Small Wars Journal

Putin is Afraid of American Exceptionalism

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 1:13am

Putin is Afraid of American Exceptionalism:

Still reeling from the Defeat of Global Communism in the War of Ideas

David S. Maxwell

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New York Times OpEd has stirred much emotion as he challenged the idea of American Exceptionalism.   While many are taken aback by such an affront to American values and ideals, it might be worth a brief look at some historical data points on the evolutionary trail of American Exceptionalism that culminated with the defeat of the Soviet Union in the ideological realm on the battlefield of human terrain.

As most know the roots of American Exceptionalism lie in three figures, Jonathon Winthrop, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville.  However, it was not until President Kennedy invoked the concept that it became the ideological tool for victory in the Cold War.

In 1630 Winthrop gave us the first words that laid the foundation for American Exceptionalism: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”[1]   De Tocqueville provided a quite different description of why America is exceptional: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one… Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.” [2]

Thomas Jefferson vacillated between the concept of America as an exemplar and as a crusader.   Clearly his words describing inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence support the notion of America being a city on hill as the exemplar for all to emulate.  According to Walter Russell Mead Jeffersonian Foreign Policy can be described as a form of “supple pacifism” and isolationism.[3]  Yet Jefferson also felt that for America to flourish, democracy and free market economies must spread throughout the world which of course influences the crusader form of American Exceptionalism.

Jefferson’s final views can be summed up from his letter on Foreign Affairs with this excerpt: “Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”[4]

Despite this final “benign influence” view and the roots of what Joseph Nye would later coin as “soft power,” Jefferson set America up for the continuing conflict between exemplars and crusaders.  In their seminal work, Empire of Liberty, Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson succinctly summarized Jefferson’s conflicting positions that endure today. They note that American foreign policy had two broad views:

             “…to advance liberty only by remaining separate from the world.  Only by avoiding enormous economic and constitutional threats produced by entangling alliances and foreign wars would America fulfill its mission as an example or asylum for oppressed peoples everywhere.”

 “…free political and economic institutions would flourish in America only if they took root elsewhere, an idea that has underlain much of the crusading impulse in this century.”[5] (referring to the 20th Century)

These two ideas really illustrate the exemplar and the crusader Exceptionalists.

After de Tocqueville little there was little focus on Exceptionalism until the 20th Century.  Putin is not the first to challenge American Exceptionalism.  Stalin himself used the term to criticize the American Communist Party for thinking that it did not fall in line with Marxist history because of its geographic location and access to resources, its industrial capacity along the lines of de Tocqueville’s description some 80 years earlier.[6]  Perhaps he foreshadowed what would become of the US-USSR conflict and realized that even American Communists could not divorce themselves from the unique American experience.

However, it was President Kennedy who re-invigorated and cemented the concept in American presidential lexicon that continues to this day when in 1961 in an address to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts he called America a “shining city on a hill.”[7]  Since that time every American President, regardless of political party, has used various forms of this metaphor and invoked American Exceptionalism. 

Why did Kennedy do this?  Although political scientists and historians can challenge me because I have no hard data to prove this, I will offer the following hypothesis.  Kennedy inherited the most effective grand strategy in American history, the policy of containment of Soviet Communism.  The diplomatic, economic, and in particular the military instruments of national power were strongly represented but what Kennedy needed was an information component that would not only unite and motivate Americans but would also serve as an example for the free world.  What better way to offset Communist ideology than to describe an American ideology that would be the shining example.

Although US and Soviet forces never directly met on the field of battle during the Cold War; on the battlefield of human terrain and in the war of ideas, American ideals dominated Communism.  Democracy and free market economies spread across the globe and American soft power was one of the major influences.  Putin’s KGB was unable to counter this and today he sees the opportunity to try to obtain some satisfaction and perhaps even a form of revenge for his failures by discrediting America in the New York Times.

