One of the few fond memories I have of the Kosovo War is of the enthusiastic greeting I received from the sergeant in charge after I arrived at a tiny Macedonian post on the Albanian border. “Welcome to Macedonia,” he said, grasping my hand and pumping it. “Macedonia is best country.” Then, after a pause, he added, “And I do not say that only because I am Macedonian.”

At the time, it seemed easy both to enjoy and also to condescend to such self-regarding nonsense, and to view it as little more than the primitive expression of national feeling in a citizen of a small, weak, new nation whose very future was still open to doubt. Certainly, this wasn’t the way we citizens of “grown-up” countries thought about ourselves. However, after reading The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum’s astonishingly complacent and sentimental glorification of the role the United States plays in maintaining global security, and A New Deal for the World, Elizabeth Borgwardt’s more scholarly but, if anything, even more sentimental and self-regarding account of the American decision to put human rights at the center of the post-World War II international order, I wonder if that Macedonian official wasn’t offering a far more moderate version of national self-love than what apparently passes for intelligent, dignified reflection in the United States these days about America’s role in the world.

This unabashed self-love may not often be expressed as crudely as it was by the Bush supporter who, at a rally for the President during the 2004 campaign, waved a sign that read, “If Jesus hadn’t been a Jew, he would have been an American.” But there are advantages to crudeness, and the message of both of these books, for all that separates their authors intellectually and ideologically, is not so far removed from that boosterish proclamation. America, both Borgwardt and Mandelbaum suggest, really is exceptional, and after World War II it crafted a foreign policy that was and continues to be as much if not more in the world’s interests than in its own. Mandelbaum’s version of this is the cruder of the two. For him the United States is not just a benign colossus, much less an empire, a description he dismisses as “inaccurate.” Instead, he makes an even larger claim. America, he writes, “acts as the world’s government.” Just as national governments provide essential services and what he calls “public goods,” above all safety for their citizens, so the United States provides these same benefits throughout the world.

Mandelbaum does not go so far as to claim that America does this out of altruism. But while he acknowledges that self-interest plays a role, just as it did for the great empires of the past to which, he insists, the United States is so often wrongly compared, Mandelbaum’s fundamental thesis is that by acting as a world government, America “reverses the distribution of benefits commonly attributed to empire.” In an empire, he writes, “the imperial power has been seen as a predator, drawing economic profit and political gain from its control of the imperial possession, while the members of the society it controls suffer.” But today, he argues, “it is the United States that pays and the rest of the world that benefits without having to pay.”

If Mandelbaum is an unapologetic triumphalist, Borgwardt is an elegist who worries that in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration has turned its back on its commitment to generously provide the world with the same “New Deal” Roosevelt provided the citizens of the United States. Indeed, she seems even more persuaded than Mandelbaum of what Harold Hongju Koh, President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for human rights, described as America’s “good exceptionalism.” The largely American designers of the Bretton Woods, United Nations and Nuremberg charters, she argues, “actively struggled to redefine the idea of ‘security’ in the international sphere to include economic and political security, much as New Deal programs had redefined security domestically for individual American citizens.” In this international context, Borgwardt insists, America all but single-handedly brought into being a new legal regime of human rights (Britain plays its usual Sancho Panza role in her narrative). For her, it has been the organizing principle of the post-cold war international order–a conceptual shift that fundamentally transformed the world for the better and is now in danger of being undone by the Bush Administration’s return to pre-Rooseveltian unilateralism.

Whatever else can be said about their books, Borgwardt and Mandelbaum certainly offer an attractive vision of the United States’ role and mission in the world. What for other, less enthralled observers might seem like a contradiction in terms is presented as the essential glory of the thing: The United States acts out of interests but is disinterested, acting for the global good even though, to be sure, that global good redounds to its benefit as well. Though Borgwardt is much less of a realist than Mandelbaum, and at times seems to suggest that what has been most admirable about the international order the United States ushered in after World War II is the degree to which it has transcended and even challenged its original purpose of safeguarding and maintaining American power, she is adamant that what was brought into being was “not only…a new American foreign policy but…a new vision for the world.” Mandelbaum, more of a cost-benefit man himself, admits that “the United States intends what it does in the world to further its own interests.” Nonetheless, he is no less adamant that America’s role as world government “qualifies as a good deed of sorts.”

After prolonged exposure to such sentiments, it is hard not to marvel at what a florid romance Americans make of America. To be sure, neither book is pure panegyric. Borgwardt, in particular, has written a fairly comprehensive scholarly account of the negotiations that brought about this American-inspired, American-dominated post-World War II order, focusing above all on what she calls the internationalization of justice (or “New Deal justice,” to use her phrase) and an expanded, rights-based, multilateral understanding of American national interest. Some of this material will be familiar to people who have read Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley or Stephen Schlesinger on the US role in the founding of the United Nations, or Mary Ann Glendon on the crafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Borgwardt’s synthesis is on the whole both learned and accessible, despite the romantic and too often credulous quality of many of her judgments about American motives and the personalities involved. On this last point, it is dismaying to see a serious historian present FDR and Justice Robert Jackson largely in their Sunrise at Campobello and Judgment at Nuremberg (a piece of unadulterated kitsch that Borgwardt fulsomely praises and, worse, cites to buttress her arguments) Hollywood idealizations.

There are also times when Borgwardt seems almost trapped by adherence to her organizing schema of the post-World War II settlement as the internationalization of the New Deal. Since her account of the New Deal itself is almost entirely devoid of criticism or even of much nuance (there is virtually no mention of capitalism in the book), it is hardly surprising that she so often falls into the trap of presenting the American debate as one between good, New Deal, human rights-loving multilateralist Democrats (plus Wendell Willkie and a few other enlightened Republicans) and bad, largely Republican isolationists and unilateralists whose malignant vision has supposedly prevailed under George W. Bush. The “war on terror,” she writes, led the United States “to look almost exclusively to its own devices…in the process [America] pruned back its influence as a force promoting legitimacy, the rule of law, and, especially, international human rights.”

Gardening metaphors aside, however true this may be of the Bush Administration’s unilateralism, it is an unpromising place from which to analyze seriously the motives behind US foreign policy between 1942 and 1949. Above all, it leads Borgwardt consistently to downplay the relevance of what she recognizes as the US plan, consciously formulated by Roosevelt and his Cabinet to become the dominant power of the post-World War II world. More precisely, it leads her to insist that whatever FDR’s intention, the effect of his policies was to “remake the world in the image of the United States.” By this, of course, Borgwardt means the “New Deal” United States, America at its best. She concedes that American exceptionalism has always been a two-edged sword, “with a dark side reflecting a penchant for double standards.” But in the end, Borgwardt is one more American Hegelian (these days, they come in both liberal and neoconservative flavors), convinced that history is more likely than not moving inexorably toward a better and more democratic future. In the last sentence of her book, Borgwardt concludes that Winston Churchill’s “‘sunlit uplands’ of history may still await.”

I am grateful for that “may,” but in the end it’s not enough. Perhaps if Borgwardt had grappled with the question not of whether what she called Roosevelt’s idea to “remake the world in the image of the United States” was successful but whether it was a good idea in the first place, the arguments she advances in A New Deal for the World would be more persuasive. She might at least have tipped her rhetorical hat toward the possibility that, as Walter Benjamin once put it, “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.” And yes, that even includes the Atlantic Charter. But in the end, for all her commitments to multilateralism, she is as committed an American exceptionalist as Madeleine Albright, who famously said that the United States was the “indispensable nation”; Richard Holbrooke; Bill Clinton; Tony Blair, that foreign amanuensis to America’s democratizing mission; or, oh yes, George W. Bush.

For, to a very large extent, the current mainstream policy debate in the United States revolves almost exclusively around what the proper modalities need to be to make what Borgwardt unself-consciously calls America’s “moral right to lead” most effective in practice. Again, this illustrates the chasm that separates this American self-perception of the United States’ role from the way that role is perceived in most of the rest of the world and, more basically still, the fact that in most of the rest of the world the notion that any nation could have such a license, at least on the basis of right rather than might, is generally viewed as risible special pleading. Indeed, it is at least partly because of the self-interested quality of Americans making an argument for America’s special role in the world that many of the arguments in both Borgwardt’s and Mandelbaum’s books seemed to me to have something of the same quality as the boast of that Macedonian border guard I met almost a decade ago. They, too, are not praising the United States only because they are Americans. Given such shameless narcissism, is it really surprising that many people outside the United States have, rightly or wrongly, come to regard human rights less as a global revolution of moral concern, to use Michael Ignatieff’s phrase, than as a flag of convenience for the maintenance of a global order in which the United States is the ultimate arbiter both of the rule sets and the outcomes?

