If a stranger walked up to me in the street, with no knowledge of what I have done in my life, stopped me, and said I was exceptional, I know what my reaction would be. I would hurriedly walk away, assuming I was about to be robbed, or cheated. My guess is that most of the human race would react the same way. And yet, there are 314 million people in this world, who would thank the stranger for pointing out the obvious. They would suffer no embarrassment or false modesty, irrespective of whether they became an exception by virtue of birth, or naturalization. These exceptional people are Americans. And whilst Americans already knew I was writing about them, it is important to observe that most other people on this planet would not have made that assumption. On a global scale, most of the human race are blissfully unaware of America’s preoccupation with its own exceptionalism, or exceptionalness, or exceptionality, or however they contrive to express the feeling that the United States of America is special.
Whatever they may think of the USA, most reasonable people would agree that Vladimir Putin is a bad man. His political goals are narrow and miserable: to stay in power, and to make Russia more powerful. There are many downsides to this agenda. But however bad Putin is, he accurately hit a raw nerve with many Americans, for daring to suggest that Americans are not exceptional. As evident from the voluminous responses in American culture, Putin’s comments caused inordinate upset. Politicians, ex-politicians, journalists, talk show hosts… seemingly half of America has risen up to explain why America really is exceptional. And when they do so, many of them snidely point at the other half, implying they do not protest enough. Like a red flag in front of a bull, the Russian leader taunted his long-time enemy, and succeeded in causing a stampede.
This begs a question. If Americans really do feel exceptional, why are they so easily taunted? Why would an exceptional people be so wounded when a manipulative foreign politician dares to say that Americans are the equal of all other human beings? Why do they feel the urge to react so vehemently, and to defend themselves? Human nature, universal as it is, has the answer. Some Americans might not like that answer, which would also be consistent with human nature. Nobody feels defensive when accused of something that is plainly, absurdly, false. If a random stranger screamed about my third leg, I would conclude that he must be deranged. I would not look down to check if he was right, and I would not engage him in a pseudo-rational argument about my two-leggedness. American defensiveness about their exceptional status in human history is not motivated by their unlimited self-assurance about that status. On the contrary, their defensive reaction is prompted exactly because it is a story they have invented for themselves, with scant evidence to support it.
For an example of how America writes its own story, take Peggy Noonan’s defence of American exceptionalism, as published in the Wall Street Journal. To begin with, she uses the old politician’s trick: if you cannot debate your opponent’s argument, just attack the man instead…
Mr. Putin’s challenge to the idea to American exceptionalism was ignorant and tone-deaf. The president had thrown in a reference to it at the end of his speech. Mr. Putin, in his essay, responded: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” After all, he said, God made us all equal.
My goodness, that argument won’t get you very far in America, and it’s a little worrying that Mr. Putin either wouldn’t know this or wouldn’t care.
On the contrary, I thought Putin’s challenge was far from ignorant or tone-deaf. And it is plain that he does not care about American opinion. So it is odd that Noonan might worry that Putin might not know how Americans will respond. Why would an exceptional people worry about such a thing? Of course, they have nothing to worry about. To an independent eye, it looks as if Putin knows exactly what reaction he would prompt.
I find Noonan ridiculous for suggesting that Putin might have written his comment in ignorance of how Americans would react. Putin is an arch-manipulator of media. And thanks to the flaws in Russian democracy, he has much more experience of manipulating media than any American President will ever amass. Lesser men, when attaining power, might enjoy the good food and privileges that come with high office. Putin is so zealous in controlling his media image that he must stay trim, so he can repeatedly rip off his shirt, in order to reinforce his virile media image. In many respects, Putin is as adept at manipulating media as any celebrity in Hollywood. That Noonan suggests Putin might not understand his media impact, tells us much about both of them. One has an iron control over his image, and he projects his message as he chooses, using brutality when he calculates it will best serve his interests. The other is a delusional wordsmith, expending words to sustain a self-image that is under attack, in order to shelter the fragile sensibilities of her readers.
It seems very odd that any American writer would assume Putin has reason to care what the American public thinks. American voters do not choose who is President of Russia. According to some, even Russian voters have minimal influence over their choice of leader. An intelligent, and impartial reader of Putin’s op-ed would recognize that Putin is sending a message to Russians, and to other nations. He is saying that the USA can be successfully challenged, and undermined. That message came across crystal clear, to everyone outside of the USA. It is an irony, though Putin’s knowing irony, that he broadcast that message via an American newspaper.