Of course many people criticize American Exceptionalism.  It is the subject of fierce debate among Americans.  They can be divided into three camps.  We have talked about the first two.  The crusaders are aggressive proponents of exporting American principles and following the proverbial concept of “making the world safe for democracy” because they believe it will improve the chances for global stability and economic prosperity which are obviously in U.S. interests.  The exemplars are the soft power advocates.  They believe that the American example should be sufficient for others to adopt and that the ideals do not need to be aggressively pushed.  The third category is one not yet discussed.  These are the “apologists” for American Exceptionalism.  These are people who believe the concept of American Exceptionalism is arrogant and leads to poor strategic decision-making, entangling the US in overseas adventures, and leads to conflict and harm to America.  Although critics of American Exceptionalism will deny this they see more eye to eye with Putin than with any American President since Kennedy, whether it be President Reagan or President Obama.

However, it is true America has made mistakes in foreign policy.  There can be no denying that and there are too many failures to list here.  But there have been many successes, again most notably victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Again, political scientists will challenge this hypothesis but I would submit that our failures can be attributed to the exemplar and crusader camps becoming out of balance.

When the balance has shifted too far to the crusader side of the ledger and foreign policy is too aggressive America has made mistakes and perhaps intervened in the affairs of others when and where it should not.  When the exemplar side is too dominant and suppresses the crusader side, perhaps conflict has occurred in places where it may have been prevented.  But when the balance is correct, America is strong and is able to exercise international leadership that helps to maintain peace and stability.

There are two things to conclude.  First, Putin and apologists have the right to criticize America and its belief in its own Exceptionalism.  However, if we harken back to de Tocqueville and read his description carefully what he is really saying is that America had unique circumstances that led it to develop and evolve in its own way and it did so like no other country.  Could the same not be said for any country in the world?  Each has its own history and culture and developed in its own unique way.  In that way every country, even Russia, is exceptional by definition. 

The second is that Americans should not apologize for American Exceptionalism because it describes the fundamental principles and ideals upon which America was built.  Rather than criticizing the concept, what America needs to do is ensure that American leaders, regardless of political party, strive for balance between the exemplar and the crusader.  This is what we must get right.  We cannot change our history or our identity and it is certainly nothing for which to apologize.

Lastly, we should understand why Putin wrote what he did.  He remains in fear of America.  American ideals helped to defeat the Soviet Union.  As Putin tries to raise the Russian bear and regain some semblance of the power the Soviet Union once held, it will have to compete with the United States.   He cannot compete head to head with American instruments of national power.  Therefore he must try to undermine them and the most important one in the 21st Century is the informational instrument.  If he can attack and undermine American ideals he may have a chance to achieve his goals.  This was his objective and as in the Cold War let’s make sure he fails.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.

[1] Governor John Winthrop, “A Model for Christian Charity” (1630 on board the Arbella),, last accessed July 21, 2103.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,  p., 363 (, last accessed July 23, 2013.

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,” The National Review,  (Winter 1999-2000),

[4] Thomas JeffersonMerrill D. Peterson (editor), The Portable Thomas Jefferson, (Penguin Books, New York), p. 435.

[5] Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1990), p. X.

[6] Albert Fried, Communism in America: A History in Documents (1997), p. 7

[7] John F. Kennedy, Address to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1961),  (accessed June 13, 2013)


About the Author(s)


Robert C. Jones

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 11:25am

I suspect Mr. Putin is more bemused than fearful of modern interpreptations of this odd concept of "American Exceptionalism."

I would cheerfully argue that how America formed into a nation, fed by a wide range of ideas and cultures, but allowed to nurture largely free from the inertia of the thinking on governance on the European continent was unique, and did indeed produce what I think of as an exceptional philosopy of governance.

But I would also argue that our decision to employ a containment strategy against the Soviets following WWII led us down a path marked by a long series of reasonable decisions within that context to the place that we are today. And that that place is hardly "exceptional" other than in the fact that so many outside of the United States increasingly are taking "exception" with the American approach to foreign policy.

