Should we go to war in Syria? That was the hotly debated question in the fall of 2013.
During the debate, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times chastising then-President Obama for even thinking about military force.
Putin wanted everyone to go through the UN, where he and China were blocking any action against Syria or Assad.
Putin ended his Op-Ed with a critical shot at American exceptionalism.
He wrote (emphasis mine):
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his 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.
Putin was right to fear American exceptionalism
Putin was right to fear American exceptionalism. It was American exceptionalism that triumphed in WWII, won the space race and toppled the Soviet Union.
It was American exceptionalism that dared produce a new form of government after the American Revolution. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution set the bar worldwide in establishing individual rights, freedom, and self-governance for all.
Finally, it’s American exceptionalism that sees Vladimir Putin as the con-man; a dictator who represses his people, and fears the result if his people ever acquire the American spirit of independence. Exceptionalism is dangerous to Putin’s reign.
Putin’s regime contains seeds of its destruction
A theme I return to often regarding Putin is the idea that his regime contains the seeds of its destruction. I apply the same logic George Kennan famously articulated in the 1946 “X telegram” on the USSR (emphasis mine):
It is curious to note that the ideological power of Soviet authority is strongest today in areas beyond the frontiers of Russia, beyond the reach of its police power. This phenomenon brings to mind a comparison used by Thomas Mann in his great novel Buddenbrooks. Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, he compared one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist.
And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane? This cannot be proved. And it cannot be disproved. But the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.
Communism was the doom of Soviet Russia
As the world entered the post-WWII world, the Soviets believed that the capitalist world (meaning America and the West) would inevitably collapse from capitalism imploding. Soviet leaders believed in Karl Marx’s stages of history.
They believed that capitalism was doomed, ultimately, to ruin and despair. The result of the collapse would be a revolution for workers – who would revolt, overthrow their capitalist masters, and establish a socialist world.
Kennan, as an ambassador to Russia, wisely saw through this worldview. He argued that Soviets had within them the seeds of their decline: communism. Kennan predicted the Soviet communist system was doomed to failure. Communism brought with it an inherent rot, which would weaken the Soviet government until it collapsed.
Kennan was ultimately right — Reagan held similar beliefs regarding the USSR. The brilliance of Reagan was forcing a decaying communist government to compete rapidly with a vibrant US economy and defense industry, and the Soviet system was strained beyond its capabilities, hastening its collapse.
Putin fears the same fate as Soviet Russia
Putin complained about American exceptionalism in 2013 because he knew, on a deep level, that his rule contained similar seeds of destruction.
Putin’s dictatorship cannot stand the test of time; it is an inherently flawed oligarchical police state and it is decaying Russian society from the inside out.
His people will eventually demand freedom from him as they have done with multiple leaders (2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution). He can only distract them with bread and circuses.
Seeds of exceptionalism built a strong America
While Putin’s regime carries the seeds of its own destruction, America’s deeply rooted cultural values provide it with the ability to become an unequivocally exceptional nation. We’ve seen America rely on those deeply rooted values when strained beyond its limits.
The Founding Generation relied on the Declaration of Independence as evidence of their moral rightness in forming a new nation. They pledged their honor, fortunes, and lives to the cause.
Our Founder’s ideas continue to make America a better place
In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln relied on those same ideas to argue the case against slavery. Modern thinkers often claim the Founders missed an opportunity to end slavery at the Founding.
Those same intellectuals use that failure as proof the founding documents and ideas are fundamentally flawed. But they miss how slavery was defeated.
The Declaration and Constitution provided the tools for ending slavery and binding the nation together in the post-Civil War era. America did not have to leave its ideals and institutions to stop the practice of slavery; it only had to look within itself.
We see this again in Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the ideas that founded America to litigate the evils of segregation and racial discrimination to guide America back to the standards inherent within it.
The seeds of American exceptionalism gave him the tools to deliver fatal blows to injustice. King’s understanding of America allowed him to guide it to greater exceptionalism.
He didn’t rebuild the American Foundation. He reminded people of what made America great and why we needed to return to that place.
Russians look to America as an example of success
Compare this to the current system in Russia. Nothing in recent Russian history provides them the tools to counter their current decay. When Russian expat Garry Kasparov explains how he wants his Russian homeland to thrive, he relies on American values:
American leadership is required because there is no one else, and because it is good for America. There is no weapon or wall that is more powerful for security than America being envied, imitated, and admired around the world. Admired not for being perfect, but for having the exceptional courage to always try to be better.
Exceptionalism is not perfection: It’s the constant pursuit of improvement
Which is the end point here: America is exceptional, not because it is perfect, but because it keeps trying to be better. The seeds inherent in our country allow us to achieve exceptionalism.
The assumption at the Founding was not that America was perfect, but that it could become more than the sum of its parts. We are the grand experiment upon which all other modern free countries base themselves.
It is present even in the preamble of our Constitution (emphasis mine):
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
America is always searching for ways to become a “more perfect Union.” We are a union of diverse peoples and beliefs. Our counties, states, and regions may disagree with one another but we are united in our exceptional dream to form “a more perfect Union.”
The seeds of America do not lead to decay; for America, the decline comes from the outside influences. We should encourage our foundational seeds to grow; they are what will “Make America Great Again.”
And if allowed to take root in Russia, they would make Russia far greater than anything Putin could create or envision.