Vladimir Putin, as our English cousins might put it, is too clever by half. In his Thursday op-ed essay in The New York Times, he couldn’t resist needling President Obama’s calling America “an exceptional nation,” and tried to instruct him in the perils of hubris: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”
Mr. Putin does not understand what the words “exceptional nation” actually mean. Mr. Obama doesn’t, either, though he does occasionally acknowledge the plain and obvious fact that there is indeed something different, and maybe better, about the United States. In his speech Tuesday night, he spoke of “what makes us exceptional” as a reason to act in Syria, with or without the backing of the international community. But Mr. Obama has ridiculed the proposition just as Mr. Putin does. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he told reporters in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
America isn’t an accident of history. The English writer G.K. Chesterton observed that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Not a religious creed, though the Founders were guided by faith, but a creed set out in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson spoke of that creed in a way that despots, tin-pots and even presidents of Russia have difficulty understanding: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride the people legitimately, by the grace of God.” Harry S. Truman put it another way: “Being an American is more than a matter of where you or your parents come from. It is a belief that all men are created free and equal.” Ronald Reagan observed that “our founding documents proclaim to the world that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a chosen few. It is the universal right of all God’s children.” America, declared John Winthrop 400 years ago, is a nation founded as an experiment in liberty, a “city on a hill,” adding, “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
That makes America pretty exceptional in anybody’s language. Those eyes have seen a lot of good, some bad and even occasionally the ugly. Those eyes saw Pilgrims, Puritans and other immigrants carve a nation out of a wilderness, planting crops and building cities. Those “eyes of all people” saw citizens rise up against an oppressive, distant government and win a war for independence. Within the first 30 years, those same Americans repulsed a British attempt to recapture lost ground. Within its first century, America struggled through a bitter and bloody war between the states at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and righted a colossal wrong.
Out of the ashes of that war a new society emerged. American farms would feed much of the world, and its factories would bestride the world’s economy. The U.S. production of goods and services would exceed that of our two biggest competitors, China and Japan, combined. American explorers would chart not just the far reaches of the planet, but reach into the solar system itself.
But it’s the liberated spirit and imagination of the people that makes America exceptional. Bad taste and inconvenient political views go unpunished here, protected by a Constitution that guarantees not responsible and respectable speech, but speech that is free. Mr. Reagan told the story of an American and a Russian arguing, at the nadir of the Cold War, about who lived with the most freedom. “In America,” the American said, “I can pound the desk of my president and say, ‘Ronald Reagan is the worst leader in the world,’ and nobody will throw me in jail.’” The Russian replied: “So what? I can pound the desk of my president and say, ‘Ronald Reagan is the worst leader in the world,’ and nobody will throw me in jail, either.” Mr. Putin should appreciate that.
America the exceptional is special, but nobody says it’s perfect. Yet America at its best lifts the spirits of the world. At its blundering worst, the world observes how a free society repents, repairs and reinvents itself. It’s what makes “we, the people” different and the nation exceptional. The rest of the world still dreams of coming here, knowing there will be not only the wealth of opportunity, but also the most important wealth of all, the wealth of a man who can live free. That’s the exceptionalism that Vladimir Putin can’t understand, or see.