American Conservatism and Russia

Aug. 17, 2016 Once staunchly anti-Soviet, some conservatives are embracing Putin’s Russia.

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By George Friedman

Until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the centerpieces of American conservatism was anti-communism. Anti-communism readily translated into anti-Soviet sentiment and that into anti-Russian. One of conservatives’ major criticisms of liberals was that they underestimated the threat the Soviet Union posed. The right saw the left as excessively prepared to negotiate away fundamental American interests and principles to placate the Soviets.

American conservatism has fragmented into so many parts since 1991 that it bears little resemblance to the movement Ronald Reagan presided over. However, of all the fragments, the most interesting and exotic is the one that appears to be pro-Russian, regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin favorably. I am not only talking about Donald Trump, although his speech on national security explicitly called for a working relationship with Russia to fight Islamist terrorism. I am talking about a faction of conservatism that does not see Russia, even led by a former dedicated KGB man (and therefore a former member of the Communist Party), as a strategic or moral threat to the United States, but rather a potential ally.

A woman wears a shirt reading "Trump-Putin '16" before a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Plymouth State University, February 7, 2016, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images
A woman wears a shirt reading “Trump-Putin ’16” before a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Plymouth State University, Feb. 7, 2016, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

Part of the reason for this is the rise of the jihadist strain of Islam that has unleashed terror on the United States and Europe. The threat of Russian power seems distant. The threat of Islamic terrorism seems imminent. It poses a threat to Russia as well as the United States. The Russians were fighting Muslim separatists in Chechnya years before 9/11. Indeed, when Putin came to power in 2000, he renewed that war with ruthlessness and managed to mostly pacify the region.

There is a theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In the same way that conservatives focused far more on ideology than they did on strategy, their moral objection to communism has transferred to the Islamic world. They are strengthened in this regard by what they see as liberals’ unwillingness to respond in kind. Just as the conservatives objected to liberal policy toward the Soviets as anything from ineffective to collaborative, so the same objections are being expressed about the liberal response to Islam.

The conservatives see Russia as a nation that confronted the Islamic threat inside its own borders and that makes no apologies for the measures it took to defeat them. When they look at Putin, they see a man who has confronted the enemy and dealt with it. The fact that he is authoritarian and suppresses freedom is a mark of his strength. For this faction, the world is an enormously dangerous place and strength is the essence of doing the right thing. If, in the course of doing the right thing, freedoms are reduced, then it is the price that has to be paid for safety.

This was similar to the response to communism. When Reagan spoke of the evil empire, he was simply announcing a truth others were afraid to announce. When Barack Obama or even George W. Bush were unwilling to name the enemy, Islamist terrorism, they were betraying the country. This conservative faction sees Putin as a man worth emulating because he knows who the enemy is and is prepared to do what he can to crush them. Therefore, in their minds, allying with Putin’s Russia makes as much sense as allying with Stalin’s Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.

I had mentioned that for this faction, ideology is more important than strategy. In defining the national interest, ideology drives their thinking. But having defined the enemy, their strategy is to ally with whoever they need to defeat this evil. They are prepared to work with anyone who is prepared to work against the main adversary.

There is a deeper level than this. Conservatives of this fashion are nationalists. They believe in American exceptionalism, both ideologically and as a people. They are the ones, like Trump, who simultaneously can see Russia as a friend, yet oppose NATO or NAFTA. The only measure that is meaningful to them is that which protects the United States and its obvious interests, like safety and jobs, and opposes the internationalist faction in both parties that would sacrifice their interests.

There was once a Communist International. A “Nationalist International” is emerging, made up of nations that, in their minds, are not ashamed of putting the interests of their own countries above those of others. These countries see international cooperation as a tool, not a principle. At root, this is what attracts them to Putin. Putin is neither a communist nor a liberal. He is a nationalist who resurrected Russia from the disaster of Boris Yeltsin and restored its pride. They respect him for that, and they long for someone as unambiguous as they think he is.

The problem with this view is obvious. A Nationalist International is a contradiction in terms. And while Putin is certainly a nationalist, that does not mean that he defines the national interest of Russia without seeing the U.S. as a threat.

As long as there is a clear enemy, this conservative movement is coherent. The enemy defines it. When the enemy is gone, there is nothing to guide you but the national interest. How would this faction define the national interest without an enemy?

That there are contradictions and ambiguities in this faction’s views is reasonable. I don’t know of any political movement built around ideology that isn’t riven with contradictions. The nationalist conservatives are no more confused than any of us. More important, they represent a significant faction in the United States. Some would confront Islam and Russia at the same time. This faction regards that as a fantastic overreach. Face Islam with Russia and then deal with Russia if you must. In a more coherent time, this faction could gather a large following, ranging from unionists frightened that their jobs might go to China to people afraid of terror and the perceived weakness of liberalism and so on.

This is actually the old Reagan coalition. Reagan reconciled the tension between realpolitik and ideology. He hated communism and worked with China. He was an ideologue and a nationalist. This is a time of fragmentation and incoherence where the presidential candidates are disliked by most. Coalitions don’t form in these times. But some elements of future coalitions can be glimpsed. The affection of some conservatives for Vladimir Putin is of great note, not because much will come of it, but because it points to the direction that the U.S. might move in the coming decade.

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