Mr. Putin's OpEd did indeed strike a nerve with many who see themselves as senior thinkers, commentators or implementers of US Foreign Policy. Not because what he said was so outrageously wrong, but I suspect much more so because so many recognized at some level (conscious or subconscious) that so much of what he said was actually very close to being right. It's embarrassing to drift so far off track and to then have one's opponent point out that ever widening gap between who we think we are and how we think we are acting, and who we have become and how we are actually acting.

Hopefully our friends will find the moral courage to be as honest with us as this opponent is. Perhaps then we will listen.


Thu, 09/19/2013 - 2:42pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Certainly Russia is not the global actor it once was when its Sovietness made it "exceptional" as the vanguard and supporter of national liberation movements throughout the world. I think this messianic role turned out to be part of the weakness not the strength in the end. I have been pondering the issue of "partners". They certainly can't compare to the US in terms of alliances and economic relationships, but it is not as if they are isolated. They have very good relations with democratic India, their security and economic relations with the Chinese are based on producing resources as opposed to consumption. "Old" Europe is quite willing at times to sell out "New" Europe when it comes to oil and gas.

What is most critical for Putin and Russia now, is the Eurasian Customs Union. While watching Syria, we have missed the news that Armenia has agreed to join, and Ukraine in the past 24 hours has agreed to a EU association agreement. On a certain level this is a bigger political catastrophe for Russia then Syria is for Obama.

Alouisexnicios, I intended to post this below your comment:

All good points, but nationalism and communism are not incompatable, and most USSR sattelite states rejected communism, and many joined NATO which further marginalized Russia from a global perspective. Aside from tyrants what nation willingly embraces Russia as partner? I could be wrong but Russia's global status appears weak to me, despite our continuing mishandling of the Syria situation.


Mon, 09/16/2013 - 6:16am

In reply to by tomkinton

And for the record I don't think for a minute that Putin wrote the article. He did, however, approve it.



Mon, 09/16/2013 - 5:58am

I think Putin did us all a huge favor: he refocused the narrative. He is Putin, and KGB, and all that goes along with it. But let's stop a minute (especially the good but IMO over-sharp COL G) and think about the Christian nature of our founders (gasp!), especially the forgiveness part. We need to realize that in order for people (and nations) to change, they need to be given room to do it. And yes, I understand that 'it's the USSR' and all that. So we speak softly and carry the big stick. But going ad-hominem on Putin for artfully articulating what many of us are now afraid to say in public (second gasp!) is unfair, and unflattering to the exceptional people in our Republic. So give the author a break here: America is as exceptional as it wants to be. Sometimes more, sometimes less. But last time I checked the only other place people were flocking to was..........never mind.

And then there's the demographic thing. Put yourselves in Putin's shoes. He has Russia and some tenuously-held former countries between him and the increasingly radicalizing East. And Erdogan is not exactly the secular savior of the modern Turkish state that his (now languishing in prison-oops) military commanders were preserving since the 1920's.

Putin can't depend on Turkey to buffer him, nor can he stem the tide of demography inside his own borders (remember, these folks invented the term 'maskirova': of what we here on the matter of civil unrest due to racialization, probably another 80% is suppressed by the Russian media controls). Uniting the Russian Orthodox church with the larger Catholic world would be a huge victory for him. And before all of you go ad-hominem on ME, let me point out the obvious: we are in the first decade of a new century of economic and military struggle that is using religion as a proxy. Get over it: this entire issue is bounded by religion.

So, America. Poking us on 'exceptionalism' probably wasn't his intent, and the average American voter wasn't his audience. He is playing chess, comrades. And the problem is, the guy across the game board from him is sleeping.

I say cheers to Vlad this one time, and thanks for the wake-up call.


Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 6:59pm

In reply to by Gian P Gentile


I would have an easier time with the question of "when did you stop beating your wife?"

