“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 in the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.” President Barack Obama September 10, 2013
“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 God created us equal.” President Vladimir Putin September 11, 2013
What is this exceptionalism that draws leaders of two great powers to engage in verbal combat and frame the possibility of going to war over that word? Exceptionalism as a noun has connotations that suggests a righteousness that many like President Obama express and President Putin distain. It has led to more than one misunderstanding and misstep by America in the last several decades, and depressingly is misinterpreted by both leaders in an age that is proving increasingly unexceptional for leaders that can grasp the essential truths of ideas.
To be exceptional implies a unique set of circumstances. The exceptionalism that Putin derides is not essence of the argument of American exceptionalism. Putin selects the portion of the idea that implies universality, not uniqueness. Thomas Jefferson in his declaration of independence framed the birth of an American nation on what he implied were self evident, universal truths that applied to all men, regardless of nationality:
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
These are clearly expressed as not unique to America, but rather an innate constituent of the makeup of each human being regardless of nationality. This is not the exceptional argument of Jefferson to which Putin inadvertently subscribes. Jefferson’s argument of exceptionalism comes in his next sentence in the declaration, in which Jefferson relays how Americans would form a unique governance that exists to secure those rights:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
There is clearly no descriptor in Jefferson’s immortal words that unique abilities and talents, intelligence, clarity of philosophy, national achievement, and charity toward others are isolated to the American character. But the concept of governance he spoke to, limited and responsive to the securing of an individuals rights, are unique, and as history continues to unfold, clearly exceptional.
President Obama, who is progressively becoming renowned for his superficial grasp of historical concepts, equally misses Jefferson’s point. His declarative final paragraphs of his speech on Syria imply the exceptional characteristic of America is the ability to see wrong in the world and have the fortitude to right it. This would suggest a righteousness of action that he himself decries in his proceeding sentences, declaring “we should not be the world’s policeman“. Excepting the vacuous logic of declaring contradicting statements as both inherent truths of American perspective, the reality of the existence of tragedy in this world has no correlation to America’s character. Syria is not remotely the first time children have been viciously treated under Obama’s watch. Child rape in Africa’s civil wars, Child slavery in south Asia’s darker corners, forced child marriage in multiple Islamic societies, and child drive by murders in many of America’s cities have not stimulated Obama’s righteous indignation. Nor is America’s indignation or charitable involvement unique among nations. In this particular point, Putin is correct. America has no exceptional role as the enforcer of what is right. Instead, it stands as an exceptional example of the rights themselves, and as such an example, has been the hope of the oppressed of the world to which other nations can not hold a candle.
America does not exist as a salvation for people; its ideas exist as an exceptional way to salvation. In a time where even the leader of this country does not have a grasp of the foundation of ideas he espouses, the clarity of why to act, where to act, and how to act become increasingly more muddled. Every nation has a unique story of origin and a unique character of development. American exceptionalism is uniquely American. President Lincoln beautifully crystalized it in his Gettysburg Address, ” Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Charles Murray, in his book, American Exceptionalism, surmises that this set of unique characteristics is decaying because the elements that brought it into being, a foundational libertarian philosophy conceived in a land of limitless westward growth capacity, ideology of self determination, industrious work ethic, and religious conviction is progressively exhausting itself. It is difficult to project oneself as a beacon of hope and a deliverer of righteous morality when you are increasingly working so hard at trying to become just like everyone else.
The catastrophe in Syria is not going to be solved by arguing about who we are. Like Russia, America’s position should be about representing its own national self interest, projecting its capacity in such a way to achieve an end to the violence without it becoming a calamity that is larger than the sectarian hatred that is at its root. The ideas of what makes America exceptional need a self directed American repair, not a foreign injection in another country. However appropriate our intentions, the process of nation building, and the energy, investment, and commitment it requires, is best directed at building our own nation back up on its founding principles. We should be very clear in our projection of who we are to those would seek to effect our demise or take advantage of our charitable nature. Foreign engagement is what civilized nations do, but foreign involvement, specifically, and only, when it affects our national interest and survival, shouldn’t be delivered like a seminar to those who would seek to harm us, but with the clarity of a terrible, swift sword.