SPEAKING FREELY The gospel according to Vladimir Putin
By Ninan Koshy
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
With his brilliant move on the Syrian crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not only arrested the imperial march of the United States but has also challenged the very rationale of the American Empire - "exceptionalism".
Rather than debunking the myth of exceptionalism politically, he challenged it on the basis of the Bible, thus joining the ranks of famous theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr, the favorite of US President Barack Obama. Putin closes his famed New York
Times article of September 11 with a profound theological statement:
I carefully studied Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday, 10 September. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism stating that "it is the US policy that makes us different. It is what makes us exceptional". It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic tradition and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ too. But when we ask for the Lord's blessings we must not forget that God created us equal.
The term "American exceptionalism", said to have been coined by French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, has historically referred to the perception that the US differs qualitatively from other nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution and distinctive political and religious institutions.
Over the past two centuries, prominent Americans have described the US as an "empire of liberty", "a shining city on a hill", "the last best hope of the Earth" and the "indispensable nation". Most statements of "American exceptionalism" presume that America's values, political system and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the US is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.
It was president John F Kennedy who reinvented and cemented the concept of "American exceptionalism" in American presidential lexicon when, in a 1961 address to the General Council of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he called America "a shining city on a hill". Since that time every American president, irrespective of political hue, has invoked American exceptionalism in different metaphors.
A crucial component of American exceptionalism is the belief that the US has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world. President Ronald Reagan said that there was "some divine plan that has placed America here". President George W Bush offered similar views in 2004 saying, "We have a calling from beyond the stars" to stand for freedom. Bill Clinton admitted in his new book (Back to Work, Why We Need a Strong Economy), that though he did not use the phrase during his presidency "I do believe in American exceptionalism".
On his first overseas trip as president in 2009, Obama was asked during a news conference whether he subscribed to "American exceptionalism". He replied:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the British believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
At that time it seemed the president was so redefining the concept of American exceptionalism as to nullify not only its grandest claim but even its uniqueness. He seemed to agree with his favorite thinker, the celebrated theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr rejected the claim that the US was God's chosen country on God's mission on earth. To him the idea of America as "the city on the hill" fulfilling God's manifest destiny smacked of pride and idolatry.
Obama seems to have changed his views by the time of his inaugural address in 2013. He declared that "What makes us exceptional, what makes America, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago." Rather than rejecting exceptionalism, he seemed to embrace the concept and reformulate it in his own terms.
His nationally televised address to the nation on September 10 was originally intended to be an exhortation for support for war against Syria but had to be changed in view of Russia's dramatic entry into the crisis, Still, he wanted to maintain the freedom of action for an endeavor in which his country stood almost isolated.
"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". Then he added, "That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional.
This speech has become a topic of much debate in the US. Some saw in it the predicament of a president outmaneuvered by the much-admired strategy of the Russian leader. Obama employed American exceptionalism as "a useful rhetorical tool to help him escape the trap he is in and the trap is one of his making", said conservative columnist Peter Wehner. Others saw it as a reaffirmation of the unique role of America, even at a time when it seems to be questioned.
Michael Ignatieff calls "American exceptionalism" ways in which US actually "exempts itself' from international laws, rules and agreements. This applies even to the very laws, rules and agreements in the shaping of which the US played a key role. The related problem is that of "double standards". With its exceptional power and wealth the US actually promotes a double standard when it proposes that a different rule should apply to itself from what applies to the rest of the world. Neo-conservatives of the George W Bush administration made "exceptionalism" the core of their belief and the basis of their foreign policy.
The US talks a good deal about human rights and international law but it has refused to sign most human rights treaties and is not a party - yes "unsigning" the treaty - to the International Criminal Court. Its closest allies in the Third World during the Cold were dictators with abysmal human rights record. US stood on the wrong side of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
American exceptionalism is clearly expressed in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which is dubbed the charter of the new American empire. This was adopted by Bush cabinet members Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. Their Neo-con/PNAC view was that "we won the Cold War and therefore won the right to control and lead the world". The PNAC statement of principles says:
We need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, prosperity and principles.
The term American Empire may be uncomfortable to many. But leading political scientists have acknowledged the reality of the Empire. "The military victory in Iraq seems to have confirmed a new world order", Joseph Nye wrote in The Washington Post (May 25, 2003). "Not since Rome has one nation loomed so large about others. Indeed the word 'empire' has come out of the closet."
Each element of the imperial doctrine of Bush made double standard the most virulent strain of American exceptionalism. Take for example Bush's war doctrine. "We have redefined war on our own terms," he declared. The US has the right not only to defeat but occupy an enemy country. The USA has the right to change regime anywhere. It (alone) has the right to preemption and can intervene in any part of the world politically and militarily.
In fact exceptionalism has been the rationale for empires. Empires throughout history have considered themselves all-powerful and exceptional. Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their might over others. The British thought they were bearing the "white man's burden" while French colonialists invoked "mission to civilize" to justify their empire. Portugal, too, claimed it was on a similar mission. All these countries pursued their imperial ambitions in a manner that was hardly civilized. When America proclaims it is exceptional, it follows the tradition of empire-builders. Exceptionalism is a convenient myth for empire.
It is the poor theology of exceptionalism that mildly but effectively Putin challenges. Many who belong to the religious right in the US have long held that America has somehow achieved special standing with God. This is rooted in several false beliefs such as America being founded as a "sacred Christian nation". They interpret several Old Testament passages in a misleading manner to justify their view.
In his State of the Union Address in 2003, Bush said that "providence" was on America's side:
We Americans have faith in ourselves but not in ourselves alone. We do not claim to know all the ways of the providence. Yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history. May he guide us now, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.
At the time of the address, Bush was making final preparations for the war against Iraq. President Bush's statement to journalist Bob Woodward that he asked God for advice before starting war with Iraq may be recalled. Bush described himself as a "messenger of God" who is doing "the Lord's will".
Jim Wallis, the progressive US theologian asks:
Where in the Bible is there a special place for America? Where do we get that? That's bad theology - just bad theology. ... We are accountable to God's purposes and God's principles, but there is no special covenant with America here. ... It doesn't exist and to say so is really a heresy. American exceptionalism is theologically a heresy. It is not true and it's very dangerous.
Americans did not expect an op-ed article by Vladimir Putin in The New York Times. Their surprise turned to consternation on one side and appreciation and even introspection on the other when he challenged as a Christian the core of their belief that God has specially called America with a mission. He reminded them that God created us all equal. Did he also mean that Russia should be treated as an equal partner in dealing with the problems of the world, since US has no special mandate?
Ninan Koshy, a political commentator based in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, and formerly Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, is the author of War on Terror: Reordering the World and Under the Empire: India's New Foreign Policy.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.