by Kyle Gardner
In the run-up to the Paris conference on climate (COP 21), a statement has been rattling around the corporate media and government outlets. Most recently attributed to Secretary of State John Kerry, but certainly not his invention, is the declaration, even before the meeting has convened, that the United States will treat any agreement emerging from the conference as “non-binding,” as in “it doesn’t apply” to us.
Such a statement is inexplicable at one level and yet totally red-blooded American at another. Inexplicable because we (a.k.a. the global collective) are in the midst of momentous change, one in which the window of opportunity to act in time to avert the most serious climate-related outcomes appears to be rapidly closing, where we need effective leadership to achieve viable goals.
The statement is totally American because we (a.k.a. the package of demands expressed by the ruling corporatocracy) are not bound to do anything except what we want to do. The rules of global engagement don’t apply to the U.S. except when we say so, thank you very much. Furthermore, if there is an exception to the rule, it is that we are exceptional and will be moved by nothing but our national interest.
And yet we miss the obvious counter argument to self-interest, that there are indeed perils associated with dismissive violations of the principle of universality: shouldn’t we apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others, perhaps even more stringent ones? This should be fairly uncontroversial, especially for the self-appointed leader of the enlightened world, the beacon on the hill, which declares itself to be devout to the Gospel, and is surely familiar with its well-known condemnation of the hypocrite.
The elites continue to operate under the illegitimate notion that the rules don’t apply to the U.S. Worse, they expect—demand—an altogether different behavior by the rest of the world, from Iran to Russia, from global finance to global ecology.
Delusions of exceptionalism are not necessarily unique to America in the early 21st Century, but likely a predominant component of the mindset that has characterized empires throughout human history. Tribes, city-states, nations and empires have typically differentiated themselves from real or potential adversaries by creating and nurturing a mythos that purports to explain the unique nature and characteristics of the chosen entity. In so doing, the mythos creates a self-perpetuating “us versus them” mentality that becomes a crude tool to divide and conquer. Internally, the mythos tends to take on distinct characteristics of propaganda and mind control, with each successive messaging being more steeped in hyperbole than the last.
None of this exceptionalism seems sustainable any longer. National and cultural notions of exceptionalism are representative of a mindset from a bygone age, the era of empires and nation states, a narrow and increasing impractical and ineffectual framework of behavior that often creates more problems than it solves.
We’ve been down this road far too often with some sad and tragic examples littered with mangled corpses, resentment, and waste. From Vietnam to Nicaragua, from apartheid to Iraq, from “enhanced interrogation” to drone warfare, the U.S. has acted unilaterally, essentially thumbing its nose at international laws and standards, all of which we’ve been a party to. If there are examples from our history where such a unilateral approach has produced positive outcomes it would certainly be worth reviewing them to assess their applicability, but the record seems vanishingly thin.
And yet one wonders whether any significant portion of the American intellectual class, so-called, has learned anything from history. The statement attributed to Kerry about our latitude in global environmental affairs would seem to answer the question in a definitive way. The political and economic elites who momentarily run the show have learned nothing; in fact they’ve doubled down on the exceptionalism propaganda, claiming that reducing CO2 emissions will essentially take us back to the Stone Age. The elites continue to operate under the illegitimate notion that the rules don’t apply to the U.S. Worse, they expect—demand—an altogether different behavior by the rest of the world, from Iran to Russia, from global finance to global ecology.
Because we face ecological peril on a planetary scale, now is not the time to settle back into a blinkered mentality where we can comfortably live out the fantasy of exceptionalism, American style. It’s become increasingly apparent (whether or not some choose to believe it) with each passing year that nature pays no attention whatsoever to contrived notions of national exceptionalism, whether or not anyone claims adaptation is feasible or even possible. (Addressing the contention made by some that Homo sapiens are so exceptional and clever that we can somehow make an end run around the laws of nature is the subject of another invective.)
We’ve seen American exceptionalism hinder previous efforts to squarely address climate change. Accords from Kyoto and again at Copenhagen were undercut when American intransigence scuttled effective action by insisting that the terms don’t apply to us. We (again, the global collective) can no longer afford the luxury of short-term, narrow self-interest thinking; we are in need of an elevated and realistic systems-level thinking wherein global ecological systems and human social systems are the focus, instead of worn out notions of national supremacy. Whatever short-term gains are projected to accrue from considering ourselves “unbound” are likely to be erased fairly quickly.
Polls and opinion surveys reflect a consistent set of attitudes that Americans, by and large, accept the scientific consensus about the human-driven causes of climate change, and furthermore recognize the need for the U.S. to assume a leadership role in effectively addressing the challenges going forward. It’s high time to dispense with the exceptionalism obsession.