WHAT’S PUTIN’S GAME?

(Those of us who wish to defend democracy must now look very carefully at the modern dictatorships and their ideologies.)

Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. In Britain, one political assassination and one attempted assassination, both with illegal chemical weapons. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain again, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many escaped abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed down to a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control. (Read more about this here.)

Secondly, any hope of democratization was dashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. His court is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas. Read more about this here.)

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the Czar who set the job in motion. His agenda of ideas is for the inspiration of that job and purpose.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moscow, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had accepted German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moscow. (Read more about this here.) The European embrace of Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Finally, why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and public health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the West expected Russia to become a compliant collaborator. What has emerged is an aggressive competitor.

First published in the Los Angeles Times, here.

IDEOLOGY

When in Berlin, go to the German Historical Museum!

I work my way through its present exhibition on the Russian Revolution (the October 1917 one, that is) and its consequences. The terror and death that followed was of horrendous proportions. It’s a display of the destructive power of ideology. For Lenin and his followers, nothing was not permitted in the name of “the revolution.”

Revolution was possible in Russia because previous regimes had failed to democratise. Once in power, the Bolsheviks tried to export the revolution to the rest of Europe. But it was not wanted and was nowhere taken up where democracy was sufficiently vibrant to prevent it from being imposed from above.

Ideologies are belief systems that give meaning to history and destiny and that take hold with commanding strength. They are manmade, but then take on a force of their own. Leaders think they can use ideology as a tool, but once they have let the genie out of the bottle, they become enslaved by their own creation. It does not matter if the ideology is of the left or the right, it is ideology itself that is the evil force. Where ideology reigns, ends justify means.

Could social destruction under the force of ideology happen today? It is happening! In Venezuela, before our eyes, a rich economy is being destroyed, a democracy disestablished, and a civilised society torn apart. A regime is clinging to power for the sake of another “revolution.” It does not matter that the revolution is bringing devastation on to the country whose well-being is its purpose.

WHO IN THE WORLD WILL DEFEND DEMOCRACY?

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN (revised)

In spite of the referendum, Brexit or not is still the responsibility of Parliament. Parliament does not abdicate. Its charge is to look after the wellbeing of the population and country, and it is not possible for Parliament to walk away from that responsibility, nor in its nature to do so.

That is clear enough constitutionally. The referendum was advisory. Parliament could have decided to make the referendum binding but deliberately did not. It retained in law the authority to make the final decision and is not constitutionally bound by the referendum.

It is also clear politically. As we have moved on from the referendum, circumstances have changed and we have learned more about the meaning and consequences of Brexit. Brexit on the terms suggested in the referendum campaign is not deliverable. It is Parliament’s job to decide on the impact of how things are working out and what we are learning.

Imagine you are an MP today. You look into the future. You see, from one side, coming towards you an avalanche of necessary public investments: in infrastructure, in defence, in housing, in education, in social care, in the NHS. And you see, on the other side, low growth, low investment, lagging productivity, skill shortage. That adds up to an economy that cannot generate enough public revenue for necessary maintenance of society. You cannot avoid the question of whether it is compatible with your responsibility to let the country cut itself off from its most important community of trade and economic partnership.

You look to the British national landscape. In Scotland, Brexit will give the nationalists the arguments they need to push through independence. The Union will break up. In Ireland, a new border, more or less hard, will cut through the island and disrupt the peaceful coexistence that has been achieved. The worst scenarios may or may not materialise, but you cannot avoid the responsibility for exposing the Union to high risk. You turned you back on that responsibility in sanctioning the referendum. You cannot do it again.

You look to your own institution, to Parliament. You there see no settlement and no coming together around any shared strategy for implementing the referendum. Parliament has asserted its authority and to some degree taken charge, and pulled towards Brexit moderation. It has refused the government a free hand. The government’s original hard Brexit strategy has been killed. The principles of payment and a transition period have been conceded. You have learned that Brexit is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership and you are trying to sort out in your mind what it really means.