And yet in the American mainstream, discussions of foreign relations rarely move beyond the self-regarding template. And Borgwardt’s book is, alas, as much an emblem of this stiflingly conformist consensus as it is a scholarly call to arms for a “rollback” of the current Administration’s positions on human rights, international law and multilateralism, and for a return to FDR’s expansive and inclusive vision of US national interests. Like most American analysts, Borgwardt takes as a fact not only that the post-World War II order was based on rule sets and institutional arrangements that in effect exported “American values” such as human rights, the rule of law and free trade in what she calls “an integrated vision of ‘security,'” but that this American decision unleashed a global transformation whose (overwhelmingly positive) effects are now beyond US control. In her brief for the enduring moral legacy of the Atlantic Charter, Borgwardt acknowledges the gap between FDR’s advocacy of a rights-based universalism and America’s own failings to live up to these ideals. But she is persuaded by the argument that by committing itself to such values, the United States in effect undertook to be bound by them. Approvingly, she quotes Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt’s speechwriter, who remarked that “when you state a moral principle, you are stuck with it, no matter how many fingers you have kept crossed at the moment.”

A skeptic might add that when you posit the fundamental benevolence of the liberal universalist order and identify the United States as guarantor of that order, as Borgwardt does, you are stuck with the prospect of a virtually untrammeled use of American power accompanying the virtually untrammeled exporting of American values, no matter how tightly wrapped in septic sheets of multilateral consultation that power may be. Under the circumstances, there is something disingenuous about claiming that George Bush’s version of American exceptionalism, his so-called “hard Wilsonianism,” is not at all what you had in mind. Realistically, the only way to do this is to insist, as Borgwardt does, that the issue is not, fundamentally, American universalism but rather multilateralism versus unilateralism. But again, in doing so Borgwardt glosses over the inconvenient fact of America’s virtual global monopoly on so-called hard power, above all military force. It is all very well to define multilateralism as “solving problems in tandem with allies” and claiming that there is a correlation between unilateralism and “a lack of respect for human rights,” but what does consultation mean when one nation holds (or at least sees itself as holding) all the trump cards? Democratic policy analysts who criticize the Bush Administration’s unilateralism nonetheless routinely utter such revealing phrases as Albright’s “indispensable nation” remark, or Richard Holbrooke’s oft-repeated phrase that “the United Nations works best when the US leads.”

To emphasize the essential continuities in American perceptions of the United States’ role in the world is not to deny that there are differences between the liberal and conservative versions of the creed. For the Bush Administration, American leadership is a self-evident moral right. In contrast, liberals have tended to be more concerned with the benefits of reciprocity between the United States and other nations. But again, when all is said and done, both sides share the conviction that America has a special mission based on the universality of its values. Thus, one gets George Bush’s self-described “moral clarity” about America’s indispensable role in the world as guarantor and propagator of democracy on one side and on the other the liberal view, implicit in Borgwardt’s book and more explicitly elaborated in Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell”, that when all is said and done the United States could and should be the guarantor of an international order based on human rights. Talk about the narcissism of small differences!

Anyone wanting a sense of how pervasive this attitude is among Democratic Party policy analysts need only go to blogs like America Abroad or Democracy Arsenal, where the views of senior Clinton Administration officials like Ivo Daalder, James Steinberg and Morton Halperin, as well as figures touted for senior positions in a future Democratic administration–like Anne-Marie Slaughter, currently dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton–are open for inspection. The fact that a website purporting to represent a critique of the current Administration’s foreign policy could be called Democracy Arsenal is itself illustrative. Obviously, those doing the naming were as enthralled by the memory of FDR as Borgwardt is, and meant to hark back to the days of World War II when America was just that. But the sheer parochialism of such a choice, not to mention the easy assumption about the intrinsic benignity of American power, takes one’s breath away. Such a reference may seem anodyne in today’s Washington. But did Halperin and his colleagues never stop to wonder how menacing that phrase might sound in New Delhi, or Johannesburg, or Jakarta, or Tehran… or London, Paris and Berlin for that matter? Surely, had they done so, they would have picked another name. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the power of American belief in American exceptionalism is now so deep-rooted in mainstream political thinking as to pass unnoticed and unexamined, like some geological fact.

