Recently Donald Trump ignited controversy by responding to praise from Vladmir Putin with his own praise for the strength of the Russian authoritarian. Trump reacted to criticism by explaining American presidents should seek better ties with Russia.
American presidential relations with Russian leaders have always been complicated. Russia was typically seen as despotic. Lincoln once spoke sarcastically of emigrating to a country “where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
No president ever met a Russian head of state or government before FDR met Stalin, although Teddy Roosevelt hosted Russian envoys to negotiate a peace between Japan and Russia. His administration had earlier forwarded a petition to the Czar to protest anti-Jewish pogroms. Woodrow Wilson was initially relieved by the Czar’s abdication but horrified by the eventual Bolshevik victors.
FDR assiduously courted Stalin, knowing Soviet armies were essential to defeating Hitler and, perhaps later Japan. Stalin believed the Anglo-Americans were using Russia to defeat Germany to avoid their own major casualties. He recounted that while Churchill reached into Russia’s pocket even for pennies, FDR held out only for big change. FDR was not clueless to Stalin’s ruthlessness, casually once remarking that he assumed Stalin had murdered his wife, which ironically was likely one crime Stalin did not commit.
Ike found Khrushchev, whom he hosted at his farm, exasperating, especially the blow-up at the Geneva summit after the U-2 shoot down. JFK’s Vienna summit was even more tense and foreboding. Nixon, who had famously shaken his finger at Khrushchev at their kitchen summit, relished his sort of friendship with Brezhnev, who stayed at San Clemente, even bringing his mistress, whom Nixon noticed wore a perfume his own wife had favored. Ford’s cozy photo ops with Brezhnev, both clad in fur hats, helped ignite Reagan’s run against him. Carter’s kiss on Brezhnev’s lips when signing SALT II became infamous. Reagan, after rejecting Gorbachev’s demands at Reykjavik, eventually befriended his former foe. Barbara Bush (and likely her husband) found Boris Yeltsin, who smeared butter on bread with his half missing thumb, uncouth. But Clinton seemed to enjoy him. Bush II initially thought Putin a collaborative spirit before reverting to traditional wariness, which continued under Obama.
Maybe Trump likes the Nixon approach to his Russian counterpart. Open indifference to Russian human rights abuses is untypical for American presidents. Nixon had told Khrushchev that his grandchildren would live in freedom. But freedom is not routine in Russian history. Initial hopes that post-Soviet Russia could sustain democracy were smothered by Putin, although not as completely as the Bolshevik Revolution did to Wilson’s hopes for Kerensky’s brief regime.
Putin may countenance the murder and imprisonment of opponents, stifle free speech, prevent opposition electoral victory and enrich cronies. But Russia now is probably enjoying the least oppressive period of its history, excepting some years under Putin and months under Kerensky. Yet it’s not a free society as Americans would understand.
It’s important for Americans, especially idealistic Christians, to appreciate that Putin’s iron rule is much closer to the global and historic norm of human governance. Few political orders have respected human rights or deemed the people sovereign over the ruler. The vast majority of human communities have lived under strong chiefs who sometimes kill their opponents, intimidate any opposition, and fleece the public purse on behalf of themselves and their devoted followers.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in founding his new magazine in early 1941 to rally America’s Protestants against the Axis, noted that human liberty was largely confined to the coasts of the North Atlantic. Anglo-American civilization has nurtured liberty, and it has taken root in other cultures and lands. But most have never fully known it. It remains anomalous and precious.
Loud, critical young Christian elites often seem especially oblivious of the global and historical rarity of lawful political liberty as they blast away against American failures, real and imagined. Their frequent ignorance and ingratitude are a chief reason for founding Providence.
Understanding Putin-style autocracy and not Anglo-American democracy as the default polity for most of humanity should summon us all to greater vigilance in protecting and cherishing the divine gift of rule by consent.