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Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal democracy?

Vladimir Putin: has worked towards upending the “liberal idea” since joining the KGB in 1975. Photo/Getty Images

Persistently pointed to as interfering in the votes for Trump and Brexit, Russia’s leader declares “job done”. 

Vladimir Putin reckons “the liberal idea has become obsolete”. As Mandy Rice-Davies said, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Showgirl and model Rice-Davies delivered her giggling riposte at an Old Bailey trial arising out of the 1963 Profumo scandal when counsel pointed out that Lord Astor denied ever having met her, let alone had an affair with her. (Years later, she came up with another zinger, describing her post-scandal life as “one slow descent into respectability”.)

Putin would obviously like to think the “liberal idea” – by which he appears to mean diversity, freedom and tolerance guaranteed by law – is obsolete, given he has worked towards that end since joining the KGB in 1975. A recent White Paper prepared for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff by Pentagon analysts and independent strategists and obtained by Politico warned of Moscow’s emboldened attempts to undermine democratic nations’ “societies, economies and governments”. The authors noted the growing alignment between Russia and China based on their shared affinity for “authoritarian stability” and fear of America’s international alliances, warning the world system would be “completely upended” if the trend continues.

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Is Putin right? Liberal democracy is certainly under pressure, which is not the same thing as being in conflict “with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population”, as he asserts.

What political scientists call “democratic backsliding” is clearly in evidence in Central Europe and Latin America: elections are tampered with or curtailed; limits are imposed on freedom of speech; the press is bullied and circumscribed; the rule of law and judicial independence come under pressure; and an atmosphere of crisis in which dissent is deemed unpatriotic is manufactured.

Although democracy doesn’t have deep roots in countries such as Honduras and Hungary, the fact that aspects of democratic backsliding are readily apparent in the US is deeply alarming. Equally alarming is the grisly spectacle of Britain, of all countries, floundering in a crisis that both gives the democratic process a bad name and encourages the notion that liberal democracy is on the skids.

The UK “famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality is suddenly looking like a banana republic”, wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post. He warned that if the UK imploded, it might be the beginning of the end of the West “as a political and strategic entity”.

Sir Kim Darroch: don’t expect the Trump Administration to become “more normal”. Photo/Getty Images

Pardon me but your slip is showing

A leaked cable revealed that Sir Kim Darroch, who days ago resigned as the UK’s ambassador to the US, didn’t expect the Trump Administration to become “substantially more normal, less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept”. One imagines the US ambassador in London is dispatching similarly unflattering assessments of what passes for the UK Government.

Brexit can also be viewed as a manifestation of what the Economist is calling “the global crisis in conservatism” in which traditional conservatives are being shouldered aside by reactionaries and pessimists consumed with a sense of grievance: “In the US and UK, the right is in power, but only by jettisoning the values that used to define it.”

And, of course, Russia’s fingerprints were all over the Brexit referendum. US political scientist Francis Fukuyama has latterly retreated from the sanguine assessment of the state of the world he offered in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” Supranational entities such as the European Union, he says, are “bulwarks of democracy”, but recent developments lead him to believe the European project is “definitely unravelling”. Coming at it from a diametrically opposed point of view, Putin would agree with both those propositions.

In his campaign to undermine Western values, Putin has an asset straight from his predecessors’ most fevered fantasies: an ally in the Oval Office.

One day, we may discover whether Donald Trump’s ascension was an incredibly lucky break for the Kremlin or the culmination of a plan “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University”, to quote Captain Edmund Blackadder, or a bit of both. But Trump is so accommodating of the Russians that, if it turns out he wasn’t compromised by them or isn’t financially beholden to them, it would bring to mind English poet Humbert Wolfe’s famous epigram: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist/(Thank God!) the British journalist/But seeing what the man will do/Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

Donald Trump: taking to “strongman nationalism”. Photo/Getty Images

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote after the recent G20 summit in Osaka: “Trump’s turn away from international engagement has in practice meant a genuine embrace of strongman, authoritarian nationalism and, with it, a very real abandonment of the ideals of liberal democracy.”

Incidentally, at a G20 press conference, Trump was asked for his thoughts on Putin’s dismissive obituary for Western-style liberalism. Whether out of confusion or calculation, he responded with a typically beside-the-point and self-serving attack on America’s liberally minded West Coast: “I guess you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco, and in a couple of other cities that are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people … but [Putin] does see things that are happening in the US that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is”. What were you expecting: a passionate defence of Western-style liberalism? A blistering critique of authoritarianism?

United States of Trump

Trump’s latest repudiation of protocol and tradition and an egregious example of his readiness to treat apolitical institutions as part of his political operation (L’État, c’est moi) and use them as electioneering props was his hijacking of the Fourth of July celebrations. Whereas his predecessors kept a low profile to ensure the focus was on the country rather than themselves, Trump stood before the Lincoln Memorial boasting of America’s military might as tanks rumbled by and jets roared overhead.

The Atlantic’s David Frum, a speechwriter for George W Bush and now one of Trump’s most eloquent and penetrating conservative critics, wrote of the speech: “No non-American could watch that spectacle at the Lincoln Memorial and feel that America stood for anything good or right or universal. Power worshipped power, for its own sake.”  

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.