Last Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”–the breakfast salon of the bien pensant–Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel (left) took on Vladimir Putin. Stengel attempted to explain how Putin’s conduct in Ukraine damages Putin’s own interests. Putin, Stengel told his interlocutor Steven Rattner with an air of frustration, “is making fundamental errors” that would get him in trouble with the Russian people. “He’s moving further away from the West,” Stengel said, at a time when “people want to be closer to the West.” Rattner agreed that Putin is being “irrational.” Isn’t it obvious?
In fact, it isn’t at all obvious that Putin is being irrational or that people around the world want to be closer to the West, at least not in the way Stengel seems to think. It is very difficult for Americans to understand this, but on many issues we are cultural outliers. America, especially its professional class, has what psychologists call a WEIRD culture—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRDs are very secular. They place great emphasis on personal autonomy; indeed, autonomy may be their most important value. That’s one reason why America works so hard to support movements like feminism and gay rights abroad.
By contrast, most of the world’s cultures are not WEIRD. They are not secular and do not see personal autonomy as the most important value. Jonathan Haidt explains this very well in his recent book, The Righteous Mind. Many world cultures, Haidt writes, have an“ethic of community” that sees people principally as members of collectives—families, tribes, and nations—with strong claims to loyalty. Many have an “ethic of divinity,” which holds that people’s principal duty is to God, not themselves. “In such societies,” Haidt writes, “the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity’s baser instincts.”
Putin is many things, but he is not a WEIRD. He has been making clear for years that he does not aspire for Russia to become a WEIRD society. The values he promotes are nationalism, authority, loyalty, and religion. Especially religion. As a perceptive post by national security expert John Schindler explains, Putin’s worldview contains a large element of Holy Russia/Third Rome ideology, “a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.” Of course, Putin may be insincere. Like many dictators, he may simply be using religion to his advantage. But, even if his convictions are phony, the challenge he poses to the West is fundamentally a cultural and ideological one.
And many Russians support him. Putin has been extremely good at exploiting the suspicion that many Russians feel about the West and its values–especially America and its values. Notwithstanding Stengel’s assertion, Putin is not acting against the wishes of his own people. Indeed, his popularity at home has been growing since the start of the Ukraine crisis. And, as Schindler explains, it’s not only Russians who think they way Putin does. “There are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.” The thuggery in Ukraine will cost him some of this support. But many people will be inclined to dismiss Putin’s conduct as a reassertion of Russia’s traditional interest in its near-abroad.
In other words, our conflict with Russia is not simply about politics, or economics, or even national security. It’s about culture and values. It’s not that Putin insufficiently appreciates what WEIRDness requires. He’s not a WEIRD at all. He doesn’t want to be. The people who run our foreign policy should understand this. If Stengel’s appearance on Friday is any indication, they don’t.