Exception to rule


A revisionist history of US relations with Latin America pours scorn on the philosophy of American exceptionalism that Obama has assumed uncritically


No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776
Brian Loveman
2010, University of North Carolina Press
Hardback, plates, 539 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IF YOU WANTED good examples of the vision of exceptionalism and the core notions that define US perceptions of its role in the world, you will find few better than in mainstream rhetoric towards al-Qaida.

From Bush to Obama, the Islamist organisation has been understood, portrayed and feared as an existential threat that cuts to the very heart of the “American way”. Yet, apart from the game-changing events of 9/11 themselves and some copycat attacks, the “war on terror” has touched neither US soil nor, indeed, much of the western hemisphere.

But just as George W Bush confirmed that security threats to this cherished but poorly understood myth of American life and culture were now conceived of in global terms, President Barack Obama reiterated in his recent state of the union address the enduring vision that underpins this.

If Obama’s address was noticeably short on foreign and security policy, all the clues to an extra-territorial perception of national security inherited from the Bush years were there: self-defence for the American establishment, as Brian Loveman points out in his excellent and candid revisionist history of US relations with Latin America, has become “… reactive, anticipatory, or even preventive – extended to every remote spot on the globe.” [p. 384] In short, the American homeland is the planet; homeland security is planetary security.


In an elegant and courageous review of US history, Loveman illustrates that this position is not new, and has been reflected throughout Washington’s long and often uneasy relationship with the countries south of the border. Its main policy product has been unilateralism, not isolationism. And just as America had changed with the election of Obama, it had stayed the same: “It believed in its own exceptionalism and that it should be the ‘leader’ of the world.” [p. 385]

For non-Americans who do not accept its moral or military leadership, with all the limitations these may put on their own sovereignty and hence on their own democracies, it is a disturbing and uncomfortable burden that has fuelled resentment since way before the first hints of imperialism in the early 19th century.

Loveman brings this right up to date. He explores how, in his first expressions of policy towards Latin America, Obama had “dressed the United States in its best Good Neighbour vestments”, signalling through his address at the 2009 Summit of the Americas that the interventionism of the past was supposedly over and a new equality in relations prevailed. But the reality has, predictably, been somewhat different.

Obama, the author points out, is steeped in the tradition of American exceptionalism and a belief in the nation’s historical mission. Moreover, when he took office the US was heavily engaged in existing “wars” against drugs and terror, and heavily reliant on its existing network of air bases in Latin America to wage these. Central to its geo-strategic approach has been the forging of a new relationship with Colombia, based on backing the Colombian state forces in their war against FARC guerrillas regardless of whether this was played out on Colombian territory itself – and generating a nervous and, in some cases, angry response across the region.

Loveman writes: “… Obama’s bilateral agreement with Colombia would further militarize US policy in the region without prior consultation with concerned Latin American nations. American unilateralism had been reaffirmed, seemingly in contradicition to Obama’s pledge of ‘engagement among equal partners.’” [p. 393]

Other examples of doublespeak were soon to emerge: the hand of the US in the Honduran coup, for example, and its subsequent support for the government formed by the golpistas.

What Obama’s policy has revealed above all else has been a tension between the apparently progressive ambition to change, and the concrete limitations upon the US president in resisting the agendas of old-guard politicians and the Cold Warriors still at the heart of the security establishment. These tensions and Obama’s limited room for manoeuvre became very apparent over Cuba, with the decision to extend the embargo in September 2009 sending out a fairly unambiguous message of business as usual.

What these and other examples of foreign policy under Obama show in part, argues Loveman, is that the US president did not just inherit an “antiterror architecture” from his predecessor, but “the legacy of two centuries of America’s belief in its own exceptionalism and global mission” [p. 401] – beliefs that had so often in the past led to tragedy and abject policy failure.

For sure, the new president inherited an epic scale of dilemmas facing the US: if Obama did not shed the Pentagon’s post-Cold War security doctrines, there would be no fundamental changes for US politics and for the “liberal-corporate warfare state” – and the result would be a form of perpetual war. But, as Loveman chillingly and courageously points out, this is simply not an option:

“Even America, with all its vast wealth and military power, cannot withstand forever endless war, corruption, malfeasance, stupidity, and arrogance. It must share the Earth with other nations and peoples on a more equitable basis or lose itself and its dream” [p. 402]

Loveman offers the first systematic attempt to grapple with Obama’s Americas policy and provides a candid and scathing critique of the philosophy of exceptionalism that the US president has inherited and, in his rhetoric, has reproduced. While neither attacking Obama personally nor providing detailed prescriptions for change, Loveman skilfully if sketchily identifies as the root cause of this “American crisis” both political factors, not least the dangerous erosion of presidential authority and corruption at the heart of politics, but also identity factors and those well beyond the control of the US itself, such as the rise of new powers. He writes:

“Only fundamental reform of the corrupt American political system and a parallel jettisoning of American political myths my spare the United States, Latin America, and the rest of the planet further catastrophes resulting from an America that recognizes no higher law than its own definition of national security and its quest for global primacy. Without more transparency, greater accountability, and less hubris in American government, the prognosis seems gloomy.” [p. 403]

It doesn’t have to be gloomy, of course, but the author concludes that it is only extraordinary political leadership that can break this cycle: if Obama wishes to reclaim the American Dream that he seems to embody as an individual, he will have to engineer a monumental break with the past and those who surround his office. Are he and his countrymen up to the task?

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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