It’s good that Russian President Vladimir Putin and American President Barack Obama have found something they can agree on. Unfortunately, they’re both wrong.
Neither Putin nor Obama thinks the United States is exceptional. To them, all humans are simply citizens of the world. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama announced in 2009. We’re all exceptional, apparently, so none of us are.
Putin goes him one better. In a New York Times op-ed emphasizing the importance of the United Nations, the Russian president insisted it’s dangerous to consider Americans exceptional. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy,” he writes. “Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
While we’re discussing God, let’s note that one reason we’re exceptional is that the Founders took pains to protect people of all faiths in the First Amendment. While Russia has moved from “divine right” rule under the czars to denying the existence of God under the communists and back to allowing some religious freedom under its current government (although it still is ranked “poor” by the International Coalition for Religious Freedom), the U.S. has never wavered in its support for religious liberty.
In the bigger picture, by saying we’re “exceptional,” Americans aren’t claiming to be better than other people. Our country, however, is dedicated to the universal principles of human liberty and grounded on the truths that all men—not just Americans, but everyone, everywhere—are created equal and endowed with equal rights. So we are clearly different from other nations that don’t define themselves on the basis of equality.
The American Constitution is itself exceptional. It’s almost 226 years old in an era when the average national constitution is changed every generation or so. The Russian constitution, for example, dates to 1993.
Our Constitution “gives the American government the powers it needs to secure our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as Heritage’s Matthew Spalding writes. “The ultimate purpose of securing these rights and of limiting government is to protect human freedom. That freedom allows the institutions of civil society—family, school, church, and private associations—to thrive, forming the habits and virtues required for liberty.”
This isn’t to suggest that the United States must intervene, always and everywhere, to install legitimate governments. We should act prudently in our own best interests, knowing that our way of life is exceptional—and exceptionally popular. We should help liberty thrive everywhere it can, and encourage people to work to expand freedom and opportunity.
Putin’s an autocrat who’s manipulated the political process to hold on to power for more than a decade. The U.S. has much to teach him about exceptionalism, whenever he’s ready to learn.