David Brooks says that if we’re going to understand what makes Vladimir Putin tick, we have to read the philosophers that motivate him. Excerpt:

All of this adds up to a highly charged and assertive messianic ideology. If Putin took it all literally, he’d be a Russian ayatollah. Up until now, he hasn’t taken it literally. His regime has used this nationalism to mobilize public opinion and to explain itself to itself. But it has tamped down every time this nationalistic ideology threatens to upend the status quo.

The danger is that Russia is now involved in a dispute in Ukraine that touches and activates the very core of this touchy messianism. The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop. Up until now, we have not been in a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia. But with passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil, it may temporarily appear that we are.

The implication for Western policymakers is that we may not be dealing with a “normal” regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks.

This is a hugely important point. To be sure, I don’t know if Brooks is right in this specific instance (nor do I know if he’s wrong), but I am certain that we in the West have a very difficult time placing ourselves inside the heads of people not like ourselves. We see this over and over. Remember, we in the West are WEIRD compared to the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter if the philosophers Putin reads are crackpot Russian nationalist-mystics; what matters is whether or not Putin believes they are crackpots. If he takes them seriously, then they shape his outlook, his sense of reality. It may be strange or even crazy to us, but if Putin is liable to act according to these teachings, then we have to take them seriously.

The thing is, we have our own ideologies. The Myth of Progress is one, in particular the belief that liberal democracy is the normative social and political form, and that deep down in the hearts of every citizen of the world is an American waiting to be set free. Political theorist James Kurth (a Presbyterian layman, by the way) wrote a provocative essay a few years ago setting out his theory of how historical Protestantism created the Americanist ideology in foreign policy — an ideology that undergirds the left-right Washington consensus. Excerpt:

In the 1970s, American political and intellectual elites began to promote the notion of universal human rights as a fundamental goal of American foreign policy. This conception took the central elements of the American Creed and carried them to a logical, universal conclusion.

A conjunction of factors caused American elites to embrace universal human rights at that time. First, those elites who had condemned the U.S. intervention in Vietnam needed to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy to replace the doctrine of containment, which in their eyes was now discredited. Second, the surge in U.S. trade and investment in newly industrializing countries beyond Europe and Japan caused some elites to see a need to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy that could be applied to a wide variety of different (and often difficult) countries and cultures. Most important, however, were changes within American society itself.

America was changing from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, and thus from a producer to a consumer mentality. America was also changing from a modern to a postmodern society, and thus from an ideology of “possessive individualism” to an ideology of “expressive individualism.” The new post-industrial, consumer, postmodern, expressive individualist America was embodied in the “me generation”, the baby boomers. For boomers, the rights (and definitely not the responsibilities) of the individual (and definitely not of the community) were the highest — indeed the only — good.

In the new ideology, human rights are thus seen as the rights of individuals. The individual’s rights are independent of any hierarchy or community, traditions or customs in which that individual might be situated. This means that human rights are applicable to anyone anywhere in the world; they are universal, not merely communal or national. Individual rights and universal rights are one and the same.

This ideology of individualism reaches into all aspects of society; it is a total philosophy. The result appears to be totally opposite from the totalitarianism of the state, but appearances can be deceiving. It is, in essence, a sort of totalitarianism of the self. Both totalitarianisms are relentless in breaking down mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the highest powers or the widest forces. With the totalitarianism of the state, the highest powers are the ruling authorities; with the totalitarianism of the self, the widest forces are the agencies of the global economy.

Individualism — with its contempt for all hierarchies, communities, traditions and customs — represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion. The Holy Trinity of original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, even the American nation of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self. The long declension of the Protestant Reformation has reached its end point in the Protestant Deformation, a Protestantism without God, a reformation against all forms. In the Protestant Deformation, we no longer say “In God we trust” and really mean it; we trust in ourselves and ask God, if he exists, to say, “Amen.”

The foreign policy of the Protestant Deformation is promoting universal human rights. During the Cold War, there were constraints on the full pursuit of this project. As long as the United States was engaged in its great struggle with the Soviet Union and with communist ideology, it had to show respect for and make some concessions to the particularities of hierarchy, community, traditions and customs in the countries it needed as allies. These concessions were often departures from the normal U.S. promotion of free markets and liberal democracy, giving rise, among other things, to what was known as the friendly tyrants dilemma.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the discrediting of communist ideology removed much of the necessity for such compromises and concessions. At the same time, the spread of the global economy and the competition among national governments to liberalize their economies in order to attract foreign capital legitimized the idea of free markets. Now the United States could pursue unconstrained its grand project of universal human rights.

Read the whole thing. It’s a fascinating tour through the religious roots of the American ideology. Kurth may be right or wrong on this or that point, but the message you should take is that the way Americans see the world — Americans of the right, left, and middle — is itself a construction rooted in history, religion, and culture. If we think the rest of the world acts as we would act in a given situation, we are fooling ourselves. Consider how little sense the American crusade to liberalize and democratize Iraq at the point of a gun made to the rest of the world. Remember how so many of us — I was one — believed the worst of those who said the Iraqis weren’t ready to govern themselves democratically because they lacked the institutions and the culture of liberal democracy? We said that those people might even be racist, because they didn’t think Arabs deserved democracy. That was the Americanist ideology talking. Reality proved us fools, at immeasurable cost in blood, treasure, and American power and prestige.

Think of Putin today as a possible captive to a particular Russianist ideology. I’m reading Massie’s biography of Peter the Great, and nodding along with the fanatically anti-Western prejudices of the Russian church and social elites of the day. (Peter himself became a fanatical pro-Westerner, but that’s beside the point.) Fear and loathing of the West — its thought, its institutions, its way of life — goes very deep in the Russian psyche. It is a kind of religion for them. If we are to understand why Putin does what he does, and what he is likely to do next, we had better not make the mistake of thinking that he sees the world as we do. Many foreigners found it hard to believe that the United States would invade Iraq, because it made no sense to them. Within the Americanist ideology, though, it made perfect sense. We may be seeing the Russian version of the same thing play out.