Exceptional Nations Don't Need to Bluster

10/26/2012 05:28 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2012

America the Exceptional.

We Americans take pride in the idea and the reality of America as the exceptional nation, though that exceptionalism is variously defined. The left defines it in terms of our democratic and humanist ideals and the responsibility to set a good example in the world (thus the outcry against Abu Ghraib and the war in Iraq, for example), while the right subscribes to the notion of America's moral superiority and the right to impose our exceptional democracy on the world by force.

Yet at the last presidential debate, on foreign policy, for many Democrats (or at least this one) Mr. Obama came across as rather less pacific and rather more martial than is his norm. Something of the typical Republican bluster was on display from our commander-in-chief -- not egregiously so, but it was there. (For video, transcript, and fact-checking, see here.)

Meanwhile, in yet another change-up debate performance, Mr. Romney left that typical Republican bluster on the campaign bus and recast himself onstage as a man of peace. But the mask slipped early when he said, "We can't kill our way out of this mess" -- an inadvertent but devastating condemnation of the Bush/GOP brand of foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. For months now out on the campaign trail, Mr. Romney has been banging the drum that, abroad, Mr. Obama projects weakness instead of strength with his various "apology tours," that he "leads from behind," that he's reducing our military to dangerous levels -- that, in short, President Obama doesn't bluster enough.

One wondered: How was this bluster-talk going down outside the debate hall -- that is, out in the world? Answer: Not so great. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

What was missing in the debate was a sense of the world as a changed place, with America no longer the sole super-power but one power, albeit the lead, among a host of emerging powers, each insisting on exercising its own voice, a development commentator Fareed Zakaria calls "the rise of the rest" -- the "rest" including China, notably, as well as India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, the European Union, with more no doubt to come.

Also still operative, especially for Mr. Romney and the Republicans, is the assumption that the world, in particular the Middle East, is susceptible to America's power and influence to the same degree it was post-World War II and even more so since the Cold War ended, when America was indeed acknowledged the world's sole super-power.

These blind spots, and bluster, were most pointedly on display in the discussion about Iran. In this debate and other forums, both men have emphatically stated Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons -- as if to say permission must be asked and received of the U.S. to achieve what some nations see as the pinnacle of national pride: Nuclear weapons. To prevent acquisition, both say "All options are on the table," meaning the use of force -- including nuclear. Even though in the debate both men pulled back to say that, of course, war must be considered only as a "last resort," still this posturing (or bayonet-rattling) reflects a world-view that treats other countries as pawns on a chessboard -- our chessboard.

Meanwhile, going completely unacknowledged in all the bluster is the suffering of the Iranian people, as they bear with the "crippling sanctions" imposed on their economy. Mr. Romney, despite the peaceful mien, said he'd toughen the sanctions even more. Not to be outdone, Mr. Obama, with unnecessary bravado, closed the matter saying he'd let the American people decide "who's going to be more effective and more credible when it comes to imposing crippling sanctions." My husband and I looked at each other and winced (my husband is a former battleship captain who patrolled the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran). Would that Mr. Obama had directed a word to the crippled Iranian people themselves, to assure them that his argument is with their leaders, not with them. But bluster trumps humanity.

As he has demonstrated admirably over the past four years, however, Mr. Obama is far more subtle, and human, than was on view in this final debate. Perhaps he was compensating for his "passive" performance in the first debate, or for the perennial Republican charge that Democrats are weak on national security -- a charge constantly echoed by Mr. Romney -- despite Mr. Obama ending the two wars Republicans started and hunting down and killing the perpetrator of 9/11.

Of course much of the rhetoric in this debate about foreign policy was aimed at the American public. Mr. Obama scored big when he said he bet on American workers: "If we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China" -- a message targeted directly at re-hired auto workers in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. And few could miss that Romney's man-of-peace act was aimed at the audience where he lags Mr. Obama: Women who are mothers of future troops.

Still, it's a shame, let's hope not a tragedy, that these presidential debates were not used by either candidate to engage the American public in more pressing realities -- for one, our staggering national debt that, as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it, constitutes "the single biggest threat to our national security." And for another, which should have featured in a debate on foreign policy: The reality of a radically-changed world where the former sole super-power must relate to a multitude of newly powerful nation states, and not with bluster but with collegiality.

When I was in graduate school studying international relations, I came across a proverb that I think aptly symbolizes how big powers relate to lesser ones. It comes from Yugoslavia (which sadly no longer exists, having split into smaller states). The proverb goes:

"Rock falls on egg, too bad for the egg. Egg falls on rock, still too bad for the egg."

Rather than two or more rocks forming an alliance to counter the American rock, best if we, exceptional nation that we are, pivot on our own -- and learn to play nicer.

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the play "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," included in the just-published volume "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."