31 December 2021

What Putin, Xi and Khamenei Want

Aaron MacLean

Despite years of warning, the U.S. and its allies aren’t ready for the challenges created by a coterie of Eurasian autocrats. The habits of mind prevalent among democratic peoples and their leaders have left us vulnerable more than once, and thus bear some examination. The principal error is thinking that men like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ali Khamenei want what most Westerners want. They don’t.

The most immediate threat is that Mr. Putin will invade Ukraine or engage in related forms of reckless mischief. As during Mr. Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, there is a sense of incredulity at his audacity, as well as confusion about his intentions. An unnamed senior administration official told reporters on Dec. 17: “The Russian people don’t need a war with Ukraine. They don’t need their sons coming home in body bags. They don’t need another foreign adventure. What they need is better healthcare, build back better, roads, schools, economic opportunity.”

The gratuitous reference to President Biden’s domestic agenda is laughable, but it reveals an inability to understand that Mr. Putin rates the material needs of the Russian people far below his own ambitions. He isn’t against salving Russia’s national pride through classic irredentist conquest, which may elevate his political standing more than economic growth.

Even those who recognize Mr. Putin’s hostile intentions are left speaking with a kind of Episcopalian disapproval. In 2014 then-Secretary of State John Kerry was mocked when he said of Mr. Putin: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

This discounting of threats is nothing new. In his 1919 classic, “Democratic Ideals and Reality,” the British strategist Halford Mackinder noted that modern democracy is essentially idealistic, aiming toward the goal that “every human being shall live a full and self-respecting life.” Such idealism left democracies prey to men like the German kaiser. “Democracy refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defense,” Mackinder observed with the bitter consequences of the Great War in mind.

Ten years earlier Mackinder’s countryman Norman Angell had published the influential “The Great Illusion,” arguing that war between great powers was essentially obsolete. Meanwhile, the prewar literary scene in the German Empire had a different flavor: General Friedrich von Bernhardi’s “Germany and the Next War” and its sequel—subsequently published in English under the title “Britain as Germany’s Vassal”—appeared in 1912 and 1913, respectively.

Mackinder cautioned about the limitations of idealistic initiatives such as the League of Nations, warnings that could as easily apply to the international order created after World War II. These institutions, and the norms they seek to impose, can help manage international disputes, and have no doubt contributed to the long peace among great powers since 1945.

But they aren’t decisive. The hard power of the West—the U.S. especially—and the terrifying reality of nuclear weapons have been more significant, and still matter most today.

With contempt for the resolve and seriousness of their Western counterparts, the latest generation of Eurasian autocrats have been testing new methods to achieve traditional goals of statecraft like territorial expansion, even in the face of nuclear-armed coalitions. The annexation of Crimea is the biggest achievement of these innovations.

These rulers take risks their Western counterparts could never stomach because they think differently. They are educated in the much harder school of autocratic politics, and they are aware of a range of human ambitions that modern liberal states, from their earliest foundations, have sought to suppress in the name of peace and comfort.

Russia, China and Iran each present their own complex, albeit related, problems, and the objectives and ideologies of their leaders are different. But they all are encouraged in their recklessness by fantasies that have long plagued modern democracies. The Biden administration and democratic leaders world-wide need to accept that these men don’t want what we want, and that the arc of history doesn’t always bend toward justice. The bad guys can win.

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