Russian President Vladimir Putin
Associated Press/Photo by Alexei Nikolsky (RIA-Novosti/Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin’s lost chance at greatness


Russian President Vladimir Putin has been looking quite pleased with himself these days. Coming off his “Russia is back” Winter Olympics, he launched a disguised army into Crimea, organized a rigged referendum on its independence from Ukraine, and then quickly annexed it. Now he’s strolling past Eastern Europe as though it were a farmer’s market. For Vladimir the Great, the new Russian empire is falling into place as planned.

But one of the authors of Western liberty, 17th century English philosopher John Locke, would not count Putin among the wise princes of the earth. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke described “the great art of government” as “the increase of lands, and the right employing of them.” You do this not by conquest, but “by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power and narrowness of party,” i.e., against politically engineered pillage.

If a ruler will protect his people instead of plundering them, if he will secure them in their liberty and the fruits of their labors, then the wealth they generate will be a thousand times what he could otherwise steal or merely extract from the earth. The prince who rules in this way, Locke wrote, “will quickly be too hard for his neighbours.”

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Locke called such a prince “wise” in the sense of properly attentive to his self-interest—his security in power and his celebration in glory. His people would be fiercely attached to him because his government is the key to their own security and prosperity. This mutual interest between prince and people is the ruler’s bulwark not only against insurrection at home but also invasion from abroad. The fantastic wealth that such a confidently industrious people would generate is also security against the greedy designs of neighboring powers.

There is a lesson in this for Ukraine, for the tyrannical presidency of the recently toppled Viktor Yanukovich and for the remaining government that is now too poor to defend itself against Russian revaunchism. Perhaps it can sell Yanukovich’s classic car collection to buy another tank.

Meanwhile, Putin, though momentarily popular with his people for his international swagger and provincial pilfering, governs an embarrassingly unproductive country funded largely by oil, gas, and vodka exports. This is not a plausible long-term plan.

If, when he became president in 2000, he had established the strict rule of law, independent judges, and a free-market economy to attract foreign investment and encourage native entrepreneurship and industry, and if he had oriented Russia’s entire economy, not just its petroleum industry, toward Europe, today he might have hope of rivaling Germany for leadership on the Continent within the next generation. He might have been a 21st century Peter the Great. Instead, Russia’s economy is only 60 percent the size of Germany’s, though its population is 75 percent larger.

Rulers are wiser still who “serve the Lord with fear” (Psalm 2:11). But they also secure their people in liberty and reap the same blessings. It is sad that someone so intelligent, ambitious, and fortuitously situated so completely missed his opportunity for greatness.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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