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The Wikileaks Strike at the Heart of American Exceptionalism

One of the most interesting ways in which the latest Wikileaks release of State Department cables has shone light on American foreign policy today has been the way it has revealed the degree of consensus that exists among policy intellectuals in the United States, regardless of where they hail from along the (mainstream) political spectrum. What Dorothy Parker said of Katherine Hepburn’s acting—that it ran the gamut of emotion from A to B—finds more than a faint echo in the American policy debate as well. (Click here to read all of TNR's obsessive coverage of the juicy State Department cables.)

To be sure, there are differences between center-left and center-right. On the right, the emphasis has been on the way the document release poses an existential threat to the country as it tries to win the long war against the Jihadis. Julian Assange and his colleagues, wrote The New York Sun’s Seth Lipsky, “published nearly half a million documents of potential value to our enemies on and off the battlefield.” The goal, Lipsky insisted, was “to destroy our war effort.” (Click here to view a slideshow of the silliest, scariest, and most NSFW Wikileaks.)

On the left (or what passes for it in America, anyway), the tone has been very different—no suggestions that Wikileaks could cause the defeat of American arms; no claims that Julian Assange is a terrorist whose capture by U.S. intelligence operatives should be a priority. But if American conservatives’ consternation has been framed in the language of hard power, American progressives have predicted equally apocalyptic consequences for the exercise of soft power by the United States.

Writing on the site of Democracy Arsenal, the group blog of the National Security Network, which bills itself as being dedicated to “building a strong, progressive national security and countering conservative spin,”Michael Cohen wrote that the Wikileaks dump had “fundamentally undermined US national security and effective US diplomacy.” A principled opponent of U.S. military action abroad, Cohen is an analyst who has written some of the best and most intelligent analysis and criticism of the disaster in Afghanistan (including at TNR). And yet his consternation over Wikileaks seems to have two sources: (1) that secrecy is necessary to the effective exercise of diplomacy, and 2) that because “US actions on the global stage are legitimate,” despite what those (like Julian Assange and his defenders) who, pace Cohen, view U.S. power with uniform negativity and deny that its exercise serves “a global public interest,” the diplomats trying to further these actions and interests need to be allowed to operate with a requisite degree of secrecy.

Writing on the TNR site, both Heather Hurlburt, Cohen’s colleague at Democracy Arsenal, and James Rubin, formerly the spokesman for Madeleine Albright during her tenure as secretary of state, picked up these arguments and added one more reason why the Wikileaks disclosures had been such a disaster and would have such lasting effects. According to Hurlburt, the leaked diplomatic cables were bound to be seized upon by “opponents of progressive policies” to advance their own agenda. The right, she predicted, would “use the Wikileaks items out of context and use them to justify ideas like bombing Iran, rejecting the START treaty, and doing god-knows-what to North Korea.”

James Rubin made the point more stridently, insisting flatly that because the State Department mainly operated by winning the trust of foreign officials, and working through persuasion and information sharing, “destroying confidentiality means destroying diplomacy.” And he echoed Hurlburt in arguing that cutting the State Department’s diplomats “off at the knees” made diplomatic solutions less likely, and, by implication, the military ones to which the right has so often been drawn more probable. The “hard left,” Rubin declared, might claim to be interested in world peace and the diplomatic resolution of global crises, but Wikileaks’ decision to go ahead with the release, and the hard left’s support of that decision, undermined “the very worldview that Julian Assange and his colleagues at Wikileaks almost certainly support.”

Rubin is a worldly and experienced man, and it is difficult to believe that he seriously believes that the hard left, as he calls, is simply interested in the United States exercising its influence through soft rather than hard power. That may indeed be the view of American liberals (or progressives, as they now style themselves), but it is most emphatically not the worldview of the hard left, which, to the contrary, stands in opposition to the American empire and wishes to see its power inhibited as much as possible. And it is disingenuous in the extreme to pretend otherwise.

Michael Cohen shares Rubin’s abhorrence of the leaks, but unlike Rubin, he sees this clearly, observing that those who have most strenuously supported the Wikileakers are those who see the U.S. role in the world in a “uniformly negative light.” One might quarrel with the “uniformly,” but the basic thrust of Cohen’s argument is absolutely correct, and, unlike Rubin’s, does not erect preposterous straw men to buttress his arguments.

In any case, that progressives are in the main appalled by Wikileaks should not come as a surprise. This is emphatically not because there are no differences between the center-left and the center-right in America over foreign policy. To the contrary, there are, and they are of real consequence, with liberals generally being at least skeptical of and often profoundly opposed to U.S. military interventions abroad, including in Afghanistan, and conservatives continuing to believe in the centrality of military power in advancing American interests. But where they are of one mind is on the necessity of America’s continued hegemony in the world. The reason for this, I think, is that not only conservatives but progressives (including, incidentally, President Obama, despite the obsession on the right with claiming otherwise) continue to accept the idea of American exceptionalism with few if any misgivings.

Again, there is more than one version of the creed. For the right, America is quite simply the last, best hope of mankind, and anything that is in the interest of the United States is, by definition, in the interests of humanity. America, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in the National Review, has a “unique and special mission in the world.” Turning John Quincy Adams's famous warning on its head, they added that the country was both an “exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.”

For the progressives, America has many flaws but it is still humanity’s best hope. Before she went into government, Anne Marie Slaughter, formerly dean of the Wilson School at Princeton and now head of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an entire book—The Idea That Is America—based on the premise that America’s values and ideals (as opposed to the country’s frequent failure to live up to those values and ideals) were universal. “What makes us distinctly American,” she wrote,” is that we hold to a set of values that apply around the world.” For his part, Cohen once wrote that the United States was “an inherently good” country.

In a recent column in The New York Times, David Brooks wrote that he foresaw a new movement arising in America whose goal would “be unapologetic: preserving American pre-eminence. It will preserve America’s standing in the world on the grounds that this supremacy is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth." This is not what Slaughter, and Hurlburt, and Rubin, and Cohen are calling for, but there is considerable overlap just the same. And in fact, while Rubin’s contentions about Wikileaks’s constituency do not stand up to the most superficial scrutiny, Cohen’s account is absolutely correct. If you believe the United States is fundamentally a force for good in the world (one does not have to traffic in Brooks’s cheap millenarian language to believe this), then you should be appalled by the emergence of Wikileaks, for it does indeed make the job of American diplomats more difficult. If, on the other hand, you believe that America is an empire (one does not have to believe that this makes the United States a malign force, just not a benign one, any more than any other empire has ever been), and, if you are an American, anyway, you believe that this imperial vocation is destroying the country, and therefore you want to see the empire’s end, then of course you will enthusiastically welcome the advent of Wikileaks.

David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.

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