Last week it became clear to the world that there was emerging a diplomatic alternative to controversial US military intervention in Syria. While the public and the political class had already opposed the strike, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and everyone else now turned their attention toward Russia and its president, grateful for a simpler solution to the Syrian dilemma.
Vladimir Putin’s brief editorial piece in the New York Times, most of which was spent asking Americans to reject military action, came a few days after the revelation, at this moment of retreat. If Putin was attempting to persuade the public, he was wasting his time—Americans strongly preferred a diplomatic solution. If he was attempting to sway the president and his cabinet, he would have found it as effective to speak with them personally or through diplomatic channels, as he has now done.
Mr. Putin was probably sending a different message. This is clear in light of his final paragraph, which was not a conclusion to the foreign policy article he had written above. His message was the following opinion, related only tangentially to his piece:
I carefully studied [President Obama’s] 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.
I will come to the reasons for Putin’s condescension in a moment. But it would be useful, first of all, to examine why anyone cares about the idea of “American exceptionalism” at all, by remembering a few selected superlatives.
America is a relatively new nation. In political terms, however, the United States is the oldest continuous government on earth (leaving aside the microstate San Marino). Since the end of the Revolutionary War, every transition of its power has been peaceful–even the secession of the South following Lincoln’s election did not threaten the federal government or the presidential office. The ideological upheaval of the 19th and 20th centuries did not shake America, and Marxism never infected its government.
The first formal, written constitution was America’s, in 1787. The United States was the first effective liberal democracy, and the first to write in inviolable law the personal freedoms of speech and religion. America’s revolution was more than the first of its kind–it was also uniquely successful by comparison to later movements in France and other parts of Europe. The American Revolution, almost alone, was not characterized by an excess either of liberalism or conservatism, demonstrating in practice the ideals and virtues immortalized in words by America’s fathers.
By any reasonable metric the United States is the most powerful political entity in history. Of the dozen or so superpowers that have existed over the last few millennia, however, America has been the least tempted by conquest, rarely taking advantage of its opportunities to permanently control foreign lands (the Philippines as the main exception). On the other hand, the extent of America’s economic aid to post-war friends and enemies is staggering, considering Western Europe, Japan and the parties to more recent conflicts.
It is almost unnecessary to point out the economic, technological and cultural importance of this New World republic, at least to us who are communicating via a worldwide network created in the US, using American software and electronic devices invented by Americans. The essence of our modern, post-industrial world is American, as any of us non-Americans can admit to ourselves when we look around.
There are other exceptional nations. Great Britain, out of whose empire America was born, has perhaps influenced the world more than any other nation in the last 500 years—and it certainly has a great deal to do with America’s greatness. Otto von Bismarck was correct when he predicted on his deathbed in 1898 that nothing would shape modern history more profoundly than the fact that “the North Americans speak English.” Canada is included in this class of extraordinary Anglophone countries.
Japan’s forty-year rise, following a catastrophic war, was rightly named a miracle, and only a handful of countries have equalled the feat. The Scandinavian countries, the Low Countries and Switzerland, to pick a few salient examples, have managed to maintain extraordinarily peaceful and prosperous societies for at least half a century. Even within this peculiar class of nations, however, America is an exception. There is something to be said for greatness.
Philosophizing on equality and moralizing about modesty, the way Mr. Putin did last week, is nothing rhetorically new. These methods do, however, have the intended effect on Americans, who tend to avoid assertions of their own exceptionalism, so as not to appear the ugly, ego-blinded American.
As someone who has lived in the US for a period and has made efforts to study its history, I can offer an opinion on whether it is an exception. And as a Canadian, I can safely offer an opinion that is favourable to the idea. In a world where cultural cynicism, political arbitrariness and economic narrowness have always been the rule, America was the first, and remains the greatest, exception. Russia, in the company of so many other nations, is not, and has not ever been.
Perhaps Mr. Putin knows this. Maybe he went to the trouble of sending a message to America last week in an effort to dampen his internal anguish. His sadness (and perhaps his envy) is secured by the fact that no one, and certainly no American president, will ever write letters to Russian newspapers to tell them their country is nothing special–there would be no need to state the obvious.
Only extreme success, or abject failure, would really invite impassioned criticisms of a nation’s notability. But America is by no means a failure—that America attracts so much second-world contempt is a witness of its greatness.
America’s flaws, including its great flaws, while not sufficient to make the country unexceptional in our imperfect world, are real. And like everything mortal, America, and its unique vitality, cannot be permanent. But, “whenever the dissolution of the Union arrives”, as John Jay wrote in 1787, “America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: Farewell! A long farewell to all my greatness!”