Russian President Vladimir Putin published an editorial in the New York Times that took on the United States’ policy towards Syria and also took on a concept held dear by many Americans – “American exceptionalism.” It was a ballsy statement ended at the end of his op-ed, with sentiments that most leaders in the world would dare only to say in private:
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.
The uproar that Vladimir Putin’s editorial caused shouldn’t be too surprising. The reactions, which you can watch in this Young Turks video, were raw and emotional – “Joseph Stalin is smiling” or “it made me want to vomit” negated the actual substance of the article.
Many people in this country live with alot of illusions – they elude the reality that their country is an empire, that it is hated throughout the world and that its policies have led to major structural decay. America is a living projection of the old adage that “the emperor has no clothes” – while, under both Bush and Obama, our presidents have invaded or launched missiles at developing countries we have seen repeated failings of the infrastructure in the United States such as the breech of the levees in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of I-50, a well used bridge in Washington state and the I-35 Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis. While the U.S. government builds ever more weapons, it fails to advance or repair basic infrastructure or services for its own people.
Despite a widespread increase in law enforcement and domestic spying under both presidents Bush and Obama, we have seen a rash of mass shootings that were unique to this country in their brutality and randomness. None of these tragedies were stopped and in the aftermath of the Boston bombings particularly, the American government simply looked reactive and disorganized. Most countries experience stuff like the Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech or Aurora massacres only when their society is at war. Alot of coverage has been made of Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on gays in his country, which is obviously unwarranted, but in researching for this article, it was genuinely hard to find as many episodes of random violence in Russia as we experience here.
Nevertheless, as other countries may look at us and wonder why we are so violent (One friend in Brazil called me up recently, saying she really liked Obama in 2008 but now asked “Why does he want to bomb Syria? He will shoot missiles at people. It’s horrible!”), we are apparently not self-aware at all. The idea of “American exceptionalism” permeates this thinking. Many Americans simply think they are superior to the rest of the world and, as Putin pointed out in his op-ed piece, that attitude of being above everyone else and above the rules drives episodes like Iraq or Syria – in which this country’s leaders believe they are entitled to use force on others and going through the proper channels internationally (even the proper channels in our own country – as Obama’s administration was totally prepared to bomb Syria without public or Congressional support). By taking on “American exceptionalism,” Putin fired a slingshot at an already badly wounded American goliath – Americans have seen most of their illusions crippled in the years following 9/11 – exceptionalism itself is the foundation of all of those illusions.
To people who were offended by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s article – What is that makes America “exceptional?” Is it legalizing torture, something America is exceptional in maintaining despite most developed countries adhering to the Geneva Convention? Is it launching a military assault every 40 months since World War II, something no other country has come close to doing? Is it having caused the deaths of over 100,000 civilians during the Iraq war? These things could certainly be seen as exceptional.
In Russia is a country that developed politically as an adversary of the United States. Even if it has been more of an ally since the USSR fell apart, there is still a “Cold War mentality” among many Russian leaders, reportedly. This may be why Vladimir Putin feels the courage to say what he said in that editorial. The leaders of the United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, Australia or other significant countries would not feel the courage to say what many of them actually think and feel about the United States. However, in action and not word, the United States is rejected – Barack Obama failed to get even a fraction of the support for action against Syria that George W. Bush got for Iraq. The vote for action against by the British parliament was the first time in history that proposed military action had been rejected.
The United States is not exceptional. It’s not special. It is just another face among other faces in this world and its little temper tantrums will often makes its social and economic decline harder because no one will want to give a big bully a helping hand.