American exceptionalism has been in the news the last couple of days. The first instance was an op-ed piece by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In discussing the Syria matter, Mr. Putin wrote the following:
“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he 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…We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
A link to his op-ed is here.
This statement regarding American exceptionalism was in response to what President Obama’s speech on September 10, 2013. In concluding his argument for a military strike, the President said the following:
“…Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
A transcript of President Obama’s speech is found here.
With these quotes in mind, I want to focus on what exactly is American exceptionalism. Both President Putin and President Obama both have a fundamental misunderstanding of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is not found in our military might, or in our economy, or even in our freedoms, but in the values that made this nation great.
The foundation of American exceptionalism is built on values that are not uniquely American, but adopted by Americans. Those values include judging others on the basis of their character, having integrity, keeping your word by letting your “Yes mean yes and your no mean no.” It recognizes that failure does not define you as a person. It also means that you are not bound by class or ethnicity, or religion. No man is either your inferior or your superior. It also means helping your neighbor in a manner that you would want to be helped.
These and other timeless values allowed this nation to flourish. It gave settlers and entrepreneurs the courage to risk. Some were successful and others failed. It allowed immigrants from other parts of the world to come and settle in our nation- E Pluribus Unum. These simple and timeless values are the basis of our freedom.
These timeless values that we have adopted as a nation have allowed us to be great. Neglect these values and we see the disarray in relationships, business, and government. To define our exceptionalism outside these values misses the point, which the world and our elected officials have done.