

    4. I think you’re misinterpreting: it’s an attack on the idea of “American exceptionalism” as something measured in military dominance of the globe, rather than respect for liberty.

      There’s nothing exceptional about being a powerful empire, and no evidence that it will be remotely close to a permanent state of affairs. A nation founded on ideals, and ideals of liberty at that, is quite exceptional in contrast.

      I think you’re actually in agreement with the author, if you re-read the article.

      1. Then he misunderstands the concept of American exceptionalism, and he is the one in error.

        1. Who “he”?

          1. The author of this article.

            1. I’ll disagree. “He” defined exceptionalism in two alternatives:
              One of which he agreed with, the other not.
              I’ll go with those definitions and the sentiments; I’m not happy with the US being the world’s cop.

              1. Sevo is right. Far too many individuals think of American exceptionalism in the terms of military might. Now I have no problem having the strongest military on earth, but I do have a problem shedding our treasure and blood on wars we shouldn’t be and defending countries two lazy to foot the bill themselves. But being strong doesn’t make us exceptional, lots of nations are strong, now being the freest national on earth? That is exceptional.

              2. I stand corrected.


      2. cynical|2.16.11 @ 10:36PM|#
        “I think you’re actually in agreement with the author, if you re-read the article.”

        I took your advice and did give it a close read; you’re right:
        “Luce’s conceit encouraged Americans to think of ourselves as God’s policemen to the world, and …”
        As opposed to:
        “”American exceptionalism” is a slogan used in many ways. With modesty, it describes an exemplar nation, setting an example for indigenous movements for liberal democracy and free markets”

        1. With modesty, it describes an exemplar nation, setting an example for indigenous movements for liberal democracy and free markets”

          I missed this also, and stand corrected.

          The above quote IS a reason for American exceptionalism. I didn’t mean to say that we should export it at the point of a gun.

  8. Nor should we forget how American exceptional-ism is used to emotionally pull for the “basic human needs”, by the Left.

    Side note; I think the personalized attacks within the article help promote Left vs Right mentality. Not what I consider to be the best tactic if progress overcoming that same mindset is a goal in any fashion.

    This article reads to me as such: “Left is bad, right is bad. Classical Liberal is best. *Harsh the Right* *Moan about the Left following in the footsteps* ”

    If division must exist, I would much rather it be referred to as Individual Right vs Populist Might.

    My 2 Dollars (Inflation ya know.)

    1. I wish we could get away from right-left distinctions. We should us up-down. The Democrats and Republicans ascribe to the same basic schools these days, with only superficial differences. I think we should break things down into Liberty versus Totalitarianism. Both Red and Blue seem to be closer to the latter.

      1. Its not that the right left distinction is wrong, its just that it has been twisted from what it originally meant. Kind of like how we use the world liberal in America for progressives. Left should simply mean more power to the government, while right entails left. This means that communists, nazis, facists, theocrats, and totalitarians are far left. Anarchists would be far right. The founding fathers are center-right and our current democratic and republican parties are center-left

  9. On a tangentially related note, some realtalk from one “Billy Bean” over at Taibbi’s new Rolling Stone article on Wall Street (emphasis mine):

    Well, the SEC was founded by old Joe Kennedy. What’ya expect?

    Get real suckers. We’re broke. Wall Street gins up most of New York City and State’s tax money, and maybe one fifth of the entire Fedgov money. You think they are going to discomfort their main producer? Their friends? You think the Clinton’s got worth a 100 mil because of their ‘books’?

    Come on. Please.

    And, you know what. You don’t care. So long as that SS check is in the mail, or you got your cop job, or your kid is stuffed into a mind killing glorified day care center that gives your dolt sister a job for the next decade and a half, fine. For 500 a month you can buy Americans all day long. Cost of doing business.

