Sunday, September 15, 2013


American exceptionalism has been in the news lately in the context of the Syrian crisis. 

In his address from the East Room, President Obama attempted to justify action in Syria on the basis of a reference to American exceptionalism:

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.
In response, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, wrote in a column published in the New York Times:

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. 
I agree with Barack Obama that the United States is an exceptional nation, but I disagree with what the President apparently thinks our exceptionality means.

I agree with Vladimir Putin that Obama's reasoning is flawed, perhaps deeply so, but I disagree that it is dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.

The United States of America is an exceptional nation.  I have recently written on what makes us exceptional.  Unlike most if not all other nations, we are highly diverse on racial, ethnic, and religious grounds.  We are united instead by a belief in a political philosophy.  One becomes English, or Russian, or French, or German by birth and parentage alone.  No amount of time will make someone who is born French into an Englishman.

But we make new Americans of those who were born elsewhere, and they are no less American than those whose ancestors came here on the Mayflower.  Their children are largely indistinguishable from the children of those who were born here.

The concept is summarized in the Latin phrase, e pluribus unum, "out of many, one."

We are the exception to the general rule of homogeneity, yet we have created homogeneity through general freedom of the individual, equality before the law, and due process of law.  Our way of life, being so based, is in combination more productive and more fair than any other system yet devised, because literally anyone can come here and succeed.

That is not to say we did not have advantages or that we lack problems.  We have advantages over other nations, enormous natural resources being the most obvious example--but other nations have resources, too.  We have problems, but we have a mechanism for solving them in an organic fashion, by relying on our first principles and allowing natural politics to produce consensus.  Because the law is subject to change through democratic processes, and because every citizen may access the levers of democracy, our politics and policies have a tendency toward self-correction.

(I worry at times that we are beginning to step away from those principles, as money and moneyed interests take control of our politics, but I view that as a problem that we can solve.)

Stated another way, the best America is yet to come.

Our model commends itself to the world.  Most Western nations have adopted our models to some extent, though the degree to which they respect them is the subject of some debate.  Even China has taken furtive steps toward the American system.

Where I depart from the modern American exceptionalists--the neoconservatives, the chickenhawks, the proponents of the Project for the New American Century--is in what I think our exceptionalism means.

To them, our exceptionalism gives us the right to intervene in the affairs of other nations; to impose our choices upon them; to use our political, economic, and military advantages to control the process of affairs both global and local, and to turn them to our advantage.

Putin is right:  That kind of thinking is indeed dangerous.  It runs contrary to our highest principles of equality and justice.

To me, our exceptionalism is a blessing and a burden.  We enjoy the fruits of the labors of our ancestors, both economic and political.  We lead a rich life as Americans--richest of all, in the sense of the luxury of self-determination that so many non-Americans lack.  But we must take care to use our power to promote only the very best of our ideas to the world; we must never adhere to the idea that our might makes us right, regardless of merit; we must never act to create an unfair advantage over others simply because we can.  To do so violates our first principles.

If we believe in the strength of our ideas, if we believe in the righteousness of the American Experiment, then we have no need of force to impose them on others.  If we seek to impose by force ideas that could not win on merit, then no amount of force will bring merit to those ideas.

It is dangerous to teach people that their exceptionality makes them more entitled to a say in how things go than others who are not exceptional.

We don't award votes to people based on IQ points or bank account balances.

Where we do have an obligation to act is where those without power are unreasonably endangered by those with power.

We have a moral obligation to stop genocide if we can do so without worsening the situation.

We have a moral obligation to use our power for the common good of the world, where that common good is clear, and where doing so promotes our core principles.

It is hard to know where the line is.

I have long believed that the efficacy and genius of the United Nations as an organization lay in its core premise:  That there is a community of nations, all different, all equal, dedicated to the peaceful resolution of their grievances; a body to which all peace-loving nations may subscribe, and be heard on equal footing.  In my view, the international luster of the United Nations has faded because rather than remaining committed to this concept, the United States has spent much of the last thirty years denigrating the democratic aspects of the UN and concentrating its use of the UN upon an oligarchy of five nations, the permanent members of the Security Council.

Regardless, it ought to be enough for us to know that we are first among equals.  It ought to be enough for the rest of the world to know that while we could act alone, our principles dictate that our actions be subject to consultation with others and a modicum of consensus.

That Obama resorted to an American exceptionalism argument to bolster his position was, in my view, a cheap trick that fooled no one.  It was designed, it appears, to get a political leg up on conservatives who take our exceptionalism as an article of faith and who do believe it justifies our actions, whatever those actions are. 

I suspect that Obama's words rang hollow because he doesn't really believe in them.  Our ability to have an impact does not make us exceptional; incorrectly applied, it merely makes us a bully.  I have to believe that Barack Obama did not mean what he said.

If he did mean it, he is wrong.  I have never believed in the principle of "my country, right or wrong."  I support my country when it is right by advocating for it.  But I support my country when it is wrong by opposing it.  I love this great nation, and I have hope for its future.  I have many times sworn an oath upon my honor to defend the Constitution, and to me, that means defending its principles at all times, even if the government does not. That is the solemn obligation of us all.

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