Who is against the West? – The American Conservative
The talking point of the ruling class you jour is that Russia’s war in Ukraine has dealt a devastating blow to Western populists. The populists, according to this view, linked their fate to that of Vladimir Putin: whether by praising him, calling for friendlier relations with Moscow, ignoring the Kremlin’s depravity, or a combination of the above. Now that Putin has launched a failed invasion of Ukraine – which failed, at least according to Twitter and frenzied media whistleblowers – his populist fan club is also tainted by his cruelty and incompetence. Ergo: “Populists are losing this war,” as a headline in UnHerd put it.
It’s pure poppy, but before I explain why, let’s pause to note the sheer grotesqueness of this ideological pose at this moment. Amid the carnage wrought by Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, the plight of ordinary Russians under Western sanctions, and the fear sweeping across Europe as a whole, the liberal establishment sees fit to cash in on the misery in order to crack down on its domestic opponents score. This is the deal we chose, you might say, and that’s fair enough – but then please stop whining about courtesy, decency and unity.
As for the indictment itself, it is built on a foundation of willful misunderstanding, misleading, and outright slander. While some of the criticisms could apply to some populists, but not to others. But the liberal columnists’ underhanded tactic is to bombard all populists with all the accusations to see what sticks. There are several versions of this, variously offered by William Galston in the Wall Street Journal opinion sites, Eric Kaufmann in the UnHerd play mentioned above, and Francis Fukuyama and Janan Ganesh in Essays for the financial times.
Let’s try to unpack three of the main strands:
One charge is that Western populists have fetishized Putin as a sign of strongman confidence and must now “own” the logistical setbacks and military problems that dog the Russian army on its quest for conquest.
This was Ganesh’s line: “While liberals get lost in the bureaucratic and legislative fog, the autocrat supposedly cuts through (“I alone can fix it,” said Trump of the US). While one thinks longingly, the other grasps the eternal truths of power and strategy.” Had Russia effortlessly subjugated Ukraine, populists would be “now in that mendacious, “I hate to say it” tone, urging their own societies to the guile and manliness of the illiberal world”.
Strangely enough, Ganesh did not cite any genuine populists praising Putin’s mythical competence, but let us graciously admit that a certain Donald J. Trump has hailed the Russian leader as a “genius”, etc. The question is: competence as to what endsgiven what conditions? Assume for the sake of argument that the NATOization of Ukraine poses an existential threat to the Russian state. If so, even a costly, chaotic invasion carried out by a wounded former superpower with an economy the size of Spain is effective enough if it actually forestalls a NATO initiation.
Putin’s desired outcome may yet materialize. He has achieved Russia’s objectives in Georgia, Syria and Crimea. That’s more than can be said of US strategists in terms of their goals in Afghanistan. After 20 years, the Taliban took back power while the Western Alliance’s 300,000-strong Afghan army collapsed.
But there’s another point here: if “autocratic” incompetence humiliates Western populists, as Ganesh suggests, it should embarrass just as many blue-chip liberals who have talked about a non-democratic regime’s ability to get things done.
Remember Tom Friedman in 2010? “What if we could just be China for a day? I mean just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where could we actually approve the right fixes, and I think there’s a sense of that, on everything from the economy to the environment?” Or how about Justin Trudeau in 2013? “There’s a level of admiration that I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship allows them to actually turn their economy inside out on a dime and say we’ve got to go green, we’ve got to start, you know, into solar.” invest.” The examples are numerous.
So liberals, like Western populists, must “own” the failures of an undemocratic regime – which is another way of saying that this is a ridiculous line of attack.
Another argument is that populists espouse an “anti-Western foreign policy” that grows out of their “hostility to the rules-based liberal world order.”
That was the line taken by Kaufmann, who says he’d prefer populists like Tucker Carlson and JD Vance to rein in their anti-wake energies and focus them on cultural issues at home — not against the elites in “Davos, Geneva or Brussels”. , he reassures, they haven’t woken up. He should know “having lectured at some of these institutions.” Or so. His commitments are a tangled mess.
The bigger problem here is circular reasoning. Kaufmann posits that rejection of hawkism and escalation makes one “anti-western”. Pro-Westernity is thus initially defined as a preference for the foreign policy of the liberal empire and its marquee institutions. Therefore, he, Carlson, Vance, et al. are woefully anti-Western. But that should raise the question. Carlson and his populist comrades-in-arms argue that hawkism is contrary to the interests of ordinary people in the West and, if it escalates to a nuclear point of no return, to the survival of humanity as a whole. They define westernity differently than self-proclaimed liberals, in other words, and judging by the record of liberal interventionism over the past 20 years, such a redefinition is badly needed.
Finally, there is the outright smear that populists admire Putin precisely for his atrocities.
It was deplorable to see this line taken by Galston, someone with whom I often disagreed but could not fault any lack of honesty in debate. Galston tsk-tsked Carlson for a recent monologue in which the Fox Primetime host prompted Americans to wonder, “Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Has he ever threatened to fire me for disagreeing with him?”
Contrary to Galston, it is a ruthless exaggeration to suggest that these questions amount to “defending Vladimir Putin from his American critics.” Carlson’s point, as Galston probably knows, is not that Putin is wonderful, but that after two decades of failed foreign adventurism, it’s up to Americans to confront the monsters within our own order: a predatory native upper class, inequality, health insecurity, Opioid misery, stagnant wages, cultural decay — and increasingly resorts to technological censorship to deal with popular discontent.
The establishment may yet succeed in hanging Putin like an albatross around the necks of its internal enemies. But that won’t solve any of these internal crises. Then again, maybe that’s the point.