    Heck, the Secretary of the Treasury, Geithner, is a tax cheat. Big f’n deal. Who isn’t, who doesn’t, save a few suckers. This is Chicago America, Wall Street America, Our Friends the Saudi’s America where Bush kisses and Obama bows.…..l-20110216

    1. I’d enjoy Taibbi’s writing a lot more if I didn’t have to hack through a tangled jungle of godawful low-rent gonzo prose to reach the inner sanctum of his mind, only to have to piece together the ancient dusty fragments of what the fuck he was trying to say.

      1. Yeah, that’s why I didn’t even bother quoting the article–the comment pretty much summed up the whole problem.

        Taibbi is far too invested in being a more profuse-swearing version of Hunter S. Thompson than in actually getting his point across. I’m not impressed with “journalists” whose writing style boils down to insufferable “look how clever I am!” posturing.

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  11. It’s been time for the US to practice “Jeffersonian Libertarianism” for a long while. So what else is new? I want to read about how to achieve the goal of making our government live up to its own (and my) ideals. What can we DO, given that things we have been trying in the last couple of decades haven’t led to a lot of worthwhile change?

    Classical liberals would be making progress if we saw articles like this in our hometown papers or on our local TV stations — even moreso in national newspapers or on national TV networks. What can each of us do TODAY to make such a thing happen?

  12. Well done Terry.

  13. There is nothing so ordinary as the desire to be extraordinary. This constant, frothing-at-the-mouth, about our exceptionalism just proves we’ve truely joined the league of ordinary nations.

  14. I have found that great people don’t trumpet their own actions, others will do that for them. I have noticed that since Teneman(SP?) Square when the protesters used the statue of liberty as a symbol, which was a form of trumpeting of American exceptionalism. Unfortunately Bush1 dropped the ball much like he dropped the ball when he declared support for the Kurds then did nothing when they were slaughtered. That pretty much ended the rest of the world looking at us as a nation to be counted on. So now all we have is a bunch of self inflating politicians claiming exceptionalism based on the actions of our forefathers and not on our present day actions and as we all know actions speak louder than words and all we do lately is speak. Yes we are involved in Iraq and Afganistan but those actions were a feeble attempt at reliving exceptionalism. Even though those who fight are exceptional their/our leaders have only made a half hearted attempt at it. The exceptionalism as a nation to be admired is now gone however that may not be entirely bad since the revolts in the Middle East have not looked to the U.S. for support they are just doing it and if it works out to bring greater freedom for these people then maybe our job as world police is coming to an end in a way that many have said it should, for has we have learned from past involvement you can not force democracy or freedom upon people they must make it themselves.

  15. Would the best way to have Washington escape lobbyists be to establish that Congress can have a quorum digitally, via web based conference services? Then the travel budget could be almost entirely cut, and we could only allow them in Washington for classified hearings, and force them to spend the rest of the time in their disctricts.

  16. good article, mostly right on, except one thing bugged me:

    how could anyone with libertarian leanings be disappointed in Obama?

    He has been totally preditable in everything he has done. Or did you take him on his word!?

  17. I always viewed American exceptionalism on the kind of sports they liked to watch, that they were so exceptionally awful (sorry I could not resist).

    Seriously, America for me is the place where one can be an individual, I do not see it as a place defined because of its middle class, its wealth or the strength of its army. In fact Western civilization should also not be defined by wealth, since it was not wealthy until 200 years ago, it for me is defined by its great individual heroes.

  18. As long as a government has the power to put a citizen in prison for the possession of a banned leaf, there is nothing exceptional about that government (except for it’s exceptional stupidity, I suppose). We cannot call ourselves exceptional because 200+ year old documents sound really nice and warm the heart.

    1. Exactly! Not to mention Selective Service.

  19. I agree with the author…so long as decreased American presence around the world coincides with ELIMINATING AMERICAN TAXPAYER HANDOUTS to those countries. They cant expect us to leave but still keep paying them. It seems every country on the planet has its hands in our taxes. STOP IT NOW!

  20. Ican’t agree more

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