Where Putin Was Right
Paul Pillar at The National Interest says that Vladimir Putin’s op-ed was understandably irritating to many Americans, but we shouldn’t let the messenger obscure the worthiness of the message. Excerpt:
The part of Putin’s piece that Americans perhaps found more irritating than any other was his final comment about American exceptionalism. Americans get especially upset about this sort of comment because it sounds to them like an affront to the very nature of America and not just particular American policies. Probably an extra annoyance was Putin’s final line invoking religion, especially coming from someone who used to work on behalf of godless communism.
But what Putin actually said here involved one of his most valid and valuable points. He said that encouraging exceptionalist thinking is dangerous because countries differ from each other on all sorts of dimensions, and there is no basis for saying that any one country’s differences sets it apart in a way that does not apply to any other countries. He was not impugning the motivation of exceptionalist thinking in the United States or anywhere else—he specifically said “whatever the motivation”—but instead was pointing out undesirable consequences of such thinking.
I think this is right, and important. As I see it, the problems with “American exceptionalism” are 1) a tendency to believe that we Americans are immune to making the same mistakes other countries make because we believe too strongly in our own goodness; 2) a tendency to conceal our own foreign-policy motivations from ourselves beneath a veneer of moralism; and 3) tone-deafness to how our own foreign-policy actions appear to others, because we mean well.
This closing part of Putin’s article was a direct response to the closing portion of President Obama’s speech on Syria on Tuesday. Even the final God-invoking line was a reflection of the Obama speech. Given that a “God bless” closing has become obligatory in speeches by U.S. presidents, why can’t a Russian president invoke divinity at the end of his public statements, too?
I’m glad he said this. Putin is openly pious as an Orthodox Christian. Now, I think a healthy skepticism about the authenticity and instrumentality of Putin’s piety is very much in order, to put it mildly. But then again, isn’t that true for American presidents and other politicians as well? Why do we assume that Putin is faking it when he invokes God, but Obama has a right to be taken at his word?
And finally from Pillar:
What the U.S. president said about exceptionalism in that final part of his speech was shaky enough that it shouldn’t need a Putin to expose the weakness of it. Mr. Obama said that when “we can stop children from being gassed to death”—never mind for the moment that a U.S. military attack would not be stopping any such thing—“we should act.” He said, “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” Really? After all that has been said and felt through the years about an exceptional America, evoking a sense that this country represents a higher plane of basic goodness, what it comes down to is the will and wherewithal to fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles?
Amen. And see, this is what I mean by the concept of American exceptionalism blinding us to our own actions, or at least how others may see our behavior. Obama proposes to send Tomahawks into Syria to protect children. From the point of view of Syrian Christians, Alawites, and Druze, those Tomahawk missiles may be intended to protect children, but they will arguably serve the purpose of putting their own children in greater danger of being killed by jihadists. Plus, the president used American exceptionalism to justify his plan, but attacking Syria is about far more than protecting children from poison gas, but about changing the balance of power in the Middle East. If that’s what the US government and the American people want to do, then let’s do it — but let’s not use our own high regard for our exceptional goodness to conceal from ourselves the full reality of what our actions would entail. A clean conscience is not a moral disinfectant.