There is a peculiar modern tendency to describe things we don’t like as belonging to the past. The Taliban are medieval, Donald Trump supporters backward, Brexiteers nostalgic for empire. Under this rubric, Vladimir Putin is a Soviet throwback and the war he may soon start in Ukraine, as John Kerry once remarked, is like some 19th-century skirmish transplanted into the 21st.
It is no doubt a comfort to imagine that these things that do not conform to our ideas of modernity are, therefore, not modern. To think this way means that we are modern and on “the right side of history.” In this way of looking at the world, all the bad things we see around us are like ghosts from the past whose deathly grip on progress might frustrate it for a while, and with potentially terrible consequences, but cannot stop its wheels from eventually grinding on. This is, of course, total nonsense.
As brutal as the Taliban is, just like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, it is not a medieval organization but the product of our globalized age of digital propaganda, social media, and the like. Similarly, Trumpism is an expression not of 1950s America, but of today’s America. And then there’s Putin, who, whatever we want to believe, is a man very much of our world. In fact, not only is he as modern as any Western leader, but compared with those who seem to think that modernity equates with sometime around the year 2000, he is considerably more modern.
To be sure, modern does not mean “good” or “reasonable” or “right.” Nor does Putin’s modernity mean that he has been—or will be—successful, either for the Russian people or in his stated objectives of pushing back NATO’s frontiers and keeping Ukraine tied to Russia. To say that the Russian president is modern, in fact, is not to make a value judgment at all. He is, as my colleague Anne Applebaum has set out, a violent, kleptocratic danger to the world. Nevertheless, understanding Putin as a modern phenomenon is fundamentally important if we are to avoid the category error that assumes the danger posed by him and his sort is that they might turn back the clock, not speed it up, re-creating old worlds rather than forging new ones.
In fact, while we do not know what the 21st century will look like, it is reasonable to assume that it will far more closely resemble Putin’s vision of Darwinian geopolitical struggle than the kind of harmonious, “rules based” globalization that many in the West have hoped for. Already, for example, the Clintonian dream of a slowly democratizing China benignly slotting into the American world order looks far more archaic than, say, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surveillance state, which is modern in the extreme.