16. August 2017 | EDP Wire | Daniel Warner

Vladimir Putin’s history lesson about democracy promotion

This EDP wire contribution presents an excerpt from Dr. Daniel Warner’s article “Democracy Promotion from 1989 to Vladimir Putin’s 2015 UN Speech: The Interrelationship of Democracy and Democracy Promotion”. The full version of this article was published in the Geneva Hub for Democracy Policy Paper No. 2/2016 and can be found here. Dr. Daniel Warner is Former Deputy to the Director, Graduate Institute, Geneva.

In his original article, Dr. Warner outlines the interrelationship between democracy promotion and democracy by putting the concepts into historical perspective. By using President Putin’s 2015 UN Speech as an example of Moscow’s views about the post-1989 world, he also defines his focus on Western democracy promotion following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here the focus is on contextualizing and discussing Putin’s still relevant UN speech. As Warner emphasizes below: “What makes Putin’s speech so noteworthy is the combination of his admission that his own country’s ideology had failed, his call for a similar admission from the Americans and the West, and his call for cooperation based not on ideology but on a common enemy, the Islamic State.”


During his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015,[1]  Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to give a history lesson about recent attempts at democracy promotion. His speech was a fascinating presentation of Moscow’s views about the post-1989 world. While not directly dealing with democracy, President Putin placed in context his perspective of the wave of democracy promotion that followed the end of the Soviet Union.

Those sympathetic to Putin and to the new Russian Federation blame the West for its humiliating containment policy through the eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union. Putin, according to this perspective, is merely trying to establish the Russian Federation as a major power after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A member of the UN Security Council, a major global source of gas and oil reserves, an important military power, Russia should have a first place seat in the international community. Following the end of the Soviet Union, in other words, Putin is merely trying to re-establish Russia’s proper place.

Historically, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West entered a short period of euphoria with “the end of history” and “bound to lead” among unilateral pronouncements. Vladimir Putin’s history lesson before the General Assembly took the West to task for its pompous proselytizing following 1989. “No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one,” he said. Looking at the results of democracy promotion during the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, he reflected that: “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we get violence, poverty and social disaster.”

This is a direct challenge to the West, a direct challenge to those who thought democracy and free markets were universally applicable, a direct challenge to American unilateralism. It is also a challenge coming from someone who recognized the errors of the universal pretensions of Marxist/Leninist ideology: “We also remember certain episodes from the history of the Soviet Union. Social experiments for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.”

On a superficial level, Putin the history teacher said that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to stop Hitler. The mutual enemy brought the two contrasting ideologies together. Ideologies were put aside for pragmatic solutions to the threat of fascism. Before the General Assembly, Putin called for a similar coalition against the Islamic State, a coalition based on mutual interests, not mutual values. Democracy or socialism were not called into question.

More profoundly, Putin said that the era of ideology and ideological exceptionalism is over. He was criticizing the West and American triumphalism as exemplified by Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history[2] and Joseph Nye’s bound to lead[3]. The Soviet Union and communism collapsed, he admitted. But most importantly for us here, he was explicitly stating, based on his own admission of the Soviet failure that the United States democracy promotion had failed following the implosion of the Soviet Union. Both ideologies had failed, but, according to Putin, only the Russians had recognized their failure.

“Do you realize what you have done?” he questioned those who have insisted on the inevitability of democracy and therefore the justification for intervention in the name of democracy promotion. Looking at Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussain, looking at Libya after the fall of Mohammed Gaddafi, looking at the civil war raging in Syria and the instability in many of the countries after the Arab Spring, looking at the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the return of dictators in many countries in the former Soviet Union, Putin questioned not only the exceptionalism of the United States, but its belief that democracy is the best system for all countries, an exceptional political system.

Instead of one exceptional political system, Putin called for plural political systems based on cooperation, recognizing national interests with no overarching ideology. President Putin asked the other major ideology to admit its failures, as he did, and to enter an era of pragmatic pluralism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of Marxist/Leninism. Will failures in North Africa and the Middle East lead to the end of democracy promotion? Will another major stock market crash or rising inequality lead to a serious questioning of liberalism and American exceptionalism?

What makes Putin’s speech so noteworthy is the combination of his admission that his own country’s ideology had failed, his call for a similar admission from the Americans and the West, and his call for cooperation based not on ideology but on a common enemy, the Islamic State.

The end of World War II was a moment of democratic victory, but not yet the unipolar moment following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the euphoric triumphalism. That followed the end of the Soviet Union and communism.

The period 1989-2001 is a truly unique moment in history. The United States was at its zenith with no enemy such as the Soviet Union and certainly no competing ideology such as fascism or communism. In certain ways, the attacks of September 11, 2001 ended that euphoric moment. But, they did not end the democracy promotion. On the contrary, in the face of a growing Islamic threat and a resurgent Russian Federation, democracy promotion became all the more fashionable.

It is in this context of time and place that President Putin’s speech is important. He was trying to burst the bubble of the myth of democracy based on its failures and to show that pragmatic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia against the Islamic threat would be based on no ideology, certainly not democracy.

The relationship between democracy and democracy promotion is not evident. What is clear, however, is that following the end of the Soviet Union, Western countries, particularly the United States, began an aggressive campaign of democracy promotion based on several ideological as well as geopolitical considerations. President Putin’s speech to the General Assembly is not a eulogy to that period. Rather, it represents a different perspective and one that has generally been ignored. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the many failures of the Arab Spring – the horrific events of November 13, 2015 in Paris are but one example[4] – it is not without importance to review the euphoric period of 1989-2001 to try to understand what drove the democracy promotion in order to better understand the relationship between democracy and democracy promotion.



[1] The Washington Post (2015): “Read Putin’s U.N. General Assembly speech” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/28/read-putins-u-n-general-assembly-speech/?utm_term=.359b30e5fc6e viewed July 27, 2017.

[2] Fukuyama, Francis (1989): “The End of History?” The National Interest, Vol. 16, pp. 3-18.

[3] Joseph Samuel Nye Jr. (1990): “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/1990-06-01/bound-lead-changing-nature-american-power viewed July 27, 2017.

[4] BBC News (2015): “Paris Attacks: What happened on the night” http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994 viewed July 27, 2017.

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