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Marco Rubio Reimagines American Exceptionalism

May 2, 2012

I’ll just come right out and say it: media coverage of vice presidential “buzz” is one of the lamest, most vapid moments in the American political journalism cycle. We have to endure it every four years and, with rare exceptions (Hi, Sarah Palin and Geraldine Ferraro!), it tends to be swiftly and mercifully forgotten once it’s over. But this time around, VP speculation has given us an opportunity to take a second look at Marco Rubio, a Tea Party darling who’s definitely on the VP shortlist, however demure he acts when asked about it.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave an address on foreign policy last week at the Brookings Institute in Washington that asked “Is the American world order sustainable and necessary in the 21st century?” (Short answer: yes). His speech deserves a close look, whether or not Rubio gets the VP nod, because it carves out an interesting middle ground for American exceptionalism, something Republicans hold dear and Obama is not exactly keen on. Rubio’s speech also offers a preview of how Republican candidates might respond to Obama’s foreign policy record, a record that has “Obama 1, Osama 0” written in big letters at the top of it.

Rubio’s speech carves out a middle ground by giving thinks like “destiny” or “history” their own agency. What does it mean to give history or anything else agency? Why, it’s as simple as personifying or giving it motives, like the car in the following excuse: “I’m late today because my car decided it wanted to die on me.” See? It’s not my fault because the car decided to that it wanted to die.

Rubio’s speech and the subsequent Q&A session give history agency in two places. In the first, Rubio quotes Tony Blair:

Why does it have to start with us, some say, why do we have to do it? We find our answer in the words of a non-American in an address to Congress in 2003, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said; “I know it’s hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I’ve never been to but always wanted to go, I know out there there’s a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happy, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, ‘Why me, and why us, and why America?’ And the only answer is, because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in this time, and the task is yours to do.”

Does anyone believe that Tony Blair actually harbors a desire to visit Nevada or Idaho? Didn’t think so. Blair’s hilariously implausible bit of pandering aside, the important element of this quote is the idea that destiny can “put” a country in a certain place, demanding action and relieving that country of the responsibility of having chosen to take that action. It’s shorthand for: don’t blame me, destiny made me do it!

Now, it may be perfectly reasonable to claim that historical circumstances constrain a country’s options, perhaps prompting that country to take actions to defend itself, freedom, etc. Nevertheless, that nation retains responsibility for its actions, whether or not those actions are later deemed justifiable by history. Moreover, because history and destiny are both rhetorically constructed things (i.e. we pretty much make them up and then agree on what they were), their meanings are not written plainly for all to see. People and nations can claim that history called on them to do just about anything, from rebuilding Europe after World War II to investing in some real estate on the Moon. But, to use history as a convincing justification, they must explain how history or destiny called on them to do that thing, because history means different things to different people.

Rubio moves to personify history (or destiny, if you prefer Blair’s wording) again during the Q&A that followed his speech:

I think, as Bob [Kagan] points out in his book, and I point out in my speech, and many of you have written, it’s also been a tendency of America to not want to get engaged in the world if we don’t have to. We don’t really enjoy getting engaged around the world and telling people what to do. We’ve done so because history has called upon us to do that.

Here again, Americans must do something that they might not be comfortable with because “history has called upon us” to do it. This rhetorical move—constructing history as a force that demands action from us and in so doing justifies that action—is smart. It’s an ends-justify-the-means argument but it doesn’t look like an ends-justify-the-means argument. It positions America as a reluctant superhero that acts only when it must. Most importantly, it creates a middle-of-the-road version of American exceptionalism that is far more palatable for moderates than the old-school city-upon-a-hill version of exceptionalism.

The speech was perfectly adequate, although I see an odd defensiveness in Rubio’s stances. It’s not just his middle-of-the-road version of exceptionalism; it’s also in his odd insistence that the United States and only the United States can form or lead international coalitions. It’s in his his inability to disagree with or criticize any major element of Obama’s foreign policy, except for Obama’s timing in the Libyan conflict, which is, frankly, a relatively small quibble. Does this mean that the Republican critique of Obama’s foreign policy will be a weak? Well, that’s one more reason to pay attention this November.

