Trump, Farage, Le Pen: Why Western conservatives love Vladimir Putin
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely admired by right-wing leaders in Western democracies – including Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen – a stark reversal from when conservatives were the staunchest of Cold Warriors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has garnered much admiration in recent years from a bevy of right-wing politicians who have praised everything from his single-minded pursuit of Russian national interests to his rejection of “elitist” liberal values.
Republican US President-elect Donald Trump, UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage and French National Front leader Marine Le Pen have all expressed varying degrees of appreciation for the Russian leader’s approach to international affairs.
Such reverence marks something of a reversal from previous decades, when Western conservatives took a more adversarial approach to Russia and its interests, shoring up international support for the alliances and agreements that isolated and contained Moscow.
And while those on the right have traditionally favoured robust interventionist foreign policies, the “new right” appears to be veering toward isolationism and a rejection of internationalism, preferring go-it-alone strategies of national self-interest that undercut support for both the EU and NATO, much to the Kremlin’s delight.
At the same time, identity politics have come to the fore in the form of a preoccupation with questions of national identity as well as the challenges posed by multiculturalism, the pursuit of liberal secularism and a sharp rise in immigration.
Nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, National Front leader Marine Le Pen was unequivocal in rejecting the global status quo, telling BBC presenter Andrew Marr that it is the EU and not Vladimir Putin that poses the real threat to Europe.
Le Pen characterised the EU as an "oppressive model" of “unfettered globalisation that has been imposed upon us”, expressing the hope that one day it would be replaced by a "Europe of free nations".
In a further rejection of internationalism, she said NATO had lost its raison d’être.
“NATO continues to exist even though the danger for which it was created no longer exists,” said Le Pen, laughing off the suggestion that Moscow poses a threat to Europe.
“What is NATO protecting us against, exactly? Against a military attack from Russia? … In fact, NATO today has become a tool to ensure that its member countries comply with the will of the United States.”
This is “unbearable” for someone who values independence and sovereignty, she said.
Le Pen hailed Putin’s approach to global affairs as an example of "reasoned protectionism", saying he is understandably “looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity”.
Asked about her views on immigration, Le Pen said France was simply not capable of handling any more arrivals. “We cannot take care of hundreds of thousands of people arriving here, because our first obligation is to protect the French people,” she said.
The National Front leader, who is expected to run for the French presidency in 2017, said the UK’s vote for Brexit in June and the recent election of Donald Trump in the US had been part of a "global revolution".
Le Pen expressed the hope that France would join this revolt by rejecting elitism when it votes for a new president in April. She said the election would offer a choice between a "multicultural society, on which fundamentalist Islam is encroaching" and an "independent nation where people are able to control their own destinies".
The BBC interviews Marine Le Pen
‘We want our country back’
For UKIP leader Nigel Farage, sovereignty is also at the heart of his political philosophy. He told Fox News soon after the June 23 Brexit vote that the decision to leave the EU was not based on economic concerns, as many had surmised. "It was decided by a basic argument of sovereignty," he said. "Should we make our own laws in our own country, and crucially, should we control our own borders?"
In the days following, Farage hailed the Brexit result in an address before the European Parliament and warned that Britain might not be the last to leave the union. He called the vote “a seismic result, not just for British politics [and] for European politics but perhaps even for global politics”, saying that “ordinary people” had sent a clear message: “We want our country back. We want our fishing waters back. We want our borders back. And we want to be an independent, self-governing, normal nation…”
This renewed focus on sovereignty while questioning current international norms echoes some of the views expressed by the Russian president. Farage shocked many when he was asked by GQ magazine in a 2014 interview which world leader he admired most. "As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin," he replied. After coming under fire, he later defended his statement in London at a Chatham House event. "I said I don't like him, I wouldn't trust him and I wouldn't want to live in his country, but compared with the kids who run foreign policy in this country, I've more respect for him than our lot.”
Theresa May needs to get on with Brexit. The British people voted for proper border controls & want to see net migration at sensible levels.— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) November 16, 2016
Farage has made numerous appearances on RT, Russia’s state-funded international news network, and was even offered his own show on the channel in September. He has used this platform to express his strong disdain for the European Union, once telling RT that EU leaders "are not undemocratic. They are anti-democratic. These are very bad and dangerous people. They are the worst people we have seen in Europe since 1945."
'At least he's a leader'
US President-elect Donald Trump has also been criticised for praising Putin and remains under scrutiny over allegations that either he or his advisers had inappropriate contact with the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential campaign.
On a US morning talk show on December 18 last year, Trump defended Putin over allegations that he has had numerous political opponents and journalists murdered. "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader. Unlike what we have in this country," Trump said, in a reference to US President Barack Obama.
At an NBC News forum on national security in September, Trump doubled down on these sentiments, saying that Putin "has been a leader far more than our president has been".
"I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a terrible thing – the man has very strong control over a country.’ Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow - if so, will he become my new best friend?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 19 juin 2013
NBC moderator Matt Lauer reminded Trump that Putin annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is suspected of being behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails.
"Well, nobody knows that for a fact," Trump interrupted.
Rejecting 'cosmopolitan' values
Many on the political right view Putin as an ally in defending Western civilisation against an excess of multiculturalism and the “cosmopolitan” beliefs that they feel threaten more traditional values. Moreover, his pragmatic view of world affairs suits those who prefer a realpolitik approach over grandiose visions of spreading democratic values, with often questionable results.
"Putin is perceived to be a strong leader who supports conservative values and puts his country's interests above international concerns or political correctness, without being apologetic for doing so," said Liliya Karimova, a Russia and Eurasia expert at the Kennan Institute/Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, in an email.
Putin's approach earns the respect of those who would similarly like to pursue national interests unfettered by the international norms that some see as misguided or outdated.
The global interests of Western conservatives are also beginning to merge with Putin's. They agree on a number of common enemies, including “Islamic extremism, the liberal left [and] ‘cosmopolitan’ values”, said a South Caucasus expert at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, who declined to be named.
There is now a strong affinity between their worldviews that includes “rejecting universalist values and insisting on national specificity [and] isolationism”.
“Right-wingers in the West don't see the point of getting involved in conflicts in faraway countries where US or European interests are not clear, or of wasting resources investing in grand projects to democratise other parts of the world,” the analyst said. “This [jibes] with Putin's basic concept of spheres of influence – Putin appears as a partner in ‘taking care’ of parts of the world in which right-wingers see no vital interest.”
And Russia is no longer the “ideological rival” that the Soviet Union once was, when Soviet Communism and American Capitalism represented opposite ends of the political spectrum.
“[W]ithout ideological issues at stake, Putin appears to be a transactional politician – a ‘dealmaker’ that we can do business with. This suits the kind of post-truth politics that Western right-wingers are currently embracing, and fits with the idea that Putin can be trusted and relied upon in a world where the US no longer wants to be a global policeman.”
Putin is "your ideal realpolitik partner”, he said.
Karimova noted that Trump “was able to capitalise on the idea of strong – if not authoritarian – leadership in the likes of Putin”, adding that this position marks “a departure from a stance that Republicans in the US have traditionally taken toward authoritarian leaders”.
But she said that “it remains to be seen how the initial friendliness plays out when Trump assumes office”.
What the future holds for US foreign policy under a Trump administration has yet to be determined. But the president-elect’s vocal praise for a strongman who is quick to criticise Western encroachment has many concerned that the global alliances of which the US is a key member, such as NATO, may have to prepare for a world in which they must increasingly go it alone.