Why the Ukraine crisis is so bad for western populists

Politics: Central to the appeal of populism is the idea of the effective strongman. Recent events are showing us the fumbling strongman

Almost a decade has passed since Barack Obama teased the Republican Mitt Romney for his vigilance towards Russia. "The 1980s are now calling," he said, in a joke that even then was shop-worn, "to ask for their foreign policy back."

But then successive UK premiers have waved Russians with fortunes of dubious provenance into Belgravia and Highgate.

French president Emmanuel Macron has had a fanciful notion of himself as the West's Kremlin-whisperer.

As for Angela Merkel, it is hard to know if her turn against nuclear energy will age worse than her failure to lead Germany out of its post-war tentativeness abroad. She only had 16 years.


Over the course of this young century the liberal centre has borne out its reputation for softheadedness. Stunning, then, that populism comes out of the present crisis in yet worse shape.

Obama’s naiveties about the Kremlin are awkward for Democrats; Donald Trump’s active flirtation with it is much tougher for Republicans to live down.

As polls favour Macron for re-election, his wilder rivals have to explain away past flattery of Vladimir Putin.

Even online an entire class of bumptious contrarians, apt to wonder if the US would put up with a communist Mexico and so on, has become tongue-tied of late.

By cutting immigration and elevating technocracy, the coronavirus pandemic wounded populism. But the Ukraine war is much the worst setback for that movement since its electoral breakthrough in the US and UK in 2016.

Moral stain

In the West a certain kind of leftism never recovered from the vicarious shame of the Soviet quelling of Hungary in 1956. This moment might come to be recorded as an equivalent watershed for the West's populists.

It is important to understand why. The problem is not the moral stain by association. If that were enough to sink the movement it would have happened during the war in Syria in the last decade. As it turned out, Russia's actions there never discouraged its populist admirers in liberal democracies.

Nor did it do them much harm among a disconcerting number of Western voters. The Trump presidency, Brexit, the French far-right's entry into the last round of the 2017 presidential race: all happened after the show of force in Aleppo and Crimea.

No, if this time is different, it is because the question has widened from one of morality to one of competence. Central to the appeal of populism is the idea of the effective strongman. While liberals get lost in the bureaucratic and legislative fog, the autocrat supposedly cuts through (“I alone can fix it,” said Trump of the US). While the one thinks wishfully, the other grasps the eternal verities of power and strategy.

This line of argument is as old as the trope that Benito Mussolini had a way with commuter-rail logistics. And it has enough grounding in historical fact to beguile people. If not Il Duce, then Napoleon, Ataturk and the Chinese Communist Party can claim feats of governance that might have eluded a strict democrat, or at least taken them longer. It is just that the counter-examples, the fumbling strongmen with dire economies or foreign relations, can be overlooked. Events are redressing that problem.


Be in no doubt that had the Ukraine invasion gone to plan Western populists would now, in that phoney I-hate-to-say-it tone, be urging their own societies to learn from the guile and virility of the illiberal world.

They might still get the chance. A Russian gas-dependent Europe might fall into recession as energy prices rise. The invasion might quicken. "Autocracy works" would not be such a dangerous argument if it were always wrong.

But if that mode of government has structural advantages, the past few weeks have brought into clearer definition its corresponding liabilities. The hubris born of unaccountability, the advisers who are unheeded or cowed into silence, the tendency to coerce what might be better solicited or charmed out of another country over time: the demonstration of classic errors has at times almost risked cliché.

It is an old but ceaselessly useful story that Robert Conquest, when publishing an update of his once-doubted research into Soviet tyranny, needed a title. A fellow writer suggested I Told You So, You F*cking Fools. Liberals don't get to say that to populists now. From Washington to Berlin, they are themselves too compromised.

The difference is that they can abandon their naive view of Putin and move on. For Western populists, the idea that autocracy has a sort of hideous efficiency is nothing less than existential. If it starts to look ridiculous, so do they.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022