Ever since Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea, American pundits have strained to understand his view of the world. Putin’s been called a Nazi; a tsar; a man detached from reality. But there’s another, more familiar framework that explains his behavior. In his approach to foreign policy, Vladimir Putin has a lot in common with those very American hawks (or “neocons” in popular parlance) who revile him most.
1. Putin is obsessed with the threat of appeasement
From Irving Kristol’s “The Politics of Appeasement” (Wall Street Journal, 1975) to Norman Podhoretz’s “Appeasement by Any Other Name” (Commentary, 1983) to William Kristol and Robert Kagan’s “The Appeasement Gamble” (Weekly Standard, 2000) to Charles Krauthammer’s “The Wages of Appeasement” (Washington Post, 2011), hawks have attributed virtually every foreign-policy crisis of the last 40 years to America’s supposed habit of knuckling under to our foes. In 1975, Irving Kristol called America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam an act of “appeasement” that “to those of us who have even the vaguest memories of the 1930s … is all too chillingly reminiscent.” A generation later, his son, William Kristol, chalked up the September 11 attacks to “two decades of American weakness in the face of terror.” Last week, in The New York Times, John McCain explained Putin’s move on Crimea as the result of a global “perception that the United States is weak.” To Kristol, McCain, and their ilk, the United States is a nation perennially bullied by adversaries who are tougher, nastier, and more resolute than we are.
The good news is that, eventually, when the humiliation becomes too much to bear, a Reaganesque or Churchillian leader raises America up off its knees. When George W. Bush attacked Iraq, Kristol declared that the “era of American weakness and doubt in response to terrorism is over,” while Max Boot announced “The End of Appeasement.” This week, in The Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said he hoped that for Americans, Putin’s actions in Crimea would mean “the end of illusions.”
It’s a phrase that could easily have been uttered by Putin himself. In his view, it’s Russia that has been perennially bullied by tougher and nastier countries—in particular, America and its NATO allies. “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact,” he explained in a speech announcing Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner.” But now, finally, the era of appeasement is over. “Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from,” Putin said. “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
For American hawks, appeasement is not merely bad foreign policy. It represents a crisis of values—an aversion to those martial, manly virtues that make nations strong and give life meaning. In his 1977 essay, “The Culture of Appeasement,” Podhoretz argued that “one of the interesting similarities” between Jimmy Carter’s America and Neville Chamberlain’s Britain “was the prominence of homosexuals in the literary worlds” of both eras. Under their influence, Podhoretz suggested, “words such as soldier and fighter, which had previously carried a positive charge, now became so distasteful.” In the 1990s, David Brooks, then at The Weekly Standard, similarly warned that “we have become a nation obsessed with risk avoidance and safety. We allow soft sentimentalism to replace demanding moral principles.” In response, Brooks, Kagan, Kristol, and McCain championed what they called “national greatness conservatism.” Invoking Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life,” Brooks called for making American foreign policy “a more demanding and a more heroic enterprise.”
Today, hawks still link appeasement and effeminacy. Last month, for instance, after comparing the “bare-chested Putin” to “Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups,” National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson suggestedthat Putin’s aggression might finally rouse Americans to peer “into ourselves—we the hollow men, the stuffed men of dry voices and whispers” and get tough.
For Putin, too, overcoming appeasement requires overcoming the soft, unmanly culture that made Russia unwilling to fight. The fall of the Soviet Union, he argued last year, “was a devastating blow to our nation’s cultural and spiritual codes” that led to “primitive borrowing and attempts to civilize Russia from abroad.” That borrowing was not only economic but “cultural, religious and even sexual.” And now, to reject foreign domination, Russia must also reject Western “policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”
In the best Teddy Roosevelt tradition, Putin has made his own physical vigor a metaphor for the new vigor of Russian foreign policy. And even as they denounce Putin’s actions, hawks like Hanson can barely restrain their envy at his imperialistic machismo. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Sarah Palin told Fox News. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans.”
2. Putin is principled—so long as those principles enhance national power
In recent days, Putin has talked a lot about “democracy,” “freedom,” “self-determination” and “international law.” And conveniently for him, he insists that Russia’s annexation of Crimea scrupulously adheres to those principles while America’s behavior in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya violated them brazenly.
Sound familiar? In the United States, both hawks and doves like to claim that they’re promoting cherished principles like democracy and freedom. The difference is that doves are more willing to acknowledge that these principles can undermine American interests. For most hawks, by contrast, the fight for democratic ideals must serve American power. If it doesn’t, then what’s being spread isn’t really democracy at all.
That’s long been true in Latin America, where Cold War hawks justified coups against democratically elected presidents like Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz and Chile’s Salvador Allende on the grounds that no pro-Soviet leader could truly enjoy democratic legitimacy. More recently, when opponents of Venezuela’s democratically elected (albeit authoritarian) leader Hugo Chávez tried to oust him in a 2002 coup, the Bush administration blamed Chávez, not the plotters. In 2009, hawks generally applauded the coup that drove Honduras’ democratically elected, pro-Chávez president from power.
In recent years, this willingness to bend universal principles to serve American power has been even clearer in the Middle East. From 2003 to 2005, Bush and his hawkish supporters waxed enthusiastic about the possibility that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow might usher in democratic, pro-Western governments across the Arab world. But when Palestinians voted for Hamas in 2006, the Bush administration encouraged activists from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party to overthrow the new Hamas government by force. Last year, when Egypt’s military ousted Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected Egyptian leader in decades, many (though not all) hawks applauded the move.
For Putin, an anti-Russian government in Kiev is illegitimate regardless of how it takes power. For many American hawks, the same is now true for a pro-Chávez government in Latin America or an Islamist government in the Middle East.
3. Putin doesn’t understand economic power
Last week, Bill Clinton shrewdly noted that Putin is “deeply patriotic in terms of Russia, but he sees it more in terms of the greatness of the state and the country than what happens to ordinary Russians.” The Russian president’s maneuvers abroad have everything to do with the geopolitical glory of Russia and almost nothing to do with the economic welfare of Russians. In the wake of his takeover of Crimea, Standard & Poor’s is threatening to downgrade Russian bonds and Russia’s own deputy economy minister is warning of a growing economic “crisis.” Yet Putin has never looked happier.
Look closely at the way hawks write about American foreign policy, and you see something similar. In the early 1990s, Clinton argued that although America had won the Cold War, ordinary Americans, in their daily lives, were losing. The answer, he declared in 1994, was to “put our economic competitiveness at the heart of our foreign policy.” For large stretches during his presidency, Clinton’s most influential foreign-policy advisor was his treasury secretary.
For Clinton’s hawkish critics, this emphasis on geo-economics rather than geopolitics represented, in Charles Krauthammer’s words, a “holiday from history.” In 2000, William Kristol and Robert Kagan published Present Dangers, an edited volume that outlined the foreign policy they hoped Clinton’s successor would pursue. Of the 15 essays, not one dealt primarily with international economics.
This indifference to the economic aspects of statecraft was a defining feature of the Bush administration, where treasury secretaries played a marginal foreign-policy role, and where Lawrence Lindsey, Bush’s first head of the National Economic Council, was publicly reprimanded for suggesting that the Iraq War might cost $200 billion. (A recent study estimates that, along with the war in Afghanistan, it will cost $4 to $6 trillion.) John McCain, the Senate’s preeminent hawk, has publicly admitted, “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues.”
Seeing “economics” as separate from “foreign policy issues” is precisely what Clinton decried in the 1990s, and it’s the weakness in Putin’s strategy today. But it’s a weakness that many American hawks share. For decades now, Kristol and McCain have insisted that America relentlessly expand its global military footprint and relentlessly boost its defense budget. I’ve never seen either make a serious effort to explain how this should be paid for. Nor do they acknowledge that when a nation’s overseas obligations exceed its domestic resources, it’s a sign of weakness, not strength.
None of this is to suggest that American and Russian actions are morally equivalent. For all its errors and crimes, American foreign policy is restrained by our democratic political system in a way Russia’s is not. In Europe, at least, the United States enjoys more legitimacy than Russia does, in part because via institutions like NATO we have given smaller nations a voice over our decision-making that Moscow has not. And to some degree, these systems of domestic and international restraint have helped the United States avoid the “imperial overstretch” that brought down Putin’s beloved U.S.S.R.
But the more influence hawks wield over American foreign policy, the more similar to Putin’s it will be. Maybe “metrosexuality” and “mom jeans” aren’t so bad after all.