The Foreign Policy of Optimism

Times are trying for American exceptionalism, that peculiar notion that the United States is unique in its attributes and qualitatively different from the rest of the international community. For many Americans, the Great Recession, set against the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, has clouded their view of the United States as a beacon of progress and anchor of stability in a turbulent world.

Historically, however, the myth of American exceptionalism has shown incredible resilience, in part because, like most myths, it contains some elements of truth. For good or ill, it has colored perceptions of U.S. foreign policy all the way back to the country’s founding, and it is unlikely to wither completely in the near future.

Assuming that American exceptionalism again becomes fashionable, it may owe its eventual comeback to the fabled “can-do” confidence of the American spirit, the relentless positivity that seems to permeate our national identity. Under constant encouragement to “stay positive” no matter the circumstances, Americans possess an uncanny ability to “look on the bright side.” This blithe optimism often translates into naïveté when it comes to international affairs, producing a sunny, simplistic attitude that helps nurture the main precepts of the exceptionalist credo.

Bright-Sided, the latest book from social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, chronicles the rise and impact of positive thinking in the United States. Part intellectual phenomenon and part cultural movement, positive thinking, for Ehrenreich, has become the ideology par excellence of American consumer capitalism. From motivational seminars and corporate boardrooms to megachurches and universities, she traces the ubiquity of positive thinking in American life, uncovering the many ways in which, backed by pseudo-science, it has eclipsed common sense and eroded rational discussion of key social and economic issues.

Although she focuses primarily on domestic matters, Ehrenreich’s analysis has important implications for U.S. foreign policy. Under cheerleader-in-chief George W. Bush, for example, Washington’s neoconservatives concocted fantasies that mirrored the tortured logic of positivity gurus like Pastor Joel Osteen and Tony Robbins. Ehrenreich recalls that “reckless optimism pervaded the American invasion of Iraq,” as “warnings about possible Iraqi resistance were swept aside by leaders who promised a ‘cakewalk’ and envisioned cheering locals greeting our troops with flowers.”

Perhaps the clearest connection between America’s penchant for positivity and the wider world is the ongoing global recession, which began in the United States. Ehrenreich persuasively illustrates how positive thinking blinded both elites and non-elites alike to the gathering economic catastrophe, resulting in what is likely to be the first contraction in global economic output since World War II. “The near unanimous optimism of the experts certainly contributed to the reckless buildup of bad debt and dodgy loans,” she writes, “but so did the wildly upbeat outlook of many ordinary Americans.” From the housing bubble to the ratings agencies “that were in the pocket of the very companies they were supposed to be judging,” irrational optimism fueled gullibility and mismanagement. “And what was market fundamentalism other than runaway positive thinking?” Ehrenreich asks. “Why worry, when Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ would straighten everything out?”

Ultimately, Bright-Sided is a much-needed clarion call for critical thinking. Ehrenreich, whose previous books include Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, is not advocating negativity or despair, but a return to realism. Her sobering yet humorous assessment helps push us in that direction, tempering the irrational exuberance that would, among other things, encourage Americans to take solace in an easy, exceptionalist vision of their country, one at odds with the realism she aims to promote.

Rubrick Biegon, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, works as a consultant and freelance journalist in Washington, DC.