Good day my fellow Americans,
Russian President Vladimir Putin has put into words, for readers of the New York Times, an Op-Ed piece, which made many great points about the Syrian conflict. While reading it, one part struck me as having come from a more guttural level, interestingly enough; it’s the part that has caught the attention of many Americans and the world as well.
I am talking of course, about his objection to my use of the term, American Exceptionalism. Let me begin with the most important part, an apology. It’s clear from Mr. Putin’s response, that he, and probably millions more, do not understand my feelings on this subject, and for that, and any hard feelings I created, I profusely apologize, the blame is mine.
I have not been clear on this subject and as Lincoln himself once declared, that is my fault. The president needs to be so clear, that even my enemies, and our countries enemies, cannot misconstrue or fail to grasp my meaning.
I want to begin over here today by making amends. I was not clear and I should have been. Let me begin my clarification by telling you about something exceptional.
I am a black man, who was lawfully elected President, of a majority white country, that has been governed by a written Constitution for the last 235 years. I am fairly certain that I am the only human being that has ever lived — that meets that description. And to what do I owe this…miracle?
The direct answer of course is the people of the United States. But the indirect answer is just as important, and the indirect answer is a Constitution that has evolved during those 235 years from one that mainly protected the rights of male property owners to one that today protects women, minorities, the disenfranchised, and very importantly, people of all religious background and persuasion.
It still isn’t a perfect document, and probably never will be. The decisions made by the people, and their faithful elected servants who carry them out — are not perfect and never will be either.
But it keeps getting better and I am so proud of it – I have sworn my life to protect it, and uphold it. I did this because I believe it is America’s best hope, it is America’s shining light, it is the idea that gives every American the chance, the opportunity, to live a life of happiness; ideally free from religious and race persecution, war, and famine; but just as importantly, the absolute and fundamental right to choose our laws and our own leaders.
Despite all these wonderful qualities — it offers us no shelter at all from economic ruin or the catastrophe of war. As a people, we face these types of things, along with natural disasters, and the new struggle to save our environment, on our own, as a people. A well-written constitution, produced by the people, is the string holding together many unequal lengths of wood into an unbreakable whole.
This does not mean every stick is treated equally. It means we strive for it. Every year, people are released from our jails, proven innocent by DNA technology, that have lost years, and in some extreme cases, decades of their life to our imperfect justice system.
Every year people right here in this country, are denied a meal, and/or a life saving operation or medicine. We can work on these problems and we can make progress against them — as we have continuously done for all of those many years since the founding fathers declared—that “We the people” would do so.
And of course, every year, we lose brave men and women to war, or the preparation for it. That is necessary in a world where the wolf is constantly at the door.
On 9-11 that wolf appeared, right in the heart of New York City, our cultural and financial capital, and right now our troops are on the other side of the world, attempting against great odds, to shut the door on that wolf. I cannot write this here and think about them without trembling while I thank them again for their unselfish, brave and heroic actions.
Their actions, the actions of our governmental leaders after WWII, and the actions of our founding fathers, bring me to my point about what I believe American Exceptionalism is, what it isn’t, and how the concept I’m writing about here really belongs to every human on the planet, whether they are able to exercise those rights, freely, or not.
Just last year, in Tahrir Square, in the very heart of Cairo, a brave and committed group of people – no different in basic make-up than any human here or in any other corner of the world — risked their lives because they can see this idea.
The idea that government is of the people, and for the people — before it can become, true sovereign government. The idea that such an honestly and fairly created government, a sovereign government, must share power with the people, all the people, and safeguard their rights, before it earns their loyalty in return.
The idea that man’s highest ambitions, his love of God, his love of family, and his love of justice, must be safeguarded by a sovereign government, before it is worthy of continuation. When WWII ended the U.S. and her allies, including Russia, (who bore the brunt of casualties from the invading German Army,) had conquered Germany, Italy and Japan.
By the existing system the world had largely used up until then, conquered land and the people in them, fell under the rule of, and sometimes were literally incorporated into the borders of, the conquering country. Building upon the knowledge, foresight, reasoning and genius of our founding fathers, and other enlightened thinkers, our post WWII leaders here in the U.S. did something different. Instead of burdening these countries with debt and shame, they enacted the Marshall plan, and gave these countries money, hope, reorganization, and of most critical importance — we gave them new Constitutions.
Today, the American people count the German, Italian and Japanese people as our allies. If you think hard about this, it is as miraculous as my election. Mr. Putin himself acknowledged in his letter that countries across the globe were being inexorably drawn toward democracy and I believe he is right. The people experimenting with democracy, the Germans, Italians and Japanese, after WWII, are now layers down in the world-wide systemic growth of shared power between governments and their people.
Their peoples now elect their own leaders, and decide the content of their own laws, and would never consider any other way of doing it. They learned that the law itself can bend into almost any shape to suit local custom or even temperament, but now have populations that want to be the ones wielding the tool that makes these laws, pretzel shaped or not, not a dictator, be it a man or a political machine.
These countries are prosperous, they have their own armies, with which they defend their own borders, and they also struggle, just as we do here in America, with the wolf at the door. That wolf may be an economic downturn, an aggressive neighbor or an imperfect justice system. But they struggle against these challenges, under Sovereign Constitutions, which recognize the basic rights of man, and strive to uphold them, while sharing power with the people.