The only people who struggle to interpret Putin’s message are the Americans it was nominally addressed to. This is also part of the message that Putin is sending to everyone else. ‘Look at the Americans,’ he is saying, ‘we all know they will get red in the face and start chattering about how exceptional they are, compared to the rest of us.’ He might go on to say: ‘they chatter chatter, but otherwise, they are impotent – so none of us need listen to them.’ This is the message that Putin is sending to everybody. If Americans are not picking it up, it is because they find it painful to listen to. After decades of failed military intervention, and the steady loss of influence and control over previous allies, what can American exceptionalism deliver, in the world we find today? Great differences in technology can sustain exceptional power and influence. Many people find it hard to believe that Britain once went to war with China, and won. The story of that war is that a nation with iron-clad ships carrying big cannons will defeat a much larger nation without them. For a time, the USA had that kind of advantage over potential opponents, particularly with respect to air superiority. Whilst the USA is still the leading military power, the world has moved on, and military superiority confers less advantage than it used to. The war in Vietnam should have alerted the USA to that trend. Churchill said that jaw-jaw was better than war-war. But at this stage of world history, what does America’s ‘exceptional’ power consist of, apart from more and more of the jaw and jaw? Recently, Americans have talked a lot about Syria, but all that talk has not granted Americans the power necessary to intervene, or save lives, or enforce peace.
The phrase ‘jaw-jaw’ was Churchill’s apt way of describing a process that is more haughtily referred to as diplomacy. After nearly a century of being the world’s greatest military power, America should have expertise in the field of diplomacy. So why, after all this time, are Americans surprised by how Russians do diplomacy? To put it succinctly, Russians do diplomacy by being as undiplomatic as possible. They open every dialogue with insults, and only give compliments when the negotiations reach a conclusion. I will not comment if this is a good approach, but it is definitely the Russian approach. They do this to everyone – which is why former Soviet Republics like the Baltic nations have been so keen to join NATO and the EU. Yet Americans continue to be perplexed that when the Russian leader engages in jaw-jaw, he starts by slapping them in the face.
Part of the problem is that American media and culture is normally stone deaf, when faced with foreign criticism. An easy and recurring criticism of American culture and politics is that it is very insular. Americans live in a big country, geographically removed from most others. As such, it is inevitable that Americans will be more insular than other nationalities. The pioneer, outward-looking spirit of an immigrant that moved to the USA in the 1800’s is not going to persist through their family line for eight generations or move. The consequence for American culture mostly blank outs any foreign hostility to the USA. What little gets through is grossly simplified – America’s opponents are evil, and probably deserve to be killed. Hence when Saudis crash a plane into the World Trade Centre, Iraq gets invaded, and that will somehow neutralize the threat of Al Qaeda. Looking back, it seems utterly perplexing that Americans believed this fairy tale, but they did.
The little foreign criticism that reaches the ordinary American is routinely dismissed, treated with hostility and contempt. Even America’s allies know that American media is like this. John Kerry recently reminded Americans that France is their oldest ally. Even the stupidest historian knows that Ben Franklin paraded his racoon-skin cap around Paris because the Americans needed France’s support in their war for independence. Yet, it was not that long ago that America’s brightest and best – politicians, journalists and opinion-makers, were ranting about the names of potato, and demanding they be changed to terminate any francophile association. This is the nature of public affairs in the USA. When America reacts this badly to a disagreement with France, it is inevitable that they will invite the occasional slap in the face from implacable foes like Russia.
To suggest that Putin is unaware of America’s oversensitive culture is laughable. He obviously knows what the American reaction would be. More importantly, he correctly evaluates the likely reaction of many people outside of America – people that America would dearly like to ‘lead’. But then, Putin has own ideas about who should be leading whom.
America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it attempts to be a force for good because it is exceptional.
This is a nice turn of phrase by Noonan, though it is a little too convenient in its contrivance. Even as somebody sympathetic to the idea that America does more good than harm, I find that the problem with being ‘a force for good’ is that somebody has to decide what ‘good’ looks like. And not every citizen of the world thinks like a voter in Ohio, or Florida, or Nevada. It would be a remarkable coincidence if the average voter in Arkansas really did see the world in the same way as the average victim of civil war in Somalia.