The simple answer is that yes for better or for worse the concept of American Exceptionalism is in our DNA. And yes the de Tocqueville reference I used is a cop out because you are right in that all countries are exceptional in their own right.

I would prefer to think of the American experiment as still ongoing. I do believe that our founding principles did provide the world with an enlightened set of governing values (they were after all a product of the Enlightenment). Of course one can argue that if we recognize the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and noting that all men (human beings) are created equal that this is not something that is exclusively American. However, our founding fathers articulated these rights of man (and women) better than anyone before and likely since and thus have provided a model for governance that has been emulated in various forms.

I also think that the United States has evolved into a great power and it is arguable that such power is unmatched by any other nation in history. But are we "special" in terms of being the "chosen people?" That we are "better' than anyone else? By definition (in our own founding documents) we would not be since we are all created equal and all mankind have the same inalienable rights. But since we have evolved into a great power we should remember the spiderman movie adage: "With great power comes great responsibility." And I think that is where the real challenge lies. How do we exercise that great power? What I am opposed to is the idea that American Exceptionalism means that we should be attempting to remake other societies in our image. This is what I was trying to allude to in my essay. We have crusaders and exemplars: the crusaders are the activist type who try to export the American way and the exemplars are those who think we should simply be an example for those who chose to emulate any parts of the American system. I think when this tension in the concept of American Exceptionalism gets out of balance we start making mistakes in foreign policy or mistakes happen because we are not not taking sufficient action. And the third type are the apologists who are ashamed of America. And while I admit that we have made mistakes, I will never apologize for America being America or for our fundamental principles and ideals.

I think fundamentally American Exceptionalism is the term that has come to be used to describe the founding American ideals and principles but has taken on a life of its own and unfortunately for some it is a patriotic code word and if you do not consider America exceptional then you are not a patriotic or true American. And as I have said for others it is a something to apologize for for its perceived arrogance.

So the bottom line for me is that I think what is exceptional is how our founding fathers articulated our enduring principles and ideals but that those principles and ideals do not belong exclusively to America. The inalienable rights belong to everyone but the American experiment, though still a work in progress is worthy of consideration for emulation by those who think it makes sense for their unique situation and conditions.

Sorry for rambling on with my stream of consciousness.

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 11:30am


So is America exceptional, yes or no?

And please don't qualify it with the assertion that all states are exceptional in their own right since the very premise to American exceptionalism is that America is different AND SPECIAL from all of the rest. (e.g., Henry Luce's the "The American Century")

So I ask you again, is America exceptional?


Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 10:12am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Uh oh. Did I speak too soon about the strength of the American experiment given the recent events in the capital regarding domestic policy and the mother-of-all policy fights?

I don't think so. If something can't go on forever, it won't. We were always in for a bumpy ride for the interim because the US expanded in ways that are not sustainable over the past few decades. We shall see. Second or third act, America! Come on! I know we need a readjustment but does it need to be so messy and painful?

On American Exceptionalism:

<blockquote>Because of this lopsidedness, Bennett and Lotus haven’t yet had anything like the acclaim they deserve. They make a compelling argument that Anglosphere societies are uniquely well placed to benefit from the technological changes now underway, because of the emphasis they place on individualism.
James Bennett, by the way, is the man who invented the Anglosphere. I don’t mean that he coined the word, which was first used in a science fiction novel two decades ago. I mean that he popularised the concept of a cultural union of English-speaking democracies based on personal liberty, local autonomy, private ownership, free enterprise, small government, the rule of law, and the political inheritance of Magna Carta and the English and American Bills of Rights.
Regular readers will find that notion familiar, but these authors have one great advantage over me. All my great-grandparents were born in the British Isles. When I talk of the peculiar inheritance of the English-speaking peoples, some critics hear nothing but English chauvinism. Bennett and Lotus, by contrast, have only one Anglo grandparent between them. What they are writing about is plainly a cultural rather than an ethnic patrimony.</blockquote>…

Once again, as an immigrant that is clearly proud* of her ethnic heritage yet completely assimilated as an American, the idea of a cultural patrimony is most interesting to me.

