At the risk of sounding like a cross between Curtis LeMay and Kate Smith, I’m going to say it: America is indeed exceptional. Sounding xenophobic is unavoidable here, but it’s the truth. And it’s a formidable responsibility.
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, took to the pages of the New York Times last week to reject Americans’ long-held belief that we’re a little more blessed than anyone else in the world. Sure, Putin’s op-ed was ostensibly about how cooperation between our two nations is vital in entanglements such as Syria, but he really just wanted to tweak our noses about this alleged peerlessness he keeps hearing about.
“I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism,’” Putin wrote, referring to Barack Obama’s Sept. 10 speech on Syria. “... It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
Some would argue that by “exceptional” we don’t (or shouldn’t) mean “better,” but rather “different.” Well, everybody’s different. Swedes are different from Somalis and Mexicans are different from Canadians. The underlying definition of American exceptionalism is that something in our collective makeup, in our history and culture, has created a society of achievers who believe it their duty — and destiny — to achieve. The pilgrim, the pioneer, the cowboy, the G.I. — each has chiseled his profile into the granite face of our national mythology.
Further, we’ve got a communal sense that the model of governance we’ve constructed over time is as close to ideal as humankind has yet managed to invent. Other nations have been sufficiently inspired by the American democratic experiment to try to duplicate it — and a few have actually done so with improvements. But mostly those bold efforts collapse when the military gets fed up, tanks surround the presidential palace and the natural order of things is restored.
Being exceptional presents a couple of problems. One is the natural tendency toward arrogance. The other is that it’s a high bar. The chief responsibility of an exceptional people, and the challenge, is maintaining our collective integrity when confronted with enemies who, by our standards, have none. If we portray ourselves as the good guy in all affairs, we have to be true to that even if it forces us to concede certain advantages. We hurt our case when we torture prisoners and spy on our allies. John Wayne never tortured any Nazis, even if we wanted him to.
But, oil lust and CIA-orchestrated coups aside, the U.S. is generally a force for good in the world. We care that Bashar al-Assad has murdered hundreds of children in his own country. Sure, we have a vested interest in regional security, but the U.S. leaders who will make the decision to strike (or not strike) Syria will be, and should be, affected by that galling display of inhumanity.
We dump billions into feeding the world’s destitute, into educating minds and healing bodies in places that lie vast oceans away. Those acts serve purposes related to our own security and influence but they are also acts of compassion and leadership.
Putin has an agenda; every world leader has an agenda and would be doing his people a disservice by failing to pursue it. But when one of them smirks at a tenet of our national identity, we’re allowed to bristle a little.
We Americans can grouse about Obama’s indecisiveness and timidity, but nobody else gets to, least of all a former head of the Soviet KGB. We Americans can howl about our infuriatingly intransigent, self-preservation-first Congress, but we prefer to keep those things in the family. As far as everyone else is concerned, we’re exceptional. So get off that high horse, Vlad — it belongs to us. And, criminy, put on a shirt.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.