I have tried to defend the concept of American exceptionalism on liberal grounds, as we debate what to do about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. And now, published late on Wednesday night on The New York Times website, comes a strange op-ed by none other than Vladimir Putin, a weird and, well, creepy president of Russia, who, among other things, explicitly challenges the notion of American exceptionalism on a platform provided by America’s preeminent newspaper.
I won’t go into how Putin’s piece sounds so much like what a lot of liberal Democrats and libertarian-conservative Republicans, who oppose American strikes against Assad’s regime, are saying. I won’t go into that because I don’t for a minute take this God-loving former KGB officer turned authoritarian-peacenik seriously at this point. Time will tell how many choruses of Kumbaya Putin will sing before he either makes good on his peace-promoting proposals or he blames any failure on American recalcitrance and imperialism.
And I won’t now go into how insulting it is, for those who not only know some Russian history* but contemporary Russian policy,** for a Russian authoritarian to lecture Americans, via The New York Times, on how, “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” Yeah, right.
What I will briefly address is this statement by Putin:
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
It is not, of course, “dangerous” for American folks to “see themselves as exceptional,” as long as at the core of that exceptionalism is the notion that we stand for the civilizing principle that all people ought to, if they want to, enjoy the blessings of liberty and representative government. And standing on that civilizing principle, as the unmistakable leaders of the free world, we should also stand ready to befriend, and in some cases defend, others around the world who also want to enjoy those blessings.
For a former KGB man to tell Americans, who live under a philosophical experiment of freedom and self-governance, that it is extremely dangerous for us to see our democratic experiment as exceptional, while Putin is attempting to squash freedom and real democracy in his own country—Google search “Pussy Riot” for confirmation or see an article in the New York Times on the last presidential election in Russia—is more than off-putting and offensive. It suggests an ulterior motive, which will likely become clear over time.
I hope I’m wrong about that. I hope that Obama and Kerry are able to work something out on the Syrian chemical conundrum, something positive and effective. But we should remember, even if a Russian leader wants us to forget, that if something peaceful and positive does come from our confrontation with Syria’s regime, it is because of the threat of American military power.
And that threat comes from a view of American exceptionalism that, in this case, includes making sure that thugs in strange places aren’t free to weaponize banned chemical compounds and use them to gas to death in their sleep innocent civilians, at least some of whom yearned to breathe the air of freedom.
* From a paper published in 2005 by the Government Department of Wesleyan University:
Russia lacks nearly all the usual prerequisites for a successful transition to democracy. In its long
history there is no experience of democracy, nor cultivation of civil society, to draw on. Two
centuries of the Mongol yoke were followed by 500 years of the most oppressive autocratic rule
in Europe, followed by 75 years of Soviet totalitarianism: the most innovative and deep-rooted
system of authoritarian rule the world had ever seen.
** From a neo-conservative writer, James Kirchick:
Meanwhile, Russia continues to be marked by domestic authoritarianism and aggression beyond its borders. The harassment and murder of journalists and human rights advocates continues unabated. Press freedom has declined precipitously since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power 10 years ago. Baton-wielding riot police regularly break up peaceful demonstrations.