The West And Putin's Story
written on the margins of an online debate-workshop
The Warsaw Euro-Atlantic Summer Academy (WEASA) hosted a workshop featuring Brian Whitemore* that took place on May 5th. The workshop was titled “Storytelling, Propaganda and the Crisis of Western Liberalism” and it stipulated that stories, like the rule of law, division of powers, human rights, and many others, are only real if people believe in them.
The belief in the above-menitoned stories, according to Whitemore, was shaken by the crises at the beginning of the 21st century, in particular the 9/11 attacks and the financial crisis of 2008. It is interesting to point out that when (I) asked Mr. Whitemore to rank which of these events was the greater contributor to the crisis of faith in contemporary narratives in the western democracies he pointed out that he can’t analyze these events separately, but he still underscored the chronological significance of the first event.
In a certain sense, this speaks to the depth of the crisis of confidence in the financial system, which cast its shadow over the rest of the panel, in particular through the thesis, repeated on several occasions, that money’s value is a matter of convention, one of the many stories we believe in today.
In this current climate of distrust, Whitemore especially points out today’s Russia, with Putin at its head, as one of the chief protagonists of an entirely new story that is based on values diametrically opposed to those told of in the stories of the West, due to which the leaders of the western countries are forced to relearn the lessons and the legacy of their own stories left to them by their forebearers.
Whitemore’s lecture got me thinking about stories as competing ideologies that, through each generation, vie for supremacy over the human spirit and reasoning – more specifically the transformation of these stories from the end of WW2 to the present day.
During the Cold War, the story in the West was a story of Freedom – liberty longed for from the other side of the Iron Curtain. After its fall the story of freedom transformed into a story of Security – which should have been provided after the Cold War was, seemingly, concluded with the victory of the story of freedom. Unfortunately, the attacks on 9/11 demonstrated that modern western democracies could not guarantee security to their citizens, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 showed that this ineptitude extended to financial security as well.
In such an ambiance people in the West started looking to alternatives. One of those alternatives was the story coming from Putin’s Russia. However, that story wasn’t a story about freedom or a story about security. That story represents a consensus that lies at the very heart of Putin’s regime and the regimes of modern populists in Europe and across the world. It is a story of dominion.
Dominion over neighboring countries. Dominion over fellow citizens. Dominion over minorities. Dominion over women as well as Dominion over all those who don’t hold dominion (over you) which is (nothing but) a compensation, a consolation prize, given out by the Leader who holds dominion over the world around you and the world within you.
The receptivity of this story in the West cannot be disregarded, especially after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016.
It is of extreme importance, today more than ever, that our story, the story of the world, not be one of Dominion, but one of Freedom whose promise can be made real for citizens of today’s democracies.
Luka Jovanović, attorney-at-law
FSD Program & Communications Director
* Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Texas-Arlington. He is also the founder and author of the Power Vertical Blog and host of the Power Vertical Podcast, both of which focus on Russian affairs.