Most readers probably have an intuitive sense why the Russians hacked the DNC email, to favor the Republican candidate. Donald Trump has advocated cooperation with the Russians on security, and a general pullback from commitments that don’t pay for themselves. But a formal explanation of Russian thought might help. It would, of course, be a fiction. Leaders go with their guts. But formality works in tandem with intuition to help us remember how we feel. It’s a kind of mental shorthand, helping us pick up where we left off.
Hidden behind the NY Times paywall is Vladimir Putin’s op-ed of September 13, 2013. The Washington Post has an annotated version. If you get too worked up about it, read Peggy Noonan’s antidote in the Wall Street Journal. Let’s not get otherwise distracted by judgment of the ingenuous, disingenuous, or cynical nature of the piece. It was obviously an attempt to keep the U.S. out of Syria, antedating Russia’s own involvement.
A statement towards the end received considerable scrutiny at the time:
“And I would rather disagree with a case he [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.”
American Exceptionalism is both a myth and a reality. The myth was first voiced by a tired and ill man, with an active case of smallpox, noted for a high and squeaky voice, without amplification, to an audience of perhaps 15,000. His brief address closed with these words:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Like science and technology, the myth as a concept is morally neutral. It is a powerful enabler of human beings for good, evil, and various combinations of the two. Myths can be used to promote racial equality, discrimination, war, peace, slavery, and liberty. American exceptionalism has empowered Americans to exceptional efforts. The results spanned magnificent, horrible, and ambiguous.
Abolishing the myth replaces moral calculus with pay-as-you-go defense of liberty. But although foreign policy has always had a complex morality, American Exceptionalism offers a higher purpose. Perhaps our purpose is not always realistic. Perhaps some want to live free or die, while others just want to live. But regardless of the truth of the myth, the Declaration of Independence is the most parroted document in history. Even in the lie of insincere appropriation, it is the most subversive document ever written. The myth of American Exceptionalism is, for Americans, something to live up to. For many, it is something to aspire to. The Statue of Liberty is merely a material representation of the myth, the true beacon of hope.
Vladimir Putin’s objection to it has a certain symmetry to our objection to the former menace of communism. To the true believer of American Exceptionalism, a government that is not truly democratic is not completely legitimate. To such governments, the message of the myth is subversive.
We compromise by working with these governments, and ignoring their deficiency of democracy. But the various forms of persuasion for positive change, which encompass all forms of open media, and aid with attached messages, are regarded with the suspicion we have of large and powerful religious cults. Russia under Vladimir Putin could at best be described as a vestigial democracy. It is sensitive to public opinion, and still permits polling of it, while manipulating opinion by state control of the media. Yet there really is no alternative to Putin. In his absence, the centrifugal forces of nationalism, ethnocentrism, political immaturity and organized crime, would eat the country from the inside out.
Since there is no challenge to Putin’s legitimacy, his affront at American Exceptionalism may have a personal element. As a doctrine, it is a challenge to quality and legitimacy of government, which, by our standards of democracy, has deteriorated, even while the quality of services has improved. Putin rescued a state in chaos, in danger of collapse. Perhaps impressed by the China miracle, he felt democracy to be an unaffordable luxury. If he continues his search for the model of future Russia, he should give it a another look. The “conservative Russia” he espouses will fossilize, fracture, or crumble. But it cannot empower future generations.
The myth empowers what some call “America the World Policeman”, and which Putin calls “American hegemony.” We don’t like the cost, but the cost is separate from the badge. The myth awards the badge. If the myth is abolished, the badge goes with it. The Russian hack is a favor to the Republican candidate who would abolish it.
The exceptional always bear a burden. But American Exceptionalism empowers the bearer. It, not prosperity, made America great. Shedding the myth will not make America great again. On the contrary, it would make America ordinary.
We’ve done great things with it, and things of which we are ashamed. With all the good, the myth has empowered harm that cannot be discounted. Even in belief, moral calculus is not simple. It is expensive, perhaps unreasonably so. But it might be as vital to our own existence as the air we breath.
Don’t gamble with it.