Putin Attacks American Exceptionalism, And We Should Stop Defending And Start Listening

Vladamir Putin authored an op-ed in the Thursday edition of the New York Times offering much advice to America. In general, it has triggered a response here of rejection and derision. In most respects, this is appropriate.

Putin’s criticisms are outrageously hypocritical, and he is a fatally flawed messenger to deliver them. He notes, for instance, that in the post World War II era, no military aggression is legal except when necessary for self-defense or when sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. Though America has frequently violated that standard in its actions, Russia has violated it even more so. Need we mention Georgia in 2008, Afghanistan in 1979, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Hungary in 1956?

Indeed, Russia, through its Soviet predecessor, without Security Council approval, enslaved half a continent for two generations.

Thus, Putin is hardly in a position to lecture.

One subject he mentioned, though, justifies some introspection on the part of Americans. He ended his op-ed thusly:

“I would rather disagree with a case [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 motivations…We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Even this statement has received bi-partisan American condemnation, but it should be the subject of more honest reflection.

At one time the doctrine of American Exceptionalism did not imply superiority but rather simply meant that we were unique — the first democracy — a country defined more by its ideas than by a common religion, ancestral homeland, or ethnicity. [Seymour Martin Lipsit, “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword,” Norton (1996), pp 17-19.]

The term, however, has now been hijacked by the American right wing to imply superiority. Lipsit alludes to that, but there is evidence of it all around us. In the 2012 Republican presidential debates, for instance, the candidates fell all over themselves to out-do each other in trumpeting American superiority over the remainder of the peoples of the world, most often invoking American Exceptionalism. Newt Gingrich even wrote a whole book about it in 2011 in anticipation of the campaign. Romney’s “no apology” book exalts the same values.
There is no secret why this haughty version of American Exceptionalism has been embraced by the American right. Superiority over all others carries with it a necessarily implied bigotry that is attractive to much of the Republican base. Additionally, the incessant chatter about American Exceptionalism during the 2012 Republican presidential debates also served the purpose of conveying by code the “otherness” — the Kenyan roots and the blackness — of the president.

Most scholars, including Lipsit, credit the idea of American Exceptionalism to the great Alexis de Tocqueville, who traversed America in the 1830’s and memorialized his findings in his masterpiece “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville was not making an argument for superiority. He noted the unique advantages of the Americans: most obviously, the untapped resources of a large continent, but also the absence of a domestic aristocracy (“The happy and the powerful do not go into exile” he noted). Moreover, the Enlightenment ideas that were the basis for most of America’s liberties and Constitutionalism came mainly from Europe. But it was the Americans who by chance were in the best position to implement them in the purest form to that date.

Tocqueville certainly was not claiming that the Americans were a master race. He noted our relatively small contributions to art and literature. Moreover, consider his characterization of the original Virginians [Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” vol. 1, Schoken Books, 1961, p. 17, quoting from Stith, “History of Virginia”]: “[They were] a large portion of adventurers, were unprincipled young men of family, whom their parents were glad to ship off, discharged servants, fraudulent bankrupts, or debauchees; and others of the same class, people more apt to pillage and destroy than to assist the settlement…”

Moreover, some of the uncomfortable facts of our own history hardly support a claim to superiority: we abolished slavery later than many modern nations and only with great violence; we followed that with a century of Jim Crow; our treatment of the American Indians is very problematical; and many other examples could be mentioned.

Of course, the tendency of a people, particularly a powerful one, to consider itself superior to others is nothing new. It may not be a part of our “better angels,” as Lincoln put it, but it is part of human nature, albeit a less admirable aspect it — a trait that a great people should seek to overcome rather than to nurture. The ancient Romans famously considered all peoples beyond the boundaries of their empire to be “barbarians.” In the New Testament, the Pharisees and the Sadducees considered themselves the sole sources of virtue, wisdom, and power in ancient Judea and were the consistent villains of those epistles. Nearer our own time, the Nazis considered themselves entitled to world domination by virtue of their allegedly being a master race.

These precedents are the fellow travelers of the ideas of the new American Exceptionalists. America has only four percent of the world’s population. It desires to be, and should be, a leader, at least to some degree, of the remainder. But to do so effectively, we need to call upon our better angels and not attempt to lead the world be pointing out to it its inherent inferiority to ourselves — an obviously futile exercise.

Reinhold Niebuhr — the American clergyman who is considered by many to have been the greatest Christian theologian of the Twentieth Century [in his “Justice and Mercy,” Harper & Row 1974, p. 42] — put it this way:

“In our collective activities there is egotism in regard to race and perhaps to class, and certainly in regard to our own nation. Not only our enemies or detractors, but our friends and allies, are inclined to say that we think too highly of ourselves. Collectively we excuse and do not accuse ourselves, because from the day of our founding we have had the idea that we are a particularly virtuous nation. Other nations are selfish, but we are not. We stand for justice and freedom, not for self-interest. It is basically impossible for a nation to do so. Nations more than individuals think about their own interests, and we ought to realize that if we have any virtue, it is not pure unselfishness but the virtue of a relative justice that finds a point of concurrence between our interests and those of the larger world.”

Edited/Published by: SB

Dan Boyd is a founding director of the Roosevelt Institute (rooseveltinstitute.org) and serves on its Board of Governors. He is a lifelong progressive and a Dallas-based trial and appellate lawyer.