During his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to give a history lesson. It is highly questionable whether he will be listened to. For the United States to admit its errors in democracy promotion, for the U.S. to admit it is not exceptional, and for the United States and Russia to cooperate to restore peace in Syria remain highly questionable. Nonetheless, his speech was a fascinating presentation of his world view. Although discourse analysis is fraught with difficulties, some of his comments do merit a close reading.
Vladimir Putin is an enigma. He is often thought of trying to restore not just the Soviet Union but to recreate the Russian Empire. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its support of rebels in eastern Ukraine, its sending military equipment to Syria, are used as examples of the swashbuckling style of the ex-KGB agent. He is pictured as the evil ringmaster awakening a sleeping bear that is ready to roar, as it has done in history.
Those sympathetic to Putin and to the new Russian Federation blame the West for its humiliating containment policy through the eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union. Putin, according to this perspective, is merely trying to establish the Russian Federation as a major power after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A member of the UN Security Council, a major global source of gas and oil reserves, an important military power, Russia should have a first place seat in the international community. Following the end of the Soviet Union, in other words, Putin is merely trying to re-establish Russia’s proper place.
Is there any way to give a definitive answer to these conflicting perspectives? Probably not; a mixture of the two positions may be the closest to reality.
To put the speech in context: Historically, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West entered a short period of euphoria with “the end of history” and “bound to lead” among unilateral pronouncements. Democracy and free markets were put forward as the ultimate answer as to how human society should be organized. Intellectual debates flourished about whether the United States was an empire or merely a hyperpower. Were we witnessing Pax Americana?
Vladimir Putin’s history lesson before the General Assembly took the West to task for its pompous proselytizing following 1989. “No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one,” he said. Looking at the results of democracy promotion during the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, he reflected that: “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we get violence, poverty and social disaster.”
This is a direct challenge to the West, a direct challenge to those who thought democracy and free markets were universally applicable, a direct challenge to American unilateralism. It is also a challenge coming from someone who recognized the errors of the universal pretensions of Marxist/Leninist ideology – “We also remember certain episodes from the history of the Soviet Union. Social experiments for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.”
On a superficial level, Putin the history teacher said that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to stop Hitler. The mutual enemy brought the two contrasting ideologies together. He called for a similar coalition today against the Islamic State, a coalition based on mutual interests, not mutual values.
More profoundly, Putin said that the era of ideological exceptionalism is over. When he said, “Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned,” he was criticizing the West and American triumphalism. The United States democracy promotion has failed – “Do you realize what you have done?” The Soviet Union collapsed. Instead of one exceptional political system, Putin called for plural political systems based on cooperation recognizing national interests with no overarching ideology.
The first half 20th century was marked by ideological wars including the Russian revolution and fascism. The second half of the century, the Cold War, was as much about how to organize society as it was about control of territory. The end of the Cold War has seen the end of one universalizing ideology. President Putin asked the other major ideology to admit its failures, as he did, and to enter an era of pragmatic pluralism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of Marxist/Leninism. Will failures in North Africa and the Middle lead to the end of democracy promotion? Will another major stock market crash or rising inequality lead to a serious questioning of liberalism and American exceptionalism?
President Putin’s history lesson was certainly helpful in better understanding his perspective. As a lesson, however, its value, like all lessons, will be measured in how the audience responds.