Putin v. American Exceptionalism

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There’s something fabulous about Vladimir Putin wrapping up his op-ed in today’s New York Times by chastising President Obama for wrapping up his Tuesday speech on Syria by invoking American exceptionalism.

Obama tried to elicit support for military action against the Assad regime by casting exceptionalism in terms of an American readiness to save faraway children from being gassed to death. “That’s what makes us different,” he said. “That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Au contraire, opined the Russian president.

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.

One irony, of course, is that Obama is regarded throughout the American conservative world as a traitor to the exceptionalist cause. Not long after he assumed the presidency, he caught considerable flak when he suggested that exceptionalism was not an exclusively American claim. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he remarked during an April 2009 press conference in Europe. OMG!

A second irony is that the first person to criticize American exceptionalism — indeed, the first person to deploy the term — was Putin’s predecessor Josef Stalin. Stalin did so in denouncing the Lovestonites, a leftist group that had split off from the American Communist Party because of its belief that America was an exception to the rule of economic development postulated by Lenin, and so could not be expected to follow the path from capitalism to socialism predicted for other countries.

Neo-czarist autocrat that he is, Putin rejected American exceptionalism not with an iron law of communist economics but with the theological proposition that God created all human beings equal. The irony here is that it was just this proposition that President Eisenhower famously cited when explaining why he could not make sense of democracy to the Soviet commander, Marshal Zhukov:

In other words our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. So what was the use of me talking to Zhukov about that. Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people.

So Putin uses Eisenhower’s smack at the godless communists to smack Obama for advancing a belief he’s believed not to embrace as an affront to the democratic form of government that Eisenhower believed depended on a religious conviction that Putin’s predecessor didn’t hold — while keeping faith with the predecessor’s critique of the belief in question.

It just doesn’t get any better.