Much has been said about the New York Times Op-Ed piece written by the President of Russia Vladimir Putin on the recent anniversary of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks. Some lawmakers provided vivid imagery of their reaction to the essay such as Democratic Senator Robert Menendez’s desire to ‘vomit’ while Republican Senator Jim Inhofe was ‘sickened’ upon reading the Op-Ed. Yet others saw the piece as an attempt to belittle the U.S.’ intent to conduct military action in Syria, in response to their violation of a chemical weapons ban. Curiosity got the best of me and I had to read the essay to see if the piece merited the riptide of emotions it had unleashed (well, at least here in Washington D.C.).
What I discovered instead of physical ailment was that it would be a great way to explore the subject of tone in writing. In writing, tone refers to the author’s attitude within the text. Tone can be established when the author addresses the intent of his work. Answering questions like:
- Why am I writing this?
- Who is my audience?
- What do I want readers to learn, or understand from reading this?
So how did the tone of President Putin’s Op-Ed play ignite the charged opinions from lawmakers, political pundits and concerned citizens? Well let’s assess his intent:
- Why did Putin write this essay? In his own words, Putin was prompted by “recent events surrounding Syria” to state his belief that a “potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.” Adding that U.S. military action would essentially increase violence and embolden terrorism.
- Who was his intended audience? The American people and lawmakers.
- What does he want us to take away from the essay? Avoid military action in Syria. He mentions a new opportunity for diplomatic resolution presenting itself in Syria, and urges President Obama to continue working with Russia for a diplomatic solution in Syria. In other words “avoid force against Syria [to] improve atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust.” Success in this endeavor would “open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”
Based on these initial reflections of the tone of the essay, it sounds non-controversial and dare I say, conciliatory in approach. But even if one were not knowledgeable on the tension-filled relationship history between the U.S. and Russia that spans from the Cold War era to Russia granting asylum to a wanted American criminal this summer, a closer look at Putin’s words would uncover a much different attitude. A prime example of the tone that was meant to convey President Putin’s posture loud and clear to the American public:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
Ouch! Those are fighting words! The imagery of Putin’s words essentially describe the United States as a global bully, with an incredibly confrontational approach to other nations, which consists of demanding respect and loyalty or risk being considered an enemy. And although the United States may claim to be a clear voice of reason on the global stage, the use of force tends to be our knee jerk reaction to rising conflict.
The Russian leader saves his best criticism for last, as he takes to task the fundamental principle of American exceptionalism. He laments that it was “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin goes on to say:
There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
The pen indeed, is a mightier weapon than the sword! In a nutshell President Putin wants us Americans to know that we are not special. And appealing to our Christian psyche, he reminds us that the same God we profess during national calls for unity and community did not set us apart from the rest of his creation. So the sooner we stop acting like we’re special, the better our relationships will be with nations of varying geographic, political and socio-economic backgrounds. Message received.