Russian President Vladimir Putin set off a firestorm last week with his op-ed in The New York Times. Not surprising was the plea of the Russian leader, a longtime ally of the Assad regime, for nonintervention by the United States in Syria. Somewhat surprising was the apparent belief that his statement telling Americans they shouldn't view themselves as “exceptional” would be received by the American public with anything other than disdain. What was most surprising, however, is the fundamental misunderstanding Putin's statement betrays of his perception of America, and how America views itself.
As most of us believe in this country, America is in fact exceptional for many reasons. An economic powerhouse created from a virgin continent by a melting pot of individuals through hard work, innovation and thrift, America as a place and an idea is unique in world history.
Having shrugged off the tethers of feudal and monarchical Europe, early Americans embraced their own self-worth as individuals and established the world's first meritocracy. In America, then as now, one is truly limited only by the scope of their own vision. Such was not the case in Old World Europe. Freedom of thought and expression, freedom of assembly and religion, freedom to pursue happiness — all of these concepts are exceptional in world history and born in practice in America. In fact, it was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first described the United States as “exceptional” in 1831.
So other than offending his audience, why is the Russian leader's statement troubling? Because it demonstrates a lack of understanding that America is not only a country with a set of national interests, but also that it holds dear certain “exceptional” ideals that it views should be valued because they augment human dignity. Evils, such as the use of chemical weapons, though used in a faraway and foreign land, are inconsistent with these ideals.
It was the “Greatest Generation,” holding firmly to “exceptional” ideals, that triumphed over Nazism. Putin referenced that Russia, too, was allied with the United States against Nazism (and Russia suffered tremendously, losing 20 million people to Nazism's evils). Russia's alliance with the Allied powers, however, came only after Stalin's initial alliance with Hitler, an arrangement that cleared the way for the Nazis to commit untold atrocities in Poland and quickly dispatch much of the continent in a one-front war. Russia's fight in World War II was one for self-preservation, but not for shared ideals.
America is a special place. Important to understanding her is an understanding of her selfless ideals. And while, as Putin correctly notes, all human beings are created equal by God, those ideals are and always will be “exceptional.”
Leonard, a former prosecutor, is an attorney in Oklahoma City.