American exceptionalism and Putin

The Boston GlobeMarch 25, 2014 

Here’s the funny thing about Americans: We believe that our country is exceptional – unique and special in the world. But at the same time, we think that everyone else can and should be just like us.

When we look into the faces of protesters in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine, we identify with their hopes and dreams. We imagine they want to be just like us. That faith in the universality of democracy is an essential part of who we are.

But sometimes our faith in “the will of the people” seems too blind. We’re so gung ho about democracy that we forget how hard it really is, and how long it really takes to get right. We cheer on these lurches toward self determination at the beginning, until they take their inevitable turn for the worse.

After the hated leader loses his grip on power, chaos descends. Mobs get drunk on their own authority. Bad guys gain the upper hand. Then we get disgusted. We lose patience. We stop seeing ourselves in them. We realize that they aren’t like us after all, and we turn away. (Think: Afghanistan.)

Those who have little faith in democracy watch this pattern with disdain. Vladimir Putin is hardly a popular guy these days, but it’s worth taking a look at the world through his eyes. He warned that free and fair elections in Egypt would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. We didn’t listen. He bitterly opposed the NATO bombing in Libya, arguing that it was meddling in a sovereign country. When Moammar Khadafy was deposed, Putin felt that the West had lied about what was meant to be a purely humanitarian mission.

Since then, Putin has refused to support any international action on Syria. He begged the United States to stay out of it in an op-ed in The New York Times last year. “There are few champions of democracy in Syria,” he wrote. To Putin, we are reckless children who instigate disorder, make a mess, and then run off, leaving others to clean up.

If Putin felt his concerns were brushed aside on the Middle East, imagine what he thought when protests erupted in his own backyard in Ukraine.

Americans “have come to believe in their exceptionalism and their sense of being the chosen ones,” Putin said in a speech last week. “That they can decide the destinies of the world, that it is only them who can be right.”

You don’t have to be a quasi-dictator like Putin to feel nervous about what happened in Kiev. A democratically elected leader got ousted by a mob. That’s a bad precedent, no matter how you slice it.

But we’re so enamored with the protesters – with the idea that Ukraine wants to be more like us – that we ignore the bad precedent. We conveniently forget what a long, rocky road lies ahead.

Even if we pour in billions to stabilize the Ukrainian economy, Russia could starve Ukraine by simply refusing to purchase its goods. Even if we stabilize the political situation with elections in May, Russia can destabilize it by sending provocateurs across the porous border. And even if we slap Russia with more sanctions, Russia could seize the assets of Boeing, Pepsi, Lockheed Martin and other American businesses with big contracts in Moscow. Lobbyists will descend on Washington to demand an end to all the tough talk. How long will it take us to get disillusioned with Ukraine? To highlighting corruption in a government we once championed? How long will it take us to back away and decide that they aren’t like us after all?

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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