Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed explaining the Russian position on Syria has been one of the odder, and most talked-about, aspects of the past week's events surrounding that crisis. Putin's parting shot at President Barack Obama over the notion of American exceptionalism is particularly rich in unintentional ironies -- both because of Obama's complicated relationship with American exceptionalism and because of Putin's history with the Russian variety.
In the past, Obama has been lambasted by conservatives for abandoning American exceptionalism. In 2009, on his first presidential trip abroad, Obama drew ire from the right when he seemed to downplay America's uniqueness by saying, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Yet Obama's defenders noted that he immediately went on to assert that we have core values that, "though imperfect, are exceptional," as well as a unique leadership role in the world.
In his address on Syria last Tuesday, Obama seemed to equate America's exceptional status with a duty to protect the innocent abroad when we can do so "with modest effort and risk." One may see this as an unusually government-oriented concept of American exceptionalism, traditionally rooted in the principle that people take precedence over the state: Individuals have inalienable rights, while the government derives its powers from their consent. Yet, however debatable, it is also a concept unquestionably rooted in human rights.
At the end of his op-ed, Putin chides, "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 . . . We must not forget that God created us equal."
There's a series of old Russian jokes offering examples of naglost -- a term similar to chutzpah -- and super naglost. Putin's lecture belongs with the latter. No culture in the world today is as saturated with the idea of its country's unique greatness as Russia's. Moreover, exploiting this messianic nationalism has been the key to Putin's entire political career.
After the collapse of Communism in 1991, Russia saw a revival of the 19th century conflict between "Westernizers" and proponents of a special path for Russia. Putin's neo-authoritarianism, despite some Western-style trappings, was a victory for nationalism. It is no accident that the Putin-era Russian anthem hails Russia as "one in the world, one of a kind -- our land kept safe by God." Russia's uniqueness in contrast to the corrupt and individualist West is routinely preached by the pro-government media and the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin's staunchest ally.
In January 2012, shortly before his return to the presidency, Putin penned an article for a leading Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, asserting that "the great mission of Russians is to unite and fortify civilization." He was ostensibly referring to the role of ethnic Russians within a multiethnic country; yet, combined with his well-known nostalgia for the Soviet empire, the statement suggests a far grander vision of Russian primacy.
In describing this mission, Putin cited 19th century novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's assertion that the Russian people have "universal empathy" -- forgetting to mention that Dostoyevsky used this claim as a basis for virulent, imperialistic nationalism. Proclaiming the superiority of Russians as a "God-bearing people, he wrote, "A truly great nation can never accept a secondary place in the history of humanity, or even one of the first; it must have first place."
American exceptionalism, however flawed, is based on the idea of liberty. Russian exceptionalism is based on the superiority of paternalistic government and communal bonds over individual rights. And that is, indeed, a dangerous ideology to encourage.
Columnist Cathy Young is the author of "Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood."