Jan 19, 2021

The Nationalist International Is Playing the Long Game

Donald Trump’s departure could be a heavy loss for the Nationalist International. But the likes of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are playing a game that is robust, ruthless, and highly adaptable.

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump
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For leaders like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, US President Donald Trump was the biggest dog in the common fight against the liberal world order. And he was their biggest dog. Cooperation between Trump and other autocratically-minded rulers came at the expense of climate protection, arms control, international institutions, the United Nations, and the European Union. Other losers included countries that saw massive disruption and bloody war. With Trump’s leadership at an end, the worst excesses of this policy are now over.

Joe Biden, US president-elect and soon to be president, wants to bring the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement and to revive multilateralism and the disarmament deal with Iran. Unlike Trump, Biden also thinks the EU is a good thing. The new president will undoubtedly prefer orderly and official negotiations to the kind of undocumented ad hoc agreements that were the norm under his predecessor. Biden is not a nationalist, quite the opposite. But is Trump’s departure from the White House also the beginning of the end for what some have termed the Nationalist International?

Authoritarian rulers may look back to Trump’s nationalism with nostalgia, but they do not foresee a similar fate for themselves, and will try to move beyond the US defeat as quickly as possible. These are men who have been in power for 10 or 20 years; losing an ally will not be the first setback they have endured. Erdoğan, Putin, and fellow nationalists like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have learned to cope with shocks. They have used setbacks to change and evolve, and they have a proven instinct for survival in crises. The course of their careers suggests they still have a future, and that nationalism remains a robust force in the world.

Quick-Change Artists

Putin, Erdoğan, and Orbán are quick-change artists. They slip in and out of roles, clinging to power, but doing so with flexibility. In a crisis, they can shape-shift in a number of ways. Early in their political careers, they positioned themselves as economic liberals, wealth distributors. Later, they all chose to take the nationalist road for the sake of their ambitions.  Unlike classic 20th-century nationalist leaders, they did not soak up the agenda at a young age, before beginning their political trajectory. The new 21st-century nationalism is an opportunistic one.

I first met Vladimir Putin 20 years ago. He looked older than he does today: his cheeks were hollow, his complexion pale, his shoulders hunched forward. The man I met seemed rather shy, not a loud figure, not flexing his muscles, literally or metaphorically. Unlike nowadays, in late 1999 Putin did not sit on sofas with his legs splayed; he was very controlled in his movements, almost awkward. He was not, as later, in the habit of riding horses with his torso bared or thundering over the Arctic Circle in a jet fighter. Back then, he was yet to completely shrug off his arduous ascent from the shabby neighborhoods of Leningrad and the hard slog that took him from the secret service to the Kremlin.

Putin spoke carefully. The thing that surprised me most was that he had nothing critical to say of NATO, which had bombed Belgrade in the Kosovo war and was on the point of expanding to include Poland. He had not a single harsh word for America, the country in charge of all of this change. He wanted to “work together” with the United States and Germany, he said: terrorism was now the common enemy. This would be the foreign-policy line that marked Putin’s early days in power. Even his criticism of NATO’s eastward expansion in 2004 was muted.

When I think back to that the meeting, now over 21 years ago, it is striking just how much the Vladimir Putin of today is a later construction. A man who was turned into a tough guy by teams of spin doctors, bespoke tailors, orthopedic specialists, and plastic surgeons. A man who now defies NATO, persecutes opposition politicians and activists, and presents himself as Russia’s “greatest nationalist.”

Turning Nationalist

Putin’s turn to nationalism did not take place until 2012. In the years leading up to this, his government had brought an end to the wild post-Soviet years, creating—at least outwardly—the impression of an orderly state and a petrodollar boom. For many years, there were persistent claims on German political talk shows that his transformation was a response to the West’s lack of respect. But this interpretation is wrong; in fact, it is an underestimation of Putin and his government.

Russia is too large a country and too independent an international actor for its leadership to make key policy decisions based on possible foreign reaction. As often the case with large countries, the reasons for change are to be found within Russia itself. In this case, the trigger was a threatening crisis for Putin. In the winter of 2011-12, large crowds protested against his return to the presidency after four years in the prime minister’s office, and against a brazenly rigged election that had just taken place. The government’s popularity had plummeted dramatically. The president’s occasional martial and macho appearances, whether in military uniform or in a judo outfit, no longer seemed to work. His speeches went nowhere.

The search for a new narrative led to Putin’s turn to nationalism. The change was marked with a 2012 article in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which laid out his new ideology. As would soon become apparent, Putin’s new line hit all the right notes among broad swathes of Russian society. The president’s personal convictions leaned more to the traditions of the Russian-Soviet multi-ethnic imperial state, rather than narrow Russian nationalism. But now he spoke increasingly about Russians as an ethnic group, citing the threats they faced.

Two years later, in the war against Ukraine, he created space for ethnic nationalists to act. The annexation of Crimea brought Putin’s government to its highest levels of popularity. During the Ukraine war, the Russian public sphere had seen a burgeoning of ideologues of ethnic nationalism. Since then, however, Putin has recaptured, disempowered, and silenced this overflowing wave of Russian national feeling. In short, he has nationalized the new nationalism, riding a wave of controlled national feeling, fueled by military successes and fierce competition with the West.

Blowing Hot and Cold

Other authoritarian politicians have had similar experiences of political revival. I have met the current Turkish president three times in person, first in 2002, then in 2010, and finally in 2019. Our first meeting took place in a no-frills conference room. Erdoğan, a tall, athletic man with a gold tie pin, sat across from me, dissolving two sugar cubes into a steaming glass of tea. He was friendly, stirring his tea in relaxed fashion, the very opposite of today’s Erdoğan, who seems constantly irritated, ready to explode in the face of his interlocutor. But back in 2002, his rhetoric was pro-Western and neoliberal; he was a campaigner for “Anglo-Saxon secularism,” warning against nationalism. And indeed, after winning the election, he reformed his country and accelerated negotiations for Turkey’s EU membership. Nothing at this time suggested the aggressive campaigning nationalism that is now his hallmark.

For our 2010 interview, he sat on a grand curving purple sofa, and launched into a monologue, saying he was deeply disappointed in the EU and its de facto rejection of Turkey’s membership application. But at that point he was still talking in terms of democratization. When I saw him again in 2019, in the great hall of TRT, the Turkish broadcaster, Erdoğan walked hunched over like an aging general, and his talk was of great battles, brutal crusaders, and magnificent sultans. Erdoğan had become a nationalist, but did so less out of conviction than to maintain power. In this, he differs from many 20th-century dictators, many of whom imbibed their nationalism at a young age.

In contrast, Erdoğan is a new nationalist, previously an anti-nationalist, now using the ideology as a tool. Nationalism is flexible enough to allow him to do this. Erdoğan’s turn to warlordist nationalism began in 2015, when he fell out with the Kurdish party, which had been supposed to help him pass a new presidential constitution. Then he lost an election. As a result, he entered into coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (known by its Turkish acronym MHP), an alliance of Pan-Turkists, ethno-nationalists, and fascists.

Erdoğan’s deal with the MHP offered that party a change of direction, while it gave him a majority for his constitutional amendment. The well-trained ideological cadres of the MHP were allowed to occupy key positions in the state, the judiciary, and the army. Since 2016, nationalism has been Erdoğan’s essential tool in turning Turkey into a one-man state. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has intensified his enthusiastic foreign-policy interventions, provoking a bellicose crisis with Greece, and sending mercenaries and drones to Libya and to Nagorno-Karabakh. There is no nearby war in which Erdoğan is not interfering.

