Exporting Exceptionalism ?

17 Nov

A wise colleague fills us in a bit on the idea of ‘Exceptionalism’ and links it to both Abu Qatada and Mitt Romney. The writer hopes not to summarise unfairly if he summarises his understanding thus – that Exceptionalism is the idea that a given state/nation is (1) different to all the rest, and (2) has a God-given mission to require the rest (including by the use of force) to be more like it. We learn that one of many reasons to be glad of Mr Obama’s re-election is that he does not share this view of the United States of America – or at least not so strongly as Mr Romney does, which may not be quite the same thing as not sharing it at all.

The respective merits of Mr Romney and Mr Obama are of course well above this writer’s remuneratory bracket – as Mr Obama himself might have put it. This writer’s interest was piqued by a couple of points of detail.

Firstly, this is not the only possible meaning of exceptionalism. A thoughtful article in the University of St Thomas Law Journal (3 (2005-6) U St Thomas LJ 175 [use HeinOnline]) by Robert Merry – evidently the  opening address of a symposium on American Exceptionalism – notes that belief (1) above does not necessarily entail (2). Merry – a distinguished US political journalist – recalls as a contrast the Roman version: certainly the Romans thought themselves special, but they did not exactly require their subject peoples to Romanise, nor the nations around them: if they (the one) behaved themselves and (the other) didn’t cause too much trouble, that was enough. Since Merry’s subtitle is ‘Avoiding the Hazards,’ we can perhaps guess his view.

But – secondly – where does Abu Qatada fit in ?

Well, we (ie SIAC) seem to be saying to the Jordanians:

(1) Please don’t torture people;

(2) Please don’t torture witnesses;

(3) Please don’t use evidence actually obtained by torture;


(4) Please don’t use evidence that might have been obtained by torture;

(5) In fact, the possibility that you might use evidence that might have been obtained by torture – that puts your legal system beyond the ECHR pale.

Er – isn’t there a possibility that the Jordanians will make some comments about being a bit rude and nosey at some point here ? And something about double standards given Mr Hamza’s fate in (they say) ADX Florence ‘supermax’ prison in the USA ? Is that the trick the Jordanians have missed ? After all, since US officials have seemed unsure whether waterboarding is torture …


One Response to “Exporting Exceptionalism ?”

  1. Mr Cartwright (@kaplan_nc) November 17, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Firstly thank you, being labelled as wise by someone I have an awful lot of respect for is extremely flattering.

    On your first point I do accept that there are many versions of exceptionalism and the version I painted was what I understood to be Romney’s view, there are other views that, for example, link it more to patriotism than divine intervention and versions, that you describe, which are not about imposing your views on others. I agree the less extreme views are more palatable.

    On your second point there is clearly the polar extremes, at one end standing up against undeniable acts of torture, which we clearly both think is right. On the other hand respecting the sovereignty of countries like Jordan, again we have a confluence of opinion. The grey area between has many shades (perhaps not fifty) and we appear to inhabit slightly different positions on that spectrum. That said your arguments are certainly convincing and, even if I were to remain stubbornly wedded to my position, I concede that your case is very strongly made.

    On your third point it would bely common sense for me not to concede to your argument that British policy admits of double-standard and I think we should resist torture in all its forms whether it be at the hands of Jordanians or Americans. Unfortunately political pragmatism will probably override politicians sense of right and wrong when it comes to standing up to the latter.

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