by Ed Alvarado
On September 11, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin published a letter to the American people, challenging U.S. President Barack Obama’s views on American exceptionalism. Obama claimed that American policy makes America “different and exceptional.” But on this 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that reshaped American foreign policy and American identity, Putin argued, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” To understand the flaw, and perhaps the intention, behind Putin’s argument, one must first understand two things: Americans’ patriotic belief that their country is exceptional does not necessarily influence their country’s foreign policy; and some politicians tend to blur the line between patriotism and nationalism in order to pursue their own personal agendas.
American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries, because the U.S. was founded on ideals such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, this often-misunderstood term refers to both America being ‘exceptional’ or ‘outstanding’ because of its values, and to America acting as ‘an exception’ when it breaks an international law or norm that others are expected to follow. To understand how these interpretations coexist, Dr. Johannes Thimm, from Germany’s Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), analyzed the history of American exceptionalism as well as the connection between American popular beliefs and American foreign policy.
Thimm’s examples of unilateral behavior include the United States claiming it does not condone preventive wars, but giving itself permission to invade Iraq in 2002 based on preventive measures after 9/11. Although this example shows a connection between exceptionalism and unilateral behavior, his research suggests a dissonance between American popular beliefs and government behavior. He references surveys from 2002 where 70 percent of Americans rejected the statement “the U.S. should play the role of world policeman,” while 77 percent were in favor of strengthening the United Nations (UN). Furthermore, he reveals that American people were not concerned with a loss of sovereignty that would result from strengthening the UN or International Criminal Court (ICC), which tends to be an argument used by politicians. Most interesting was a 1995 survey where participants were asked, “How much of the time do you think you can trust the United Nations to do the right thing?” and 47 percent of participants responded “just about always,” whereas only 27 percent gave the same answer about the U.S. government.
Whether someone interprets exceptionalism as ‘being outstanding’ or as ‘being an exception,’ the belief that one country is exceptional must be rooted in a particular admiration, pride or love for that country. Therefore, it is important to look at the role that patriotism and nationalism play within exceptionalism.
Although the terms patriotism and nationalism are sometimes used interchangeably, research shows that patriotism is compatible with tolerance for diversity and cooperation, whereas nationalism breeds less tolerance and more militarism. To explain the difference between patriotism and nationalism, and how these might lead to dangerous behavior, one can look at results from a 2004 study at Ohio State University titled “What Does It Mean to Be an American? Patriotism, Nationalism, and American Identity After 9/11.” The study reveals how politicians could frame a question in order to elicit a specific reaction from the public.
Presented with the statement, “The tragic events of September 11 have united Americans as never before in our generation. We have come to understand what we have in common as Americans. As a nation, our focus is on the core essence of what it means to be an American,” people responded differently than when presented with the statement, “The tragic events of September 11 have united Americans as never before in our generation. We now have a common purpose to fight terrorism in all of its forms and to work together to help those who were victims of this tragedy.” The first group displayed more nationalistic attitudes; they showed more intolerance towards other cultures and were more likely to define Americans as “being born in America.” The second group did not show these tendencies.
What’s the reason for this result? The first statement caused people to define American identity as something immutable that evoked “the core essence of being American,” while the second statement defined Americans as having a shared experience and a common interest. In other words, “American pride” after 9/11 could translate into either cooperation or isolation. Surprisingly, it all depends on how the issue is framed. “This can be exploited by leaders who see political advantage in mobilizing nationalistic sentiments in the name of patriotism,” the study concludes.
Although Thimm’s research also shows that the American population believes their country to be exceptional, this is not necessarily the source of self-centered foreign policy. “Opinion leaders may be more influential in shaping discourse than the views of the general public,” he writes. This suggests that U.S. foreign policy might stem from political framing rather than popular consensus.
So is it truly “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional?” Research shows that people can believe their country is “exceptional” without believing that it should be treated as “an exception.” This means that perhaps the biggest danger is how a government representative decides to frame public debate to pursue his or her own personal agendas.
Vladimir Putin’s letter ended by stating, “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy … We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” In this final statement, he paradoxically tries to refute American exceptionalism by using the same idea American Constitution uses: that all men are created equal. Therefore, it seems that Putin’s argument is merely an exceptional attempt to frame American values in a way that pushes his own political agenda.