Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two Very Different "Men of the Year" and How They Define Our Times

The US magazine Time and the UK newspaper the Times both selected very different men of the year for 2013.  Each reflects ascendant spirits with very different worldviews.

Time magazine chose Pope Francis.  The Times selected Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In some ways, this is amazingly Augustinian.  St. Augustine wrote of the division between the City of Man and the City of God.    Vladimir Putin has emerged as a near czar of an expanding informal Russian Empire.  He follows the early 19th century British model of using economics to influence and profit from other nations. But he also follows a very Russian path of controlling border nations to keep the homeland secure.  In this way, Third Rome very much resembles the first.

Pope Francis, known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio before March 13, has emerged as a Catholic Father for his times.  The Cold War needed, for example, the iron tough, theologically sound, and eternally compassionate Pope John Paul II.  No pope since the Middle Ages had the impact of the man Catholics and many other Christians call "John Paul the Great" (a moniker not bestowed on a Pope since the 600s.)  His leadership made the Roman Catholic Church a mighty fortress again, regaining credibility and luster after the tragic World War II years.

The 21st Century, however, challenges Christianity in a different way.  Many are lost and want to be found.  While the Church certainly will not abandon doctrine, Francis has pointedly emphasized love, forgiveness, and compassion for the vulnerable.  This may not look like power, but it works effectively in contrast.  John Paul II's expression of these sentiments helped the Polish Pope bring down the Eastern Bloc.  Francis' message will thrive in places such as Cuba, where Communism lost credibility years ago.  Or Africa where Christians face determined Islamic expansionists.  The Christian faith at its core remains the simplest and most profound way to make sense of man's place in the world.  Pope Francis, agree or disagree with the details of some of his pronouncements, is a powerful ambassador of faith.  He senses that the world is changing and seeks to adapt Catholic teaching to it without abandoning fundamental foundations of faith.

Power matters to Putin, too.  He has gradually absorbed Belarus, convincing that impoverished republic to cede sovereign right after sovereign right.  Before Christmas, he offered a bailout to corrupt and struggling Ukraine.  Historically Belarus is "White Russia," Russia proper is "Great Russia," and Ukraine is "Little Russia."  Ukraine, however, is where Russia began.  Russian nationalism craves respect and seeks to ground its actions in tradition and history.  Putin's slow moves westward reflect these old habits.

But how well grounded is that power?  Russia has relied heavily on natural gas revenues to fund its return to world prominence.  The United States, however, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon, could undermine Putin's plans.  As West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas sprout gas wells that rely on cheap hydrofracturing techniques, they threaten to undercut Russian dominance of this market in the Eastern Hemisphere.  In the same way that late 20th century Middle Eastern oil was cheaper for Americans to buy abroad than produce at home, so US gas undermines Russia and depresses prices in the entire gas market.

Unless Russia can diversify or convince Obama to shut off the tap, the moment in the sun carved out by Putin for Russia could be brief.

Putin's hard nosed domestic approach runs counter to Francis' preaching as well.  The Russian president is essentially conservative in the European sense (not, I repeat, not the American. Or the British, for that matter.)  European conservatives emphasize order above liberty.  They prefer control and predictability in both domestic and international affairs.  Russia particularly has feared the advance of uncontrolled social movements regardless of whether they were ruled by the czar or the Politboro.

These two men both qualify as "Man of the Year" for different reasons.  And there is no reason to think that their influence and appeal will diminish in the next 12 months.  What should be troubling for the United States is that neither figure needs to account for America in any way in terms of his ideals, values, or morality. We are no longer a major part of their conversation.  Whether one sees the US as a powerful example of a Judeo-Christian republic or a force for liberty and natural rights, the demise of America under Obama is underscored by the emergence of these men.

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