Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an op-ed to The New York Times, supported efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the current conflict in Syria. Putin has a valid point: military strikes kill more innocent people than they protect. Trying to end the violence through more violence is not the final answer to the ongoing problem.
However, Putin forgets that diplomatic relations cannot stand alone as the only tool used to obtain peace. Reason, respect and compassion — necessary ingredients in diplomatic debate — are only effective if the opposition also respects their validity. Diplomacy is, inherently, a meeting of equals. As Putin definitively states, we must remember that “the Lord created us all equal.” But what do you do when your adversary does not regard you as his equal? What happens when the common denominator — your inherent human dignity — is not respected by those you’re trying to negotiate with?
We do not believe the people of America to be more “exceptional” than anyone else by mere merit of birthright. We believe that America as a country — as the first to value the liberty of its citizens over the personal good of its rulers — is exceptional.
We were the first nation to successfully integrate private and public life without either combining the two or negating one for the sake of the other. The founders broke from the existentialist vision that ravaged Europe. They rejected the distorted philosophies which saw citizens as islands in a sea of natural violence that required law to restrain them. Instead, the founders recognized law as a liberator of man’s natural potential for goodness.
America was the first to establish a government that did not see itself as the arbitrator of justice, but rather as its conduit. America is exceptional because it was the first modern nation to formally recognize the value of humanity and to take the necessary steps to protect from itself the array of rights that go along with personhood. Whether or not current American public officials act in a way that reflects the founding principles is an indicator of their own misunderstanding, not of a defect in nation’s revolutionary perspective.
To say that it is “dangerous” to believe America is exceptional is to say that there is nothing special about the human person. If there is nothing special about the human person, then why get involved in foreign affairs at all, diplomatically or otherwise?
Putin’s appeal is circular. He implies that our country, by believing itself to be exceptional because of its foundation on a deep appreciation for the equal dignity of every human being, is a threat to other human beings.
What Putin fails to understand is that supporting human equality does not mean allowing innocent people to die for the sake of “peace,” in both international relations and the American character. There will always be people who act solely in their own interest, the way of “walking softly” through diplomatic relations only works if you also carry the big stick. Just as it is impossible to reason with those who refuse to listen, it is impossible to legislate goodness into the hearts of men who reject it.
If we really believe that there is something special in the notion that government should be for the people, by the people and has a duty to respect its people because of a dignity inherent to the human person, then we have a duty, in the name of human equality, to share this with the rest of the world. Diplomacy is the first solution in times of crisis, not a curtain to hide behind. A peace that is established by allowing evil to exist is not “peace” at all.