And Americans do not just disagree with other nationalities about what is good for the world. They also disagree amongst themselves. Is Obamacare a good thing? What about the right to own firearms? In such circumstances, it is perfectly natural for the people of the world to question if American policy is always right, and whether the USA is such a surefire force for good as Americans would like to believe. Indeed, the whole point of America’s democracy is that each individual is the best governor of himself, and that authority is pooled only reluctantly, and with many checks and balances. But foreign nationals do not have a vote in American elections, and do not exert much influence on American policy. As such, there is a contradiction at the heart of the theory of American exceptionalism. People need to govern themselves, or the best outcomes will not be attained. America, however hard it tries, could never reliably deliver what is good for other nations, any more than I should be allowed to decide what is good for my neighbour.
It is a nation formed not by brute, grunting tribes come together over the fire to consolidate their power and expand their land base, but by people who came from many places.
It was at this point in reading Noonan’s article that I remembered how Americans can be oddly unaware of what they sound like, to foreign ears. One time I saw an American tourist screaming in the face of a Thai guard at the royal palace in Bangkok. I mention this not because I think he was typical of all Americans, but his behaviour tells us something about the differences between cultures, and the nature of power. The tourist was upset about how he had been treated, though it was impossible to determine what the exact problem was. He seemed physically well (for example, his lungs were very fit) and none of his companions were in distress. The Thai behaved in typical Thai fashion. Embarrassed by the situation, the guard smiled, and did not speak back. His silence further enraged the American, who shouted even more loudly. And yet, there was no problem with hearing what the American was saying. Anyone in a radius of two miles would be able to hear, and the guard was only three inches from his face. What really struck me about the situation was that the American expected his ability to talk (in English) would confer him some power over the guard, in the same way that being rude to a waiter might lead to an immediate response in an American diner. I watched placidly, as all others did, wondering how long the abuse would continue. And all the while, the guard’s rifle hung loosely from his shoulder.
Does Noonan have the capacity to play back her own words, with the meaning unchanged, but with the perspective shifted, so she hears what a foreign audience would hear? To anyone who is not an American, Noonan wrote the following: every other nation was formed by brute grunting tribes who came together over fire to consolidate their power and expand their land base. If Noonan thinks Putin is tone deaf, she should calibrate her criticism by listening to herself.
It is a matter of historical fact that many of America’s settlers moved there to acquire land, power, and wealth. Some wanted other things. Some keenly felt the calling of God. But common ordinary human desires motivated many others. People did not choose to settle and farm in Virginia, the most powerful and wealthy state in America’s early years, because they were uniformly disinterested in land. I do not say this because I disparage human desires. It is perfectly natural for human beings to want things like land, power, and wealth. What is odd is that some Americans believe their ancestors were immune to these desires. America’s current wealth and power is not predicated on Americans having an exceptional lack of interest in accumulating wealth and power. On the contrary, the effective pursuit of wealth and power is why America is so rich and powerful. American settlers grabbed a lot of valuable land from the native American inhabitants of their continent. And over time, the true mineral wealth of that land was discovered and exploited. These are the reasons why America is powerful. Take plentiful resources like land and oil, find a system where people are motivated to create value for each other, and you end up with a powerful nation. Any other explanation of America’s wealth and power would be utterly perverse. Some might suggest any counter-argument must be unamerican. So I believe it is Noonan who is both tone-deaf, and disingenuous, when suggesting that America was built by people who did not seek to accumulate land or power.
There is a deep vein in American culture which insists that they are the plucky underdog, vanquishing more powerful foes. Hence, their war of independence in 1775-1783 is still vital to their identity. But as early as 1812, the USA was instigating war and invading foreign territory. Americans well remember that the White House was raided and burned, but they forget this was a copycat reprisal for a similar attack by their own troops. The modern American historian must go through a series of mental cartwheels to explain why, when American troops attempted, but failed to invade Canada, the Americans did not really mean to grab chunks of land, just like all those grunting tribes that inhabit every other nation. I have no understanding of why it is so important to the American psyche that literally every American military adventure must be interpreted as a battle where Americans were solely motivated by what was ‘good’, in the abstract, even when the evidence suggests American motives can be as petty, political, selfish and prejudiced as those of every other nation that has ever engaged in conflict, by which I mean all of them.
