US and Russia Have Very Different Ideas About 'National Exceptionalism'

Interview With Avigdor Eskin
Speaking to Radio Sputnik on Friday, Israeli publicist and political analyst Avigdor Eskin rejected recent claims by some Western media commentators that Russia, like the United States, suffers from a complex of exceptionalism.

Late last month, The Economist published an article on the propensity for Russia to carry itself with a sense of exceptionalism similar to the United States. "In both Washington and Moscow, those who hold or seek power like to speculate out loud on whether their country's very existence serves a higher, divine purpose." With the case for US claims to exceptionalism relatively self-evident, The Economist turned to Russia, arguing that "Mr. Putin has been ever-bolder in making assertions that Russia has a unique vocation to follow in the world, as the nucleus of a distinctive civilization (around which smaller nations can gather) and as a guardian of traditional mores in a decadent, gender-bending world."

While Eskin agrees that the United States sees itself as an exceptional power (noting that this idea is voiced with any hesitation or inhibitions even at the highest levels of power), he argues that Russia has been stripped of such grand illusions since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The author of this article brings us some ideas of the Russian philosophers which emphasize a certain very special spirit of Russia, and he brings to mind Berdyaev, who combined traditional Russian [religious] messianic aspirations with the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution –a kind of secular messianic movement," Eskin notes.

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"On the one hand, it makes sense, but on the other, if you look into the situation today…I don't seen in Russian foreign policy anything which is messianic." Eskin notes that he cannot observe "any idea of a special Russian idea of the type which one could have found before." For instance, "today you don't see Russia trying to impose any ideology on other nations." The political scientist argues that "moreover, if you ask…what Russian ideology [amounts to] today, I doubt you will get a clear answer, not just among abroad, but among Russians themselves." The situation can't compare to that of the US, where President Obama says [openly] that there is an American exceptionalism, which is spreading democracy, special rights, equality, gay rights, pop culture, whatever it is." He notes that for the United States, American exceptionalism results in the application of double standards: "America allows herself to do things which they will not allow any other nation to do."

Ultimately, the expert notes that "maybe tomorrow the reality will change, [as] there is some potential for this in Russian tradition and Russian psychology. But as things are today, I think The Economist has taken a non-objective view of the situation by mixing reality with certain dreams which are not on the political agenda today."

Conflict in Ukraine an Example of Double Standards Fostered by Ideas of Exceptionalism

With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, where Russia has stepped out against Kiev's military campaign, Eskin argues that the Russian response has been a reaction to "Neo-Nazi ideology in regions close to Russian boundaries, to [those who seek] to install there the ideas of Bandera and Shukhevich." The analyst notes that "this response is not a messianic attempt to change the world…Russians are reacting, responding, defending, and not acting [as initiators]."

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As for the geopolitical implications of the Ukrainian conflict, Eskin argues that it "is a perfect example of double standards, because today everybody admits that Russia is not active in Donbas [and] is even encouraging the pro-Russian forces to find peace…Now, if this is the case, why should the US and Europe embarrass Russia more and more? The answer is clear: they want not just to have a ceasefire, but to have a huge psychological victory over Russia and to make sure that the last word belongs to them." The expert argues that Obama is trying to pay Putin back for the perceived loss of face he suffered in the Syria crisis. "Obama wants to show that he is capable of humiliating Mr. Putin. And unfortunately this personal side of the story is very much the whole story now." Eskin notes that instead of talking about how to improve peoples' lives, about turning the ceasefire into a peace process, about rebuilding and investment, "there are threats over and over again of new sanctions."

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Ultimately, Mr. Eskin argues that if Russia wants to impress upon Americans the reality of its intentions, Russian leaders should make an appointment with the National Press Club in Washington. "If [Putin] wants to be heard in America, he needs to go there, to send his people there, to open all the documents and to look into the eyes of the American people and talk to them –to do exactly what [Israeli Prime Minister Benjiamin] Netanyahu did. And then I am confident that there will be a chance for a new 'détente'…But you have to talk to the American people straight to the point, to answer their questions, to express your views for today, and to keep your promises for tomorrow."

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