Putin’s Ambivalent Illiberalism
Vladimir Putin's recent elegy for Western liberalism has garnered widespread attention for all the wrong reasons. Behind the Russian president's cynical rhetoric lie deep anxieties about what US President Donald Trump's illiberal, anti-democratic administration could mean for international security and Putin's own hold on power.
PARIS – Russian President Vladimir Putin recently told the Financial Times that “the liberal idea has become obsolete,” drawing a wave of earnest rebuttals. The provocation warrants attention, but not the type of attention it has received so far.
Admittedly, Putin’s contention was less ridiculous than US President Donald Trump’s own statement equating “liberalism” with “what is happening” in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But Putin also asserted that Russia is more democratic than the United Kingdom. Like his claim to have won the Russian presidency through free and fair elections, such quips are not meant to be taken seriously.
That includes Putin’s mischievous aside that liberalism is wholly outdated. Indeed, his contention that the liberal West is now sharing the humiliating fate of the Soviet Union appears to reflect wishful thinking, or even a revenge fantasy.
Still, it is worth asking why Putin would bother to caricature “the liberal idea” as an archaic philosophy that encourages coddling immigrants who rape and murder and imposing multiple gender roles on children. “Multiculturalism,” he says, is no longer “realistic,” because it conflicts with “the interests of the indigenous population” in liberal-democratic societies.
What informs this eccentric perspective? The simplest answer is that Putin is recycling the talking points of the alt-right nativists who have been disrupting Western politics in recent years. This is not just an entertaining way to poke Westerners in the eye. As Putin knows well, the nativist promise of restoring a lost monoculture is a recipe for political weakness and even civic violence in both America and Western Europe.
Most of Putin’s other responses to the Financial Times were unremarkable. His observation that globalization has not been kind to Western middle classes is hardly original. And it is no secret that liberalism’s reputation has been tarnished by illiberal China’s economic miracle, not to mention the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of out-of-control technology companies facilitating the dissemination of fake news. Nativist politicians like Trump have exploited liberalism’s moment of weakness by tapping into the demographic anxieties of economically distressed populations, and by stoking animus toward “establishment elites.”
Get unlimited access to OnPoint, the Big Picture, and the entire PS archive of more than 14,000 commentaries, plus our annual magazine, for less than $2 a week.
But, unlike Trump, Putin knows that traditional liberalism cannot be reduced to “political correctness” and “open borders.” He is fully aware of liberalism’s broader legacy, which includes the abolition of torture; civilian control of the military; freedom of conscience and expression; an independent press to expose official corruption and incompetence; and the demand that government decision-making be based on facts and arguments that can be publicly contested.
Putin’s deeper understanding of liberalism becomes obvious when he complains about its “hegemonic” ascendancy since the end of the Cold War. Like most post-Soviet leaders, he was irked by the humiliating idea that all non-Western countries should adopt Western liberalism and discard their own allegedly inferior traditions.
In the Financial Times interview, Putin expresses astonishment that the West would “want a region such as Libya to have the same democratic standards as Europe and the US.” In his view, “liberal hegemony” means “democracy promotion,” which is nothing but a euphemism for “regime change.” Here, not in his gibes about liberalism’s love affair with gender pluralism and immigrant criminality, one glimpses the gravamen of his case against the liberal idea. Putin defends dictators such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from what he sees as Western encroachments because he is ultimately concerned about his own uncertain grip on power. He has long believed that the United States, before Trump, was using democracy-promotion as a cover for its plot to oust him from the Kremlin.
Far from a demonstration of masterful “trolling,” however, Putin’s remarks about liberalism actually betray a deep ambivalence about the current fragility of the “liberal idea.” Though Trump has weakened Western alliances and eschewed democracy-promotion, as the Kremlin would have wished, he has also gone further, launching a project of full-scale democracy-desecration, both at home and abroad.
Paradoxically, the end of America’s interest in the global spread of democracy and liberalism poses a serious threat to Putin’s own position. Much of Putin’s domestic legitimacy stems from the fact that he has boldly stood up to a supposedly arrogant West. But now that Trump has abandoned everything the West once stood for, the anti-America card has lost its political resonance. In fact, an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply.
Putin’s fears in this regard are revealed by his curious pivot toward the end of the Financial Times interview, when he commutes liberalism’s death sentence and admits that it actually deserves a degree of support. Though this volte-face utterly contradicts his claim that liberalism has “ceased to exist,” it is in keeping with a leader who openly aspires to protect the international trading system from Trump’s “impatience” and “rashness.”
But Putin’s unexpected nostalgia for the liberal world order is even more striking in his lamentation for the international arms-control regime. While still arguing that America’s reckless commitment to “regime change” is the primary motivation for non-democratic states to pursue a nuclear deterrent, he now recognizes the equal and opposite danger of Trump’s disengagement from all forms of multilateralism.
Should the US withdraw from its defense commitments in Europe or Asia, far more countries would feel the need to develop nuclear weapons to ensure their own security. In Trump’s dizzyingly unpredictable and increasingly unruly post-liberal world, illiberal autocracies, too, run the risk of “ceasing to exist.”