“No Need to Fear Russia. The Bear is Broke.” That’s the title of Tim Congdon’s article in the last number of Standpoint. His argument is simple—Russia isn’t rich enough to pose a challenge to the dominance of Western Europe and America—and entirely unpersuasive. The notion that economic factors drive human events would be charmingly naïve, were it not so widespread and dangerous.
As Congdon reports, Russia is a middling economic power. Its 2015 gross domestic product, as measured by the World Bank, was $1.3 trillion, making it the thirteenth-largest economy in the world. This is small beer compared to the 2015 GDPs of America (nearly $18 trillion) and China ($11 trillion).
Russia looks better when one revises to account for domestic purchasing power, which is important since Russia isn’t paying other countries to build its tanks and fighter jets. By that measure, Russia is the sixth-richest country in the world. Again, the Kremlin’s financial resources are far behind those of the United States and China—but only slightly behind those of Germany, and somewhat greater than those of France and Great Britain. But we should have no worries, Congdon advises: “Russian in the early 21st century is no more than a medium weight power in economic terms.”
If that assessment reassures someone in Poland—or, for that matter, Germany—some historical perspective might cause him to think otherwise. In 1938, the GDP of the United States was the largest in the world, coming in at nearly $85 billion. Japan, by comparison, had a paltry $7.5 billion.
By Congdon’s way of reasoning, the Roosevelt administration had nothing to worry about. The island nation was at best a middling economic power. True, Japan had invaded China in the early 1930s, mounting a direct challenge to the American and European colonial domination of Asia. But not to worry. Economics is the essence of social reality, and Japan just wasn’t rich enough to extend power very far.
That, of course, was a foolish way of thinking in the late 1930s. It remains so today. I’m not suggesting that Russia is about to bomb Pearl Harbor, or, for that matter, invade Estonia. My point is that the drama of human history cannot be reduced to considerations of material wealth. The threats—or opportunities—posed by Putin’s Russia are a function of the countless free decisions made by leaders there and elsewhere, and those of their followers.
Since 1989 and the end of the Cold War, we have been in the grip of magical thinking, whereby the gods of health, wealth, and pleasure rule the world. These are materialist assumptions about what makes people and societies tick. They are assumptions that, conveniently for them, empower technocrats, who promise to maximize utility by expert management. They may be able to do what they promise, though perhaps not all that well, and certainly not always. But to be human is to seek transcendence—which means that, ultimately, we are not willing to live in a world governed by health, wealth, and pleasure.
Which brings me back to Russia. I am struck by the symbolic role Vladimir Putin is playing in European populism. It is tempting to explain away that role by observing that the Kremlin dispenses cash to some of the current populist movements—seeing, rightly, that populist electoral successes are likely to reverse punitive EU politics put in place after Crimea. I don’t discount this dimension. But it’s absurd to imagine that the striking upsurge in European populism is being conjured with Russian cash. Rather, the pro-Putin rhetoric, and the anti-Putin counter-rhetoric, reveal something important about the trajectory of twenty-first century politics in the West.
On Sunday, the Italians voted on a referendum. At issue was a constitutional change that would have empowered Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to accelerate the process of Italy’s conformity with the neo-liberal EU consensus about peace, justice, and prosperity. The “No” vote was crushing. It should be understood as a striking repudiation of that consensus, which is the establishment consensus, not just in Europe but in the United States as well.
As the magnitude of Renzi’s defeat became clear, Matteo Salvini, a proponent of the “No” vote and leader of the Lega Nord, an Italian party that criticizes the political status quo, posted the following on Facebook: “Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva la Le Pen, e viva la Lega!” Salvini is by no means an outlier. Commending Putin has become a populist commonplace in Europe. Euro-skeptic Nigel Farage is a Putin fan. Marine Le Pen defends Putin. PEGIDA rallies in Germany call for Putin to save Europe from Muslim domination.
In all likelihood, Salvini does not endorse Putin’s foreign policy. Nor, I imagine, does he wish Italy’s economy to be remodeled along Russian lines. He is not commending the Russian healthcare system. Rather, by my reading, Salvini and other European populists relish Putin’s anti-Western bravado.
What’s striking is that affirmations of Putin do not undermine the popularity of populists like Salvini. This fact dumbfounds and outrages the European and American establishments, which think that any association with Putin ought to disqualify a person immediately from any role in public life.
I don’t commend Putin. But it’s time to stop being dumbfounded and outraged. For decades our establishment has tolerated, even nurtured, an anti-Western multiculturalism on the left. For a long time I thought that multiculturalism was an assault on the West. I’ve come to see that it is a species of uniquely Western anti-Western universalism and self-criticism.
Now it seems there is a new anti-Western sentiment, a populist rejection of the “West,” at least insofar as the West is dominated by a technocratic elite so bewitched by the materialist gods of health, wealth, and pleasure that it no longer understands the allure of the older gods of nation and peoplehood. It represents, perhaps, a uniquely Western particularism, a desire for shared loyalties that transcend material well being and personal pleasures.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.