What Putin’s Talking About When He Talks About ‘American Exceptionalism’
In his eyes, everything is about power and the will to use it, and Americans merely camouflage their moves a bit better.
Much has been written about last Monday’s “Victory Day” in Russia, a holiday that celebrates the Red Army’s defeat of the Germans in World War II, but it is difficult for the average American to understand just how big a deal this celebration is in Russia. Imagine the Fourth of July and Memorial Day combined with Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and an absolutist government with a propaganda imperative to celebrate the Nazi defeat as a core political justification for the regime’s existence.
This year Russia celebrated Victory Day at war—a war that Russia’s propaganda apparatus proclaims is against “Nazis.” With this declared purpose of a major war, one in which thousands of Russians are dying and which has resulted in significant (and growing) economic hardship for the Russian people, one might expect that this year Victory Day would be an extra special affair. With Russian troops getting pushed back on most fronts and hopes of a swift victory as obliterated as the Moskva, many analysts feared that Vladimir Putin would announce some major escalation—perhaps a call for a general Russian mobilization or a formal “declaration of war” against Ukraine. These fears were not totally misplaced. As bad as the Russian atrocities in Ukraine have been things can probably get a lot worse if Putin chooses to take more risks and use more extreme measures against Ukraine.
Instead, Putin’s speech contained nothing new, no new threats, no new announcements. He took the opportunity to once again frame his war in Ukraine as a defensive war. The story Putin told was not the standard “realist” narrative of an idiotically expansionist NATO goading the Russian bear more than it could bear. Instead it is a paranoid fantasy of an upcoming NATO-sponsored attack on Crimea from Ukraine that was preemptively stopped by Putin’s wise attack. He makes Russia look like a political naïf, seeking to make some agreement with NATO in as late as December 2021, while NATO countries were actually planning aggression:
“In December last year, we proposed to conclude an agreement on security guarantees. Russia called on the West to have an honest dialogue, to search for reasonable, compromise solutions, to take into account each other's interests. All in vain. The NATO countries did not want to hear us, which means that in fact they had completely different plans. And we saw it.
Openly, preparations were underway for another punitive operation in the Donbas, for an invasion of our historical lands, including Crimea. In Kyiv, they announced the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. The NATO bloc has begun active military development of the territories adjacent to us.
Thus, a threat that is absolutely unacceptable to us was systematically created, moreover, directly at our borders. Everything indicated that a clash with neo-Nazis, Bandera, on whom the United States and their younger partners staked, would be inevitable.
I repeat, we have seen how the military infrastructure is unfolding, how hundreds of foreign advisers began to work, there were regular deliveries of the most modern weapons from NATO countries. The danger grew every day.
Russia gave a preemptive rebuff to aggression. It was a forced, timely and only right decision. The decision of a sovereign, strong, independent country.”
It is often difficult to suss out when Putin is telling a lie and when he is telling the truth as he sees it. In this case we can be certain Putin is being deceptive about one big fact: The current war in Ukraine is not a recent response to NATO-bloc pressure; it has been going on since 2014. Before Putin invaded Ukraine first in Crimea and then in Donbas, Ukraine was officially neutral. It was only after 10 months of war and the loss of significant lives and territory that Ukraine’s parliament voted to end its neutral status and seek NATO membership. Ukraine’s efforts to regain the territory Russia seized in 2014, including its project the Crimea Platform, is presented by Russia as an act of aggression—instead of Ukrainian moves to regain territory it lost during a still-ongoing war. Likewise, Putin portrays the weapons and military help that Western countries gave Ukraine before 2022 as some kind of buildup for aggression, rather than aid to an ally facing Russian aggression, aid that arrived too late and in not enough quantity to head off the current massive attack Russia began in February.
Putin is probably not aiming at a foreign audience with this speech, and it is likely that his propagandists, especially those targeting more high-end educated segments in the West, will continue repeating the “standard” narrative instead of this garbage. This part of the messaging for a Russian audience—an audience that has been told that Russia was not involved in the fighting in Ukraine since 2014 (well, except for the seizure of Crimea—but nothing in Donbas!) In this imaginary world Russia has been seeking peace and friendship with Europe and America the whole time, and the evil powers it faces took this time to invest in creating “Nazism” in Ukraine as a threat to Russia.
There was one interesting part of the speech where Putin mentions American exceptionalism:
“The United States of America, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, started talking about its exceptionalism, thereby humiliating not only the whole world, but also its satellites, who have to pretend that they do not notice anything and meekly swallow everything.”
The phrase “American exceptionalism” has been bandied about too much in the last decade and a half, so much that the term has lost much of its original meaning. Depending on who is saying it, it can mean that one believes that America is good, that America is evil, or that America is strange. For the record, when I use the phrase in a moment of weakness, it is usually with the latter meaning, the original meaning—that America is a strange place with a unique development that started (and still has) a singular population. Therefore, quite often the normal “rules” don’t apply to America if one is trying to explain its historical development, intellectual history, current political coalitions, etc.
This is obviously not the meaning that Putin is using here. He obviously is using the phrase in a negative sense, but what kind of negative sense? According to Putin, America talking about its exceptionalism somehow “humiliates” the whole world and its allies. He is not referring to discussions about the lack of a landed aristocracy in 17th century New England. The term “American exceptionalism” has also been abused and thrown around too much in Russian. However, in the mouths of Russian propagandists and Vladimir Putin it is basically always negative. As the Russian historian Valery Garbuzov wrote in 2020:
Today, the problem of "American exceptionalism" is widely used in Russia for propaganda purposes, while also acquiring a clear anti-American orientation. Sometimes it (American exceptionalism) is presented in the form of the desire of the United States to present its own people as different from others, a special, exclusive nation, almost a “superior race” on earth ... even very responsible persons are compared with the ideas cultivated by Hitler during the Third Reich, accusing the United States of eternally striving for national superiority.”
Fortunately for us, we can look at Putin’s previous high-profile attack on “American exceptionalism,” which appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times in September 2013, while President Barack Obama was considering a strike on Syria for crossing a red line—consideration that included waffling and trying to pass the buck to Congress. In a speech on September 10 Obama told the nation:
“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.”
The next day Putin replied:
“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. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too … ”
Here, and in his re-use of “exceptionalism” in his speech on Victory Day, Putin is telling us what he truly believes. The exceptionalism espoused by Obama in that 2013 line, really just a throw-away phrase to try to end a depressing speech on a rousing note, is one where America is exceptionally good on occasion. Obama explicitly rejected the idea that America was the “world’s policeman,” but still said we could make the choice to use our national power to stop the gassing of children. Putin responded that this does not make America unique, and that in fact this idea is “dangerous.” In other words, America says its policy is different from other countries, but really it’s not. Lining this 2013 statement up with his most recent one, you get a further development of this idea: America claims its policies are humanitarian and idealistic, but it is actually just like everyone else. This is where the “humiliation” line comes in: America is doing things across the world for its own selfish interests, just like Russia does, and yet it has the temerity to pretend that it is working out of idealism or genuine concern for allies.
This is the humiliation that America’s “satellites” have to swallow. This is the world as Putin sees it: It’s all about power and the will to use it, and the Americans merely camouflage their moves a bit better. In that world there is no room for an independent Ukraine or an independent anybody—Ukraine will either be a U.S. “satellite” or a Russian one. If Putin wins in Ukraine, he won’t just impose this version of reality on Ukraine as far as he can, he will continue to try and rip up the actually existing post-WWII Western order of alliances, trade, and consent, and he will do so claiming—maybe even believing—that he is in fact combatting an American empire.