US ‘Exceptionalism’ Boomerangs

Official Washington thinks “American exceptionalism” means the U.S. government can ignore international law when intervening in other countries. But that hypocrisy is now coming back to bite the U.S. with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Vladimir Putin’s speech about Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a rhetorical tour de force and an apt accompaniment to his regime’s tactical skill in pulling off the annexation, however many strategic regrets there may later be.

There was, to be sure, much that was identifiably phony or facetious in what he said, such as the assertion that Crimean Tatars “lean towards Russia.” The attempted separation from Soviet history, by a leader who has deemed the dissolution of the USSR to be history’s greatest calamity, was also rather rich. This involved not only blaming Khrushchev for his transfer of Crimea but also invoking divinity while blaming old Bolsheviks, “may God judge them”, for messily drawing the other boundaries between Ukraine and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow on March 18, 2014. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis in Moscow on March 18, 2014. (Russian government photo)

But the speech contained other observations that it behooves us to contemplate. The rhetoric, like all good rhetoric, had punch because of a correspondence with reality. While attention in the weeks ahead will inevitably be focused on what kind of punishment can be inflicted in response to Putin’s fait accompli, and more appropriately on how to keep this crisis from damaging other initiatives in which Russia necessarily has a role, there are longer-term lessons to be learned in two respects.

One concerns how Ukraine came to be a point of confrontation between Russia and Western powers in the first place. We heard from the Russian president a good expression of Russian perceptions and sentiment, rooted in nationalism and a sense of national security, in response to what appeared to be a Western attempt to extend a presence and power into Russia’s immediate neighborhood with insufficient thought given to what the responses would be. However rightly prime blame for the immediate crisis might be attributed to Putin himself, what he said about this background is a valid part of the story.

The West and especially the United States, observed Putin, “must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions.” Sounds like the kind of criticism Barack Obama’s domestic opponents have been directing against him, except that the principal chapter in the story to which Putin was referring involved a previous administration’s support for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

Putin was very believable when he said, “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

A larger set of long-term lessons goes beyond the crisis over Ukraine. It involves patterns of behavior by the West and specifically the United States that have cropped up repeatedly in other confrontations and crises. One of those patterns is apparent unawareness of how our own actions rile the nationalism of other people. Russians are by no means the only ones to get their nationalist dander up, and Putin is certainly not the only leader to exploit the phenomenon.

A second pattern, which Putin’s speech milked for all it was worth, is inconsistency in the application of principles such as self-determination and democracy. However much one might argue over how a case such as Kosovo might be different from Crimea, and the differences do not necessarily support any attempt to make the West’s actions in the first seem more justifiable than Russia’s in the second, the inconsistency in Western policy has been glaring.

Brushing aside principles for the sake of expediency in pursuing an immediate objective can be foolish if we disregard the longer-term damage to our credibility when we try to invoke such principles somewhere else. Those who like to invoke the concept of credibility and how it can act at long range ought to take notice.

The third pattern, related to the second, applies particularly to the United States, and it is largely a matter of acting as if we did not have to follow rules that apply to everyone else. The passage in Putin’s speech that may have been most instructive, though most painful, for Americans to hear was this:

“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’

“To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.”

This is the ugly, outward-facing side of American exceptionalism. Americans should not need Vladimir Putin to tell us how it looks, but now that he has, we may as well try to learn something about what he is addressing.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

14 comments for “US ‘Exceptionalism’ Boomerangs

  1. atm
    March 24, 2014 at 01:28

    Sorry for simply copying but this quote is remarkable.Perhaps the most frequently quoted idea of late is that of “American Exceptionalism.” It was Alexis de Tocqueville who made the first reference in his book, Democracy in America. Never, did he say that Americans were exceptional. He said our ‘position’ was exceptional, and it was no compliment. He was criticizing Americans.
    “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Putitanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature and the arts….which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. Their passions, their wants, their education, and everything about them seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; their religion alone bids them turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”

  2. BaldurDasche
    March 23, 2014 at 00:42

    What does the CIA know about Tatars? Those in Kyiv, like Ukriaians there, have their own intersts at heart – which are, obviously, to side with the fascists. Those Tatars who choose to remain in the Crimea aren’t making anti-Russian noises either.

    Either way it’s pretty certain the CIA has little viable knowledge not only of that tsatars are doing, or why.

    This OpEd fluff piece is misinformed and can be assigned to the dustbin of similar ‘intel’.

