Liberalism’s Glorious Age of parliamentary democracy, nation building and national consolidation, free trade, and empire, of which Great Britain was the chief power and paramount symbol, reached a catastrophic close in 1914. After 1945, liberalism in renovated form attempted to launch a modern Glorious Age dominated by the Pax Americana and the United Nations and committed to the principles of established national borders, anticolonialism and self-rule, economic globalism, militant democratism, and the campaign for “human rights.” President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea denies, offends, transgresses against, or ignores—whether in act or in spirit—all of these things. John O’Sullivan, writing in The Spectator, does not exaggerate in concluding that Putin’s actions bring “to an end the Pax Americana and the post-Cold War world that began in 1989 . . . ”
American conservatives witnessing the occupation and ravaging of their country and the broader civilization of which it is a part by the aggressions of postmodern, or advanced, liberalism may be forgiven for concluding that liberalism is an irresistible, unstoppable, inevitable, almost an immortal force. While this may be so in the short run, it is absolutely untrue in the long term, although a certain familiarity with history is necessary to see why. Liberalism is actually a doomed movement, in the same way that a cancerous growth is doomed: Sooner or later it destroys its host, and itself with it. The late Kenneth Minogue observed, early in his long and illustrious career, that the liberal infection is inevitably a fatal one for every society that contracts it, and today he is being proved right. Liberal societies, no matter the surficial appearance of contentment they may present, are never happy ones, while the personal fate of sincere, conscientious, and perceptive liberals is sad, like that of Saint Paul’s hypothetical Christian for whom Christ’s existence is no more than a tragic delusion.
David Brooks, the New York Times’ substitute for a conservative columnist, warns that, with Russia, Western policymakers “may not be dealing with a ‘normal’ regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks.” Normality, of course, is a relative notion. And in the context of history before the beginning of the postwar era, a “normal” nation is very much like, in fact identical with, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. A fine book by the English historian John Darwin (After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000) emphasizes what should be obvious when one thinks about it: In the course of thousands of years of human history, empire and imperialism have been the rule rather than the exception, the millennial status quo, the type of political, economic, and social organization of human affairs on their natural level, like the ocean.
The Pax Europa lasted from 1815 to 1914, despite the outbreak of localized wars, the largest of them the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, only because the great European powers found it to their advantage to maintain the peace, and because events mainly cooperated with political circumstances in their doing so down to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Since 1945, the atom bomb and the probability that the next major war would be a nuclear one, the establishment of the United Nations, the creation of NATO and the European Common Market, the rough parity in military strength between the United States and the Soviet Union, economic globalization continuing roughly from where the earlier process left off with the Great War, and America’s apparent accession after 1991 to the status of sole superpower caused the West to forget the first laws of history, which are that where there is no means of enforcing law, there isn’t any law, and in the instance where one party desires something more passionately than the other does, it usually gets it, particularly when nobody really wants war and with it modern warfare’s almost unimaginable consequences.
Vladimir Putin knows what his Western opponents have forgotten, and that is what makes nations, and relationships between nations, tick. He understands this because he does not think in ideological terms but in realistic ones, unlike Obama and Cameron and Hollande (but not Mrs. Merkel) who descend from a line of highly ideological Western “leaders” since 1945 who, after the fall of the Soviet Union especially, have discovered in liberal-democratic capitalist-humanist globalism a type of counter-Marxism. Machiavelli rightly perceived that politics is always the art of the concretely possible and the necessary, never of the philosophical ideal; Montaigne, coming after him, correctly concluded that men do not create their political destinies but rather adapt themselves to circumstances as best they can.
[H]uman society holds and is knit together at any cost whatever. Whatever position you set men in, they pile up and arrange themselves by moving and crowding together just as ill-matched objects, put in a bag without order, find of themselves a way to unite and fall into place together, often better than they could have been arranged by art.
“These great, lengthy altercations,” he concluded, “about the best form of society and the rules most suitable to bind us, are altercations fit only for the exercise of our minds.” For these reasons Putin is a free president as Barack Obama is an unfree president and for one other besides, Putin having acquired sufficient political strength to dominate his so-called financial oligarchs, whereas an American chief of state is always under the thumb of Wall Street.
