American Exemplarism Over American Exceptionalism

Thursday morning, Russian president Vladimir V. Putin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, "A Plea for Caution From Russia." While the whole piece was interesting to read, I was taken by the following words:

... I would rather disagree with a case [president Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is "what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional." 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.

America is not chosen, America is not innately better than anyone or anywhere else. We're not immutably the "city on the hill." We're only as good as our last action, our latest decisions -- as our character.

I am very anti- the concept of American exceptionalism -- it suggest that we're some sort of Elect; and like any version of predeterminism, there's an assumption that no matter how many wrongs we commit it's all in service of right.

I reject the concept of American exceptionalism as patently arrogant, hubristic, and color-blind: if we're already exceptional, what do we have to work for? Where do we have to go from here? I won't mention our chronic racism, classism, poverty, ignorance, sexism, intolerance, and rampant incarceration, drug-abuse, crime, and violence because in these we are not alone.

If you ask me, while we might surely be one of the richest, most powerful and militarized nations ever, is that enough? We may well be the oldest constitutional democracy on planet earth, as president Obama reminds in speech after speech, but what does that mean, really: being a democracy doesn't innately reflect the character of the country.

Criminals can elect criminals, racists can elect racists, and lawmakers who are intolerant, corrupt, jaded, elitist, sexist, classist, or racist can surely push through or perpetuate intolerant, corrupt, jaded, elitist, sexist, classist, and racist laws. And, they have; and, we have.

Exemplarism would value both strength and international prestige equally, seeing them not as mutually exclusive but rather as mutually reinforcing. America's economic, political, and military strength, when deployed wisely, enhances our prestige around the world; that prestige, in turn, allows us to expand our influence and power by engendering the willing followership of other countries.

What makes American exemplarism different is that it demands that we care for more than just our credibility, pride, and saving face. It demands that we lead by example and not by decree.

It demands that we stop and breathe when we hit international gridlock instead of pressing forward, sword unsheathed, beet-faced with indignant rage from the knowledge that we're the Elect, we're Freedom and Liberty manifest, God's chosen (doesn't everyone feel that, all the way down to high school football teams?), and because it's right, right? "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?" Well, is it right? Need it be now? Right now? Alone?

Either way, no matter whether Secretary John Kerry's gaff was a beautiful mistake that'll put him in the dog house or well-choreographed political theatre, I am very happy that Russia risked their own personal credibility, strength, and prestige by rushing in after John Kerry answered in response to a question, "is there anything at this point that [Assad's] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?" with:

"Sure. [Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."

And, as the impossible threatened to happen, as Russia took the bait on behalf of Syria, and the targeted cruise missile strikes aimed to teach president Bashar al-Assad a lesson dissolved into thin air, we do have a semblance of peace, at least for the time-being.

Should super powers have glass jaws? Should just the threat of a bruised ego, lost credibility, or diminished prestige result in fisticuffs? Is America an enlightened democracy -- calm, noble, thoughtful, rational, informed, intellectual, considered, lawful, and kind -- or is America nothing more than a prison yard with an inmate code, a prison code?

I am an American and I believe that while America is surely hopeful, passionate, and terribly earnest, we're also a little thinner-skinned than we need to be. A great nation should not have a glass jaw. In all our infinite power, might, influence, and strength, we should aspire not to be the jealous God of the Old Testament but a forgiving, loving, God -- one who is willing to turn the other cheek, willing to hate the sin over the sinner, able to love well beyond the tribe and faith of his birth.

This is the sort of America I can support. One that is willing to collaborate, to seek consensus, to accept compromise -- all while knowing that this doesn't in any way diminish our true power, influence, credibility, or prestige but will, in fact, add to it in much the same way that the world came to our assist a dozen years ago after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and offered us love, goodwill, support, and condolences in its wake instead of taking, in concert, advantage of our pain, our loss, our vulnerability.

I already hear my friends calling me naïve and foolish. Why is that? Why am I so self-conscious, so self-censoring of my desire to embrace the world instead of shun it, to feel part of a global village instead of superior to it. The thing about being a City on a Hill is that it just very well may assume that there are unwashed masses -- peasants, inferiors -- living below our shining palace.

Can't there be other gleaming palaces? Can't there be other shining cities on other hills? Isn't there room enough in this globe for the two or more of us?

While I don't necessarily trust the authenticity of the religious fervor in Putin's words, let me again bring attention to the words themselves, "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."

Amen -- well worth remembering and saying twice.