I believe all the people of the world, from New York to Nepal, will one day live under Sovereign Constitutional governments that will make available to the people, at the minimum, the following rights; the establishment of power sharing institutions including a Judiciary free from religious coercion, a Presidential Head of state who is civilian in authority but is not subservient to the military, and a legislative branch that has confirmational authority over Presidential appointments, and purse power.
The right for all citizens: of reasonable arrest only, including a speedy and fair trial with legal representation for all defendants. Such trials and hearings need to be conducted by unbiased juries and judges, free from the coercive power of religious doctrine of any kind. This idea, which will appear to be a restriction to some extremist Muslims, must be counter blanched by a strong individual freedom to worship a God, any God, or no God, free from interference or persecution.
The right to individual privacy, both electronic, and physical. Here, in the United States, where we do a pretty good job of striving for American Exceptionalism in the area of civil rights, we’ve made mistakes in this area recently, some of which I regret and also plan to work on harder myself.
The right to speak freely, including, and even especially, reasonable opposition speech to the government.
The right of peaceful, free assembly.
The rights of a free press, shielded from government interference, including judicial interference.
The peaceful right to replace a government that does not uphold these rights, with one that does.
People the world over have an inalienable right to these liberties listed above and a series of lawfully constructed institutions to carry out the will of the people, while not usurping it, something which the document must insist can only happen if that power is divided and counter balanced. Our Declaration of Independence says so, our Constitution says so, the people of this great country say so, and I believe it is so. That is an Exceptional idea. That is, American Exceptionalism, but I must agree, the name is off putting. We were among the first and among the most successful at working out these ideas, so naturally that name stuck, but if it sours the scent of this magnificent rose to label it so, I’m willing to compromise
Maybe we should call it Lincolnism, the idea that people of any race, color and creed, have the right to shape their laws, elect their leaders, and share power with their government, because only such government is sovereign government, only such government can succeed in winning the trust of the people, and only such government earns god’s favor, and therefore continuation.
That is the essence, of what I mean, by American Exceptionalism. It does not mean that we’re better than anyone else in the world, wealthier, or even destined to remain a world power. As the world evolves, the U.S. will either succeed in her mission to help, rebuild, stabilize and protect herself and her allies, or she won’t.
But if she does, if the U.S. and world economy succeeds, and all these countries allied with us, or just trading with us, or even ones still our enemy, succeed, then by mathematical definition, our percentage of world wealth, and therefore influence, with be proportionally smaller. This will happen even as we continue to improve our country and make it better, internally. It’s a mathematical certainty that as a poor world economy grows toward higher and higher median GDP, the gap between the U.S and those countries will narrow. What good has democracy and capitalism done for those populations if they remain poor, and we remain rich, relatively?
This world wide economic evolution has closed the gap between the world and the U.S and nothing could be better for the billions of people in the world that would be living at or below the hardship; and even starvation limits — if this economic and political miracle, the world over, — had not occurred. Even as we face tough times now, lets not lose sight of what we have already accomplished.
There is one thing you count on to be constant, the will of the American people to remain free, to choose their own destiny as a people, to have a government that serves that will, rather than imposing one. I cannot deny the yearnings of a people that simply want what Americans have been blessed with for generations, a country where the basic rights of the people are incorporated into the fabric of the government itself ,and I believe that is the will of the American people as well.
To deny these truths to the people in Egypt, Syria, Iran, North Korea, or any country where the will of the people is stymied by the governmental elite, would be to turn my back on the heroes of our own revolution who sacrificed their homes, their safety, their fortunes, and in some cases their lives, so that I could write this letter from the position I’m in. I cannot turn my back on the hundreds of thousands of Americans who gave their lives during the Civil War, again, so that I might have a chance to do the same for another one day, another person, American or not, who believes in these truths.
Thinking about this problem, which I will be frank, my administration was not fully prepared for, my thoughts turned more and more to Abraham Lincoln. He too had many conflicting priorities, many factions offering solutions, none of which addressed the central problem – that the government of the United States – at that time, excluded a group of people living here – from the Constitutional rights shared by others.
Constitutional Democracy is not a easy thing, it is not a thing which stands on it’s own, each generation must refresh the document with wisdom, foresight, energy, blood, sacrifice, life, limb, fortune and sometimes even dignity. This is what we do to leave our children under the spreading tree of a Constitutional Democracy rather than a despot’s heel. Mr. Putin understands this as well; I believe it’s why he has preserved Russia’s growing democratic traditions, even though he clearly had the power to circumvent them in recent years.
In the end, Lincoln prayed to God, as I have every night and every day I am in this great house, and in God’s wisdom, he found the truth. That the sacrifice made by so many, should not be in vain. That the blood that soaked the ground at battlefields all across our great country would bring forth new life, a more just life, a life with liberty and equality enshrined in our law, and in our re-born, Sovereign Constitution.
I simply cannot improve upon his lesson. It was a lesson for America then, it is a lesson for Egypt, Syria, and North Korea now, and a lesson for all mankind, eternally.
Good night my fellow Russians and Americans, and God bless each and every one of you, I pray for a new tomorrow, a better tomorrow.