Vladimir Putin – bare-chested champion of traditional values! It’s an old pose, but he strikes it again in an interview with the Financial Times today.
“On the eve of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, the Russian president said ‘the liberal idea’ had ‘outlived its purpose’ as the public turned against immigration, open borders and multiculturalism.”
Noting the cracks in western democracy, Putin proceeds to insert a crowbar and waggle it around:
“Mr Putin branded Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit more than 1m refugees to Germany, mainly from war-ravaged Syria, as a ‘cardinal mistake’. But he praised Donald Trump for trying to stop the flow of migrants and drugs from Mexico: ‘This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.’”
This is obvious rubbish. No western politician of any standing, no matter how liberal, argues that migrant rights involve allowing them to “kill, plunder and rape with impunity”. The various failures we’ve seen in policing, criminal justice and border control don’t change that fact – especially as these haven’t all been on the side of excessive leniency.
But, of course, there’s little point in exposing the errors and exaggerations in Putin’s comments, they’re not intended to be a reasonable critique, but a provocation. Their purpose is to invite condemnations, such as those already issued by the Donald Tusk and Boris Johnson.
It suits Putin to place himself on one side of an argument and the western political establishment on the other. His real message is to western voters who feel their concerns on issues like immigration are being ignored – ‘look at me’, he’s saying, ‘I’m the one speaking up for you, not this cabal!’
Of course, such voters can’t back him directly, but they can support the ‘national populist’ politicians who make a point of not joining the chorus of anti-Putin liberals. In other words, he’s manipulating all of us – critics and sympathisers alike. One only has to look at the way the FT presents the interview to see how easy it is to fall into his trap:
“Mr Putin’s evisceration of liberalism — the dominant western ideology since the end of the second world war in 1945 — chimes with anti-establishment leaders from US president Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and the Brexit insurgency in the UK.”
Notice how Brexit is casually placed into the same category as Trump, Salvini and Orban.
Brexit was a vote for self-government not a particular programme of government – on which there was, and is, no consensus among Leavers. But never mind the nuance, to the absolutists one is either with the liberal establishment (which in Europe means the EU) or the national populists. And once Putin steams in, it’s a case of choose your team: “ever closer union” or Mother Russia.
But how about neither? How about a free association of nations who trade and cooperate with one another – but which also respect one another’s sovereignty? It’s an approach which, in their very different ways, both the EU and Putin’s regime seem to have a problem with.
There’s another false binary at work here: that between liberalism and anti-liberalism. Again we’re invited to pick a side, but one can reject the liberal idea that individual freedom is ultimately the only thing that matters and the anti-liberal idea that it doesn’t matter at all. Indeed, western democracy is the product of political traditions that seek to balance the ‘I’ and ‘we’ of human existence without crushing either. Conservatism, decentralised democratic socialism and continental Christian democracy are some of the attempts to find this balance. None ever entirely succeed, which is why we need to maintain democratic and peaceful competition among them – both within and between nations.
However, this competition is under threat from liberals who seek to embed their ideology within national and international frameworks that exclude other democratic traditions.
In his interview with the FT, Putin remarks that: “The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
A system that still commands majority support is hardly obsolete. For all its faults, the western establishment still submits to free and fair elections – unlike certain other regimes one could mention. As for “conflicting with the interests of the majority” that’s an inevitable feature of liberalism, because individual interests inevitably and continually conflict with one another.
Liberal systems therefore have to find a way of bringing order if not resolution to these conflicts. As things stand, it is clear that most people still think they have more to gain from the established order of priorities than any alternative. The danger though is that there is a growing number who don’t – hence rising support for the kind of politics that promises a substantial reordering of priorities. The identity politics of the woke Left and the chauvinistic protectionism of Donald Trump might not seem to have much in common, but both are about changing the rules for arbitrating the conflicts of liberalism.
Rather than becoming obsolete, the real danger facing liberalism is that it will become inflexible – fossilised around a particular framework of rules, which an angry minority feel they have no chance of ever changing.
That gives a rule breaker like Vladimir Putin a lot to work with.