Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to make waves last week when he said in an interview with the Financial Times that liberal western values are outdated and authoritarian regimes like his are the future.
“The liberal idea has become obsolete,” he said. “It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
That’s bunk, of course. Mr. Putin argues that liberalism presupposes “that migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity,” and that this imaginary problem is best responded to by stripping away the protections of the rule of law, a free media and independent courts. It’s a nonsensical statement.
It’s also a statement that was intended to be outrageous, but it didn’t garner much attention, even though Mr. Putin uttered it just prior to the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
While western leaders dutifully rebutted it – “What I find really obsolete is authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs,” said Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council – it did not generate much in the way of headlines or angst.
The few who bothered to address it pointed out that Mr. Putin is running a country whose economy is stagnant and which relies almost entirely on wavering oil production for government revenue; that he has been facing rising civil opposition; and that of course he would like to see the demise of western liberal values, because things such as democracy and human rights are a threat to his ability to remain in power and control his people through repressive measures.
It would be nice if the world greeted the utterances and actions of U.S. President Donald Trump with the same sang-froid.
Mr. Trump has dominated the headlines in his country this week by orchestrating a July 4th parade in Washington featuring a smattering of brawny military hardware and a speech by him in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Trump avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, and his administration has done little to improve the lives of U.S. veterans, but he somehow gets to have jets scream overhead and a few tanks parked nearby while singing the praises of himself to a handpicked audience. It’s a laughably garish political stunt.
And, like Mr. Putin’s attempt to troll the western world, it’s also a display of weakness.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump both exploit the fear of immigrants, and of open societies, to shore up their support. Mr. Trump infamously referred to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, a line echoed in Mr. Putin’s claim last week that liberalism invites immigrants to “kill, plunder and rape with impunity.”
The two men also play up the racially tinged falsehood that liberal western democracies put the rights of refugees and immigrants ahead of the needs of their citizens. It’s how Mr. Trump justifies the inhumane conditions that many migrants, young children included, have been forced to endure after being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But both men know that their holds on power are vulnerable to assault by the conventions of liberal democracy.
Mr. Trump faces re-election in 2020, and there could be a reckoning for his cruel policies regarding immigrants, not to mention for his nepotism, his self-dealing and his disdain for the checks and balances of the U.S. system.
Mr. Putin doesn’t need to worry about free elections, but he fears a resurgence of liberal values in Europe, something that would further isolate him and reduce his hold on Russia.
For the moment, Mr. Putin isn’t wrong when he boasts that there is an upswing in national populist movements in the western world. Italy and Hungary are now governed by sympathetic leaders who share his anti-immigrant sentiments. France and Germany are struggling with a rise in anti-immigrant nationalism. The United Kingdom is blundering its way through the consequences of Brexit. And the United States has Trumpism.
But the game isn’t over. It’s wrong to conclude, like Mr. Putin rather lamely tried to, that liberalism no longer has a role in our world. On the contrary, it is the thing that will be his reckoning, and that of Mr. Trump. The confident leader doesn’t need to prematurely announce the death of his nemesis, or hold a silly parade to elevate himself.