RUSSIA'S Vladimir Putin is a powerful ideological symbol and a highly effective ideological litmus test. He is a hero to Populist conservatives around the world and anathema to Progressives. I do not want to compare him to our own president but, if you know enough about what a given American thinks of Putin, you probably can tell what he or she thinks of Donald Trump.
Let me stress at the outset that this is not going to be a lecture about what to think about Putin, which is something you all are capable of making up your minds on, but rather how to think about him. On this, there is one basic truth to remember, although it often is forgotten: our globalist leaders may have deprecated sovereignty since the end of the Cold War, but that does not mean it has ceased for an instant to be the primary subject of politics.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is not the president of a feminist NGO, a transgender-rights activist, an ombudsman appointed by the United Nations to make and deliver slide shows about green energy--he is the elected leader of Russia, a rugged, relatively poor, militarily powerful country that, in recent years, has been humiliated, robbed, and misled frequently. His job has been to protect his country's prerogatives and its sovereignty in an international system that seeks to erode sovereignty in general and views Russia's sovereignty in particular as a threat.
By U.S. standards, Putin's respect for the democratic process has been fitful at best. He has cracked down on peaceful demonstrations. Political opponents have been arrested and jailed throughout his rule. Some even have been murdered: Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Chechnya correspondent shot in her apartment building in Moscow in 2006; Alexander Litvinenko, the spy poisoned with polonium-210 in London months later; the activist Boris Nemtsov, shot on a bridge in Moscow in early 2015. While the evidence connecting Putin's own circle to the killings is circumstantial, it merits scrutiny.
Yet, if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the preeminent statesman of our time. On the world stage, who can vie with him?--perhaps only Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
When Putin took power in the winter of 1999-2000, his country was defenseless and bankrupt. It was being carved up by its new kleptocratic elites, in collusion with its old imperial rivals, the Americans. Putin changed that. In the first decade of this century, he did what Kemal Ataturk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country's plutocrats, restored its military strength, and refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in a U.S.-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country.
Why are American intellectuals such ideologues when they talk about the "international system"?--probably because American intellectuals devised that system, and because they assume there never can be legitimate historic reasons why a politician would arise in opposition to it. They denied such reasons for the rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. They do the same with Donald Trump--and they have done it with Putin. They assume he rose out of the KGB with the sole purpose of embodying an evil for our righteous leaders to stamp out.
Putin did not come out of nowhere. Russian people not only tolerate him, they revere him. You can get a better idea of why he has ruled for almost two decades if...