Disclaimer (if one is needed), I consider the authors as friends and have co-blogged with the authors.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with their thesis, they root American Exceptionalism within a certain cultural anthropological argument which isn't one about goodness or badness. It simply says that some aspects of American culture are unique to it--and only it, hence exceptional--and that these aspects have deep, deep roots when traced back over the centuries. It is a historical argument--a tracing of habits and forms of family structure--and one worth discussing whether pro or con.

*Although, why be proud or ashamed of ethnic heritages? Human beings are weird. "America-Americans" do it too, but often don't see it in themselves. Some of what we do foreign policy-wise only makes sense if it doesn't make sense, i.e., it is emotional and tribal.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/19/2013 - 1:57pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I'm an idiot. It was a post Soviet world Reagan mentioned, not post NATO but that is just the issue, I suppose.

I was thinking of the 1983 Meyers memo which was linked at National Review. The link to the memo isn't working anymore but here is one excerpt that I saved:…

<blockquote>(We really should take up the President’s suggestion to begin planning for a post-Soviet world; the Soviet Union and its people won’t disappear from the planet, and we have not yet thought seriously about the sort of political and economic structure likely to emerge.)</blockquote>

From the memo, a demographic analysis that is still playing out.

And our current diplomatic dance is the same playing out too.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/19/2013 - 1:10pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Good points. He shouldn't go unchallenged, there were some whoppers in the letter, however clever. But I know pushback will happen and is happening on why only look at one incident on one particular date if you are so interested in war crimes as a cause for going to war?

And it was clever writing too (who are those ghostwriters?)

I guess maybe I listen to a lot of Dr. Stephen Cohen on the John Batchelor show who has one take on Putin:…

But I know others think that sort of thing is naive (the recent Foreign Affairs article.)

Naive or not, I guess I'm still upset that a Cold-ish War mindset hurt us so badly in Afghanistan, especially in the early days.

This desire to retain client states while putting our men and women in bulk into the middle of our conflicting foreign policy desires (and old warm personal feelings due to personal relationships from the CW and 90's 'CENTCOM' period), that's what I mean. That is what gets me upset.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 7:04pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


I do not disagree with you at all and I do not feel your push back.. And I agree that Putin does have valid concerns (as we should and hope we do) of the spread of jihadi organizations. I did not mean to overemphasize the Cold War and I certainly do not advocate a return to that type of relationship but I did want to use it as a straw man to try to put some of my thoughts on American Exceptionalism out there. I just did not want Putin to go unchallenged and I used the sensational title purely as an attention getter ( do look forward to what John McCain gets published in Pravda). And I strongly agree that we have to adjust to the post-Cold War period.


Tue, 09/17/2013 - 10:48pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I suspect that Putin and Assad are more concerned about the ideological precedents emerging from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya than those emerging from the US.

Bill M.

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 5:40pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Agree to that to some extent that conflating American exceptionalism with Russia's interests in Syria may be over playing it, but in my opinion it does play a role. The U.S. is still the world"s only superpower, and that power isn't just based on the coercive power of our economic and military power, but on our ability to generate consenus based on common interests. In general our ideology is attractive, and it presents an alternative ideology to that espoused by PRC, Russia, Iran, etc. They are defenseless when our so called subversive ideas related to human rights, freedom, etc. penetrates their society. In Syria if the U.S. is seen supporting the will of the people and Russia and Iran are seen opposing it that puts them in a bad position. That is the theory but the reality as you pointed out in Syria is quite different.

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 10:57am

I always read what you write with great care because your writing is top notch. It is something very special. And I have tremendous respect for your work.

But I am going to push back a bit on this piece.

