For Europe, Obama revives positive image of America's unique identity
US exceptionalism had largely been seen here as a messianic rationale for use of power by a nation assuming special prerogatives.
"What then is this American? This new man?"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The question came in 1782 from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a French writer/farmer in New York. A lot of smart French folk, like Mr. Crevecoeur, have been "onto" America from the start. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting in the 1830s, said American democracy, while imperfect, was the wave of the planet's future.
Europe's early observations prefigured a concept now known as American exceptionalism: Did the New World, with claims for equality, the end of kings, a refuge of possibility, embody a special destiny for humanity?
In Europe, Barack Obama's election has revived the concept. US exceptionalism has largely been seen negatively here in recent decades, a messianic rationale for use of power, in Vietnam and Iraq, by a nation assuming special prerogatives.
"The idea of exceptionalism is viewed as a smoke screen for American imperialism," says French writer Dominique Moisi.
Yet the election of Senator Obama has has turned the "exceptional" discourse in Europe on its head – suggesting the identity of America is not as fixed as it had seemed, that its "exceptionalism" has many meanings, and that America is exceptional as a force in the world whether it chooses to be or not, for good or ill.
"We can no longer say this is just hypocrisy," says Catherine Durandin at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "When Obama walked through the Rose Garden with President Bush, this was not a smokescreen. It happened. In no other country in the world is such an election possible. I think Obama is aware of this, and will use this exceptional situation in making policy."
No refuge in anti-Americanism
The campaign transfixed and occasionally amazed French thinkers. They closely parsed Obama's March 18 Philadelphia speech on race, with its calls to move past old racial wounds to form a more perfect union, and his Nov. 4 acceptance speech. Many in Europe thought America would not vote for a black man, but felt the campaign was a democratic example that challenged a diversifying Europe.
"The Americans were choosing not just a president, but an identity," says Mr. Moisi. "And that forces us to choose as well. Now we have to define ourselves without resort to anti-Americanism. That's something new."