Letter to the editor: We must engage Putin’s evil with political realism
There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin has succeeded in achieving one of his life purposes. He has become a world-historical figure. All the world knows who he is, and all the world fears him; I suspect this applies even to members of his own household. He probably enjoys the distinction of being the most hated man in the world. Most likely this pleases him. For the world’s hatred is an acknowledgment of his power, and fear that he will not hesitate to use it to destroy his opponents.
Not since Hitler has anyone emerged on the world scene with such power, with such ruthlessness, without a conscience. And when he’s gone — for death will surely take him someday, historians will preserve his memory. His story will become legendary, and artists will embellish it. He may become the central figure of a great Russian opera of the 23rd century. I have never heard him speak, but in this opera the role of Putin should be sung by a bass.
Right now, he is an existential threat to the human race, and a great deal of nature along with it. A nuclear holocaust has become a real possibility. Journalists who have observed him suggest that he is mad, that he has become unhinged. And as the leaders of nations throughout the world consider how to restrain him, he seems like a rabid beast prepared to strike against them.
What sort of creature is he? Madeleine Albright, who served as Secretary of State, knew him well. She has written that his appearance is serpentine and his character follows suit. His face could have been that of the clever serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. For he is no doubt very clever, and of ill intent to anyone in the way of his purposes. It is the sort of face that one might inscribe on a dart board; a form of immortality he richly deserves.
But that doesn’t give us any useful sense of what we’re dealing with. And I’m speaking not only for myself, or my family, or my friends, or all the inhabitants of Middlebury, but of all people generally. For there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin is evil. He is an evil madman of world-historical proportions. Lord Acton’s comment about power — that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely — fits him perfectly.
But that doesn’t tell us what we need to know. Hatred is not sufficient to defeat world-historical criminals. Recall what it took to exterminate Adolf Hitler.
So, what sort of man is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (b. 1952)?
He is a politician, of the sort political theorists classify as a political realist.
And, what is that?
To begin with political realism is a theory that warrants the use of any means of power at hand to promote, secure and defend one’s political interest. The theory also subscribes to a doctrine of moral realism: that human nature is inherently selfish. This fits Putin perfectly. We might even say that Putin is an archetypical political realist, entirely ruthless (which is consistent with his realism), unscrupulous, a nihilist.
In this respect, to suppose that he is unhinged and that his actions are expressions of madness may prove misleading, for supposing that he is mentally disturbed, we may be misled by the expectation that he will soon self-destruct. Remember, the serpent in the Garden didn’t self-destruct. It still lurks in the shadows of our minds.
We must rather regard Putin as a very determined political realist. His actions are rational (rational behavior is not always a good thing); we know his interest: secure for Russia the status of a major world power on a par with the U.S. and China; and he doesn’t care about people getting hurt; he has no scruples — but that goes with being ruthless. He’s very intelligent, a skillful politician, and he has plenty of power to use. In this context, you could say that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is perfectly rational.
Reinhold Niebuhr was a political realist, but not a politician. He was a theologian and social moralist. He saw that political conflict rarely leaves us rational, or better, he recognized that political conflict can unhinge reason, cause it to become demonic, cruelly rational. And were he living now, he would have perceived that Putin’s lust for power has not destroyed his reason, but made it demonic and all the more dangerous, and capable of unrivalled cruelty. He would caution that the nations that oppose him (and right now that seems to include much of the world) must size him up. I believe he would have agreed, Vladimir Putin is a demonic political realist. Very dangerous. And like a wild rabid beast, he must be destroyed.
We must become realists also.
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