THE BLOG
01/08/2015 05:20 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Making Despots Legitimate

It is curious and a bit tragic that as President Obama courageously and wisely acts to temper 50 years of hostility toward Cuba, the U.S., in conjunction with the European Union, is cranking up hostility toward Russia with punitive measures for its adventurism in the Ukraine. It's as if nothing was learned from our unrelenting punishment of Cuba. The presumed rationality was that our punitive measures would impoverish Cubans, leading them to dissatisfaction with Castro, and to a demand for leadership more suitable to U.S. preferences. But although our punishment helped hold down their standard of living, Castro gave them universal education and a health care system that is the best in Latin America (Child mortality is lower than in the U.S.!). But perhaps more importantly, he stood strong against the big bully who would attempt to dictate how they should live.

To understand why Castro, and now Putin, have remained popular, it is necessary to take account of two dynamics that are set in motion when a society believes it is threatened. The first is the extraordinary commitment of members to the group. This is hardly surprising, since a group for which such commitment is weak would be at a severe disadvantage in coping with threats. Evolutionary biologists view our very sociability as having evolved in part due to the benefits of social cohesion and coordination in face of external aggressors.

The second dynamic is that nothing legitimates and empowers leaders more readily than war or the threat of external aggression. This too makes evolutionary sense. There's no time for democratic councils when under attack. This dynamic can be quite convenient for leaders. They receive greater loyalty and respect from followers when external aggression threatens. This also creates an all but irresistible temptation: They can benefit if they can convincingly keep alive a perception of an external, highly-menacing threat. They might even craft measures against other powers to provoke and keep alive a limited degree of real threat. As the philosopher Friedrich Hegel put it, "peoples involved in civil strife ...acquire peace at home through making war abroad." In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Chicago Daily News proclaimed, "Thanks now to Japan, the deep division of opinion that has rent and paralyzed our country will be swiftly healed."

Examples of threats empowering leaders are endless, but two instances during the twentieth century will be familiar to many readers. The hostility of the West, and especially the United States, made the threat of foreign aggression convincing to the peoples of the Soviet Union after 1917 and Cuba after 1961. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, the English, French and Americans sent an expeditionary force to unseat its leaders. Hostility toward the Soviets was unrelenting in Western capitalist countries, excepting a brief period during World War Two. The use of atomic bombs on civilian Japanese cities provided unambiguous evidence to the Soviet peoples as to the magnitude of the threat they faced. In the case of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs fiasco was followed by a half-century of unrelenting punitive hostility from the U.S., including CIA attempts to assassinate Castro with exploding cigars and a tuberculosis-laced wetsuit. The Soviet leaders and Castro had it made. They could easily convince their peoples of the need to rally behind powerful leaders for protection against the U.S. menace. This not only justified consolidating their power, but also the need for restricting civil freedoms. Agents of the enemy may be among us!

Although the political careers of U.S. leaders may have greatly benefited from their stances toward the Soviet Union and Cuba, what they generated among the Soviet and Cuban peoples was precisely the opposite of their stated intentions.

Most recently, 9/11 had a similar effect in the United States. First to be noted is that the administration of George W. Bush came into office with what many judged as questionable electoral legitimacy. Perhaps more important, in his first two years stock market prices collapsed, the dollar declined by 20 percent against the Euro, soaring budget deficits were projected, and corporate scandals rocked major supporters of his Republican leadership. Within this context, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers might be viewed as an extraordinary stroke of good political luck. As historian of war John Dower put it, just as December 7, 1941 was "a political godsend for President Roosevelt... September 11 proved to be a windfall for President Bush." Longtime advisor Karl Rove noted that "Sometimes history sends you things, and 9/11 came our way."

Within the first two weeks following the 9/11 attacks, as Americans joined in solidarity, Bush's popularity rating soared. He widely came to be seen by Americans as a great leader. A mere six weeks after the attack, he was thus able to push through Congress with practically no resistance a bill that would seriously compromise civil liberties: the USA PATRIOT ACT.

Today, Russians view NATO and its expansion into Eastern Europe as a major threat to their security. The Ukraine is understood to be the next NATO target, putting it tight up against Russia's border, like the already-NATO member Baltic States. NATO fighter jets are patrolling the Baltic skies and U.S. tanks are training in Latvia.

The annexation of Crimea, where ethnic Russian speakers are the majority and who expressed their desire to rejoin Russia, is highly approved in Russia. And so too is Putin. The independent Levada Center finds that Putin's popularity has only increased since Western sanctions. Indeed, his approval rating has soared to 85 percent.

Not unexpectedly, Putin justifies his repression of civil rights on the grounds that precautions are necessary in the face of the foreign threat. We might feel good depicting him as a totalitarian tyrant for doing so. But we should not forget that U.S. leaders did precisely the same in the wake of 9/11.