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Three ways of thinking about what it means to be a strong leader

As the Republican ticket praises Vladimir Putin, let's reflect on what that means about political strength.

In this Tuesday, July 26, 2016 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin, in Moscow. Donald Trump just keeps giving Putin more reasons to hope he wins the U.S. election, (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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Last week at a televised presidential forum on national security, Donald Trump continued his pattern of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. In particular, Trump said the following:

I mean, the man has very strong control over a country. And that’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country.

As my Post colleague David Weigel notes, this is simply Trump’s latest slathering of praise onto the Russian strongman:

Trump goes further than many Republicans. In his telling, Putin — a “strong leader” — epitomizes how any serious president should position his country in the world. Knowingly or not, Trump builds on years of wistful, sometimes ironic praise of Putin as a swaggering, bare-chested autocrat.

After the forum, his running mat,e Mike Pence, who used to be more critical of Putin, doubled down on Trump’s claim:

Pence walked that line back a little Sunday, suggesting that he was trying to indict the “weak and feckless leadership” of President Obama — but you get the point.

And, indeed, it seems that many Republicans are getting Trump and Pence’s point:

There is something more than a little unseemly about an American candidate for president running down the incumbent in favor of a foreign authoritarian ruler who has invaded two countries in eight years. But let’s put that aspect of it to the side. As a dispassionate political scientist, it is worth asking: Are Trump and Pence right?

The answer, by the way, comes in three takes: no, then yes, then no again.

The first no is easy. If one measures outcomes in 2008 compared with 2016, Obama has been the stronger leader, and it’s not close. The U.S. economy has easily outperformed the Russian economy over the past eight years and looks likely to do so this year as well. One could counter that Putin’s geopolitical grabs in Ukraine and Syria show his increasing influence — except that it’s worth remembering that in 2008, Putin had stable, loyal cronies in charge of both countries. He has now lost Ukraine, and Syria is a war zone. That’s still a net loss of Russian influence.

Finally, Pew’s latest Global Attitudes survey shows that in the overwhelming number of countries surveyed, populations trust Obama to do the right thing far more than Putin. The Russian leader only has that kind of decided advantage in Greece. So while Putin annexed Crimea, Obama was busy making America great again.

If one thinks about it a little more closely, though, Trump and Pence are making a subtler point — and “subtle” is not a word I use lightly when talking about Trump’s thinking. Trump’s quote in particular suggests that he thinks Putin’s strength comes from the fact that he has stronger domestic popular support and fewer institutional checks and balances on his ability to do what he wants. Obama has that pesky Constitution to deal with, as well as an opposition party that does not seem to trust him all that much.

Trump is correct in these observations, and he’s hardly the only one to observe it. After all, in 2013, before he annexed Crimea, Forbes magazine declared Putin to be the most powerful person in the world. The annexation has given Putin undeniable political strength — as Spoiler Alerts noted last fall, his popularity has increased despite his economic mismanagement. There is no denying that Putin is more popular in Russia than Obama is in the United States (though Obama is gaining). Unsurprisingly, Forbes declared Putin to be the most powerful person in 2015 as well; Obama fell to No. 3.

If one thinks of political strength as a combination of popularity and a lack of constraint, then Trump and Pence are right that Putin has been the stronger leader. And this is a view that stretches back to ancient Greece. In Thucydides’s famous “Melian Dialogue,” before the Athenians crushed the Melians, they explained their position:

We shall not trouble you with specious pretenses- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani unconsciously echoed that kind of sentiment when he dissembled talked on ABC’s “This Week” about the United States’ being able to do anything it wanted with Iraq’s oil during the war.

But as any reader of Thucydides knows, the last cut is the deepest, and it suggests that the kind of strength that Trump, Pence and Giuliani extol is fleeting — and usually self-defeating. Aggressive military actions on the global stage tend to trigger balancing coalitions. The inability to credibly commit on the domestic stage leads far more often than not to bad policies. There’s a reason why democracies tend to fashion stronger alliances and why inclusive institutions are better than extractive institutions for fostering economic growth. It is precisely the political constraints and the existence of multiple political factions that make democracy the better bet over the long haul. Oh, and spoiler alert: It was all downhill for the Athenians after they sacked Melos.

The fact that Trump thinks strength comes from a lack of constraint suggests that, in the end, Trump has a very limited, short-term understanding of the sources of political power. To say that would not bode well for him as president would be a massive understatement.