Will: Vladimir Putin is bringing back the 1930s
WASHINGTON – Vladimir Putin's serial humiliations of America's bewildered secretary of state regarding Syria indicate Putin's determination to destabilize the world. Here is an even more ominous indication of events moving his way: On just one day last week, Italian ships plucked 6,055 migrants from the Mediterranean.
What has this to do with Putin? It portends fulfillment of his aspiration for Europe's political, social and moral disorientation.
The Financial Times reports that of the 138,000 migrants who have come by sea to Italy this year, few are from Syria. The "vast majority" are from Africa, with the largest number from Nigeria. The U.N.'s World Population Prospects says that only 10 percent of global population is in Europe, which is projected to have fewer people in 2050 than today. Just 16 percent of the world's population is in Africa but "more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur" there. It will have the world's highest growth rate, and 41 percent of its people currently are under 15. Of the nine countries expected to experience half the world's population growth by 2050, five are in Africa (Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda). Nigeria's population, currently the world's seventh largest, is the most rapidly growing.
Even without what is likely — population pressures producing some failed African states — a portion of Africa's multitudes, perhaps scores of millions of migrants, might cross the Mediterranean to Europe. There, 24 percent of the people are 60 and over, and no country has a birth rate sufficient to maintain current population sizes. Who but immigrants can work and fund Europe's welfare states for its graying publics?
Europe has recently been politically destabilized and socially convulsed by the arrival of a million Syrian migrants seeking asylum. Future migrations from Africa, with a large Muslim component, could pose the greatest threat to the social cohesion of Europe since 1945, or even since invading Arab forces were halted at Poitiers in 732.
Undermining the West's confident sense of itself is important to Putin's implementation of his ideology of Eurasianism. It holds that Russia's security and greatness depend on what Ben Judah calls a "geographically ordained empire" that "looks east to Tashkent, not west to Paris."
Writing in the British journal Standpoint, Judah reports that Russian television relentlessly presents "a dangerous, angry wonderland": "Russia is special, Russia is under attack, Russia swarms with traitors, Russia was betrayed in 1991, Russia was glorious under Stalin's steady hand." This justifies gigantic military, intelligence and police establishments steeped in Eurasianist tracts published by the Russian General Staff.
Putin's Russia, writes Owen Matthews in The Spectator, is developing a "state-sponsored culture of prudery" to make it a "moral fortress" against Western decadence. The Russian Orthodox Church benefits from a 2013 law that criminalizes "offending the feelings of religious believers." Twenty-one percent of Russians want homosexuals "liquidated" and another 37 percent favor "separating them from society."
In a new collection of essays, "Authoritarianism Goes Global" (Johns Hopkins), the Brookings Institution's Lilia Shevtsova says Putin is simultaneously imposing a domestic revolution of cultural conservatism, converting Russia into a revanchist power and "forging an anti-Western International." She warns:
"Ever since Stalinism's relentless assault on all 'horizontal' ties (even those of family), Russians have been tragically at the mercy of the state and its claims: Individuals are invited to compensate for their helplessness by looking for meaning in collective national 'successes' that promise to bring them together and restore their pride." Such as the annexation of Crimea.
In the same volume, Peter Pomerantsev, a student of 21st-century propaganda, says "the underlying goal" of Putin's domestic disinformation is less to persuade than "to engender cynicism": "When people stop trusting any institutions or having any firmly held values, they can easily accept a conspiratorial vision of the world." Putin's Kremlin is weaving a web of incongruous but useful strands. Its conservative nationalism is congruent with that of rising European factions on the right. Its anti-Western, especially anti-American, message resonates with the European left. It funds European green groups whose opposition to fracking serves Putin's agenda of keeping Europe dependent on Russian gas.
In many worrisome ways, the 1930s are being reprised. In Europe, Russia is playing the role of Germany in fomenting anti-democratic factions. In inward-turning, distracted America, the role of Charles Lindbergh is played by a presidential candidate smitten by Putin and too ignorant to know the pedigree of his slogan "America First."
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.