How Putin became global ideological hero of nationalists, populists


Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved his current geo-political “prominence because he anticipated the global populist revolt and helped give it ideological shape,” argues analyst Franklin Foer. “With his apocalyptic critique of the West—which also plays on anxieties about Christendom’s supposedly limp response to Islamist terrorism—Putin has become a mascot of traditionalist resistance,” he writes for The Atlantic:

After the global financial crisis of 2008, populist uprisings had sprouted across Europe. Putin and his strategists sensed the beginnings of a larger uprising that could upend the Continent and make life uncomfortable for his geostrategic competitors. A 2013 paper from the Center for Strategic Communications, a pro-Kremlin think tank, observed that large patches of the West despised feminism and the gay-rights movement and, more generally, the progressive direction in which elites had pushed their societies. With the traditionalist masses ripe for revolt, the Russian president had an opportunity. He could become, as the paper’s title blared, “The New World Leader of Conservatism.”

Demagogic populism

Globalization, combined with grievances over immigration and multiculturalism, also created room for “demagogic populism,” according to Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Globalization really does seem to produce these internal tensions within democracies that these institutions have some trouble reconciling,” he said. “When democracies start turning on themselves and undermining their own legitimacy, then you’re in much more serious trouble,” he tells The Washington Post.

But, contrary to prevailing wisdom, the new populism cannot be wholly attributed to economic displacement, Foer adds:

In search of a global explanation for the ongoing revolt, Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan have sifted through polling data and social science. They’ve found that right-wing populists have largely fed off the alienation of older white voters, who are angry about the erosion of traditional values. These voters feel stigmatized as intolerant and bigoted for even entertaining such anger—and their rage grows.

The increasing salience of identity politics has also frayed notions of common citizenship and provided fertile terrain for a populist backlash, analysts suggest.

White working-class Americans, for example, “ live in a world where racial identity politics is played by every other group. They need only copy what other groups have done and use the language of multiculturalism and civil rights to undergird support for a more self-conscious white population,” notes Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University.

We have heard a good deal about “white nationalism” recently, she writes for The Financial Times:

I define nationalism as the belief that people with a common language, heritage and culture should be able to maintain their differences from other groups. It can be positive if it revolves around allegiance to one’s country, and negative if it is narrowly focused on race. Nationalism in the positive sense differs from old-style, violently racist white supremacism.”

Putin inverted Cold War narrative

“Meanwhile, the Russian Church leadership has neither the will nor the capacity, it seems, to speak truth to Putinesque power; those who try to do so are quickly marginalized or exiled, notes George Weigel, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Russia’s ideological appeal to elements of the religious Right in the West shows that “Putin has inverted the Cold War narrative,” Foer contends. “Back in Soviet times, the West was the enemy of godlessness. Today, it’s the Russian leader who seeks to snuff out that supposed threat.” RTWT

“The specter of decline has haunted the West ever since its rise. But the recent spate of jeremiads is different,” notes Foer. “They have an unusually large constituency, and revisit some of the most dangerous strains of apocalyptic thinking from the last century—the fear of cultural degeneration, the anxiety that civilization has grown unmanly, the sense that liberal democracy has failed to safeguard civilization from its enemies.”

But while Russia is ideologically assertive in some spheres, it’s non-ideological opportunism has allowed it to make gains in the Middle East, observers suggest.

“The nature of the Russian regime’s foreign policy is extreme pragmatism, the absence of ideology and the attempt to deal with all the main players in a region,” says Nikolay Kozhanov, former attaché at Russia’s embassy in Tehran, now with U.K. think tank Chatham House. “So this should be considered as the main principle of Russia’s strategy and its main advantage in the Middle East.”

Unlike his American counterparts, Putin didn’t lecture Egypt and Syria on democracy and human rights, Newsweek adds.

“Russia saw an opportunity in Egypt because the U.S. has pushed for a reform environment since the Arab Spring,” says Steve Seche, a former State Department official and U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

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