The Most Powerful Men in the World
Masha Gessen writes in the NY Review of Books:
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mode of public communication is the very opposite of Donald Trump’s: rather than tweet 140-character bursts, he stages elaborate, laboriously choreographed affairs that far outlast anyone’s attention span. He holds one press conference and one televised call-in show a year. Participants are pre-screened, question topics are pre-cleared, and many are pre-scripted. Each event usually lasts more than four hours. Each usually contains a memorable and informative passage that summarizes Putin’s current vision of himself in the world. There have been times when he positioned himself as the savior of a country on the brink of catastrophe, a conqueror, a victor. This year, in his press conference on December 23, he positioned himself as the most powerful man in the world.
Here is Putin’s scripted exchange with a state-media journalist (I am quoting both sides at length precisely because this is pre-written dialogue):
Journalist: Vladimir Vladimirovich, the world is undergoing a global transformation. We are witnessing nations expressing their will, voting against old political concepts, against the old elites. Britain voted to leave the EU, though we still don’t know how it’s going to play out. Many people are saying that Trump won because people were voting against the old elites, against faces that they are tired of seeing, among other reasons. Have you and your colleagues discussed these changes? What will the new global order be like? Remember, at the General Assembly, on the seventieth anniversary [of the United Nations], you said, “Can’t you see what you’ve done?” Where are we going? At this point we are still in the context of confrontation. The back-and-forth yesterday about whose military is stronger. During his last press conference your still-colleague Barack Obama said that 37 percent of Republicans like you and that Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave.
Putin: What was that?
Journalist: 37 percent of Republican voters like you.
Journalist: Yes, and if Ronald Reagan knew, he’d be turning over in his grave. By the way, we as your voters are very pleased that you have such power, that you could even reach Ronald Reagan. Our Western colleagues often tell us that you can manipulate the world, pick presidents of your choosing, intervene in elections wherever you want. How does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world? Thank you.
Putin: I have addressed this issue on numerous occasions. But if you think . . .
Later in the article:
Does this mean that we are entering a new Cold War? No—it’s worse. The Cold War was fought by men who had different visions of the future—the ideologies of the two sides were battling for the right to define societies to come. This made the prospect of mutually assured destruction an effective deterrent. We now know that on several occasions one or the other side took a crucial step back from the brink.
Trump and Putin, on the other hand, lack a concept of the future. In Putin’s version of the clash of civilizations, we have only a threatening Western present versus an imaginary Eurasian past. In Trump’s case, the threatening present is global while the alluring past is American. Both men traffic in appeals to the local and the familiar from the past against the frighteningly strange future. They are also both short-tempered, thin-skinned, not very bright, and disinclined to listen to advisers—all major risk factors for escalation. But it is their shared inability to look ahead that poses the greatest danger to the world.
Putin’s inability to plan has been well documented. European Russia scholar Mark Galeotti has called it the “Putin Paradox”: Putin is great at seizing opportunities but can never think through consequences or next steps. Galeotti was writing about Putin’s wars and his interference in US elections (though he was assuming a Trump loss), but the Putin Paradox can be observed in the Russian president’s personal behavior as well. I once wrote about an extravagant palace Putin was building with a billion dollars’ worth of embezzled and fraudulently appropriated funds. When I was reporting this story back in 2011, what struck me was that the palace—a private residence—was located in Russia. It seemed planned as a retirement residence, but Putin clearly hadn’t considered the impossibility of his retiring in Russia, in peace. Another example is Putin’s obliviousness to the political undercurrents of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Only in late December 2013 did he realize that Western leaders were declining his invitations to the Games—and pardoned political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the party. But it was six weeks before the Olympics, and it was too late.
Trump’s short attention span is legendary. He also has a track record of making impulsive lavish investments that fail over and over again. It appears that his ability to plan for the future is as severely limited as Putin’s.
Read the whole thing.