Putin touched a tender nerve

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised a storm with his criticism of “American Exceptionalism.” One senator from New Jersey stated that it wanted to make “him vomit” when he read the op-ed in the New York Times. How dare any other national leader criticize what to many Americans is its historical prerogative -to advance its world view regardless of what others think of it or the other country’s interest?

Certainly John McCain and Lindsay Graham believe that because the United States is so pure that it is the world’s arbiter of conflict. Like the Caesar’s of old it can give a thumbs up or thumbs down and make it stick. We have the right to indulge others’ mistakes but woe betide any nation that dares to do the same to America. Camouflaged as internationalism, it represents the worst kind of parochialism and besides, it is dangerous.

Putin is certainly no saint, but his wars in Chechnya and Georgia were waged against rebels and those on Russia’s border. His suppression of rights is unsavory, but never the less represent the actions of a government legally constituted, certainly the whiff of Woodrow Wilson remains with his non-recognition policy against nations we did not approve is prominent today. Better to stick with John Quincy Adams’ admonition not to go abroad in search of “dragons to slay.”

And besides it means war without end. Consider Great Britain, which was once the indispensable nation. From the 18th century on it fought “Universal Monarchy” as represented by the French and later Napoleon. It intervened anywhere it thought its moral code was being violated. In time the Empire that was accrued slowly eroded and the torch was unceremoniously passed to the United States. After World War II the USA with its power seemed able to demand and receive all it wanted.

By the 1970s, thanks to Vietnam, spiraling inflation and general fatigue, the American colossus lost a bit of its power. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger recognized this new world and modified America’s foreign policy to reflect new realities.

Ronald Reagan carried a big stick but did not use it much. In the end he was careful, withdrawing from Lebanon in 1984 and expanding American power in subtle ways. George H.W. Bush built a coalition and joined for a time “a new world order.” It was up to his son to undo what the father so carefully built.

The neo-conservative view that led to America’s temporary setbacks was one built on flawed history and sentimental notions. Longing for the day when the United States had once imposed its will, it dredged up policies no longer valid. This was no longer the world of the 1960’s when the economy grew at 7 percent, 8 percent and 9 percent per annum. Guns and butter was possible for a time – but that time ran out. Instead the U.S. ended up with high gasoline prices and a disillusioned public, thanks to hotheads like McCain and Graham.

President Barack Obama, despite rhetorical overkill, nevertheless was smart to return to bilateralism. This is based on strength – witness Nixon’s 1972 Wheat Deal with the USSR. Hardly a giveaway, it demonstrated that the United States was the indispensable supplier of food, exposing the Soviet Union as bankrupt. Nixon got the ball rolling and Reagan kicked the goal. Obama would be best advised to follow their examples.