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.” 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.” 
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. 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.”
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.” (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. 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.” 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.
 Governor John Winthrop, “A Model for Christian Charity” (1630 on board the Arbella), http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html, last accessed July 21, 2103.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p., 363 (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/DETOC/ch1_09.htm, last accessed July 23, 2013.
 Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy,” The National Review, (Winter 1999-2000),
 Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1990), p. X.
 John F. Kennedy, Address to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1961),