Looking at the nationalist, pro-democracy protests currently gripping Belarus, one probably wouldn’t expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to be behind them. But he is, and his hyper-nationalist foreign policy strategy is to blame.
Since 2000, Putin has become synonymous with “being Russian.” When thinking about modern Russia, there is a good chance the first thought, after a quick shiver, is of Putin.
Tough, shrewd, and powerful, Putin embodies Russian nationalism, cultivating a persona that distinguishes him as a national hero and inspires widespread domestic enthusiasm.
Growing Belarusian Nationalist Movement
While Belarusians consider Russia a natural ally and share cultural similarities, they have distinct histories and identities. Thus, Putin’s repeated ultimatums to absorb Belarus into Russia have energized the growing Belarusian nationalist movement.
Retaining “brotherly” ties with Russia, the movement is not anti-Russian nor pro-Western. Instead, it seeks to preserve Belarus’ independence and introduce domestic democratic reform.
Putin’s overtly nationalist agenda has backfired after (now) six-term incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, over whom Putin wields considerable influence, “won” Belarus’ rigged 2020 election. In response, the very Belarusian nationalists who were inspired by Putin organized to protest Lukashenko’s victory, calling for democratic reforms.
Because of Belarus’ pro-Russian tilt, Putin’s decision to intervene or remain neutral will either diminish Russian regional control or compromise Putin’s domestic legitimacy.
Does Putin prop-up Lukashenko and turn generations of Belarusian citizens against Russia? Or does he gamble, potentially allowing democracy to prevail and providing Russian democrats a blueprint to undermine him? Either way, Putin’s objective of Russia-Belarus integration is unfeasible due to his nationalist foreign policy.
Making Politics Personal
Putin’s personalized and nationalist agenda is not unique. When personalities prevail over policy, populist officials are elected because they embody what it means to love a country.
Donald Trump is (was) conservative America’s savior. President Xi Jinping represents China’s rightful return to global leadership. President Tayyip Erdogan ensures Turkish regional influence. The list goes on.
Given their proximity to national identity, populist leaders inevitably develop a “cult of personality” based on uncompromising determination to achieve nationalist agendas and restore national pride.
Leaders exploit their domestic popularity by entrenching nationalist beliefs through a “with me or against me” logic, taking ownership of strengthening the nation and vilifying opposition. They have made politics personal and even transformed legitimate policy disagreements into intolerable character attacks.
Ironically, this brand of personalized nationalism undermines the fundamental tenet of nationalism. Disguised as concern for national strength, the domestic conversation instead centers around supporting the leader. Allies and opponents alike adopt this toxic logic.
Opponents vilify anyone who supports even one of the leader’s plans, wrongly inferring wholehearted endorsement. To supporters, if you slightly disagree, you hate your country. Meanwhile, opponents vilify anyone who supports even one of the leader’s plans, wrongly inferring wholehearted endorsement.
Lately, these ultra-nationalist leaders have influenced global affairs by singularly focusing on strengthening their country’s international standing.
Nationalist Foreign Policies
Erdogan frequently pits NATO and Russia against each other, creating a niche where Turkey can pursue independent foreign policy priorities such as improving relations with Iran and intervening in Syrian Kurdistan despite US opposition.
Putin is assertively reestablishing Russia’s influence in former Soviet Bloc countries and opportunistically intervening to advance national interests, most recently in Ukraine and Georgia.
In China, Xi is aggressively indifferent to foreign concerns, suppressing Hong Kong’s independence, intimidating adversaries in the South China Sea, and escalating rhetoric about forcefully reintegrating Taiwan.
Trump’s foreign policy goals sought to increase allies’ security responsibilities and renegotiate “better” deals, decreasing US spending while expanding American influence.
Nationalist foreign policy is a double-edged sword. As shown by China and Turkey, nationalist foreign policy that requires compliance succeeds in furthering national agendas. However, leaders who gently solicit international cooperation fail because they, and therefore their ideals, lack universal authority.
Trump’s “America First” doctrine has caused great concern among allies, with many now seriously doubting American willingness to assist militarily, even when obligated by treaty or collective defense. Though “America First” has marginally increased allied defense spending, abandonment fears undermine, rather than strengthen, American leadership.
Similarly, Putin’s recent botched attempts to integrate ex-Soviet Republic Belarus have damaged Putin’s ability to assert regional control and undercut his reputation for the uncompromising pursuit of national interests.
While nuanced, non-leader-centric nationalist politics could appeal internationally, personalized nationalist foreign policy often creates complex geopolitical problems. Facing a progressively globalizing world, “cult of personality” leadership will become increasingly untenable since nationalist rulers sacrifice global values for personalized mandates.
When used to intimidate or oppress, personalized nationalism works well and restricts opponent agency. However, when used to motivate cooperative diplomatic initiatives, individualistic nationalist foreign policy catalyzes opposition and fails to unite leaders’ competing agendas, resulting in conflict, disagreement, and resistance.
So, as we watch the situation in Belarus unfold, just be glad you aren’t Putin.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.