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Why Was Putin’s Invasion Unexpected?

Our opinion leaders and policy makers seem to have been genuinely surprised that Putin has invaded a part of Ukraine (mostly but not only Crimea) and will likely invade more.  Why?  It’s so clear to us that he’s unexpectedly acted unreasonably.  Walter Russell Mead and his crack staff explain:

Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.

How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.

We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To tell the truth, it might be fine for ordinary Americans—including college kids—to be constantly amazed at the way political leaders think.  Machiavelli explains why decent people in a prosperous and stable country are unlikely to care enough or to be astute enough to think politically.  That’s why they need to be protected by their political leaders and their high-level advisors—who, of course, should be by education, experience, and temperament alive to what’s really going on. 

There’s reason to believe that President Obama and his top advisors, especially during his second term, are incapable of knowing what Putin and his kind are really thinking.  Our president can think politically in the sense of winning elections (which means understanding the way ordinary people think), but he seems to be no match for the leaders (“the princes”) of Russia or Iran or even China  (despite our huge advantage in resources).  That doesn’t mean we should be waging shooting wars with our political rivals, but it does mean always remembering that we always are, in a sense, at war with them.

Putin is thinking and acting like a leader of a nation who knows when it he must—and when he can afford not to—care about what “we think.”

The quote above goes beyond being critical of our leaders to attacking our understanding of diversity in higher education.  We’re more about demographic diversity than ever, but less about genuine diversity in thought.  That’s because our opinion leaders think only “left-liberal” thought is reasonable.  Part of that understanding of what reasonable diversity is includes the withering away of nations and the post-political victory of the global competitive marketplace guided, in a way, from Silicon Valley.  Diversity becomes a kind of “identity politics” that has its origins in culture but is detached from any real political/cultural context that challenges left-liberalism.

Our understanding of diversity is really an “ideological cocoon” that insulates us from reality, the reality of international relations and the reality of human nature as it displays itself in political life.  Our “globalism” so often does the opposite of opening students to the world.

Not only can’t we see why it makes sense to say that Putin, from his Russian view, is acting like a reasonable man. We can’t even see why American conservatives are reasonable to care about more than the techno-market and “diversity.”  I’m not saying that American conservatives are like Putin!  They, in fact, are more likely to see why he destructively opposes our principles and why it makes sense really to side with Ukraine against Russia. 

At this point, that doesn’t mean kicking Putin’s forces out of Crimea, but doing what we can short of actual military intervention to keep him from going any further.  At this point, Putin hasn’t been effectively deterred by the president’s warning about “costs.”  The Russian leader knew there would be costs, easily outweighed by the benefits.


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