Parliament’s confusion mirrors the population’s confusion. There is no “will of the people” out there. There is division, as reflected in the snap election. The division in the population carries through into Parliament and the Cabinet, and into the relationship between Parliament and government. Parliament is refusing the government a mandate of clarity and the government can do no more in the negotiations than muddle through without initiative, determination or direction. The risk is high that there will be no deal. Most MPs sit on the fence. They believe it is in Britain’s interest to be inside the European Union and they believe they cannot go against the majority in the referendum. That dilemma remains unresolved.

Politics in Parliament are even more tenuous than they look. Not only is the government without platform or support, both major parties have leaderships that in the European question are at odds with the majorities in their respective parliamentary parties. Leavers do not trust Remainers, Remainers do not trust Leavers. Backbenchers do not trust the front benches, and vice versa. The government does not trust Parliament, Parliament does not trust the government. The parliamentary truce is phony and not durable.

The talk of the town in Parliament that reaches the public is “how Brexit?” The talk of the town in Parliament that, for now, does not reach the public, is how Parliament can extricate itself from the mistake it itself made in calling the referendum.

MPs fear the uproar it would create if they exercised their constitutional authority to override the referendum. However, they also recognise themselves to be caught up in a dilemma from which there is no happy outcome. The choice they see in front of them is between uproar now or long term damage to the country. What may look like a mess, is Parliament’s lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner of resolving its terrible dilemma.

CAMPAIGN FOR DEMOCRACY: AN APPEAL TO PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA

Look carefully. Something is happening in American politics. For the good. Democracy itself is striking back against the onslaught of anti-politics.

In Washington, Congress is doing its job and holding the zeal of an erratic president in check. Out in the country, states and cities are running policies of their own, on health care, climate change, gerrymandering, campaign finance and more.

We are seeing the volatility of the politics of anger. Anger is still involvement. Democracy would be worse off if the grass-roots were in apathy. Involvement can be turned from revenge to engagement.

In unrelated events but on the same day, October 19, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stepped on to the political stage and spoke in defense of the values and principles of democracy.

Mr. Bush’s message, at a conference he himself convened, was stark. He spoke of fading confidence, a society torn apart by hatreds, the absence of common purpose, challenges to our most basic ideals, and the need to “recover our own identity.” Mr. Obama, for his part, had offered the same analysis in his final State of the Union Address, in January 2016. He called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” A better politics, he said, “doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

Much is at stake. Radical populism is sweeping America and Europe. The core democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, are in crises of identity, following through to dysfunctional governance. Societies are torn asunder by extremes of inequality and animosity. Internationally, the People’s Republic of China is claiming the mantel of world leadership.

Leaders of authority in America and Europe are seeking to stimulate engagement from below to revitalize democracy. The George W. Bush Institute is launching a “call to action” to affirm democratic values and restore trust in democratic institutions. The recent Obama Foundation “summit” was a celebration of civic engagement trough examples of good practice. In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is orchestrating a nation-wide deliberation for better understanding of the imperative of democracy. The concern is the same as expressed by Bush and Obama, to fortify the foundations of democratic culture.

The day Bush and Obama spoke for liberal democracy in America was also the second day of the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Here, the leader Xi Jinping, who in his first five years has tightened all the screws of dictatorship, was celebrating, with audacious self-confidence, the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

In a comment (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), the German author Kai Strittmatter called on the liberal democracies to “find their voice” up against the challenges of a threatening new world order under a totalitarian power state. Chinese autocracy promises prosperity on the condition that citizens give up their liberty. Liberal democracy promises both prosperity and liberty. Democracy has the moral high ground. But during his recent trip to Asia, the American president, the leader of the free world, had nothing to say about even basic human rights. The voice of democracy is not heard.

The politics of anger can go both ways, to more revenge or to more engagement. It is not unusual these days to find opinions in the press that democracy has had its day and is finished. But experienced leaders like Bush, Obama and Steinmeier are telling us that there is engagement out there waiting to be mobilized.