I can't cut windows into men's souls but I think Putin has expressed more than once that he is afraid of jihadists returning to Russia and of "blow back" to US sponsored regime change which is viewed as inherently destabilizing by many nations around the world including some of our closest allies.

The American people likely share the same fears and skepticism of the dizzying pace of American sponsored regime change in the post Cold War period:

<blockquote>To do so, I ask you to put aside for a moment the dramatic news reports from the Caucasus and imagine something more placid: ordinary New Yorkers or Washingtonians, asleep in their homes. Then, in a flash, hundreds perish in explosions at the Watergate, or at an apartment complex on Manhattan’s West Side. Thousands are injured, some horribly disfigured. Panic engulfs a neighborhood, then a nation.</blockquote> - Vladimer Putin NYT, 1999

I am not naive about Putin or contemporary Russia. But it is 2013, not 1985, and even Reagan (a favorite president despite my unhappiness with 80's Afghanistan policy and what it did to our foreign policy class in terms of promoting bad emotional habits) imagined a post-NATO world.

In fact, because he believed--contrary to stylish elite opinion at that time, as you know of course--that the Soviet Union was weak and wouldn't last, he was the first to understand a thing or two about possible Asia pivots. I am being serious. Look closely. OTOH, it might be a flight of fancy of mine. But Reagan definitely mentioned thinking about a post NATO world.

On Russia, we actually do have some common interests, while others interests place us in opposition. Where our interests overlap, we should not wish for failure.

America IS exceptional to my mind. Then again, I have all the mad love of an immigrant for this beautiful experiment.

Unfortunately and inadvertently, some of the US foreign policy and military intellectual class is conducting a kind of 4GW against itself because it is choosing the wrong battles and failing to adjust.

Not retreat, not stepping back, but a new beginning is needed. We are American. That used to be our thing, you know? The re-invention. The second or third act.

The intellectual and emotional (and monetary, the lobbying has some very shady characters) deadwood of the forever-and-ever "get Russia" and "get Iran" crowd in DC must be cleared if this new beginning is to be 'begun'.

I'm glad we stood up during the Cold War and have great respect for the Cold Warriors that did their duty.

But all things change, all things pass, there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. Our nation is vast, our nation is vibrant, our nation is strong. The American people are making the adjustment. We've had to because the post Cold War period has not been one where the elites have kept their own people back home in mind in all things. If we can do it, if we can adjust, so too can those who focus their gaze eternally outward.


Mon, 09/16/2013 - 12:07am

In reply to by Bill M.

Did American ideas defeat the USSR or did something else? I certainly believe American or more importantly liberal European ideas gave many people an ideological alternative to communism, especially in Eastern Europe, but the real ideological alternative that destroyed the Empire was nationalism. The socially oppressive military industrial complex of the Soviet Union backed up by its counter intelligence institutions and the price of oil could have lasted a lot longer if it were not for the decision of one leader to "humanize" the system. What was unanticipated was the national movements that were unleashed. Even Yeltsin's popularity was based on a feeling by the Russian population that the CPSU was giving away the farm to Central Asians and the people of the Caucasus.

Today the protests against Putin are composed of hard line communists and nationalists as much as liberals. And the liberals tend to be social deviants. Our ideas on human rights and free markets are little threat to the current regime. What injustices that occur in Russia by its corruption will be judged on its own merits not in a comparison of the example America sets .

The existential threat is twofold. One is the support the US will give to the former republics in bolstering their nationalism and ability to exist outside of Russia in contrast to Russia's ability to bring them back into their cultural, economic, and political sphere (A policy goal we seem to have given up on). The second is the instability Russia blame the US for in the greater Middle East which can bleed across their own borders.

PS. I agree our military was a threat that denied the Soviets, military options to impose their ideology by force.

American ideas ultimately defeated the USSR. They viewed our ideas on human rights and free markets as a existenial threat while our military was a tactical threat that denied the USSR military options to impose their ideology by force. Our ideas continue to threaten tyrants around the globe.