There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what is meant by American Exceptionalism. The concept as alluded to by both our President and by the president of Russia recently are both incorrect, the former a confusion of cause and effect, and the latter a result of Marxist infighting of the 40’s and 50’s.
President Obama referred to the exceptionalism of the US in that only the US can project the kind of military force at Syria that the situation may require. That ability, though, is the result of US exceptionalism, the product over time of a nation that is unique in its offerings of liberty, opportunity, and diversity that have lead then to prosperity and innovation that have developed, among other things, military might and the capacity to project it. I’d also add that it is my opinion that President Obama only included such reference in an attempt to borrow opposing vernacular in an attempt to persuade those who really believe in American Exceptionalism, as well as properly understand it, to support his plans. I believe that he doesn’t believe in it, in part because he doesn’t understand it.
President Putin, on the other hand offers the more usual warning of the dangers of a belief in exceptionalsim, a warning that we have heard at least alluded to by President Obama when he is not trying to pander to US conservatives. This warning is based on a false understanding of American Exceptionalism, borne of a schism between post WWII international Communists, non-US, and especially Russian, Communists, criticized US Communists as still holding to an idea that the US was exceptional in the world. Criticism predicated on the mistaken notion that that exception is born of superiority.
This isn’t unique to those Soviet critics. It’s an effective tactic to demean to point out how someone thinks that they are superior. It’s a staple of 50’s and 60’s US comedy to portray Russian characters as holding to a similar notion—if asked, all great innovations came from Russia and all other ideas are western propaganda. Even Mr. Chechov on the original Star Trek was portrayed this way. True American Exceptionalism, however, has nothing to do with innovations, inventions, or even prosperity. It’s also not patriotism, or pride in one’s home or origin, though it can enhance those feelings. Real American Exceptionalism can be summed up in Lincoln’s word from the Gettysburg Address, “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” However imperfectly we’ve implemented that conception and proposition, these are still the basis of our republic; liberty—freedom to pursue one’s own course and without onerous restrictions—and equality before the law, and that unique founding has resulted in further unique wealth, power, and influence. But it takes someone who understands this to wield it properly. Both presidents have disqualified themselves from this.