The natural reaction to Russian president Vladimir Putin writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times, in which he critiqued American foreign policy, was that his words were inappropriate, intrusive, and offensive. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said the piece made him almost want to throw up. Other Americans were equally put off.
Americans seem to collectively get their spines up when someone from a foreign country offers thoughts on how the United States might improve itself. It is not unlike when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that there was no need for him to incorporate legal thinking from other countries into his deliberations, because everything he needs to know is in the United States Constitution and case law.
Scalia’s literalist decisions have given him a very narrow view of the Constitution. He calls it a “dead Constitution.” This seems to exclude common sense from much of his thinking.
Putin’s op-ed was criticized or ignored by many Americans in part because he is not American. In fact, he is the leader of a sometimes opponent of the U.S. Many Americans feel that the U.S. has a corner on wisdom and that it is offensive for others to offer us advice.
Let’s consider some of what Putin said in his op-ed:
Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.
Putin is suggesting that it would be helpful to both Russia and the United States if there was more communication between the societies. There is nothing to object to here. Can we at least given him credit for something as American as apple pie–or even Rodney King?
The word “exceptional” seems to be a real powder keg in Putin’s op-ed. Putin said, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
This is both a light swat at the United States and a major blow. It is light in that it somewhat challenges what President Obama said in his Sept. 10 2013 speech on Syria:
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.
The President is saying that America is exceptional because it stands up against atrocities. His words are definitely subject to challenge; there’s no empirical evidence that America stands up to atrocities more than other countries. It was a “feel good” line to the American people.
However, there is a broader use of the term “American exceptionalism,” which may be what Putin was targeting.
Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the United States is like the biblical shining “City upon a Hill”, and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
The term does indeed seem to imply superiority. It is continuously used by conservatives, and especially Tea Party members, in the U.S. These are people who clearly see the U.S. as greater than all other countries. They feel that the United States is entitled to superior standing to other countries. The fact that Putin is critical of such a perspective does not make him unique. The leaders of many other countries object to the “we’re better than every other country” meaning of “American exceptionalism.” This is clearly not what President Obama said, and any criticism of Obama by Putin in this regard must be considered to be largely off base. Putin’s punch is directed at the “American exceptionalism and entitlement” spoken and practiced by President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other neo-cons. Many progressives in the United States find the neo-con perspective of exceptionalism to be both unwarranted and dangerous, and they have evidence to substantiate it.
It would be helpful if those on the right, as well as many in the middle, would actually think about what Putin said. Many who do not want America to go to war in Syria may already agree with Putin, but they won’t acknowledge it. One thing is certain; foreign countries will not listen to the leaders of the United States if our leaders don’t listen to them. Hopefully, at some point, President Obama will recognize that Putin’s words contain the same mixture of honesty and pander as his own words do. What’s important is to listen to that which is real, and ignore the hype. Obama is certainly smart enough to do this.