To fulfill the potential for cooperation, both U.S. and Russian leaders will need to refrain from the types of provocative statements that inflame national sentiments.


Does America need Russia to prove it’s exceptional? Photo: AP / RIA Novosti

All nations are unique, of course, and in principle, their sense of their distinctiveness does not need to harm their relations with other nations. In practice, however, nations’ beliefs in their exceptionalism have often contributed to a sense of racial superiority or a cultural arrogance that have had violent and ugly consequences.

Americans’ deep faith in the exceptionalism of the United States has not often driven specific foreign policy decisions, but it has tended to pull U.S. foreign policy in three different directions: toward a revulsion at revolutions by hotheaded foreign peoples who could not successfully emulate the example of a supposedly sober and moderate American revolution; toward an isolation from the conflicts and corruptions of morally and politically inferior nations; or toward ambitious and costly efforts to remake foreign nations in the image of the United States.

Especially in the context of the retrenchment following the costly and disillusioning experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, American exceptionalism is not likely to be very dangerous for the world. Yet the unilateralist strain of American exceptionalism certainly does not contribute to strengthening the United Nations and other international institutions.

Americans’ needs to affirm the moral superiority of the United States have led them to magnify the evils of many other nations. Since the late nineteenth century, Americans have defined the exceptionalism of the United States through contrasts to Russia, in its tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet forms, more than through contrasts to any other nation. 

That tendency has often contributed to highly charged media representations, emotionalism, and ad hominem attacks on Russian leaders by American politicians that make it more difficult for Washington and Moscow to pursue their common interests.

Russians, in turn, have often affirmed their moral superiority through contrast to the United States, for example to American materialism, racism, and imperialism. They also have succumbed at times to the self-flattering notion that very different nations (Cuba, Ethiopia, etc.) were following their uniquely shining example. Yet, since the demise of the Soviet Union Russian leaders have been freed from that ideological delusion and in the twenty-first century they generally have focused clearly on Russian national interests. 

To fulfill the potential for cooperation with the United States, Russian leaders will need to refrain from reacting to American vilification with provocative statements that inflame American sentiments.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.