If Americans always fight on the side of good, they may want to reflect on the American Civil War of 1861-1865. By the logic that Americans always act as a force for good, then some of the Americans who fought the civil war must have been fighting against good. And so, we discover it is possible that bad motives might prompt an American to fight, and even to lose their lives whilst fighting. Why is it impossible to extrapolate from this basic observation, to a position that accepts that not every American goal must be truly virtuous?
Whilst America sees itself as a paradoxical underdog, never attacking, always defending itself, that leads to all sorts of confused explanations of American and world history. Take World War 2 as an example. Americans may be aware that Hitler was doing some bad things before he declared war on the USA. And note that Germany declared war on the USA, and not vice versa. Before that moment, some interpret the actions of the US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as being designed to provoke the Japanese. They argue that FDR used sanctions to prompt the Japanese into striking first, opening the doors for America’s entry into WW2, to fight against the Germans. The thinking is that FDR could only engage in war with Germany if Germany’s ally struck at the USA first. Maybe this is true. Maybe it is false. But why do American historians bother with this theory, if American exceptionalism is a sufficient explanation for America’s actions? As a force for good, the US should have fought against the Nazis, even if Pearl Harbor had never happened. Why did the USA not declare war against Germany sooner, with the moral justification that the Nazis were a manifest danger to world peace? Conversely, why did the US expend resources on fighting Nazi Germany, from the first moment they entered the war, when Germany had not attacked the USA? The myth of American exceptionalism is a grand artistic blur, best observed from a distance. It ignores all the pragmatic and human necessities of why, and when, real people enter into conflict with each other. By so doing, it renders it impossible to come up with a satisfying, and detailed explanation of how and why American foreign policy, and its military intervention, has and does take shape.
To make a new nation also involves the making of new myths. This is natural, and part of human nature. It is required for the bonding of many new tribes in their new homeland of the North American continent. And I think that Noonan knows it, when she continues:
[Americans] coalesced around not blood lines but ideals, and they defined, delineated and won their political rights in accordance with ground-breaking Western and Enlightenment thought. That was something new in history, and quite exceptional.
Unalienable universal rights are often considered a ground-breaking, exceptional idea. Especially by Americans. But at the time that Americans wrote about the unalienable rights of men, some of the men who signed up to the concept were also the owners of slaves. Slaves do not have the unalienable rights of other human beings; they are property, to be bought and sold as their owner pleases. Americans used slaves to make money from the land. This element of American history does not suggest exceptionalism, as much as it suggests the wearing of wistful gloves over the fists of pragmatism. Though eagerly forgotten by some students of American history, there was a genuine debate about whether unalienable rights were given by god to all men, or whether they were only given to freemen, thus excluding the slaves and sparing the new nation the obvious inconsistency between their moral preaching and actual behaviour.
Whilst Americans were talking about slavery, or pretending it did not exist, the practice of slavery was already coming to an effective end in many other nations. This does not suggest that America was exceptional in its actual practice of human rights. On the contrary, the Americans who copied the ideas of others were copying the ideas of others. They did not break new ground, although they did occupy new territory. Intellectually, they were following in the footsteps of earlier thinkers from other nations. And the pace of their progress was not as rapid as Americans sometimes claim. That much is evident from the date of the legal abolition of slavery in the USA: 1865. In the decades before the USA passed the thirteenth amendment – and note how the constitution had to be changed, to turn ‘unalienable’ human rights from self-deception into legal fact – slavery had already been abolished in such diverse countries as Argentina, Cuba, Sweden, Venezuela, Serbia, Mexico, Greece, Estonia… actually, the list is boringly long. Many countries did not abolish slavery because their legal codes had never allowed for the possibility of one person owning another. For example, Russia emancipated its serfs before America emancipated its slaves, even though serfs already had more rights than slaves, because serfs were not legal property who could be bought and sold. And when it comes to securing the rights of all men, America is almost exceptional in world history because it needed to engage in bloody civil war in order to end the practice of slavery. The only other country which went to war to end slavery was Haiti, and that was a war of slaves against their masters, which the slaves won in 1804.
Americans can choose to ignore historical facts if they like, but facts cannot be changed by being listed here, or by being omitted elsewhere. So whilst Americans jaw-jawed about humanist ideals, many other nations had already turned ideals into a living reality. Amongst them was Britain, which in 1834 abolished slavery across the British Empire. Americans are proud of their revolutionary war, and how they won their freedom. They see it as key to their exceptionalism. However, if they had lost that war, American slaves would have been freed 31 years sooner.
