President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)
We live at an amazing moment in time (particularly when you consider the damage done to our nation and its international reputation by the Bush administration).
Syria’s government has joined the civilized nations of the world and agreed to destroy their chemical weapons of mass destruction. And the president of the United States just had a cordial telephone conversation with the president of Iran.
This may never have happened if President Obama had listened to his generals instead of taking seriously the voices of President Putin and the United Nations.
There are, of course, Americans who don’t welcome this. They want empire, war, and absolute domination of the planet. They believe that America is “exceptional,” and this “exceptionalism” gives us the right to ignore international laws and international standards of behavior.
During the first year of his presidency, at a speech in Strausburg Germany, President Obama pointed out that one can be proud of one’s country, and even think one’s country is exceptional, without that meaning that a nation is above the rule of law and above all others.
He said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I am enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”
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This remark, reflecting common sense, diplomacy, and human decency, made the right wing in America go insane. Mitt Romney, eyeing a presidential bid, announced that President Obama was on “an apology tour” of the world. The phrase was picked up and used tens of thousands of times in right wing media from Fox so-called News, to right wing radio, to the pages of conservative newspapers and magazines.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What President Obama was expressing was the humility of a great nation exemplified in George Washington’s farewell address, and in the Treaty of Tripoli, written during the Washington presidency and signed a year later by President John Adams.
The Treaty of Tripoli, one of our nation’s first, said:
“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Muslims; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Muslim nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. In case of any dispute, arising from a violation of any of the articles of this treaty, no appeal shall be made to arms; nor shall war be declared on any pretext whatever.”
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, spoke eloquently to this idea of nations respecting each other and always favoring diplomacy over war in an op-ed he published in the New York Times on September 11th. President Putin is no stranger to virulent nationalism – he has lived long enough to see it damage his own nation – which no doubt informed his thinking when he wrote:
“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. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
It’s a sad commentary on the power of right-wing nationalists in the United States that President Obama felt it necessary to invoke American exceptionalism in his speech at the United Nations, which is what provoked President Putin’s rebuke. But President Obama’s earlier speech in Germany, and his recent actions with Syria and Iran, show that he also understands – and shares – President Putin’s worldview.
Every nation is unique, and the people of every nation consider their nation exceptional. When that is expressed in a healthy way, you see nations moving in progressive directions, working toward peace, their leaders behaving like statesmen and stateswomen.
When nationalism and exceptionalism are expressed in unhealthy ways, you see national embarrassments like John McCain singing, “Bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran,” and political hacks attacking their president with slurs like “apology tour.”
Just a bit over a decade ago, as George W. Bush used anger and lies to drive us into two unnecessary and tragic wars, such statesmanship was unimaginable. Today we have the leaders of two of the world’s great powers seeking peace through diplomacy and statesmanship, rather than violence.
If President Obama can successfully continue to resist America’s fanatical right-wing neocon warhawks and move us ever more into the boundaries of international law, one day soon we may see the tragic legacy of the Bush Doctrine finally put to rest. And that, of course, would be an exceptional thing for both America and the world.