A president and a liberal walk into the Last Chance saloon…

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on Vladimir Putin's critique of the West


The international headlines were grim. Liberalism is obsolete. Liberalism is dead.

The abrupt demise of a rights-oriented philosophy that has for at least four centuries underpinned the struggle for individual freedoms and which, post World War Two, has dominated in the West and, increasingly, much of the rest of the world, is big news. It came to us via Financial Times’ editor Lionel Barber’s interview with President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit. 

Putin, who has through a variety of totalitarian stratagems survived for nearly two decades as Russia’s nominally democratically elected leader, is of course, not one’s obvious choice as disinterested political coroner. Donald Tusk, the European Council president spoke for most of the EU when he “strongly disagreed” and, in an obvious dig at Putin, said: “What I find really obsolete is authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs.”

Virtually without exception, the mainstream anglophone media responded along the same smugly dismissive lines. Even Britain’s right-of-centre Express, had a sneering putdown, despite sharing, at heart, many of Putin’s nationalistic views. Vlad, it commented, was a “cartoonish despot” imbibing towards oblivion in the “Last Chance Saloon”.

However, the verbatim transcript of the FT interview — why, in this digital age, does the media not, as standard practice make easily accessible their source documents? Is it because they fear the dissonance that often exists between the gaudily coloured snapshot that they publish and the nuanced shades in the unedited material? — presents a slightly different picture than that put out by CNNThe IndependentThe GuardianTime, and the rest.  

Putin’s analysis is more deserving of consideration than the knee-jerk reaction it received. He is spot-on about the excesses of Western-style liberalism, which have to be addressed sensibly. 

Liberalism is not dead. It is not obsolete. But it is enervated. 

And it will die if does not escape its hijackers, who through extreme positions — most notably on borders and migration; on multiculturalism; and sexual diversity —  have alienated substantial numbers of the very voters on which a liberal philosophy’s survival depends. The growth of anti-establishment populism in the United States, Britain, and much of Europe should be proof enough of that.

Some of Putin’s barbs against liberalism:

On popular alienation: “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has … come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority. The ruling elites have broken away… The obvious problem is the gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people.”

On immigration: “Some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable. The interests of the core population should be considered when the number of migrants is not just a handful of people but … hundreds of thousands. The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done.”

On sexual diversity “We have no problems with LGBT persons … but some things appear excessive. They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles. I cannot even say exactly what genders these are… Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”

On religion: “Russia is an Orthodox Christian nation and there have always been problems between Orthodox Christianity and the Catholic world. Are there any problems there? Yes, there are, but I get the feeling that liberal circles are beginning to use the problems of the Catholic Church as a tool for destroying the Church itself. This is … incorrect and dangerous.”

On tradition “Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on biblical values? Even atheists and everyone else live in this world. We do not have to every day [show] that we are devout Christians or Muslims or Jews. However, deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules and moral values. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea.”

On democracy: “There are no common democratic standards … but our Western partners, want a region such as Libya — a region that has only monarchies, or countries with a system similar to the one that existed in Libya — to have the same democratic standards as Europe and the US. It is impossible.

Barber’s interview with the Russian president ranges widely.  Putin speaks with a frankness and a disregard for politically correct niceties that very few politicians would dare to emulate in the so-called liberal democracies where social media mobs have eviscerated any attempt at honest debate. Appropriately for a former KGB analyst and a consummate champion of Russian interests, Putin is unerring in his identification of liberalism’s vulnerabilities. 

No doubt, the defenders of liberalism, among whom I count myself, can provide detailed rebuttals to many of the specifics in Putin’s argument, which incidentally is well worth reading in full. But often the most useful critiques come from one’s enemies, not from one’s friends. 

If liberal democracies are to survive the rise of popular authoritarianism at home, they are going to have to become more attractive to the central mass of the people, including many of those whom Hilary Clinton suicidally dismissed as the “deplorables”. Tellingly, a poll by that selfsame Putin-mocking Express found that 87% of its readers agreed with Russian president’s views.

Now that would be the ultimate irony. If liberalism were to be defeated by the mechanism it played such a key role in establishing — the ballot box.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye