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Putinism and the ‘Battle of Regimes’

The disaster that is distinctive to the Obama era is the re-animation of a global ideological conflict between freedom and dictatorship.


I think we are just beginning to see the distinctive foreign policy failure of the Obama era.

It’s not the emergence of a new Islamist threat. Yes, President Bush had beaten back the Islamists in a number of important ways, particularly al-Qaeda’s rejection by the Sunnis in Iraq. Islam is a religion that expects success and domination, so when a supposed champion of Islam is defeated in the central conflict of the day—and defeated because its own supporters turned against it—that has a crushing impact, materially and morally.

So letting a new Islamist force rise up in the same region is a serious setback. Yet the regional conflict between Islam and the West didn’t end in the Bush era and wasn’t likely to end under his successor, either. It is likely that some Islamist group would have formed again, whoever was president, even if we might have been in a better position to fight it.

The disaster that is distinctive to the Obama era is the re-animation of a global ideological conflict between freedom and dictatorship. Vladimir Putin has been working to revive dictatorship in Russia for the past fifteen years. But it is only in recent years, and particularly in the conflict in Ukraine, that Putin’s regressive vision has metastasized into Putinism, into a doctrine that is beginning to spread elsewhere.

The key moment when everyone realized this was a July 26 speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in which he denounced “liberal democracy.”

Orban has been inching toward a fascist-tinged dictatorship for a while now, but still the news brought a special shock coming from a country that was one of the first to rebel against Soviet domination and to remove itself from the Communist empire—not to mention one of the first Eastern European countries to join the European Union, which is supposed to be a club reserved for free societies.

Yet Orban muses about how “systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies” are “yet making nations successful.” The examples he cites are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and of course Putin’s Russia. He cites a grab-bag of criticisms from left, right, and center—including, I should note, some statements from our own president—to show how Western ideals were supposedly discredited by the 2008 financial crisis. To highlight the absurdity of the whole thing, I will cite just one complaint: “liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex, and violence and with this liberal values discredit America and American modernization.” If Orban wants to complain about corruption, sex, and violence, he should look east, toward a Russia rife with all three.

Fareed Zakaria defines the creed this way: “The crucial elements of Putinism are nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism, and government domination of the media.” “Religion” is a sloppy shorthand. What he means is an appeal to a kind of blind, obscurantist traditionalism.

Leonid Bershidsky calls it the Vladimir Putin School of Leadership and lays out the template in more exact detail.

1. The leader’s personal power either exceeds the legal allotment or allows the leader to change the law when needed;

2. Justice is selective and politically motivated (“For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law”), often in the guise of anti-corruption campaigns;

3. Censorship of the media falls short of totalitarian repression but stifles dissenting opinions;

4. The regime associates itself with “traditional values,” revisionist history, and strong nationalist rhetoric (and, sometimes, action);

5. Leaders express irritation with Western “double standards” and “preaching,” believing that the West operates just as cynically, only less openly.

He finds evidence of Putinism in China, India, Malaysia, Turkey, South Africa, and Argentina, and he worries that “democracy as the West understands it will have to compete with a new strain of authoritarianism, much as it did with communism in Soviet times.”

And just to make this seem even more like old times, this is becoming a contest over which ideological faction can influence what we used to call the Third World. Thus, David Brooks describes the backdrop for a recent Washington, DC, summit with African leaders as a “battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.” This is David Brooks, so we have to realize that he tends to utter contradictions like “centralized authoritarian capitalism” without thinking them through. But his point is well taken, especially with China emerging as a major investor in Africa and an uncritical sponsor of the continent’s authoritarians.

Fortunately, Putinism remains a vague persuasion, not a well-developed ideology. It enjoys nothing like the wide-ranging philosophical and theoretical base that Communism could claim in the early 20th century, before it was thoroughly exposed as fraudulent. The spread of such a weak retread is a sign, not of the ideological strength of authoritarianism, but of the ideological and political weakness of the West, particularly now that we have a president so unwilling and unqualified to take up the neglected title of Leader of the Free World.