The new vogue on the left is to accuse anyone who criticizes our current mess of a foreign policy of being “almost treasonous.” My colleague David Harsanyi dispatches this claim rather nicely. Then again, we’re so old we remember when dissent was patriotic.
But there’s another aspect to this claim. Obama’s apologists accuse us of being Vladimir Putin’s apologists. They accuse us of admiring the Russian ruler and taking him as a model for what a real, assertive, manly foreign policy would be. This is equally ridiculous. By this standard, Winston Churchill was a Nazi sympathizer for pointing out how Neville Chamberlain was letting Adolf Hitler eat him for breakfast.
To make things clear, just because we think Obama is an abject failure doesn’t mean we think Putin is a model of success. And saying that he looks strong and decisive by comparison to the man currently in the Oval Office—well, let’s just say that Obama has set a pretty low bar.
To be sure, admiration of Putin enjoys currency among a certain faction of the Right. Angelo Codevilla goes about as far as you can reasonably go in praising the effectiveness of Putin’s policy, though I find him a little too interested in using Putin to score points against the “neoconservatives,” by which he means George W. Bush. And you’ll hear much more open admiration, not just of Putin’s means but of his ends, among the kind of people who are dogmatic supporters of Donald Trump. They hope we can Make America Great Again in much the same way Putin has Made Russia Great Again.
Except that he hasn’t. Vladimir Putin may be assertive and decisive, in his own malevolent way, but he has not been promoting Russia’s national interests. He has been promoting his own twisted goals, which are very different.
Russia’s actual long-term interests are, in fact, fundamentally similar to our own. Above all, Russia has an interest in having a thriving economy connected in peaceful trade with the rest of the world. The country’s biggest priority after the collapse of the Soviet Union was to build a relationship of peace and goodwill with Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, where Russia had an extensive history and connections—but where it had to overcome 40 years of resentment from the victims of Communist rule. Instead, Putin has started a new Cold War, with most of Russia’s former Eastern European satellites as its staunchest opponents. Really smart move there.
His military adventurism in places like Georgia and Ukraine has led to sanctions and to the isolation of the Russian economy from its biggest trading partners, leading Russian nationalists to attempt to make a virtue of privation. That’s what aggressive dictatorships always do, by the way. They start unnecessary conflicts that drag their countries down, then they try to make up for it by portraying the resulting economic collapse as virtuous self-denial in the service of the Motherland. In Russia, the old adage really is true that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.
Russia had so much to gain from integration with the global economy because its great strength is its relatively educated workforce, the thousands of scientists and engineers and educated professionals, not to mention enterprising entrepreneurs, who helped the Russian economy grow and modernize rapidly after the fall of the Soviet Union. But instead of nurturing this enormous national resource, Putin has been stamping it out. He denounced independent businessmen like Mikhail Khodorkovsky as “oligarchs”—talk about projection!—and targeted them for imprisonment on trumped-up corruption charges. This has chased a huge portion of his country’s business talent overseas in search of jurisdictions where they enjoy the rule of law. What remains in Russia is a corrupt and inefficient system of cronyism.
Instead of relying on a diverse economic base of engineers and entrepreneurs, Putin has encouraged Russia to become massively dependent on the extraction of raw materials, particularly oil and gas. This “oil curse” is no accident. Oil is a favorite source of economic power for dictators because it has a lot of value in the global economy, and it is relatively easy for the state to control, monopolize, and exploit as a steady source of cash. But this has also made the Russian economy vulnerable to the shock of a collapse in oil and gas prices, driven in part by increased competition from America as a major producer. The result is the declining value of the ruble—worth about a third as much as it was in 2008—and the stalling out of Russia’s economic growth.
Preserving his own personal power has also been the driving goal behind Putin’s foreign policy. His grand strategy has two main prongs. The first is to surround Russia with a ring of “frozen conflicts,” separatist movements that simmer in unresolved conflicts. Most nations wouldn’t want a state of constant low-grade warfare just across their borders. But for Putin, the goal is to weaken and destabilize his neighbors. In Ukraine, which has become a haven for Russia’s new dissidents, his goal is specifically to prevent the emergence of an attractive alternative to his dictatorship.
Hence the second prong of his grand strategy, which is to build an international dictator’s club whose members will lend each other diplomatic, military, and economic support. That’s what drives his interest in Syria and the Middle East. This has also been China’s foreign policy, and it has been dubbed a “zombie empire,” to describe the way China seeks out the weak and unstable. But who would you rather have as your allies? North Korea, or South Korea? Belarus, or Poland? Syria, or Israel? Venezuela, or Chile? Iran, or India? Russia has the first kind of allies, and despite President Obama’s best efforts, we have the second. I think we’re getting by far the better deal.
The essence of Putin’s rule has been to prioritize power for himself and his faction over growth and vitality for his country, and to cultivate needy, obedient allies over strong and vital ones. Far from making Russia great, he is holding it back from the wealth and power it might enjoy as a large nation with enormous natural resources and an educated population.
And he has not even really achieved his own personal interests, which would also be much better served by living in a free society. Putin has certainly used his power to enrich himself to a massive extent. But a shrewd, enterprising, and ambitious man like him could have lived just as opulently as a garden variety Moscow billionaire. Mere wealth and luxury are not his motives.
It’s a great mistake to think that dictators are motivated by a rational calculation of their own happiness. They are motivated by an irrational obsession with raw power, power for its own sake, which they pursue far beyond the point where its benefits might conceivably justify the effort. Whatever opulence there is in their palaces, whatever empty satisfaction there may be in the pomp and circumstance of their office, it cannot outweigh the burden of living in fear, doomed to endless scheming and intrigue.
The dilemma of every dictator is that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. Once you’ve gained that kind of power, you don’t dare give any of it up for fear that all of your old rivals and victims will do unto you as you did unto them. Take Putin’s Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. After decades of brutal rule by the Assad family and its Alawite faction, they couldn’t just go home and live out a peaceful life. They have to stay on top, even if it means an endless, brutal war with plenty of losses on their own side, because it’s a case of massacre or be massacred. By now, Bashar is probably regretting he gave up his old ophthalmology gig.
So no, I am not at all eager for us to follow the Putin model, either in goals or methods. That would be disastrous for America and even more profoundly inimical to our values and interests than it is to Russia’s. So let’s not admire Putin, let’s not envy him, and let’s not seek to copy either his strategy or his tactics.
That’s why it’s so ridiculous to make Putin into a representative of strong and decisive leadership, in order to excuse the absence of those virtues in the current occupant of the White House. President Obama has already proven that not being George W. Bush isn’t enough to make him a good leader or advance American interest. Now he’s proving that it isn’t enough to not be Vladimir Putin.