The ideological dimension of the new cold war

Politicians and analysts are increasingly talking about a new cold war between Russia and the West.

But as Stephen Walt rightly points out, the old cold war was between two superpowers of rough parity fighting it out in a world with only themselves as the major players, largely over the competing ideologies of liberal democracy and Marxism-Leninism. The new situation, Walt argues, is rather different. Today’s world is “either still unipolar or some sort of heavily lopsided multipolar system, with the United States still no.1 […] vastly stronger [than other countries] on nearly every dimension that matters.” Moreover, if Marxism-Leninism once opposed liberalism as an ideology, today liberalism stands unopposed by any serious competitors: “America’s liberal brand may have been tarnished of late, but Russia’s ideological appeal outside its borders is minimal. Marxism-Leninism captured the imaginations and loyalties of millions of adherents around the world, but Putinism has appeal only to a handful of oligarchs or would-be autocrats.”

Yet, although he may be right on the first two points, Walt is wrong about the ideological question. In its opposition to liberal democratic ideology, Russian ideology today is not reducible to “Putinism” defined as autocratic cronyism. It’s much more serious than that. And defenders of the liberal order should take it more seriously and not underestimate or caricature “Putinism” or its appeal outside its own borders.

As Timothy Snyder and others have argued, “Putinism” draws consciously and explicitly on the writings of a handful of Russian philosophers – Ivan Ilyin, for instance – and thus has a philosophical dimension. Putin has tried to promulgate that dimension, comprising an emphasis on spiritual and traditional values, the importance of the Russian state in defending those values, and the challenge posed to a traditionalist Russian state by the West and its values. According to Barbashin and Thoburn, for instance, “Putin assigned his regional governors to read Ilyin’s book Our Mission over the 2014 break.” “Ilyin’s arguments,” Snyder writes, “were everywhere as Russian troops entered Ukraine multiple times in 2014.” Almost ten years earlier, Putin told Russia’s Federal Assembly that Ilyin was a source of knowledge of Russia’s “foundational principles.” There is thus long-standing continuity in Putin’s invocations of the spiritual philosopher Ilyin to defend Russia’s civilizational and ideological sovereignty.

Like Snyder, Barbashin and Thoburn regard the use of Ilyin as a cynical ploy to uphold an ideology of “uncompromising hatred for the West, denial of the European nature of Russian civilization, favor of dictatorial methods of governing, rabid nationalism, and a dash of conspiracy theory” – a “toxic brew,” as they call it. But even when “Putinism” is interpreted as a toxic brew, the fact that it has a philosophical dimension at all makes it clear that it is distinct from mere autocratic cronyism. “Putinism” in this sense offers a vision of a moral order to those for whom the liberal vision lacks appeal – and we should not forget that even Fukuyama’s The End of History worried about that problem, which is why the full title of his work includes Nietzsche’s figure of The Last Man.

We should not forget that there have always been intelligent people attracted to the vision of a non-liberal political order, one that positions itself as a defender of sacred values or principles and that takes as its ideal types king, warrior, and priest, or philosopher. Such a vision, to repeat, is distinct from mere autocratic cronyism. Moreover, Snyder’s analysis shows that it is not true, as Walt argued, that “Putinism,” understood in the expanded, philosophical sense, has no appeal outside Russia. Quite to the contrary: Snyder, though criticizing Ilyin, argues that his “Russian philosophy…is now American life.” That fact implies either a successful colonization of the passive American mind by Russian philosophy, an accidental parallelism between the two, or an active adoption by some Americans of a vision of man and the state promulgated by Ilyin and Putin. The reality is probably a mix of all three, but then it is not true that “Putinism” lacks appeal outside Russia or is only effective there.

Besides Putin’s philosophers, Russia’s foundational policy documents are another good source for our understanding of “Putinism” as an ideology that might have appeal outside Russia. Russia’s 2016 “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” for example, states that the “cultural and civilizational diversity of the world and the existence of multiple development models” is clearer than ever before. International competition has “has been increasingly gaining a civilizational dimension in the form of duelling values.” According to the document, Russia will “counter attempts to use human rights theories to exert political pressure and interfere in internal affairs of States, including with a view to destabilizing them and overthrowing legitimate governments.” The 2016 “Doctrine of Information Security of the Russian Federation” highlights the “growing information pressure on the population of Russia, primarily on the Russian youth, with the aim to erode Russian traditional spiritual and moral values.” The 2001 “National Security Concept of the Russian Federation” identifies cultural-religious expansion into Russian territory as one of the major threats to Russian national security. To guard against such threats, the document states that Russia must protect “the cultural, spiritual and moral legacy, historical traditions and the norms of social life, the preservation of the cultural wealth of all the peoples of Russia, the formation of government policy in the field of the spiritual and moral education of the population, and the imposition of a ban on use of air time in electronic mass media for distribution of programs propagandizing violence and exploiting low instincts, along with counteraction against the negative influence of foreign religious organizations and missionaries.”

If we take “Putinism” to refer to the defence of a given civilizational and cultural value system against expansive pressure from other competing value systems, including those thought to promote “low instincts” or to operate cynically with sovereignty-destabilizing notions of “human rights,” then, far from appealing to no one outside Russia, “Putinism” may well have more adherents around the world today than liberalism. Moreover, serious thinkers inside and outside Russia are currently actively elaborating the philosophical-ideological foundations of “Putinism” understood in precisely this expanded sense. Accordingly, it isn’t true that Russia lacks an ideology with global appeal or that Putinism is mere non-intellectual autocratic cronyism for bloody dictators. Analysts should not overlook the ideological dimension of the new cold war.

(Strauss is pictured in honour of his argument in “German Nihilism” that mid-century German teachers, blinded by their progressive dogmatism, did not understand the positive significance of their students’ critiques of liberalism and communism or their attraction to nihilism, thereby “confirming [the nihilists] in their beliefs.” Analysts today are in a similar situation vis-a-vis anti-liberal Russian ideology. We need to be “undogmatic” enough to acknowledge the existence and appeal of such an ideology, not in order to apologize for it, but for strategic reasons at least.)

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