On September 10, Barack Obama concluded his address to the nation on Syria by claiming America is "exceptional". In an article, published by the New York Times the next day, Vladimir Putin wrote: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional" for "we must not forget that God created us equal". In his speech to the United Nations' General Assembly on September 24, the American president repeated his belief that " America is exceptional" . This exchange between the two presidents raises a question: is America exceptional?
What makes a country exceptional? We are "exceptional', Barack Obama told the U.N. assembly, " because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all". "Exceptional" thus means a country behaving unselfishly, for the good of the world community as it were. In his seminal work, Alexis de Tocqueville looks at it from a different angle: " The position of the Americans is" quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits", a thousand special causes" have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects." According to Tocqueville's definition, exceptionalism is a purely American phenomenon due to Americans' self-absorption in practical matters. From a foreign policy standpoint, it is tantamount to isolationism. It reminds one of Thomas Jefferson's inaugural address: "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none". Has either one of these definitions been ever proven true?
In his U.N. speech, the president obviously refers to the United States' participation in World War I and World War II to justify the United States' exceptionalism. Truth be told, the American engagement in both wars was self-motivated. A hegemonic Germany in Europe is a direct threat to the United States' security. (1) From the war of 1812 down to George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" the United States has been everything but an isolationist nation. The United States fit neither Obama's nor Tocqueville's definition of exceptionalism.
Robert Kagan, founder of "The Project for the New American Century" with William Kristol, would agree with this conclusion. In an article, (2) he states unequivocally that an international order is not the result of an evolution, as stated by Francis Fukuyama in "The end of history", but the effect of an "imposition" the domination of one vision over others", the domination of the United States, of course. To prove his point, he asked rhetorically in another article (3) what would happen if "the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend" sea trade routes and waterways. He's got a point. Were the United States to disappear, world trade would most likely collapse. Yet, this does not give the American president carte blanche to do as he wishes. As noted by Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil at the opening of the 68 th session of the United Nations on the same day Barack Obama spoke: "A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation". Rules exist and must be abided by. Bombing Syria without the Security Council's approval goes against those rules. Vladimir Putin is right to remind Barack Obama that nobody is above the law for indeed in the eyes of God we are all equal.
(1) "Europe, The struggle for supremacy", Brendan Simms, Allen Lane, 2013.
(2) "Why the world needs America", Robert Kagan, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2012.
(3) "Not fade away: against the myth of American decline", Robert Kagan, The New Republic, January 17, 2012.