Conservatism’s Putin Problem, Revisited

Conservatism’s Putin Problem, Revisited July 25, 2017

Thomas Hamilton writes to challenge last week’s essay on Putin, nationalism, and globalism. He doesn’t think that I fairly captured why American conservatives are partial to Putin:

I didn’t think your article on Putin and the American right quite represented what many paleoconservatives (including myself) see in Putin. Buchanan, for example, does not like Putin because of machismo and an expansionist agenda, but rather because he does not interpret what has occurred in Ukraine as part of an expansionist agenda. Buchanan has argued that this was resistance to Western and NATO expansionism, starting from the 2008 Bucharest Summit where NATO stated that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO.” And whereas Western media represented the 2008 Georgia War as an instance of Russian expansionism, the consensus of Russia scholars globally is that Georgia was the aggressor. . . . Buchanan argues that the 2014 coup was just that —a coup backed by Western governments, as was revealed in the audio of the Nuland-Pyatt call. . . . I’m writing this only secondarily as a defense of Putin—it is primarily a defense of paleoconservatives like Buchanan and myself. The reason many see something in Putin that most don’t is not because they interpret Putin the same way as most but like aggressive, violent expansionism. It is rather because they do not interpret Putin as an aggressive expansionist. If we agreed that Putin was a violent killer out to conquer Eastern Europe, we (at least myself) would utterly reject this.

Thomas is right about the machismo. I introduced that theme late in my essay, and it was neither relevant nor fair. As for his account of the invasion of Georgia and Ukraine: Even if he is correct (and he may be—he’s provided a reading list for me to follow up!), even if Putin’s policy is defensive rather than expansionist, my point stands. Putin may be acting out of a sincere sense of threat, but his response is still aggressive. And that is a sign that not every nation acts the same way when it acts in its “national interests” or for the sake of “national security.” (I’m not ignoring the fact that the U.S. itself has a long record of aggression against perceived threats.) There are Hitlers and there are Churchills. Thomas continues:

Here is why my view of Putin is more positive than negative—after the end of the Cold War, the United States embarked on a fundamentally Babelic enterprise to spread the ideology of Enlightenment liberal democracy to the rest of the planet, and just as Nimrod did, embarked on this project by force. Part of this project was the expansion of NATO, which broke the promise President Bush (41) made to President Gorbachev, and included not simply the democratization of these countries, but their militarization. Russia as I see it represents a rejection of this global project—not only in Iraq, which Putin opposed, but in Syria, where Russian intervention has likely saved the Christians of Syria from jihadist extermination.

I agree that U.S. policy has been “Babelic,” and threatens to turn bestial (for development of these categories, see my Between Babel and Beast). Insofar as Putin has resisted that project, it’s to his credit. But, again, this doesn’t alter my fundamental point, which is that we need to discriminate, to sift, and the framework of “nationalism vs. globalism” is too clumsy to do the job.

Putin isn’t my main interest. My concern is with how Americans, and especially American Christians, process geopolitics. And on this point, I’m a Johnny One-Note: Our political analysis and viewpoint has to be ecclesial rather than primarily national. And that means that it can’t be either globalist or nationalist in the sense that those terms are typically used. American Christians too easily leap onto the nationalism bandwagon. If we’re going to resist Babel, we also need to resist the evils that often come with patriotism. And we can do that if we rigorously attempt to make the Church, rather than the nation-state, the heart of our geopolitics.

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