The concept of American exceptionalism has been an issue of contention between the conservative pundits on the right and the liberals on the left. I imagine some fact checkers will disagree with my following comment, but generally President Obama has been unwilling to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism in his public speeches.
Recently, in his Tuesday, September 10th speech to the nation he came close to using the concept, but I think unfortunately he used an inappropriate premise for the statement. I will elaborate later.
Today, Thursday, September 12th, Vladimir V. Putin, President of Russia, published an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing President Obama on the case he made on American exceptionalism.
To put both comments in proper context President Obama said, “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. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
President Putin’s retort was, “I would rather disagree with the case he (Obama) made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” He went on to say, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation… We must not forget that God created us equal.”
First, I think President Obama used a bad premise to invoke the use of American exceptionalism. He is making a judgement when he says, “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,…” He was referring to his plan to conduct a limited military action against Syria. There are many people who believe his “modest effort” will not stop the threat of future gas attacks in Syria, and there are many people who believe the “risk” is unknowable and anything but modest.
Secondly, I think President Putin is totally out of line with his understanding of American exceptionalism. It has nothing to do with his comment that “God created us equal.”
So, back to the basic question, what is American exceptionalism?
Does it mean that Americans think God created us better? No.
Does it mean Americans think we are individually better than all non-Americans? Definitely not.
Well then, what does it mean? I think it means that America has created a constitutionally based government system of democracy that values freedoms and allows opportunities for all people to pursue their dreams. It doesn’t guarantee that we will be smarter as individuals or successful as individuals, but it allows us opportunities to worship as we choose, opportunities for education and to pursue jobs and to live where we choose and to do the things we choose to do, within a set of laws.
Is the American system perfect? No, far from it. Actually, we may have lost some of our exceptionalism recently. We have huge problems facing us currently; health care, immigration, huge government deficit spending, education, poverty, unemployment, a tax system that is a mess, and on and on. But somehow we have always eventually dealt with these kinds of problems, and even though our system is a long ways from perfect, it has worked pretty well for a long time. And hopefully, even with the chaos in Washington D.C. we will find ways to deal with our problems and make America the exceptional country that it can be, again.
How does all this fit into a blog about a book, ‘Life of a Double Agent’. I don’t know, but as the author of the book, I felt the need to speak out on public issue. Maybe if you want a break from current events, try reading my book. It is an enjoyable, easy read.
I would like to share a personal example that might help us understand President Putin’s thinking on exceptionalism and international perception.
In 2000, I moved to Russia as a Peace Corps volunteer. President Putin was the president during my time in Russia. My volunteer service was scheduled for two years, but at the end of the first year, the Russian government sent ten of the volunteers home, I was one of the ten. This created some interesting speculation, like was I a spy, did I get caught spying, etc. The truth was the Russian government, under Putin, had a problem with the Peace Corps. They knew the major focus of the Peace Corps was on developing countries, and Russia did not consider itself a “developing country”. Russia surely didn’t want its imagine globally to be as a developing country. The USSR had been one of the two world powers, and with the dissolution of the USSR, Russia was worried about its image on the world stage. So, they sent ten Peace Corps volunteers home in 2001, and a much larger group the next year, and the following year, the Peace Corps closed its Russian operation and gave up on their missions of providing trained men and women, promoting better understanding between Americans and the people of their country of service.President Putin is back in office as President of Russia and he still appears worried about his and his countries global image. It is clearly understandable that he doesn’t like the idea or the implications of American exceptionalism.