Putin’s realism, combined with his sense of history and his experience of the loss of the Soviet Union, allows him to understand what a nation-state is and what national survival requires. No one in Russia, least of all Vladimir Putin, is talking about “the end of the nation-state,” of “a world without borders,” and praising international multicultural society. Not even the neoconservative war parties in the House and Senate can be imagined standing from their seats and roaring “USA! USA!” as the members of the Duma shouted “Russia! Russia!,” some of them reportedly in tears, when President Putin addressed them to announce the annexation of Crimea. Conversely, the most enthusiastic nationalists and imperialists in the Russian government have never advocated encouraging immigration to Russia from the Asiatic nations to the south or anywhere else, despite the country’s dangerous demographic decline. If Russia is to be a greater nation than she is today, she will be as racially and culturally homogeneous as possible, a country populated chiefly by Russians; and if the Russian empire is to be restored in Central Asia, it will be operated by Russians, not by the natives of its various component parts, not even to the extent that the British Raj was managed by Indian bureaucrats working under their British governors and overseers. Whether such things can be accomplished is certainly questionable. But the point is that the Russian government, with the support, apparently, of the majority of the nation if not of Muscovites, means to make them happen, and that it will not allow itself to be constrained by scruples regarding the morality of nonadministrative, extra-bureaucratic political action.
A nation properly understood rests upon a national, though not necessarily an established, religion, and cultivates a civilization proper to itself, distinctive and recognizable though not, of course, “pure” and without influences from outside it. The Russian Orthodox Church is a vital component of Vladimir Putin’s plans, and so is the traditional moral code the Church represents. Healthy societies with responsible governors in charge of them do not tolerate behavior such as Pussy Riot’s blasphemy in a house of worship, let alone in a national cathedral, nor do they validate or encourage homosexuality and recognize and endorse homosexual “marriage.” Putin admires Nikolai Berdyaev, Ivan Ilyin, and Vladimir Solovyov, all three of them 19th-century Russian philosophers and prophets of national greatness, and quotes liberally from their writings. Partly on account of his supposedly retrograde determination, but chiefly for his annexation of Crimea, the Russian president is “Comrade Putin” to FOX News, which goes to show how little history television journalists know and understand.
The truth is that even those liberal Westerners who call themselves conservatives are appalled by Vladimir Putin. Indeed, they are frightened almost to death by him. This is because he is showing them the way back to what they and their respective countries once were, and to what—if these nations are to survive in a world whose characteristic ideas, assumptions, and behavior resemble those of Putin’s far more closely than they do their own—they must return. Putin is, quite simply, rediscovering and insisting upon the historical nation-state, and with it the concept of traditional society. It is the history of Russia, Czarist Russia and Soviet Russia in sequence, that has allowed him to do this, which is nothing less than to recognize the lessons all history teaches, and modern history points to. In this sense, Vladimir Putin is a man ahead of his time—of our time. As postmodern America “progresses” under the regime of advanced liberalism, one critic has suggested that the United States may be fated to collapse somewhat in the manner of the Soviet Union, and devolve thereafter into a state of anarchotyranny, brutality, and cultural and social dysfunction similar to that which Russia suffered in the last decade of the 20th century. No doubt a similar perception explains why so many conservatives I know view recent events in Russia with approbation and recognize Putin as a sort of hero, and why Pat Buchanan has written sympathetically of the Russian president and his policies. This is not to argue that Western politicians should adopt Vladimir Putin as a kind of model. Russia is Russia, a society few Westerners would wish to live in, and she must seek her destiny in her own way and according to her own lights, as we should our own.
Putin’s Russia is more of a political and social lesson for the West than she is an example to it. President Obama is entirely correct is his recent, vindictively slighting, evaluation of Moscow as a “regional power” that does not directly threaten the United States. Ultimately, Putin is unlikely to succeed in halting Russia’s demographic and economic decline, which will certainly present difficulties in the long run. In the short one, he gives the Russian people reason to feel better about themselves, and Western democratic politicians cause to reflect on the nature of power and its uses, at home and abroad.