are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to
tend towards the same end, although they started from different points:
I allude to the Russians and the Americans.... The American relies upon
personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the
unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian
centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal
instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude."
(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book One, 1835, Chapter 18)
During the some 40 plus years of the Cold War almost the entire
inhabitable world seemed caught up in the seemingly unending,
relentless struggle between de Tocqueville's "two great nations,"
between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the long struggle
between the communism and totalitarianism of the one and the capitalism
and democracy of the other.
Then two things happened to bring the Cold War to an end. First,
Mikhail Gorbachev at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986
inaugurated Perestroika, or economic structuring, this being a
fundamental reform of Soviet totalitarian rule from within.
Two years later, in May of 1988, the Soviet Union began the final
withdrawal of its troups from Afghanistan, this withdrawal and defeat
signaling the rapid break-up of the Soviet Empire that was to follow,
beginning with the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and
ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component
republics in late 1991.
Then what happened? The West rushed in with their carpet bags filled
with democracy and capitalism. The one, democracy didn't take hold. For
as we know from William Shakespeare the readiness is all, and the
Russian people were not ready for democracy.
The other, capitalism, did triumph, not only in Russia, but
throughout the former republics of the now defunct Soviet Union. It was
a wild and unruly capitalism, but capitalism it was, and communism was
relegated to the dustbin.
The Soviet Union had always possessed a wealth of natural resources.
The new, now Russian capitalists, first private grasping individuals,
and then the Russian state itself, set about to exploit them, seizing
ownership of the resources while paying little or no attention to
whatever rule of law had survived the death of the Soviet Union.
All that brings us up to the present moment and to President Putin,
a.k.a. Tsar Putin. Russia, under Putin's not yet totalitarian but more
and more authoritarian rule, is again becoming a principal player on
the world stage, and once again a serious obstacle to America's attempt
to export freedom and democracy to the Middle East and elsewhere.
There are even those who speak of a new Cold War, but I don't think
this is an accurate description of what is happening. And in fact in
most areas, in particular in regard to spending on defense, Russia is
no longer a serious rival, if it ever was, to the United States.
Furthermore, in Russia itself, and in spite of Putin's clamp down on
democracy, the West in important ways has triumphed. For example,
Russians are now able to acquire property. They are free to travel both
within and without the country. And for the first time since the end of
the second World War there is an abundance of consumer goods available
on the shelves.
However, at the very least, there are growing tensions between the
new Russia and the West. What is the source of the tensions? What has
kept Russia apart from Europe? Why didn't the new Russia simply join,
say, the European Union? What is it that still seems to come between
Russia and the West?
I think what is going on in Russia is a revival of the old struggle
between Hobbes and Locke, between the merits of authoritarian rule,
such as that of a king or tsar, and another kind of rule by
democratically elected representatives, such as that of our Congress and
President, although I'm not sure that Putin has read either Hobbes or Locke, or
would even describe the situation he has faced in this manner.
But this difference is still a valid one. And in fact Hobbes is
still triumphant in many if not most countries of the world. The two
largest countries, China and India, well represent the two positions.
And it's interesting that we would not think of imposing democracy on
the one, nor authoritarianism on the other, if indeed we could. We
Putin probably hasn't read Hobbes, and there's probably even less
chance that he has read Locke from whom our own Declaration of
Independence (life, liberty, and, not the pursuit of happiness, but
property) was principally derived. But the strength of Putin's position
clearly depends on its similarity to the position of Thomas Hobbes.
In his own lifetime Hobbes witnessed the beheading of a King, the
English Civil War, and the Protestant Revolution. He understandably
concluded that only a strong state under a strong, authoritarian ruler
could prevent anarchy and provide security.
Just today in a Wall Street Journal interview Mikhail Gorbachev said
of Putin that "he had somehow managed to put together a country that
was falling apart." And that's probably the very best that can be said
about the man.
Putin must have known disorder. He witnessed the final years of the
Soviet Union, and he probably suffered through the chaotic first years
of Boris Yeltsin and the new Russia.
Then, and given his own totalitarian upbringing as a member of the
KGB, he must have readily concluded, probably during the Yeltsin years of non-rule, that the
Russian people needed security and order, not to mention income and
jobs, benefits that could come from a strong ruler, much more than they needed freedom and democracy from Europe or the United
States. And that makes him, whether he knew it or not, a disciple of
The leaders of the Western world, on the other hand, are disciples
of John Locke, even while admitting along with Winston Churchill, that
"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other
forms that have been tried from time to time."
Those words of Churchill came at the very beginning of the Cold War.
At the end of the Cold War, following the collapse of the Soviet
Union, we all naively believed that Churchill was shown to be right.
But now, some 16 years after the collapse, we can't be so sure.
Hobbes' argument in his Leviathan of 1651 was valid at the time and
given the existing or imminent disorder and anarchy in many nations and regions of
the world, including Russia, it may still be valid today.
Who would go to the Sudan, to the Congo, or even to Iraq thinking
that representative democracy was more important than a strong and
capable authoritarian government? We did of course, and look what
So the good that can be said about Putin can be summed up by saying
that he has recognized that the Russian people want and need a strong
ruler. He is certainly trying to provide one. If he steps on a lot of
toes, and worse, crushes liberal minded individuals and reform minded
and rebellious groups, as in Chechnya, that's just the cost of civil
order in Russia today.
Last week the Hobbes-Locke duality was beautiful illustrated by
the "match" between the former world champion chess player, Gary
Kasparov, and Putin. Kasparov lost of course and spent five days behind
Putin didn't offer to take Kasparov on in a game of chess. That
being just one more piece of evidence that Putin, no matter what else
he may be, is not a great man.
Putin did win their "political" match-up, "hands down," and made his
point that in a Russia still highly susceptible to coming apart at the
seams not even a tiny rebellion, such as that of the liberal reformer,
Gary Kasparov, could be tolerated. And he may be right.