The 21st century has spawned a diverse array of new nationalists, all of whom adopted the ideology in the course of their careers, seeing in it a useful political tool. To mention just a few: Antonis Samaras, the Greek politician who invented the conflict between Greece and North Macedonia, Boris Johnson, who opportunistically led the United Kingdom out of the EU, and Xi Jinping, who has turned China into a nationalist fortress. However, the real pioneer of new nationalism emerged in Hungary in the 1990s.

Long Hair, Open Collar

As a young politician, Viktor Orbán was a liberal favorite and a George Soros scholar. Thanks to the Hungarian-American philanthropist, Orbán was able to study in England, despite coming from a modest background. As a young member of the Fidesz party, Orbán fought for a liberal Hungary, a memorable figure with his beard, long hair, jeans, and open collar. As a parliamentary leader, he gained a reputation as a liberal with a sharp tongue and a quick wit. In February 1992 he spoke at the Fidesz party conference, declaring “There is a glaring contrast between liberalism and the national-ethnic idea, with its populist politics.” Thinking of the Hungarian president today, it seems hard to believe he ever spoke those words.

Western countries took notice of Orbán’s passionate liberalism. Barely 30 years old, Orbán was elected Vice President of the Liberal International. In 1993, he was the young dynamic host at the Liberal World Conference, hosted in Budapest. Fidesz’s popularity skyrocketed and the party was widely seen to be on the verge of power. Orbán, it was expected, would certainly play an important role.

But Hungary’s liberals suffered from gaping divisions and rifts, the kind more usually seen among far-left groupings, and this put obstacles on the road to power. Orbán had a falling out with his friend Gábor Fodor, a popular Fidesz politician, and managed to drive him out of the party. Further resignations were to follow. In the 1994 elections, a much-weakened Fidesz only won 7 percent of the vote. Instead of the expected victory, a catastrophic defeat. The experience was to be Orbán's road-to-Damascus-in-reverse.

In the wake of this disaster, at the low point of his career, Orbán realized he would get no further as Hungary’s nice liberal young star. Albeit at a younger age, this was an experience similar to that of Putin after the Bolotnaya protests in 2012 and Erdoğan after his 2015 election defeat. Sensing the possible end of his career, Orbán decided to take a sharp turn to the right, embracing the new nationalism. Searching for explanations for the move, his biographer Paul Lendvai could find no “deeper ideological search for the soul,” discerning instead “a cold-eyed calculation of what it would take to gain power.”

In the months that followed, Orbán began to speak about Hungary, homeland, national interests, family, decency, and middle-class values. He was convinced that the only space for political expansion was on the right wing of the spectrum. His physical appearance also changed: he now wore a suit and tie, short haircut, polished shoes. “You have to understand your enemies,” he had once said, “you have to discover what really motivates them. Then, when things come to a head, you don’t shrink from the fight. You attack and you win.”

Global Breakthrough

It took an election in the world’s largest economy and its strongest military power, however, for the new nationalists to make a global breakthrough. The year 2016 saw Donald Trump, the most important new nationalist, take to the world stage. Once an advocate of liberal immigration laws and abortion rights, as president he built walls on the Mexican border and courted the Christian right. The younger Trump had not pursued a particularly right-wing agenda, perhaps at most he had an ingrained tendency to isolationism. In the 1980s, he adhered to a banal, even infantile economic idea: that the whole world was ripping America off. Trump donated to the Democrats but set up shop in the Republican party to launch his political career. In 2016, at the age of 70, a team of advisors helped him to blend his confused resentments into a nationalist agenda, framed in simple terms. Trump changed himself and the world.

His term in office became a nightmare of nationalist actions: customs barriers imposed, trade wars launched, sanctions imposed against Iran, Russia, and the EU. Building walls against migrants, agitating against foreigners and Islam. Trump transformed US patriotism, which should unite US citizens of all origins in national pride, into a white American nationalism that divided the country along ethnic and racist criteria.

The Nationalist International

Donald Trump became the figurehead for the Nationalist International. Putin, Erdoğan, and Trump formed a male cartel, offering each other mutual support even when their countries were in geostrategic competition. When they met or spoke on the phone, no minutes were taken. Trump allowed Erdoğan’s chief advisor to translate from Turkish into English during personal conversations between the two men. On one of his smug rants, Trump revealed state secrets to the Russian president, while excoriating the Europeans.

During the US president’s term of office, Putin moved to fill the gaps the US was leaving behind in the world, especially in the Middle East. The second gap filler was Erdoğan, who could never have waged his wars if Trump had not deliberately withdrawn US military forces from the region. Trump blocked sanctions imposed by Congress on Turkey for acquiring Russian anti-missile missiles. He protected close associates of the Turkish president—sketchy gold dealers and bankers—from prosecution in the United States.

Erdoğan does a lot of complaining about the West, particularly about the EU and its alleged Islamophobia, but never said a word against Trump’s actual Islamophobia. Putin tolerates Erdoğan’s expansion in the Middle East, while Erdoğan reciprocates by deploying Russian S-400 missiles, thus undermining NATO. If Turkey’s representatives are at the table, it is not clear what, if any, NATO secrets are secure. Putin made his sympathies in the US election crystal clear, refusing to congratulate Joe Biden until weeks after his November 3 election victory. This Nationalist International will not disappear when Trump leaves the White House.

The new nationalists—including Putin, Erdoğan, and Orbán—are now waiting. There are two good reasons for this. First, they have permanently adopted their new geostrategic game, and now see themselves in a long war of attrition, which they intend to win. Russia is one good example. Since the occupation of Crimea, Western commentators have suggested Putin was running out of money and could no longer afford his expansionism in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. But that view is incorrect.

Putin fights his wars with far less commitment than, for example, the United States under George W. Bush. His low-budget wars using surrogate armies, cheap mercenaries, military advisors, and the air force have proven efficient. Erdoğan copied the tactics from Putin; his own efforts have been seen in Libya, Syria, and most recently in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has no plans for the kind of expensive reconstruction efforts and humanitarian aid provision that NATO has tried to deliver in Afghanistan.

Russia is also making considerable relative savings in the COVID-19 crisis; unlike Western states, it has not racked up enormous debts in combating the coronavirus, debts that could burden Western countries for decades to come. In the first COVID-19 wave, in spring 2020, Putin’s government granted workers several weeks off, but compensation payments to companies were not even considered. During the second wave, Russia embarked on a vaccine arms race with Western corporations, but did not impose a second domestic lockdown, simply accepting the large number of subsequent deaths. More generally, Putin is amassing resources for the long haul. His biographers Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy have described him as a “survivalist,” always building networks and looking to increase military and state resources. If we consider Hungary’s remarkable military build-up during the COVID-19 crisis, or Turkey’s move to expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean, we can see how Putin has taught his new nationalist colleagues much about surviving in power. 

The second reason for the new nationalists’ policy of calm wait-and-see is to be found in the United States itself. The country has not been lost to their camp for all time. They are betting that the Biden administration will be a mere interlude. Trump may have lost the election, but the American new nationalist won 73 million votes, more than any Republican candidate in history. Trump may go in January, but Trumpism will remain. Millions of Americans today prefer divisive, even racist American nationalism to the classic form of unifying US patriotism. This brand of US nationalism has only been halfway beaten in recent months. Its narrative lives on, with Trump’s ardent supporters constructing narratives of electoral fraud and vote theft.

Many Americans do not want to see their country progress, they simply want to see Biden fail; they can accept no compromise, no handshakes, no bipartisan cooperation to combat the national COVID-19 crisis, which has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Trump has permanently reshaped the country’s highest courts, making strategic appointments with his supporters’ interests in mind. The next nationalist could be a candidate for president in 2024. Putin, Erdoğan & Co. would be only too happy to welcome him or her as the winner of that presidential election.

Michael Thumann is DIE ZEIT's diplomatic correspondent.