And with Iraq illustrating the failure of the Bush Administration’s go-it-alone approach, Democratic political analysts have been quick to point out that, with the exception of the post-9/11 Bush Administration, there is a fundamental continuity of approach in Washington on foreign policy issues. Posting on the America Abroad blog, Daalder, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who had previously agonized over whether the Bush Administration’s missteps would imperil the otherwise laudable goal of pre-emption, wrote that there had been a “return to a foreign policy that is much more akin to the foreign policies pursued by the administration’s predecessors,” and that “the new strategy’s twin pillars–of promoting human rights, freedom and democracy and of working together with our friends and allies–have been central pillars of American foreign policy for decades.” This return to basics, Daalder insisted, “shifts the balance from emphasizing force to emphasizing diplomacy, from relying on America’s unilateral power to relying on multilateral alliances and institutions, from stressing the need to ensure America’s military preeminence to stressing the importance of enhancing our power by working with others.” The significance of that word “enhancing” should not be lost on anyone.

Michael Mandelbaum is both of this party and outside it. His work as an academic theorist of US foreign policy has been less associated with liberal internationalism than with more neorealist justifications for American pre-eminence. In recent years, however, he seems to have become increasingly Wilsonian–itself, perhaps, a sign of these triumphalist, parochial times in America. Mandelbaum’s previous book, which bore the unabashedly vulgar title The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, is about the inexorable triumph of liberal (read: American) ideas. In this, Mandelbaum’s view is much like that of Thomas Friedman in his earlier, more euphoric period of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, where he unwisely asserted that globalization and Americanization were indistinguishable.

Friedman is one of the people Mandelbaum thanks in the book’s acknowledgments, which is hardly a surprise, since they appear to share the same determinist outlook. The Case for Goliath is less triumphalist than The Lexus and the Olive Tree but just as insistent on the indispensable role the United States plays in the world. As Mandelbaum somewhat petulantly concludes, whatever the life span of America’s role as “the world’s government,” “three things can be safely predicted: They [i.e., the rest of the world] will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone.”

That the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies sees fit to indulge in such childish rhetoric–“and then I’ll be dead and they’ll be sorry!”–is not an insignificant illustration of the extent to which we are once more living in an age of faith. Of course, if one is talking seriously about history, such a contention is not only astonishingly self-regarding; it is also almost pure speculation. For there is no way of knowing at this point whether the United States will be regarded, after the passing of its hegemony, as a particularly benevolent hegemon, assuming onerous burdens largely for the sake of the greater global good. Mandelbaum writes with astonishing self-confidence about the three “dominant twenty-first century ideas”–free markets, peace and democracy. But in doing so, he behaves as if the history of the twenty-first century could, at century’s beginning, already be known. Imagine the same argument being made in 1806 about the nineteenth century or in 1906 about the twentieth. This is not historical argument but rather special pleading for American hegemony. Above all, Mandelbaum’s “case for Goliath” is based on a particularly pernicious sort of circular reasoning. On the one hand, he claims that the global dominance of the ideas of peace, democracy and free markets “owed a great deal to the power of the United States, which embraced and espoused them.” But, he quickly adds, “the reverse was also true: American power rested in no small part on the dominance of these ideas.”

This is pure Hegelian claptrap–America as the incarnation of the world spirit. We have grown accustomed to the authority such ideas enjoy in neoconservative circles. “The ‘real movement’ of history, it turns out,” wrote one of the movement’s godmothers, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in the umpteenth essay proclaiming Marxism dead and buried, “is fueled not by matter but by spirit, by the will to freedom.” The neocons apparently discerned that will to freedom in Ahmad Chalabi and expected to find it in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. That they did not might be thought to suggest that there was more left to Marx’s assertion that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” than they might have wished to believe. Finding political analysis grounded, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the romantic twaddle of Weltgeist and Zeitgeist is bad enough coming from the utopian wing of the Bush Administration. But it seems even more incongruous when one encounters it embedded in the otherwise stolid prose of a scholar like Mandelbaum, who clearly prides himself on his hardheaded analytical approach to international relations. But there are times in The Case for Goliath when Mandelbaum seems to have more a bad case of idolatry than self-love, as, for example, when he writes that America’s role in the world “has something in common with the sun’s relationship to the rest of the solar system. Both confer benefits on the entities with which they are in regular contact. The sun keeps the planets in their orbits by the force of gravity and radiates the heat and light that make life possible on one of them. Similarly, the United States…” Well, you get the idea.