  3. Konrad
    March 23, 2014 at 00:27

    “There was, to be sure, much that was identifiably phony or facetious in what he said, such as the assertion that Crimean Tatars “lean towards Russia.” Why “to be sure”? Why “much that was identifiably phony or facetious “? What is this shill for the corporate-academic establishment talking about? What is he doing here on What a disappointment to find such a piece of academic junk on such a good website!

  4. Eileen K.
    March 22, 2014 at 14:34

    You have a very valid point, Richard. The term “exceptionalism” does reflect a “chosen people” context; and, a good part of America’s problem is that of following Israel’s example, which is the belief that it has the right to take anything it wants, such as the property of Arabs, especially Palestinians.

    The US believes it has the right to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations, even as much as to wage wars of aggression against them, and this is illegal. All this does is create enemies, not win the hearts and minds of citizens of other nations. According to the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Principles, the #1 war crime is waging aggressive war. Why? The nation(s) waging aggressive war always wind up committing atrocities against the civilian populations of the countries they attack.

  5. McCoin
    March 22, 2014 at 11:35

    Viva The Exceptionalism till drunk and drop. Dont cheat human beings or drop in consequences. We are same human beings. Feel.

  6. richard vajs
    March 22, 2014 at 08:56

    “Exceptionalism” – is that like believing that you are the “chosen people”? Part of America’s problem is we are content to follow the example of Israel, which believes that it has the right to take whatever they want from the Arabs. If we ever do the right thing by the Palestinians, we might start to develop a sense of justice and then begin to try to get long with the World instead of trying to get everyone else to cater to us

    • Curmudgeonvt
      March 22, 2014 at 11:00

      “…ever do the right thing by the Palestinians…”

      Good luck with that…American exceptionalism precludes that ever happening.

  7. Mark Thomason
    March 22, 2014 at 08:02

    “a Western attempt to extend a presence and power into Russia’s immediate neighborhood with insufficient thought given to what the responses would be.”

    Yes, I had thought so too. Now I wonder though, if they really had thought it through. If they wanted a confrontation with Russia, if they wanted to rally the EU and Washington, this would be a way to do it. Whatever Putin did in response, it would serve that purpose.

    • M Hysmith
      March 22, 2014 at 19:31

      Mr. Pillar’s is a very good piece. To note however, this is not the first time Putin has made reference to our attitude of exceptionalism. As I remember, this also came up in the Syrian crisis where Obama was wanting to shoot a few bombs “across the bow”. I as well seen the Iranians make note of our rudeness and hubris.
      I think Putin’s most important statement and what I would think should be the most concerning was when he stated that containment was obviously very much US policy. My intuition tells me that Russian relations with the US will not be the same henceforth. I wish some of the analysts with real credential to speak on Russia such as Mr. Pillar, would address that one.

      • carroll price
        March 22, 2014 at 20:39

        The only reason US foreign policy so closely resembles that of Israel is because the same people control both countries. If the Zionist neocons who have been running this country for the past 25 years were removed from power, the United States would be an entirely different country.

  8. sword
    March 21, 2014 at 04:05

    in my book published 2011. i wrote “the democratic system as it exists today is no longer munificent at its core and conceals a potentially dangerous system. its expansion has leaf to mistruths deviant policy making by special interest groups through willing politicians and many who dispense law and justice; all part of the corrupt DNA.”

  9. lumpentroll
    March 20, 2014 at 20:27

    The more of your work I read the more I am impressed.

    There’s more to it than exceptionalism.

    We have all internalized the idea that our communications are now universally ‘overseen’ by a big brother-like entity — identified with and controlled by the US government.

    With help from Wikileaks, Annonymous, and NSA-Snowden we have all taken the same unconscious lessons. Big Brother now lives with us in our minds in an unprecedented way, reinforcing the inversion of ‘consensus’ reality in a way that old media just couldn’t.

    The recent comments by Angela Merkel about Putin being out of touch with reality gave me the idea that most world leaders themselves probably have no idea what is actually happening beyond the walls of their official residences.

    US foreign policy elites percieve themselves to be wielding not just hard/soft power but also hyper power of the kind that allows you to predict, monitor and manipulate the minds of anyone plugged into the global grid. The Neocon foreign policy establishment knows or believes it knows what Obama is thinking before he does.

    Western actions in Ukraine were guided by people who care little for winning hearts and minds because instead they believe they control them.

    • John
      March 21, 2014 at 07:51

      A very good conclusion. Those who serve the tyranny of gold make a science of controlling opinion without reason, like the servants of other tyrants. They have no need to win hearts and minds, but only to intimidate them, as the US has sought in domestic and foreign policy for generations.

  10. Bruce
    March 20, 2014 at 17:45

    That’s Amerikan E卐CEPTIONALISM !

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