Barack Obama's presidency has produced no great deeds, Anders Stephanson writes, but it has quietly marked a profound and unprecedented break with six decades of unstinting faith that America alone is destined to lead the world. In all likelihood, no one was more surprised than Barack Obama when the Nobel Peace Prize was announced: he has done no great deeds in the name of peace. Cynical observers have suggested that since he has done nothing much to deserve the prize thus far, he has been rewarded simply for not being George W Bush. There is some truth in this but it is too simple. For Obama's negation of his predecessor is more profound and radical than it seems: it breaks not only with Bush but with a long tradition of American exceptionalism whose adherents include liberals and conservatives alike.
Everyone on earth, of course, has reason to ponder the intentions of the American Commander-in-Chief, given his extraordinary licence to do what he pleases with the immense international power at his disposal. So long as the United States remains the paramount world power, America's idea of itself will continue to have a disproportionate impact on the citizens of the rest of the world; this is why Obama's break with "exceptionalism" is so important. In that sense the Oslo Nobel Committee may have got things right, if dimly.
Every American administration, at least since the start of the Cold War, has been "exceptionalist" in one way or another. (The unapologetic Realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon is an anomaly, but that policy still aimed, above all, to reassert American global power.) "Exceptionalism" is a slippery term: it seems to designate an ideology - an "ism" - but its content is typically diffuse, to be found everywhere and nowhere. It can mean the notion that the United States is simply exempt from the dictates of history: that things come and go but this powerful country is forever. It can also mean that the United States is exceptional in having the historically or providentially given right to decide on what goes and doesn't go in the world, the very authority to decide on the exception, so to speak. In fact, it can mean almost any banality that singles out the United States as "exceptional". But at a minimum, it implies that the United States is absolutely separate, and different, from the rest of the world - as if it were not continuous, in time and space, with every other country.
Every American politician, if pressed, will say that the United States is "indispensable" for world order and decisive for world history. The strongest possible version of this posture is the messianic, world-transforming vision of George W Bush, the United States as the anointed, salvational agent in a decisive moment of history. A considerably weaker form is that of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, which understands the United States as the hegemonic "leader" of the pack in a process of measured change towards ever greater and better international order. Obama, in actual terms, has reduced that latter position to a practical minimum where the United States just happens, for contingent reasons, to be an outstandingly powerful entity in the world, which makes it incumbent on it to behave with the greatest responsibility and judiciousness.
Obama's new approach has not presented itself as a direct refusal of the all-encompassing Americanism of his predecessor: he has not replaced the Bush doctrine with its opposite. Obama did not simply "invert" the Bush legacy, he sidestepped it, moved around and beyond it. On actual policy, he has sometimes even extended and deepened the pre-existing line, as in Afghanistan. Behind the surface, however, Obama's concept is a break from all of his predecessors since Harry S Truman. Consider, for example, what he has not done. Nothing would have been more convenient than to substitute for Bush's unabashed will to supremacy a revised and updated version of the neoliberal multilateralism practised by the Clinton administration, in which the United States co-operated with other states and with international institutions without abandoning its commitment to hegemony and supremacy. Such a posture would have been politically correct. The Democratic Party would have applauded, polite world opinion similarly so.
Obama did not make that move. His administration has not issued any great declarations in the name of humanitarian multilateralism: the breathless enthusiasts for such policies have been kept offstage, and not only because some of them were also breathless enthusiasts for the Iraq war. Obama would seem to respect the position of conservative Realists like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft who opposed the Iraq War, but he is not among their number: his pragmatic politics is not to be confused with calculating realism or cynical manoeuvring. The American tradition in which he might be best situated is not Realism but that of the Progressives of the early 20th century, from Teddy Roosevelt to his relative Franklin - neither of whom was an American exceptionalist.
Teddy, despite his Nobel Peace Prize, was one of the most bellicose presidents in American history - but his aggression was more rhetorical than actual. The prophet of peace Woodrow Wilson, who did not get the Prize, actually used military power much more liberally. More to the point, Teddy and Franklin were both charismatic politicians who believed that the United States had refused to face up to the fact that history had moved beyond the stage where the country could proceed as though it were unique and uniquely separate. This is easily reduced, as in conventional liberal histories, to a position of "internationalism" - the self-congratulatory counterpart to "isolationism". In these histories, the path of America in the 20th century marks a victory of "internationalism" over retrograde "isolationism", a narrative that has been updated for the present using the equivalent terms "multilateralism" and "unilateralism".
What this hides is that the kind of "internationalism" practised by Franklin D Roosevelt was profoundly different from that which came to govern the Cold War. The wartime alliance was a genuine anti-fascist coalition where the United States, explicitly, was only one among three great powers. Being the "leader of the free world", by contrast, conferred upon the United States the right to decide, on behalf of the rest of the world, the direction of international affairs.
What is telling in this regard is the pragmatism of Obama's approach, as seen in his refusal to replace Bush with some equally totalising and systematic alternative. There will never be an Obama Doctrine (unless the Peace Prize now tempts him to invent one). The world, in his view - and this includes the United States - is a place with particular problems, with their own terms and conditions, whose connections must be analysed incrementally, without preconceived notions or existing terms. This may seem to be nothing more than cautiousness, but the rejection of a unified, overarching account of the world is not a minor development.
A good example of this attempt to be precise and concrete is the way that Obama retired the "Global War on Terror". Even Donald Rumsfeld saw that such a war has no real political enemy, and so can have no beginning and no end; he searched in vain for an alternative formulation. Obama, however, did not look for an alternative, and instead just laid the basic policy of the United States since 2001 quietly aside. A minor article in the New York Times told the attentive reader in March 2009 that the administration would no longer use the term. That was all. No heroic, American-led campaign has replaced it. In Obama's approach, the power of the United States is real - and it must be used, one way or another, but preferably (to borrow a phrase from Richard Rorty) to keep the conversation going rather than searching for absolute certainty. This is, of course, precisely the path Obama has thus far pursued with Iran.
This is attractive but dangerous for two reasons. First, it always threatens to become merely the pursuit of ad hoc solutions to immediate crises and problems; it is only as good as knowledge and prudent statecraft permit. Second, and more important, if it fails - which is bound, at some point, to happen - there will always be an overpowering thrust to return to exceptionalism, to give in to those voices insisting that the United States is uniquely appointed to carry the weight of world history forward.
At moments of great crisis there is often a demand to return to origins, to posit in apocalyptic terms a universal struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. The Truman Doctrine, declared in March 1947, is the archetypal example: the United States essentially took over the British sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean by offering enormous military assistance to Greece and Turkey. This geopolitical action was, however, framed as though the fate of the world was in the balance. Any British politician, by contrast, would have justified this move by describing the area as crucial to the lifelines of the Empire - a necessary step to protect the national interest, not the fate of the world. The reaction of the George W Bush administration to the events of September 11 illustrates the point even more forcefully. One might have chosen to portray the deed as a terrible criminal act, and elected to launch a worldwide campaign, in the name of law and order, to find and punish the perpetrators. Instead there was a war on "terror" - a global struggle, led by America, to eradicate evil.
When a new crisis strikes, and the ringing calls come for great deeds in the name of the great nation, the risk is that Obama's small narratives will seem very small indeed. No story, after all, is bigger than "America". Obama is not against great deeds, of course, but he refuses to turn them into an ideology. Nor would he deny, if forced, the notion that the United States is in some sense "indispensable". He would just add, off the record, that this is for the moment and an accident of history.
Anders Stephanson, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of Manifest Destiny and Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy.