In a previous entry, I wrote of my pleasure at receiving a gift from my son Jack in the form of The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. Holding this book in my hands once more and leafing through the pages containing the considered thoughts of a mediaeval Florentine ambassador, I am magically transported back in time to a physical setting I find intensely alluring, of majestic palaces, elegant libraries, marble courtyards, serpentine alleyways, forbidding watchtowers, candlelit studies, sublime artwork, murderous intrigues and all the other evocative, romantic imagery that I associate with Renaissance Italy.
At the heart of this pleasing reverie lies my abiding interest in the power of the written and the spoken word to effect change in reality, along with the same power of the same words to either enhance or tarnish the reputations of those who have publicly voiced them. In the present day, it seems to me that Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has used the power of the written and spoken word, over and above the force of arms, to acquire a standing to rival that of any other world leader, so I shall try to examine how this remarkable state of affairs came into being.
I have chosen to describe President Putin’s eminent status as ‘remarkable’ not because I might be susceptible to any cultural conditioning, subtle or otherwise, that might lead me to believe that only Western leaders are capable of greatness, but on account of the fact that there were and still are many formidable obstacles facing President Putin on the path to the international standing he has patently acquired.
Of all these impediments, perhaps the most notable are these: President Putin faces an almost unrelentingly hostile Western media, but regardless of whether or not you believe there is substance to the various accusations laid against him, the fact remains that the section of the world’s media I’ve referred to does not generally view him in a favourable light. They say as much through their respective outlets, so in our modern era of instant communication, our obsession with what appears on the internet and the ceaseless attempts by politicians and the media to shape our views for us, any man alive would struggle badly in the face of such a sustained and calculated onslaught.
In addition, President Putin does not deliver his speeches in English, the world’s lingua franca. Instead, he confines himself to speaking in his native Russian for his official pronouncements, something that tends to make him a remote figure in the eyes of many; while he speaks fluent German and sometimes does so to German audiences, he nonetheless risks coming across as a man firmly rooted in his own distinctive culture, rather than as someone such as the Dalai Lama, for example, whose global appeal is undoubtedly due at least in part to his use of English. Furthermore, on the matter of language, it is fair to say that President Putin’s most notable opponent on the world’s stage is President Obama of the USA, a man famous for being able to employ soaring oratory as a means of persuasion and spreading his personal view of the world.
Finally, for now, President Putin has deployed his armed forces to fight in a conflict in the Middle East, a move that would be at best highly controversial for any Western leader and disastrous at worst. Furthermore, he has done this against the backdrop of his interventions in Crimea and Ukraine, which have earned him the great displeasure of sections of the international community; on the face of it, these circumstances should have been more than sufficient to reduce his status to that of a pariah, given the vocal opposition he faces in the West that I’ve described above.
Not only has he weathered these storms, however, but instead of becoming an outcast, he has achieved the miraculous feat of becoming widely admired by a sizeable percentage of politicians and of populaces in the West. By way of proof of this, I would point the curious phenomenon of ‘Putin envy’ as spelled out in this BBC feature of September 23 2015, in which Mark Urban, the diplomatic and defence editor for the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight writes of “… widespread admiration among strategists and military people in Western countries of Mr Putin’s tactical sense, willingness to embrace risk, and desire to show up the emptiness of western political rhetoric…”
I would also point to the countless thousands of comments made in response to articles on the BBC and elsewhere in the British media dealing with President Putin and Russia’s recent actions, wherein an overwhelming majority of people, as far as I can see, speak in admiring terms about Russia’s leader, regardless of whether the admiration expressed by the many contributors is fulsome, fatalistic, qualified or even grudging. Given the number and the nature of the barriers to his positive standing in the West, precisely how has President Putin gone on to become a figure who can effortlessly run rings around Western politicians, with their ever-present legions of consultants, researchers, pollsters, lobbyists, spokespersons and advisors, to enjoy his current status?
I find it instructive to look at the recent example of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, a man with an extremely high profile on the world stage and for what it’s worth, someone who is not only fluent in English, but who is also capable of making forceful and nuanced speeches, although I would stop short of saying that in English, at least, he possesses a true gift of oratory.
A few days ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a speech about the origins of the Final Solution that was received with disbelief and derision not only internationally, but by respected and unquestioned experts on the Holocaust in his own country, as well as by numerous media outlets in Israel. The precise details of what the Prime Minister said are unimportant here, because the nature of his speech is of far greater relevance to my observations; aside from any other criticisms leveled at his remarks, they referred to a conversation between two men that took place as long ago as November 1941, while the Prime Minister appeared to be trying to imply that the words he said were voiced in this exchange had a direct bearing on events taking place today, in October 2015.
It seems to me that with this speech, and with others dealing with Iran, for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu is experiencing the effects of the Law of Diminishing Returns, something that those engaged in making film sequels frequently, although not invariably, suffer from during the course of their work. When a successful film is made, one dealing with a threat from a great white shark or from an alien, for example, the brutal, simple nature of the threat in question is starkly and indelibly imprinted on an audience’s mind.
However, the potency of this threat and its ability to capture our imaginations often becomes diminished in sequels, because in an effort to credibly further the original story, other elements are introduced which, while often entertaining, serve to lessen the dreadful impact of the original threat. Psycho, Alien and Jaws immediately spring to mind, although there are almost certainly others, but my point is that these productions have a real parallel in the world of political statements made by the leaders of individual nations.
The first and foremost responsibility of any government is to ensure the defence of the realm, because if the realm’s borders are breached by an outside power, then it loses its identity and its populace cannot prosper. Regardless of what view you take of Israel and Palestine, or of where your sympathies may lie, it is surely evident that Prime Minister Netanyahu is more concerned with the defence of his realm than possibly any other leader alive. I may be mistaken, but if his aim was to elicit sympathy for his position and thereby to acquire more soft or hard power for Israel, then I cannot help thinking that he would have been better advised to concentrate exclusively on relevant events in October 2015, rather than casting his net so wide and seeking to trawl so far back through time in the hope of catching some elusive treasure with which to captivate his listeners anew.
By contrast, President Putin has done the exact opposite when he has spoken to a global audience. Admittedly, I have not read every word of every one of his speeches, but as far as his intervention in Syria is concerned, the views he expresses could hardly be more simple or more straightforward. Russia is a vast country with a complex history, so he could have referred to or drawn upon any number of past conflicts or threats faced by his nation to bolster his case for military intervention in Syria, but he did not.
Instead, President Putin has framed the matter in the simplest terms imaginable, stating that there are legitimate governments, that armed opposition to those institutions constitutes terrorism and that terrorism concerns us all, and that is essentially his spoken message in its entirety. We can gauge its effect when we consider that the 70th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 was dominated by the speeches made by President Obama and by President Putin, as well as by the later meetings between these two men. The occasion was admirably described in this summary by the BBC, indicating that President Putin had triumphed, while the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent James Robbins submitted this piece with a photograph at its head that shows President Putin to be the more comfortable of the two men by a country mile.
Elsewhere, this essay in the Guardian newspaper summarises the current turmoil in the Middle East and Russia’s new-found pivotal role in world affairs by saying “…western policy over Syria is in such disarray that Russia’s brand of ruthless realpolitik has turned Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, into an unexpected trump card.” Rather than vacillate on the sidelines, as so many other leaders have done, President Putin has decided on a course of action that’s intended to work in the interests of his country, while he’s made his reasoning clear in a series of pronouncements wherein he’s scathingly referred to the failure of western policies and actions in countries such as Libya and Iraq. As Machiavelli observed in chapter III of The Prince, “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger, but in calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer” and this seems to be what President Putin has done.
When preparing his speeches, I cannot imagine that President Putin had to employ an army of researchers and analysts to calculate the possible effect of his words upon a Western audience. Anyone who has taken even the most cursory interest in politics over the last few years will know that confidence in our politicians, certainly here in the UK, is at an all-time low. There are many explanations for this woeful state of affairs, including scandals involving expense claims and a general apathy brought on by the inane views expressed by career politicians, but at the heart of it lies what most people regard as the immoral and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with the reasons voiced by our politicians for embarking on what proved to be a calamitous course of action.
Regime change in Libya has also proved to be an unmitigated disaster, a point repeatedly rammed home by Western media coverage of the violence and chaos in this once stable country. With all this and more in mind, there was absolutely no requirement for President Putin to prepare and articulate some sophisticated case for his intervention in Syria, while as far as his reduction of the scenario in that country to that of lawful and terrorist elements was concerned, he was preaching to the converted when his words reached the ears of a jaded and cynical Western audience.
I do not think that a sane and intelligent person would assert that any warring element in Syria is completely blameless, if they cared to pore over the reports, details and intricacies of the conflict, but from studying this matter on the news and elsewhere, I get the impression that most people in the UK at least are so weary of wars and of losing our sons and daughters in foreign conflicts that they are happy to listen to and agree with a voice, such as that of President Putin, that speaks of these matters in simple terms, rather than in the convoluted and often contradictory way they’re addressed by our own politicians.
From Cato to Cromwell to Churchill to Martin Luther King Jr to President Kennedy, men have harnessed the power of words to capture the imaginations of others and to effect change, while as far as I can discern, the messages espoused by the men I’ve just named have in common the fact that they all contained a simple theme. Cato the Elder endlessly repeated the phrase Carthago delenda est, or ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ in his role as a senator, while Cromwell was famed for his mention of “the plain, russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows.”
Churchill inspired a nation under siege in Word War II by consistently articulating an inspirational theme of defiance, Martin Luther King Jr advanced the cause of civil rights by the use of a memorable, repeated phrase in one of his speeches, while President Kennedy galvanised a nation into taking the unprecedented step of putting a man on the Moon by the straightforward expedient of speaking of his vision of such a momentous event in the course of an address to his fellow countrymen.
In our modern era, the faculty these men possessed seems to have collectively deserted us, despite the fact that the internet now allows unprecedented numbers of people to have a voice online, while the art of using words to influence others has been debased by legions of highly paid political advisors and consultants into the industrial-scale manufacture of trite, instantly forgettable slogans and soundbites. Indeed, we long ago sank to such an abysmal level of discourse that if a high-profile figure now so much as tweets on any given subject, then this is widely deemed to be a more than adequate contribution to any discussion in which they might be involved, no matter how grave, complex or far-reaching the subject in question might be.
This can only be conjecture on my part, but I would say that the main reason for the standing President Putin currently enjoys in the eyes of so many in the West is the human element of the Syrian conflict, because the desperate plight of our fellow human beings in Syria and elsewhere in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe is so heartrending and oppressive in all its dreadful manifestations that it has become unbearable to watch.
For years, well-intended international individuals and organisations have tried to negotiate or otherwise bring about a settlement to the conflict in Syria, to no avail; for better or for worse, after President Putin’s initiative, “The road to any diplomatic settlement now runs through Moscow…” according to the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus. I suspect that after so much blood and so many bitter tears have been shed, most people are unconcerned with how just the cause of any given faction in Syria might be, because they simply want the arguments and the ensuing suffering to end, and for the Syrians to be able to return to and rebuild their devastated homeland in peace.
So, when someone such as President Putin cuts through a Gordian knot with such an undeniable degree of elan by voicing his views in a clear, straightforward fashion, then embarking on a course of action that offers even some faint hope of an imminent end to the war in one part of Syria, then it is hardly surprising that for the time being, at least, so many in the West come to view him in such a positive and admiring light.
“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event.”
From Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Chapter VI: Of New Princedoms Which a Prince Acquires With His Own Arms and by Merit.