The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, says that the liberal order, an ideology that has dominated the politics of the western world and international affairs since the Second World War and which many regard as the basis of much human, economic and political progress, is now ‘obsolete’. National populism is what is usurping it and Russia is four-square behind the change. Many people see Putin’s Russia as a malign force seeking to undermine those liberal values for its own ends and believe the policy of isolation and sanctions has been the right response to its behaviour. Yet there are moves to bring Russia back in from the cold. Is Mr Putin right to say the liberal idea has ‘outlived its purpose’? Is he trying to make that very outcome happen? And what, if anything, should we do about it?
The Russian President made his remarks in an extensive interview with the Financial Times on the eve of the G20 meeting in Japan this weekend. He said that ‘the liberal idea’ had ‘outlived its purpose’ because the public was turning against it. Specifically he referred to popular opposition to immigration, open borders and multiculturalism. He said that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had made a ‘cardinal mistake’ in welcoming to Germany a million refugees, mainly from the Syrian civil war, and he praised Donald Trump’s efforts to curb migration across the Mexican border. He said: ‘This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected. … The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population’.
In saying this Mr Putin echoes what many populists in the West have been saying too. This has been the message of Donald Trump in America, of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Nigel Farage in Britain and many others on the populist right. Many of them have spoken warmly of Mr Putin. The Russian President summarised his attitude by asking the question: ‘Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on biblical values?’
Many, of course, would question whether biblical values would equate migrants and refugees with murderers and rapists. But their challenge to Mr Putin’s claim goes much further. It’s that the liberal order is based on belief in fundamental values of democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law, values which have gradually become entrenched as the basis of western societies since the Enlightenment and which have become a model for many other societies around the world. Indeed since the Second World War such values have become the basis of the dominant ideology shaping international affairs, or at least the attempt has been made to make them so.
Mr Putin did not explicitly say that these values were themselves obsolete. But his critics would say that he didn’t need to because the behaviour of his regime shows that he that is precisely what he wishes and there’s plenty of evidence for it. There is not only scant regard for democracy, human rights and rule of law in Putin’s Russia itself, but the actions of his regime show that he’s trying to usurp them everywhere else.
They say there is plenty of proof of that. The Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and the continuing Russian involvement in the destabilising of eastern Ukraine is the most obvious example. So too has been its pivotal role in the Syrian civil war, that has killed half a million civilians and displaced millions more.
Organised Russian trolling has used social media to interfere in the free elections of western countries, not just in the American presidential election of 2016. So serious was the suspicion of involvement by the Kremlin on Donald Trump’s behalf that a federal inquiry was launched into the claim. The Mueller report found overwhelming evidence of Russian interference, though not of collusion by the American president himself. At a bilateral meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Trump at the G20 on Friday, the American president wagged a finger at his counterpart, saying: ‘Don’t meddle in the election, please.’ Both men were smirking.
And then there is the action of Russia’s intelligence services abroad. Few people doubt that the GRU, the main intelligence service, was behind the attempted murder of a former agent, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury last year. Although Mr Skripal and his daughter survived the attempt, an innocent British citizen, Dawn Sturgess, was killed when she accidentally came into contact with the Novichok nerve agent used in the attack. Mr Putin has always denied Russian involvement and refuses the request of British authorities to hand over the two suspects for trial in Britain, but in answer to questioning about the matter in the FT interview, he said: ‘Listen, all this fuss about spies and counterspies, it is not worth serious interstate relations. This spy story, as we say, it is not worth five kopecks’. But he added: ‘Treason is the gravest crime possible and traitors must be punished. I am not saying that the Salisbury incident is the way to do it … but traitors must be punished’. To many this reads as a deliberately implausible denial of responsibility, a warning that he is perfectly happy for his agents to commit crimes on other countries’ soil.
So Mr Putin’s remark that liberal values have outlived their purpose is being interpreted by many as meaning a great deal more than simply an endorsement of those who think immigration, multiculturalism and laissez-faire attitudes to sexual behaviour and identity have gone too far and contradict ‘biblical values’. It’s that Mr Putin wants us to dump our belief in the fundamental values of freedom and rights and is doing all he can to make us do so. As Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council put it: ‘Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete, and that human rights are obsolete. What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs, even if sometimes they seem effective’. That list, of course, is exactly what many (including Russian opposition figures) would cite as characterising the nature of Putin’s regime.
Ever since the annexation of Crimea the West’s response has been to try to punish Russia. The country was excluded from the G8 (though not the G20). Severe economic sanctions were imposed both on named individuals in Mr Putin’s circle and on the country more generally, with the result that the Russian economy is in a bad way. Advocates of this approach say it must continue until Putin’s Russia changes its ways.
But there have been recent signs that the western approach is changing. Theresa May has come in for criticism for agreeing, at her final international gathering as prime minister, to meet Mr Putin in a bilateral meeting at the G20 on Friday. Mrs May used the occasion to repeat her request that the suspects in the Skripal affair be handed over, to deplore Russia’s ‘destabilising activities’, such as cyber attacks and online disinformation campaigns, and said: ‘Russia needs to recognise its acts and stop acting in this way.’ But few expect Mr Putin to pay much attention, still less to change his behaviour, and so although Mrs May insisted it was not ‘business as usual’ many think the meeting will have proved more helpful to him than to her.
More significantly, earlier this week the Council of Europe, a body founded after the Second World War to protect human rights in Europe, voted to readmit Russia to membership five years after it was expelled following Crimea. Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, defended the decision, saying: ‘Russia belongs in the Council of Europe, with all the rights and obligations that entails. This is good news for Russia’s civil society.’ But Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and Russian dissident living in exile in New York, tweeted: ‘On behalf of Russian civil society living abroad, f*** you. Appeasing a dictator and rewarding aggression will make things worse, it always has.’ The European Court of Human Rights, the court that adjudicates on behalf of the Council of Europe, receives more applications from Russian citizens about the breach of their rights, than from any other country.
It is, of course, an old and unresolved issue as to whether it is better to engage in dialogue with a country that doesn’t share our values and seeks to challenge them, or to play tough guy and force it to change its ways. Both were tried by the West in relation to the Soviet Union: in the 1970s, Europe advocated ‘détente’, then in the 1980s Ronald Reagan sought to bring ‘the evil empire’ down by out-spending it on defence and so crippling its economy. Both could be said to have contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Today it is not communism but populism that Russia seeks to promote in the West. That, at least, is how many people will read both his remark that ‘the liberal idea has become obsolete’ and his regime’s efforts to undermine the liberal order in the West. And what does seem to be the case is that there is now a bigger market for populism, even authoritarian populism, in the West than there ever was for communism.
So how should we respond? Do you agree with President Putin’s claim that the liberal idea has outlived its purpose? Would it be a good or bad thing if it had? Should the West continue to punish Russia for its behaviour, or should we start to relax the sanctions and bring it in from the cold? And what do you think about the mutual admiration between President Putin and populist leaders in the West? Is it something to be welcomed, possibly ushering in a different way for our societies to be run compared with the liberal way that has largely prevailed since 1945? Or is it something we should fear.
Let us know your views.