Whilst the theory of American exceptionalism is embedded in historical argument, it relies upon the piecemeal recital of only the supporting evidence, at the expense of all evidence to the contrary. And this is why Noonan unashamedly continues:
We fought a war to win our freedom, won it against the early odds, understood we owed much to God, and moved forward as a people attempting to be worthy of what he’d given us.
It is fair to ask, if the Americans were so keen on the concept of freedom, so passionate about moving forward and being worthy of their god, why they were so very slow to end slavery, compared to the rest of the world.
Noonan later points out how President Obama seems loathe to mention American exceptionalism. Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for this particular shibboleth of American culture is often brought up by his detractors. Regorging familiar arguments, Noonan remembers how Obama once compared American exceptionalism to Greek exceptionalism. And this is how she views the comparison:
Asked about American exceptionalism once, [Obama] said sure he believes in it, just as the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. Thank you for that rousing historical endorsement.
It is easy to make an argument for American exceptionalism, if it relies on ignorance of the accomplishments of every other people. Noonan’s mockery relies on the unspoken belief that the Greek claim to be exceptional is obviously inferior to the American claim. But is there no American willing to entertain an argument for the merits of any nation other than their own? And if they did make such an argument, even if it started as a joke, might they not come to question the extent to which America really is exceptional, in the history of this world? I have no reason to argue for Greek exceptionalism, any more than I have reason to argue for American exceptionalism. And yet it strikes me that any student of history should be able to make some extraordinarily good arguments for Greek exceptionalism. The Greeks devised democracy. And pioneered architecture. And jurisprudence. Philosophy. Literature. Mathematics. The Olympic Games. The first university. Greeks were debating the correct forms for tragic and comic theatre when Americans were… well, where were they? At that time, Americans were so unexceptional that there were no Americans. America’s ancestors were spread all over, undifferentiated from the brutish land-grabbing tribal natives of lots of other nations. And if we are not allowed to rewind the clock, and discuss Greek exceptionalism as it existed 2,500 years ago, then why are we permitted to wind back the clock by 230 years, and submit the events of that time as proof of America’s present-day exceptionalism?
I don’t know why the idea of American exceptionalism seems to grate so on Mr. Putin. Perhaps he simply misunderstands what is meant by it and takes it to be a reference to American superiority, which it is not.
Of course Noonan has no idea why American exceptionalism would grate on Russia’s President. We can safely assume that this American journalist, like so many others, lives in an insular world, and writes for an insular audience. It may come as a shock to some Americans, but the excess supply of immigrants into their country is not proof that the majority of the world’s population has a unique admiration for America. Even the students in America’s lowliest schools should be able to validate my maths; Ancient Greek students of maths and logic would have known how to.
Rightly or wrongly, America is despised by very many people across the face of this planet. This is so well known that it is hard to understand why Americans struggle to apprehend the fact. Opinion polls are taken, and the result is that America has many enemies, even amongst ‘friendly’ countries. Large numbers view America as a bully, and whilst they might not pick fights with bullies, their silent brooding ferments even greater resent. Versions of that antipathy can be found anywhere, whether amongst French socialists, Chinese nationalists, or Arab jihadists. Of course the USA has allies too. But whenever the USA has an ally, it is likely that ally must also have an opponent. Thus even America’s allies are part of a process that encourages enmity to the USA. Whenever the USA picks a side, they will offend someone. So Russia’s President is far from alone in feeling the way he does. The real surprise is that any intelligent American would find this surprising. Even if America was exceptional, exceptionalism is unlikely to equate to popularity.
Does Putin misunderstand American exceptionalism? Noonan insists it is unrelated to American superiority. This is disingenuous. Shorn of superior wealth and power, American present-day exceptionalism would look a lot like Greek present-day exceptionalism, or the present-day exceptionalism of any other country that has neither the military nor economic assets to exert influence across the world. Anyone can claim good intentions if they lack the resources to do anything about them. But in a world where only one nation has those resources, it does not follow that their intentions must also be unique.
American exceptionalism is necessarily bound up in American superiority. This much is recognized by the average American, as Noonan tacitly admits, commenting: “some of the stupider Americans have crowed about American exceptionalism a bit too much — and those crowing loudest understood it least.” Here Noonan finally joins an international consensus, to the chagrin of some of her fellow Americans. But whilst the stupider Americans crow too much, that begs a question that only the wisest Americans would know not to answer. If truly exceptional, what advantage is gained by saying so?