Among the welter of ironies concerning President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed for The New York Times on the zig-zagging Syria crisis is that Ras’ ghostwriter has however haphazardly touched on the fundamental issue. Given the arguments and syntax, I suspect the ghost’s first language was American, not Russian, something I will leave to future political exegesis.
But one of the things this propagandist does by indirection is to identify President Barack Hussein Obama’s utter intellectual confusion.
There is certainly no reason why the mediocrity who now has through the vagaries of history slipped into the throne of the tsars would know. But the question of “American exceptionalism” played a role in the arguments leading up to Josef Stalin’s becoming the Soviet Union’s bloody dictator and arbiter of the powerful international Communist movement.
Before the Moscow Trials of the mid-30s when Stalin settled all political scores by reducing his enemies by a head as he once joked, when there were still convoluted arguments over international Marxism inside the Communist world, American exceptionalism was an issue.
In 1929 Jay Lovestone took off for Moscow to plead his sudden dismissal as U.S. Party chairman. At a meeting of the Comintern, the supposedly independent directorate of world Communism, Lovestone argued that Communism would not come in the U.S. through revolution.
Given his living standard, Lovestone argued, the American worker was not of the European, Asian and African “proletariat” whom Karl Marx’ had promised would be “the grave diggers of capitalism and forerunner of The Revolution”.
But Stalin was having none of it. In fact, as Lovestone told me, he barely escaped Vladimir Lenin’s self-appointed heir. Only through the assistance of the American Communist capitalist Julius Hammer, father of his more famous son Armand Hammer who with Soviet assistance became an international oil figure after World War II, Lovestone sneaked out of Russia. He came back to the U.S. to found, briefly, the American Revolutionary Communist Party.
How he escaped assassination as was the fate of so many of Stalin’s enemies, even those abroad, is a bit mysterious. But decades later Lovestone went on to become a collaborator with George Meany, the old plumber who headed the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. Together with the infant Central Intelligence Agency, they broke the hold of Moscow’s International Federation of Trade Unions on Western European labor trade unions at the outset of The Cold War, crucial in bringing the European Social Democratic parties, particularly the West German SPD, into the anti-Communist alliance.
It is very unlikely that Putin, a quintessential Russian secret police thug, knows much of this history. He was an unknown foreign agent until Russian President Boris Yeltsin picked Putin out of obscurity to protect Yeltsin’s corrupt “Family” of hangers on when that old drunkard exited power. [Markus Wolf, lifelong legendary head of Stassi, the enormous network of informers and enforcers who kept the East German state alive in The Cold War, quipped: “If he [Putin] spent 15 years [as liaison between the Soviet NKVD/KGB and Stassi at their joint training school] in Dresden, and I didn’t know him, he couldn’t have been much”.]
In America, Lovestone’s sectarian argument was never settled over how to gain influence for the miniscule American Communist Party camouflaging their more important espionage for Moscow. The argument, like the American Communists themselves, was victim of the gyrations of the “Party line”, subservient to Moscow’s international strategy including Stalin’s brief alliance with Hitler that brought on World War II. For a short period when Stalin was “Good Old Uncle Joe” in FDR’s Washington, the essential ally against the Nazis, the American Party under Earl Browder preached gradualism. [These stories never end: Browder’s grandson now wages a bitter argument with Putin over seizure of his extensive investments in Yeltsin’s Russia and the murder of his Moscow lawyer and collaborator.]
But here, American exceptionalism is framed in more elegant terms as a part of the intellectual life of The Republic over its two centuries.
For, singularly, unlike other nation states organized under the aegis of the Westphalian System [Treaty of 1648], the U.S. has no claim to a long history, a common race or ethnicity or even language characterizing the state. [Benjamin Franklin, horrified at the cacophony of German Anabaptist voices speaking German on the streets of Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1781 when the U.S. constitution was being framed in secret, toyed with the idea of writing in English as the official language of the new Republic.]
The U.S. was, from its outset, an ideological construct, an original — if heavily borrowing on what The Founders as children of the European Enlightenment saw as the heritage of the democracies of Greece and Republican Rome. It did not celebrate a unified cultural ethos as did France, even the “United” kingdom, and later Italy and Germany.
Instead, the American Republic was and is a political concept to insure the rights and privileges of a truly multicultural people to whom, unlike the European nation states, it ultimately owed its genius and power.
That complicated concept has been from the earliest days of The Republic the essence of “American exceptionalism”, the idea that because of the formation and nature of the country, it was different from other nation states in a fundamental way. This distinction has given a sense of mission to the American Republic – not the “gloire” of France, for example, but The Republic’s obligation by its very nature to espouse a new kind of national and international morality.
From the days of its earliest religious minorities seeking tolerance in The New World, Americans have always thought themselves “special”as Puritan lawyer John Winthrop proclaimed in 1640 aboard the Arabella en route to Massachusetts:
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Or whether it was the Deist Thomas Jefferson, writing in the Declaration of Independence:
“[A]nd accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Or Abraham Lincoln presiding over the greatest American crisis, in his famous Gettysburg Address:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Or Ronald Reagan, the 20th century statesman bidding goodbye to public life:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…. And how stands the city on this winter night? … After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
In a sense, it does not matter whether, indeed, the U.S. were “the New Jerusalem”. More important perhaps is that American leaders throughout their history have accepted the concept that The Republic was “different” from other countries, and therefore had a mission that went beyond the simple pursuit of its existence as a nation.
It was perhaps inevitable, if there is such a thing as inevitability, that when the U.S. emerged from the near suicide of the West in two bloody world wars as the overwhelmingly most powerful country with its vast economy and population, the concept of exceptionalism would be applied to international relations. Indeed, however unsuccessfully, three generations earlier President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed U.S. entry into World War I as “the war to end all wars” and his formulation of the concept of the League of Nations to settle international disputes was part of that American “mission”.
Again, ironically, despite the fact they drew much of their inspiration from Wilson’s “progressivism”, part and parcel of Obama and his supporters’ credo in pursuit of their ambition “to transform” the nation was rejection of “exceptionalsim”. In one of his too many casual public statements, Obama dismissed it out of hand. At the NATO Summit in Strasbourg, France, in 2009, he said sarcastically:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
But on Sept. 10, only four years later, in his address to the nation on the Syrian crisis, Obama reversed that view as he floated in and out of issues:
“My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”
In all the rapid permutations of the Syrian Crisis, it has taken [Ras] Putin’s numbskull ghost writer to recognize that Obama, too, has come around to recognizing “American exceptionalism” — for better or for worse.