Max Fisher expresses bafflement regarding the last lines of Vladimir Putin’s instantly famous op-ed, particularly the final words “God created us equal.” Apparently, Fisher misses the echo of the Declaration of Independence, and specifically of one of the single most important sentences in political history. Putin or his ghostwriter or committee of ghostwriters might even have seen themselves as in part paying homage to American history – or appealing to American narcissism and especially the narcissism of those God-fearing American “Constitutional Conservatives” who have been Russia’s allies of convenience during this episode – but the move is more complex than a nod to friends or a propagandistic grace note.
Putin is declaring himself or his own country, and all of the countries of the world, “large and small,” and all of their people, all of us, “equal” or “created equal.” His argument against American exceptionalism is effectively that the American project as an ideological project is essentially over. Having triumphed, it is no longer necessary. The prophecy has been fulfilled: What in 1776 was a message of a few colonial upstarts – that “all men are created equal” – is now everyone‘s basic belief, even the belief of Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Belief in equality no longer sets Americans apart: Everyone believes everyone is equal – or equal before God or whatever atheist or other divine surrogates – so there’s nothing exceptional about believing so, and no need for Americans to go abroad seeking monsters to destroy.
The basis of America’s exceptional status is not a simplistic Jeffersonianism. Exceptionality, to be distinguished from any abstract idea or -ism, would be as much a fact, or functional facticity, of geography, economics, and the triplet outcomes of three world wars – First, Second, Cold – and it remains fundamental to an international security system that even Putin himself likely does not wish to see overturned, but within which he seeks a broader role, an enhanced counterbalance to American preponderance. Yet even as idea, Americanism awaits full realization, not just acknowledgment in principle, because it awaits the facts of democracy in Russia and Syria, however Russified and Syrianized, not just democratist lip service from authoritarians.