On September 11, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an opinion in the New York Times regarding possible American military intervention in Syria. In response to President Obama’s address to the nation regarding the intervention, Putin said:
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. (A Plea for Caution From Russia: What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria, New York Times, September 11, 2013)
President Putin’s opinion piece caused much consternation and anger in the United States. I don’t wish to waste time on the responses because they are predictable. Rather I would like to focus on President Putin’s point that it is dangerous for America to see itself as exceptional. I do not agree. The fact is that Russia as well as America has seen itself as exceptional throughout its history.
Henry Kissinger in his seminal work, Diplomacy (New York, 1994) points out that Russians like Americans thought of their society as exceptional.
Russia’s expansion into Central Asia had many of the features of America’s own westward expansion, and the Russian justification for it … paralleled the way Americans explained their own “manifest destiny.”
The openness of each country’s frontiers was among the few common features of American and Russian exceptionalism. America’s sense of uniqueness was based on the concept of liberty; Russia’s sprang from the experience of common suffering. Everyone was eligible to share in America’s values; Russia’s were available only to the Russian nation, to the exclusion of its non-Russian subjects. America’s exceptionalism led it to isolation alternating with occasional moral crusades; Russia’s evoked a sense of mission which often led to military adventures. [p. 142]
Norman Podhoretz addressed the question directly in “Is America Exceptional?” Imprimis, Vol 41, No. 10 (October 2012)
First of all, unlike all other nations past or present, this one accepted as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal … the individual’s fate would be determined not by who his father was, but by his own freely chosen pursuit of his own ambitions.
There remained, of course, the two atavistic contradictions of slavery and the position on women; but so intolerable did these contradictions ultimately prove that they had to be resolved—even if, as in the case of the former, it took the bloodiest war the nation ever fought. [p. 1]
Secondly… To become a full-fledged American, it was only necessary to pledge allegiance to the new Republic and to the principles for which it stood.
Thirdly … [i]n America… the citizen’s rights were declared from the beginning to have come from God and to be “inalienable”—that is, immune to legitimate revocation. [p. 2]
Podhoretz claims that the term “American exceptionalism” did not originate with de Tocqueville as many believe but may in fact have originated with Iosif Stalin “who coined the term … but only to dismiss it.” [p. 2]
Thus, when an American Communist leader informed him that American workers had no intention of playing the role Marx had assigned to the worldwide proletariat as the vanguard of the coming socialist revolution, Stalin reputedly shouted something like, “Away with this heresy of American exceptionalism!”
Stalin on American Exceptionalism as a Positive Factor
Iosif Stalin, in his “Foundations of Leninism” (Stalin, Selected Works. Tirana, Albania, 1979), a series of lectures delivered at Sverdlov University between April and May 1924, speaks of a Leninist style of work.
What are the characteristics features of this style? What are its peculiarities?
It has two specific features:
a) Russian revolutionary sweep and
b) American efficiency.
The style of Leninism consists of combining these two specific features in Party and state work. [p. 100]…
American efficiency, on the other hand, is the antidote to “revolutionary” Manilovism and fantastic scheme concocting. American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows or recognizes obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once stated until it is finished, even it if is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable. [p. 101]
Stalin went on to say that American efficiency may degenerate into “narrow and unprincipled practicalism” if it is not combined with Russian revolutionary “sweep.” [p. 101]
This is what is exceptional about America. It is a willingness to tackle all problems with a practical approach to a conclusion; no matter the odds. If we have to overlay a little bit of moralism to our endeavors, so be it.
The very best of American exceptionalism is the fact that we are not afraid to examine ourselves and our motives in the world. As Kissinger notes, as a result of the Cold War a new variant of American Exceptionalism surfaced, an inspired call to the cause of freedom. [p. 471]
Kissinger quotes George Kennan, who formulated the foundations for the policy of containment:
To my own countrymen who have often asked me where to best apply the hand to counter the Soviet threat, I have accordingly had to reply: to our American failings, to the things we are ashamed of in our own eyes, or that worry us; to the racial problem, to the conditions in our big cities, to the education and environment of our young people, to the growing gap between specialized knowledge and popular understanding. [p. 471]
Today wecan add growing disparity of wealth (1% vs. 99%), unemployment, health care, etc. America is exceptional in this regard. We examine ourselves even to the point of appearing ridiculous in the eyes of world and each other; yet we emerge stronger. As Fredrich Nietzche reminds us “That which doesn’t destroy us makes us stronger.”
We are not exceptional in the nature of our military power or our willingness to impose our views on others. We should not be exceptional because of our military industrial complex and we should not waste our national treasure in areas whose cultures and populations we do not understand, pursuing policies where our national interests are not at stake.
In international affairs, we have a deep belief as expressed by Woodrow Wilson that “resistance to aggression [should] be based on moral rather than geopolitical judgments. Nations [should] ask themselves whether an act was unjust rather than whether it is threatening.” (Kissinger, p. 227)
If we sometimes appear moralistic in our tone, it is because it is the language of our idealism. For example, President Richard Nixon,
[T] ook American idealism seriously in the sense that he shared Wilson’s passionate internationalism and belief in America’s indispensability. But he felt equally obligated to relate America’s mission to his own conclusions about the way the world actually worked…
[Thus] This is why Nixon preferred to operate on two tracks simultaneously: invoking Wisonian rhetoric to explain his goals while appealing to national interest to maintain his tactics. (Kissinger, p. 706)
The challenge to American political leaders is how to present our ideals in a manner like, for example, Ronald Reagan. “Reagan rejected the “guilt complex” which he identified with the Carter Administration, and proudly defended America’s record as “the greatest force for peace anywhere in the world today.” (Kissinger, p. 767) No one doubted that Reagan really believed what he was saying; at it appealed to us. Ultimately, a matter may be better judged and one’s position better understood if presented in a manner that is convincing.
Bottom line: To paraphrase Stalin, America is exceptional because of the characteristics of (i) American ideals combined with (ii) American business efficiency. Regardless of the nobility of our motives, results count. American leaders should combine our noble motives with efficient and effective business-like results.