Politics and Public Opinion

How Putin and Obama miss the mark on American exceptionalism

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

If public rhetoric from top world leaders this week is any indication, we need a stark refresher on the meaning of American exceptionalism.

On Tuesday night, President Obama closed a disconcerting Syria speech with these words:

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death—and thereby make our own children safer over the long run—I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different; that’s what makes us exceptional.

In short, Obama thinks what makes America exceptional is that we actually act to confront mass-scale atrocities like the use of chemical weapons by despotic regimes.

Except of course that we aren’t.

Just 24 hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin published a chilling op-ed in the New York Times, concluding his piece with a direct response to Obama’s claim to U.S. exceptionalism:

I would rather disagree with a case [President Obama] 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.

In short, Putin suggests that Americans are misguided in believing we are exceptional, as though we think we are clearly superior—whether in character or policy—to citizens from other nations.

Ironically, Joseph Stalin was the first person to coin the phrase, as Seymour Martin Lipset points out in “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.” When it comes to our deepest ideals, it matters that we get the facts right. (It was the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who quipped, famously, that “you are entitled to your opinion—but you are not entitled to your own facts.”)

Fortunately, a factually rich account of this frequently misconstrued term is available in Charles Murray’s splendid new book, “American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History.” Murray shows that our Founders clearly believed they were creating something new:  our national seal on every US dollar bill, for instance, is literally translated “a new order for the ages.” In fact it was not Americans but 19th century visitors who consistently described the US as being sharply different from other nations they had closely observed.

Murray writes that American exceptionalism does not imply superiority. Instead, it reflects our unique history:  the country’s frontier and our growing appeal for formerly persecuted immigrants wanting to work hard and begin a better life; our constitutional system of government, rooted in the conviction that natural rights come from God; the rule of law, rather than men; and our distinct civic culture.

So when Putin “counters American exceptionalism” by arguing that people in all nations are created equal, he hoists a straw man—and his rhetoric, like the larger NYT article, drips with cunning, diabolical irony. Here we have a strong-man, borrowing America’s commitment to human rights, only to grab further power that allows him to trample these very human rights.

Leon Aron is dead-on, in yesterday’s must-see “AEI Top 3”, when he perceives that Putin’s real agenda is simply to boost his own global standing, strengthen his popularity at home, and prop up a murderous ally (in Assad). Tragically, the Obama White House—despite the president’s call for “humility and resolve”—may give in.

For all their public talk, it’s a shame the world’s two most powerful men misconstrue the meaning of American exceptionalism, each in their own ways. If they got this concept right, all of us—and, just maybe, millions of vulnerable Syrian families—would be the better for it.

Instead of making our commitment to human rights a rule for all people, we are choosing anew this week to let our exceptional commitments become—well—the exception.

5 thoughts on “How Putin and Obama miss the mark on American exceptionalism

  1. Thank you for a short, clear, concise reminder of what is meant by “American Exceptionalism.” Would that our leaders understood this…. Those on the left and on the right.

  2. Yeah, but come on… you gotta admit that the word “exceptional” is exceptionally easy to misconstrue. It’s a phrase that begs to be argued if you don’t just happen to be “in the know”, especially since what once might have been considered exceptional in a historical sense seems quite a bit more commonplace today.

    So, why keep using the phrase? Why not change it to “American Anomalousness” or “American Aberrance” if that’s what you really mean?

  3. This is an a exceptionally shallow view of history. The American Constitution is a 200 year old experiment, now perilously close to failing because of subversion from within; in particular, the transmogrification of the executive into a feudal state supported by an armed nobility that extracts tithes from the peasants and threatens dissent with violence. This is an old story, not exceptional.

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