AUTOCRATS ABHOR THE present. They endure it as an assault on memory, as a bad reminder that further downgrades their diminished inheritance. The present is a country without justice; it’s a lie exacerbated by the worst instincts of those who claim to have won history. In their rage against the present, autocrats travel back in time for rearmament, for the comfort of what-could-have-been. The present is a site of permanent war, against enemies real and imaginary. It’s a struggle for the rehabilitation of what they have been denied. Living in the present is an autocrat’s dread.
The world once paid for their wars with the racial division of humanity as the pure and the corrupted. The scars have not yet healed; and the international order built in the aftermath of World War II has already shown its fragility. Behind every genocide, whether by the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis, was the playbook of rulers who subordinated the wretched present to the perfumed past. Even today, the favourite adjective that autocrats love to add to the future is ‘great’. What lies between the past and the future, between greatness lost and greatness imagined, is the humiliation of the present. Its repudiation powers the politics of resentment that sweeps across today’s autocracies. Their desperation taps into nationalist hysteria and xenophobic paranoia, tribal instincts and exclusivist fantasies; in their campaign, identity is a constant simulation. There is nothing for them in the moment they are condemned to.
Putin’s forty-mile long convoy of death rolling into Ukraine is a time traveller’s show of strength. It’s a journey back to the recesses of loss and grievance. He’s too isolated in his imperium of the mind (‘Putin’s Imperium of the Mind’, Open, March 7) to realise how the sweep of his madness has turned the rebuilder of Greater Russia into a war criminal. For someone who sees the conventional methods of democracy as an impediment to the project of imperial restoration—a Soviet Union brought back from nostalgia—a war has always been an option. By launching a full-scale invasion, its horrors straight from the Nazi warbook, he has taken the world back to the age of expansive, militant nationalism that creates its mythology of racial exceptionalism to validate its terror. We haven’t seen this kind of war since Nazi Germany’s tanks crossed the borders after the farcical peace diplomacy in Munich. Putin could do without the Chamberlains of today. In the new war, the time-travelling warlord is allowed easy passage by the free world, whose morality begins and ends with sanctions. The past is made safer for Putin by leaders lost in the compulsions of the present.
Autocrats’ rejection of the present must be matched by democrats’ commitment to it. Their stake in Ukraine is as historically urgent as the freedom alliance’s rejoinder to the Nazis—paradoxically, even the empire that Putin craves for today finally joined it and suffered the biggest human loss among allied troops, a fact that he continues to remind the world. Today’s America is hardly a leader of an alliance that will go beyond short-term morality—convenient today and untenable tomorrow—and ensure that Ukraine and the life of its brave president are not lost to a Russian autocrat who believes that the West lacks the physical and moral commitment to stop him. Joe Biden’s America has already made it real: America as an imperium exists only in the rhetoric of professional anti-imperialists from the Left. Withdrawing further into the safety of America First, with or without Trump, it is fast losing its interest in playing the idealist—the way it “de-occupied” Afghanistan would remain a lasting epitaph for the morally exhausted imperium. Robert Kagan sums up the American failure well in The Jungle Grows Back: “Americans, it is fair to say, have not enjoyed power too much. These days, they would prefer to wield it less. Yet the struggle for power in the international system is eternal, and so is the struggle over beliefs and ideals. If it is not our system of security and our beliefs shaping the world order, it will be someone else’s. If we do not preserve the liberal order, it will be replaced by another kind of order, or more likely by disorder and chaos of the kind we saw in the twentieth century.”
Aren’t we there already? Aren’t we there because the principles of the free world are outmatched by the pathologies of the world’s most dangerous autocrat? Aren’t we there because democracies are not the custodians—or promoters—of the liberal order any longer? They have ceded the present to the autocrat who tramples upon it for the sake of a phantom past. A federation of democracies can still save freedom with ideals and arms—and India should not let the moment pass.