The time is right to turn from despondency to action. That requires a catalyst to tilt the balance. Democracy is ready to strike back, but that will not just happen, it must be taken in hand. As always, the democratic world needs American leadership. If America can “recover its identity” it can help the rest of us to “find our voice.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have committed themselves. Let us ask these two most recently retired Presidents, who, from each side of the political divide, see the same problem and understand the urgency of action in the same way, to join forces. Let us ask them to teach us that our divisions are not irreconcilable. Let us offer to join them with our engagement. Let us ask them to make themselves the catalyst of the democratic revival that is ready to happen. Let us ask them to merge their formidable authority to mobilizing groups and communities into a Campaign for Democracy. Let us ask the Campaign for Democracy to spread through the democratic world.

GET THE GOVERNMENT OFF MY BACK!

Did I hear you saying that: get the government off my back? People do. They are tired of interference, regulations, taxes, the nanny state. They think that governments do what we could do better ourselves. President Reagan, in his first inaugural address put it thus: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

But be careful what you wish for. If government interference is a burden, its absence is much worse.

To see how, visit Italy. Start in the north where you find yourself in the comfort of a normal developed European country. Then board the high speed train in Rome for Naples, an hour or so south, and you step into the underdevelopment and squalor of a third world city. Here, economic and social life is saturated by organised crime to such a degree that normal governance is not possible, and the city and its people suffer for it. The Centro Storico, although a World Heritage Site, should have been a beautiful European old town, as those in, for example, Vienna, Prague, Riga or Stockholm, but is instead a neglected and dilapidated slum.

Nor would you find much evidence to suggest that what government does not do, people take care of themselves. One of the things that is neglected in Naples is the collection of rubbish. I guarantee you that will not stir you to start cleaning up the mess yourself. Far from it. Say you have in your hand the wrappings of an ice cream and can find no bin that is not already overflowing. You will say to yourself: if no one else cares, why should I? And you will throw the wrapping where it may fall. Government neglect begets not private initiative but also private neglect. Functioning governments do not just do things, they also, importantly, signal to citizens and set standards.

To see this explained, head north again, now to Siena and its Palazzo Pubblico. Here, in the Sala della Pace, is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, commissioned by the Republic’s governing council in 1338. In the central mural, a figure representing wisdom lays down the principles by which the city should be ruled, such as justice and magnanimity. To one side is another mural displaying what follows when these principles are obeyed: a thriving city of activity, trade and development with happy people living under the protection of the angel of security. To the other side is yet another mural in which a tyrant sits on a box in which justice has been locked away in a city of torture, death and decay.

These allegories are remarkable considering the time in which they were created. First, good and bad government follow not from religious blessing or damnation but from secular values, the core one being justice. In today’s language: from a sound constitution. Second, good governance results not from governors being given free powers but from their being constrained by the rules of justice. In today’s language: not from autocratic strength but from democratic controls. Third, in the causality that is displayed. First comes good government, then follows prosperity, happiness and security. In today’s language: freedom is not a luxury that people may hope for once power has enabled prosperity. It is where there is freedom that prosperity follows. What was built on these walls, then, almost 700 years ago, was a sophisticated theory of government and its conditions and consequences, and one that even now presents itself as entirely modern.

On a recent visit to Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, it happened that today’s City Council was in meeting in the room above the Sala della Pace. They were discussing renovation, which is in good hands in the city. So, no doubt, does the City Council in Naples from time to time, but there, Council decisions are not capable of following through to practical action. In Siena, the government keeps the city clean in spite of a flood of tourism that the businesses in Naples’s Centro Storico can only dream of.

Since the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we in advanced democracies have been trapped in a fruitless debate for or against government, with confidence in government having been undermined. Even the catastrophic government failure of the crash of 2008 does not seem to have overturned the paradigm of small government. What we should want is not necessarily big government but certainly good government, something that is not possible under the gospel of small government.

To regain confidence in the virtue of good government, go to Italy and learn from both contemporary evidence and historical wisdom.