Such purple passages aside, Mandelbaum’s inspiration in writing the book seems to have been to examine the claim, frequently voiced on the streets of virtually every capital city on the globe (but, as Mandelbaum rightly points out, not in those capital’s chanceries), that the world would be better off without the United States serving as the guarantor of global security and prosperity–or, as Mandelbaum puts it, as the world’s government. It is a reasonable question. The problem is, from the book’s opening page to its concluding one, The Case for Goliath so skews the analysis in America’s favor that its conclusions seem all but foreordained. No matter how playfully they may have been intended, even Mandelbaum’s choice of epigrams for many of his chapters, like W.S. Gilbert’s “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one” or Hilaire Belloc’s “Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse,” serve to confirm that he has written an apologia for American hegemony rather than a serious anatomy of it.

Paradoxically, even after having weighted the scales to the extent he does, Mandelbaum’s ultimate justification for believing in the benefits of continued US dominance of the global system is more negative than positive. In his book, he brandishes the fact that there has so far been no serious effort by other states to band together to create a counterweight to the United States as conclusive evidence that other countries realize how much they benefit from the current system and how much they would lose were America no longer to play its current role. Of course, a skeptic might reasonably retort that the century is still young. But even if Mandelbaum is right, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of American stewardship. As he concedes, “a proper judgment [of the Goliath role] depends ultimately not on whether this or that American foreign policy could be improved–many undoubtedly could–but rather on whether that role is preferable to the plausible alternative.” And this, Mandelbaum asserts, “is not considerably better global governance but considerably less of it, and the consequences of less governance are not likely to be pleasant.”

So it really is “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” and certainly not “Ain’t nanny doing a swell job?” What Mandelbaum seems not to understand is that the snapshot he provides of “how America acts as the world’s government in the 21st century” (to quote his subtitle) is based on a static image of a world that, in reality, is rapidly changing. While it once may have been true that it was up to the American public to decide whether or not the United States would act as a hyperpower, today such decisions are no longer exclusively within America’s grace and favor. The rise of Asia, above all China, upon which the United States is already dependent for the stability of its own financial markets; the limits, well exhibited by events in both Iraq and North Korea, of what US military power can actually accomplish; and the challenge posed by the euro to the dollar’s primacy as the world’s reserve currency–all of these developments insure that the American-dominated system Mandelbaum extols, and about which his principal anxiety is that the American public will cease supporting it, is in fact coming apart at the seams already, only six years into the century in which America was to perform its historic role as “the world’s government.”

Of course, there may eventually be a domestic “mutiny” against America’s world role based on competing domestic demands for resources. But Mandelbaum is sadly mistaken if he really imagines that the United States is still in a position to guarantee economic rule sets. Historically, this is not a role long accorded to debtors, and there is no reason to believe things have changed in this regard. On the geopolitical side, things are little better. Besides being an incontestable argument for proliferation for any state that is unprepared to do America’s bidding, what the debacle in Iraq has demonstrated is how fragile American hegemony really is. America won the battles. Iran won the war. Such are the limits of hegemony these days. It also ducks a larger question that neither Mandelbaum nor Democratic policy analysts like Ivo Daalder and Anne-Marie Slaughter seem willing to consider, which is: Why do they believe the United States is and will continue to be the exception to what seems like one of the few iron laws of history–that a nation with overwhelming power at its disposal rarely behaves with forbearance and moderation for very long–when it has enjoyed such power for more than half a century already?

It would seem that it is waters of Nepenthe time in Washington these days. In other words, we are back to American exceptionalism… again. And there is a word for that, and that word is self-regard–an attitude that rarely turns out well for those unable to get past it.