Why the Ukraine crisis is so bad for Western populists
Almost a decade has passed since Barack Obama teased Republican Mitt Romney for his Russian vigilance. “The 1980s are calling now,” he said, in a joke that even then was used, “to ask for their return to foreign policy”.
But then successive British prime ministers brought Russians of questionable fortune to Belgravia and Highgate. French President Emmanuel Macron had a fanciful idea of himself as a Western Kremlin whisperer. As for Angela Merkel, it’s unclear whether her U-turn against nuclear power will age worse than her failure to rouse Germany from its post-war hesitations abroad. She was only 16 years old.
During this young century, the liberal center confirmed its reputation as a soft head. Amazing, then, that populism emerges from the current crisis in an even worse state. Obama’s naivety about the Kremlin is embarrassing to Democrats; Donald Trump’s active flirtation with him is much more difficult for Republicans to live with. As polls favor Macron’s re-election, his fiercest rivals must come to terms with Vladimir Putin’s past flattery. Even online, a whole class of snooty naysayers, prone to wondering if the US would support a communist Mexico, etc., have gone mum lately.
By reducing immigration and elevating technocracy, the coronavirus pandemic has hurt populism. But the war in Ukraine is by far the worst setback for this movement since its electoral breakthrough in the US and UK in 2016. In the West, a certain type of leftism has never recovered from the shame indirect effect of the Soviet repression of Hungary in 1956. This moment could be recorded as an equivalent turning point for Western populists.
It is important to understand why. The problem is not moral defilement by association. If that had been enough to sink the movement, it would have happened during the war in Syria over the past decade. As it turns out, Russia’s actions there have never discouraged its populist admirers in liberal democracies. It didn’t do them much harm either among a bewildering number of Western voters. The Trump presidency, Brexit, the entry of the French far right into the last round of the 2017 presidential election: everything happened after the show of force in Aleppo and Crimea.
No, if this time is different, it is because the question has widened from a question of morality to a question of competence. At the heart of populism’s appeal is the idea of the effective strongman. As the liberals get lost in the bureaucratic and legislative fog, the autocrat supposedly passes (“Only I can fix it,” said Trump of the United States). While one thinks at will, the other grasps the eternal truths of power and strategy.
This argument is as old as the trope that Benito Mussolini had a way with commuter rail logistics. And it has enough basis in historical fact to appeal to people. If not Il Duce, then Napoleon, Ataturk, and the Chinese Communist Party can claim feats of governance that might have eluded a strict democrat, or at least taken them longer. It’s just that counterexamples, fumbling strongmen with dire savings or foreign connections, can be overlooked. Events fix this issue.
There is no doubt that – if the invasion of Ukraine had gone as planned – Western populists, in that bogus “I hate to say it” tone, would be urging their own societies to learn from trickery and virility of the illiberal world. They might still have the chance. A gas-dependent Russian Europe could fall into recession as energy prices rise. The invasion could accelerate. “Autocracy works” wouldn’t be such a dangerous argument if it were still wrong.
But if this mode of government has structural advantages, the last few weeks have clarified the corresponding liabilities. Pride born of irresponsibility, advisers ignored or silenced, the tendency to coerce what would be better solicited or charmed out of another country over time: demonstrating classic errors has sometimes almost risked the cliché .
It’s an old but endlessly useful story that Robert Conquest, when publishing an update of his once dubious research on Soviet tyranny, needed a title. A fellow writer suggested I told you, you fools. Liberals can’t say that to populists anymore. From Washington to Berlin, they themselves are too compromised.
The difference is that they can abandon their naive view of Putin and move on. For Western populists, the idea that autocracy has some kind of hideous efficiency is nothing short of existential. If it’s starting to sound ridiculous, so are they.