Political Cynic speculates.
Has that time spent writing for The New Statesman, as short as his tenure has been, led to Mr. Douthat to reappraise his once obsession with the sexual lives, practices of American Women? That subject will have to wait, on the urgent questions of the political present.
In his latest essay at The New York Times Mr. Douthat takes on the vexing question of Vladimir Putin. Here are the first paragraphs of his February 26, 2022 essay titled ‘Vladimir Putin’s Clash of Civilizations’:
When the United States, in its hour of hubris, went to war to remake the Middle East in 2003, Vladimir Putin was a critic of American ambition, a defender of international institutions and multilateralism and national sovereignty.
This posture was cynical and self-interested in the extreme. But it was also vindicated by events, as our failures in Iraq and then Afghanistan demonstrated the challenges of conquest, the perils of occupation, the laws of unintended consequences in war. And Putin’s Russia, which benefited immensely from our follies, proceeded with its own resurgence on a path of cunning gradualism, small-scale land grabs amid “frozen conflicts,” the expansion of influence in careful, manageable bites.
But now it’s Putin making the world-historical gamble, embracing a more sinister version of the unconstrained vision that once led George W. Bush astray. And it’s worth asking why a leader who once seemed attuned to the perils of hubris would take this gamble now.
I assume that Putin is being sincere when he rails against Russia’s encirclement by NATO and insists that Western influence threatens the historic link between Ukraine and Russia. And he clearly sees a window of opportunity in the pandemic’s chaos, America’s imperial overstretch and an internally divided West.
It’s hard to escape that Mr. Douthat riffs on the themes of Adam Smith’s ‘The Impartial Spectator’ in the most self-serving way. These sentences and sentence fragments inform The Reader of Mr. Douthat’s gambit:
‘When the United States, in its hour of hubris, went to war to remake the Middle East in 2003,…’ , ‘This posture was cynical and self-interested in the extreme. But it was also vindicated by events, as our failures in Iraq and then Afghanistan demonstrated the challenges of conquest, the perils of occupation, the laws of unintended consequences in war.’ , ‘But now it’s Putin making the world-historical gamble, …’ ‘I assume that Putin is being sincere when he rails against Russia’s encirclement by NATO…’
Who can rescue Mr. Douthat from his false modesty, and his attempt to seem what he is not, clever in the art of the exercise of self-serving political rhetoric.
In this vision the future is neither liberal world-empire nor a renewed Cold War between competing universalisms. Rather it’s a world divided into some version of what Bruno Maçães has called “civilization-states,” culturally-cohesive great powers that aspire, not to world domination, but to become universes unto themselves — each, perhaps, under its own nuclear umbrella.
This idea, redolent of Samuel P. Huntington’s arguments in “The Clash of Civilizations” a generation ago, clearly influences many of the world’s rising powers — from the Hindutva ideology of India’s Narendra Modi to the turn against cultural exchange and Western influence in Xi Jinping’s China. Maçães himself hopes a version of civilizationism will reanimate Europe, perhaps with Putin’s adventurism as a catalyst for stronger continental cohesion. And even within the United States you can see the resurgence of economic nationalism and the wars over national identity as a turn toward these kind of civilizational concerns.
*Bruno Maçães leads the way with “civilization-states,” that leads to the racist xenophobe Samuel P. Huntington, and his bloated essay that led his even more inflated best selling book. Read Edward Said’s review here:
Headline: The Clash of Ignorance
Sub-headline: Labels like “Islam” and “the West” serve only to confuse us about a disorderly reality.
With the bit between his teeth, Mr. Douthat proceeds at a gallop, with his Anti-Putin propaganda. The last two paragraphs are not revelatory of his demonstrated ‘political modesty’ but that he follows The Party Line on Putin The Terrible, in his own idiosyncratic way. Mr. Douthat doesn’t just miss the blatant fact that Putin behaves just like an American President e.g. on a Crusade against The Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the Invasion of that state, and the eventual desertion after twenty years, The crimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Obama backed Ukrainian Coup of 2014, that legitimized fascists Right Sector, Svoboda, The Azov Battalion! But note that Mr. Douthat can’t quite escape from his penchant for self-serving public moralizing.
But if your civilization-state can’t attract its separated children with persuasion, can they really be kept inside with force? Even if the invasion succeeds, won’t much of Ukraine’s human capital — the young and talented and ambitious — find ways to flee or emigrate, leaving Putin to inherit a poor, wrecked country filled with pensioners? And to the extent that the nationalist vision of Russian self-sufficiency is fundamentally fanciful, might not Putin’s supposedly-greater-Russia end up instead as a Chinese client or vassal, pulled by Beijing’s stronger gravity into a more subordinate relationship the more its ties to Europe break?
These are the long-term challenges even for a Putinism that accepts autarky and isolation as the price of pan-Russian consolidation. But for today, and for as many days as Ukrainians still fight, the hope should be that he never gets a chance to deal with long-term problems — that the history that he imagines himself making is made instead in his defeat.
*senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.