Citizens everywhere woke up Thursday to astounding news: Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, literally made headlines by publishing an op-ed in the New York Times. Mr. Putin approached the looming issue of Syria head-on, pleading for patience to stave off the pending military action suggested by President Obama. However, Putin’s criticisms addressed more than policy decisions. He attacked the very foundation of American policy justification, the idea of American exceptionalism:
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
This statement alone stings with enough realism to warrant further consideration of Putin’s position. Putin drew this reference from Obama’s speech Tuesday night, in which the president said that American policy is what makes the nation exceptional. Perhaps more tellingly, Obama went on to call American exceptionalism an “essential truth.” Because America is exceptional, so the argument goes, America has the responsibility to act. Put another way, America is justified in bombing Syria because it is exceptional.
Obama’s speech was concerning. It highlights the difference between a priori and a posteriori justification for U.S. military actions. That is, American exceptionalism is rationalized in one of two possible ways: Either America is exceptional because it acts exceptionally, or America is justified in acting because America is exceptional.
The former explanation is how we all hope the world sees the U.S. — as a country that sets the bar morally and leads by example. The latter, of course, is Putin’s take on Obama’s reference to the “essential truth” of American exceptionalism, and that attitude is probably better described as what Putin meant all along: arrogance.
Putin astutely points out that “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.” This is important because President Obama continues to base his authority to order the military into action on his assertion that he is “the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.” The United States, plainly, is not the world’s oldest constitutional democracy — and that country recently vetoed the decision by its executive to strike Syria.
So what is the danger of the belief in American exceptionalism, and has the U.S. been damaged by it? Putin does not argue that America is not exceptional. Rather, he appeals to the due processes of international law, which the U.S. is bound by treaty to obey. President Putin reminds us that the League of Nations fell out of power by similar unilateral acts by nations. Putin believes that the danger, then, of American exceptionalism is that this belief is easily used to justify the U.S. acting illegally under international law, and that in doing so, the U.S. will make it easier for other nations to do the same.
America certainly is exceptional — as evidenced by the presence of Putin's own article in an American newspaper. On the 12th anniversary of one of America's darkest days, Vladimir Putin, head of state of a quasi-hostile foreign country, penned an op-ed in one of this country's greatest newspapers, criticizing not only the current foreign policies of the United States but also attacking the justifying philosophy that underlies these policies. That, in itself, is exceptional. Obama could not do the same in Russia. There might not be another country in the world where a foreign leader could have uninhibited access to such a national mouthpiece, and use it to criticize the president's position. That freedom of press and speech is the hallmark of true exceptionalism, and it would be even more exceptional if Obama gave some thought to the ideas of Vladimir Putin.
It is ironic that Putin, in light of Russia's crackdown on gay rights and the controversy over the Sochi Olympics, would wrap himself in the U.S. Constitution and say, "God created us equal." Even more so, he avails himself of the uniquely American freedom of press and speech with this critique of American policy — freedoms that Russian citizens surely do not enjoy. However, most ironic is that the president of Russia, hypocritical as he is, might be right about American exceptionalism. It is not a free pass to bypass international law.