I understand the position of the remaining “greatness conservatives” — Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, William Kristol or David Brooks — who still believe deeply in America’s singular role in the world, and are prepared to pay for it. That wing of the GOP and its constituency actually believes in government, if limited government. The new breed of Republican does not. Of course Tea Party conservatives like Michele Bachmann are aggressive exponents of “American exceptionalism,” but they see the state not as an instrument of American greatness but as an impediment to it. American people are good; American government is bad. Except for defense spending, of course.
Some of us, on the other hand, have a view of American singularity — if not “greatness,” a word with too much breast-beating in it — in which the state plays an indispensable role. Americans are neither better nor worse than other people, but at various time in its history the United States, as a national entity, has acted as a force for good in the world. The American military came to Europe’s rescue twice in the 20th century and contained the threat of Russian aggression for half of it. The world takes shelter under the American nuclear umbrella. But much of the good the United States has done over the last several generations has involved diplomacy and statecraft, rather than force. In the progressive internationalist view that Obama seems to share, the nation’s willingness to diminish its own power after World War II by pooling it into global institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund is the clearest sign of American exceptionalism. Such institutions are rightly known as “global goods.”
The United States is entering a grim period of national diminution — not, chiefly, because such contraction is being forced upon us by events, but rather because we no longer believe in the institutions and instruments through which American leaders have acted in the past.