If you want to know more:

  • American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States has been somehow set apart from other countries and endowed with a higher purpose (defending liberty, setting democracy “on the march” and various other glittering generalities that often just mean unilateral military action). Wikipedia offers a nicely sourced introduction to the concept.
  • Rubio dropped the last page of his speech. It could have been an embarrassing moment, but he handled it with grace.
  • I think of the rhetorical construction of history as a close cousin of the rhetorical construction of situations (previously known as the “rhetorical situation”). Both concepts hinge on the idea that problems don’t present themselves objectively in some kind of empirical reality; we construct them, to varying degrees, to justify our words and actions. As always, if this area interests you, start with Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” and Vatz’s “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.”
  • Rubio had an interesting slip a few weeks back at a breakfast event, referring to himself as a vice president rather than a senator. It’s rather silly, but it’d be fun to come back to if he does indeed become a candidate for VP.
  • I was disappointed that Rubio didn’t claim expertise in foreign policy based on an ability to see Cuba from his house. If he had, there’s a good chance that hundreds of political analysts would have burst into flames right at their desks. It also would have made smile. too. So, basically, it would have been win-win.
  • Vice presidents have a notoriously limited role in the executive branch, breaking ties in the Senate and serving as “attack dogs” in presidential races. They can, however, be the subject of absolutely terrific satire. For example, see the Onion’s depiction of Joe Biden as a clueless, gaffe-prone incompetent who nonetheless acts like a middle-aged lothario confident in the knowledge that he is dynamite with the ladies.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    May 3, 2012 1:27 pm

    America’s current illusion, that we are a jewel set in the center of this planet(and perhaps the universe, depending on the ideology you encuonter), is destructive. As Mr. Cloud pointed out, this heroic/savior identity is a construction. However, boiling that construction down to something like “history” or “destiny” doesn’t engage the important questions of context: How did we get to this ‘Power Rangers of the Planet’ mentality? What leaders made the decisions that set us on this course? Where do the immense resources that allow us to take these kinds fo actions come from? And, of course, what is the point of playing hero?

    This final question is most salient. The ‘villains’ of this world don’t have armies of undead creatures to be annihilated, they have people like you and I. People who have been given an identity, forced to wear an ideology of their leader’s choosing. One which destroys their personal viewpoint and makes them soldiers and suicice bombers.

    In the rhetoric of heroes, we all become villains to those we destroy. And to keep this identity, America must construct and destroy those villains.

    Rubio and many other politicians hope that, this time around, they can construct the President and the Democrats as that which must be conquered. Those in power must become the villains within our hero, the barriers to ‘the cause.’ Only then can we justify the kind of empty/meaningless rehtoric that is thrown around every election season.

    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      May 3, 2012 2:49 pm

      Well said, Chris. I like the idea of naming the missing elements in Rubio’s and Blair’s remarks as “context.” I also think, after reading your comment, that one big element missing from the conversation about foreign policy is options and outcomes. I often find myself asking what are the alternative options? Is there only one course of action that we might take? What are the tradeoffs to a given foreign policy stance? Political analysts like Fareed Zakaria (I’m a big fan) often give us this kind of context, but you usually don’t hear it in a policy address.

      • Chris permalink
        May 3, 2012 3:06 pm

        Politicians of today leave little room for discussion. The focus in policy address is always certainty; what is going to happen, what we are going to do, what has been done, and what we want the outcome to be (but not what it might be or is). Rarely do politicians use an address to create conversation about options, because they are expected to be certain/stable/right. (This is not the fault of the politician or the public, but our cultural construction of leadership.)

        Certainty is the culprit here, and in our previous discussion. Conflict begins in certainty, a belief of righteousness, which is only meaningful if another is wrong/bad/evil. Once we divide ourselves like this, we write empty speeches about how we can fit a particular ideology (of “I’m right”s and “You’re wrong”s) over a situation. No longer do we seek context, examine probabilities, or acknowledge viewpoints; with certainty we only seek to win. And yet, when winning too seems empty, those who hold these ideologies closely push them harder, and fight more fiercly.

        We seek certainty at the cost of actuality, and it’s eating us from inside.

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