Ever since Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea, American pundits have strained to understand his view of the world. Putin’s been called a Nazi; a tsar; a man detached from reality. But there’s another, more familiar framework that explains his behavior. In his approach to foreign policy, Vladimir Putin has a lot in common with those very American hawks (or “neocons” in popular parlance) who revile him most.
1. Putin is obsessed with the threat of appeasement
From Irving Kristol’s “The Politics of Appeasement” (Wall Street Journal, 1975) to Norman Podhoretz’s “Appeasement by Any Other Name” (Commentary, 1983) to William Kristol and Robert Kagan’s “The Appeasement Gamble” (Weekly Standard, 2000) to Charles Krauthammer’s “The Wages of Appeasement” (Washington Post, 2011), hawks have attributed virtually every foreign-policy crisis of the last 40 years to America’s supposed habit of knuckling under to our foes. In 1975, Irving Kristol called America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam an act of “appeasement” that “to those of us who have even the vaguest memories of the 1930s … is all too chillingly reminiscent.” A generation later, his son, William Kristol, chalked up the September 11 attacks to “two decades of American weakness in the face of terror.” Last week, in The New York Times, John McCain explained Putin’s move on Crimea as the result of a global “perception that the United States is weak.” To Kristol, McCain, and their ilk, the United States is a nation perennially bullied by adversaries who are tougher, nastier, and more resolute than we are.
The good news is that, eventually, when the humiliation becomes too much to bear, a Reaganesque or Churchillian leader raises America up off its knees. When George W. Bush attacked Iraq, Kristol declared that the “era of American weakness and doubt in response to terrorism is over,” while Max Boot announced “The End of Appeasement.” This week, in The Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said he hoped that for Americans, Putin’s actions in Crimea would mean “the end of illusions.”
It’s a phrase that could easily have been uttered by Putin himself. In his view, it’s Russia that has been perennially bullied by tougher and nastier countries—in particular, America and its NATO allies. “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact,” he explained in a speech announcing Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner.” But now, finally, the era of appeasement is over. “Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from,” Putin said. “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”
For American hawks, appeasement is not merely bad foreign policy. It represents a crisis of values—an aversion to those martial, manly virtues that make nations strong and give life meaning. In his 1977 essay, “The Culture of Appeasement,” Podhoretz argued that “one of the interesting similarities” between Jimmy Carter’s America and Neville Chamberlain’s Britain “was the prominence of homosexuals in the literary worlds” of both eras. Under their influence, Podhoretz suggested, “words such as soldier and fighter, which had previously carried a positive charge, now became so distasteful.” In the 1990s, David Brooks, then at The Weekly Standard, similarly warned that “we have become a nation obsessed with risk avoidance and safety. We allow soft sentimentalism to replace demanding moral principles.” In response, Brooks, Kagan, Kristol, and McCain championed what they called “national greatness conservatism.” Invoking Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life,” Brooks called for making American foreign policy “a more demanding and a more heroic enterprise.”
Today, hawks still link appeasement and effeminacy. Last month, for instance, after comparing the “bare-chested Putin” to “Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups,” National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson suggested that Putin’s aggression might finally rouse Americans to peer “into ourselves—we the hollow men, the stuffed men of dry voices and whispers” and get tough.
For Putin, too, overcoming appeasement requires overcoming the soft, unmanly culture that made Russia unwilling to fight. The fall of the Soviet Union, he argued last year, “was a devastating blow to our nation’s cultural and spiritual codes” that led to “primitive borrowing and attempts to civilize Russia from abroad.” That borrowing was not only economic but “cultural, religious and even sexual.” And now, to reject foreign domination, Russia must also reject Western “policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”
In the best Teddy Roosevelt tradition, Putin has made his own physical vigor a metaphor for the new vigor of Russian foreign policy. And even as they denounce Putin’s actions, hawks like Hanson can barely restrain their envy at his imperialistic machismo. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Sarah Palin told Fox News. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans.”
2. Putin is principled—so long as those principles enhance national power
In recent days, Putin has talked a lot about “democracy,” “freedom,” “self-determination” and “international law.” And conveniently for him, he insists that Russia’s annexation of Crimea scrupulously adheres to those principles while America’s behavior in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya violated them brazenly.