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The idea of America as an indispensable nation has been frequently referred to by political analysts and journalists (Blumenthal, 2004) and even Presidents, such as Clinton and recently Obama. The conceptualisation of America as an indispensable nation has been a part of American foreign policy for a long time and has lent credence to American actions in different parts of the world such as in Vietnam, Iraq and recently Afghanistan. However, in recent times, America’s indispensability has been challenges, somewhat successfully in Darfur, Ukraine, and Syria, to name a few, and this has put serious doubt on the continuing indispensability of America. Here, these events have lent credibility to declinist debates that contend that America’s power is waning and it is no longer the indispensable nation that it once was.
This essay considers the idea of America as an indispensable nation in light of recent events and the declinist debates.
The idea of the US as an indispensable nation was conceived by political journalist Sidney Blumenthal and foreign policy historian James Chace to describe America’s post-Cold War role in the world (Zenko, 2014). However, the indispensability of the US was an idea that at least for the Americans, become a realist view, as they believed that their role in the Second World War made them indispensable in the post war period (Restad, 2014).
It seems that Madeline Albright started using this phrase rather conspicuously sometime in 1998, to defend the American diplomacy against Iraq, where she went on to justify the possible use of force against Iraq. Her exact words on the Today Show: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us” (Zenko, 2014). Bill Clinton too made references to it in his second inaugural address in 1997 (McCrisken, 2003, p. 162).
The term ‘indispensable’ signifies the American place in the world as the guarantor of global security, the presence or absence of which would determine the success or failure of multilateral endeavours (Blumenthal, 2004, p. 157). In this section, the essay will evaluate the germination of the idea of America as an indispensable nation and the meaning of the idea.
The idea of America as an indispensable nation is not palatable to many other nations in the world, who look on America as trying to be the world policeman. There is also criticism of the concept of indispensable nation, as some writers show that America is actually in a decline. The American handling of the Afghanistan issue, Libya, and Syria, seriously raise questions on the indispensable status of America (Nasr, 2013).
On the other hand, there is a school of thought that actually eschews that idea and on the contrary argues that America is not in decline. Josef Joffe says that declinism and doomism have become popular ideologies with respect to American foreign policy for want of something better (Joffe, 2013).
In this section, the essay examines the perceptions of indispensability from the American point of view as well as the critiques of the idea.
When the Americans use the word ‘exceptional’ with reference to themselves, they truly mean it in a way that is different from how other nations use the word. For Americans, the US is ‘more exceptional’ than the other nations of the world (Restad, 2014). This has been termed as an American fantasy as Americans used the sense of their exceptionalism to idealise their nation by believing that the nation had achieved all that there was to be achieved (Pease, 2009, p. 22).
In this section, the essay will discuss the ideas of exceptionalism and their impact on propelling the concept of America as an indispensable nation.
What America perceives to be its role as the guarantor of international peace and security, the different nations in the world, view as hegemony. The realist roots of American hegemony or world dominance lie in the Second World War, when America played a decisive role, both in the war and after it with the propounding of the famous Marshall plan (Nuechterlein, 2005). Although, American hegemonic aspirations go much before that to the very time of the American founding (Nuechterlein, 2005).
However, the roots of American hegemony cannot be identified and in that sense, it is truly inadvertent. However, liberalism and the consequent liberal institutions are the foundation on which such hegemony has sustained itself over the decades (Odom & Dujjaric, 2008). It is these institutions that have lent the moral justifications to American hegemony, seen in its actions in Vietnam in the 1960s, Iraq in 1990 and then again in 2001 and Afghanistan.
The critiques of the American hegemony point out that this may go against national interest at times (Odom & Dujjaric, 2008).
In this section, the essay will discuss the roots and ideas of American hegemony and the relevant critiques. The section will examine the interrelations with hegemony and indispensability
This section will summarise the previous sections to answer the question raised in the essay: is America still an indispensable nation.
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