The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union gave rise to an unprecedented wave of democratization around the globe. In the second decade of the 21st century, this wave has not only crested; it appears to be in retreat. Yet, what is emerging are not totalitarian regimes or full dictatorships but rather individual autocrats intent on reshaping their societies in their own image. These new caudillos have little respect for individual rights, the rule of law or constitutional norms. They see themselves as the embodiment of the nation. They also are the newest blight on the international system. Washington and Europe ignore them at their own risk.
What unites the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and many others is that they have established one-person authoritarian systems in which their whimsical power over personnel extends well beyond the state bureaucracy and all the way into societal institutions. Wherever possible, they have their opponents arrested and jailed; more importantly they dismantle institutions one-by-one (even if some of those institutions were very flawed to begin with). The judiciary, the press, the universities, and electoral systems are all transformed into subservient artifacts at the disposal of the leader.
Having come to power through elections, or having had their elevation confirmed by elections, these leaders feel the need to show that they are still committed to a “democratic” system. In reality this increasingly amounts to the charade of meaningless elections whose results are preordained. In Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela, opposition leaders are routinely beaten, their access to the ballot box is prevented through the use of dubious legal tricks, or they are accused of being traitors to the nation or simply jailed. This is what Princeton’s Kim Lane Scheppele calls “autocratic legalism,” the dismantling of constitutional systems to remain in power permanently.
In every case, the legal system has been thoroughly compromised; anyone can be charged with heinous crimes or accused of lèse majéste. In Turkey, a lower court reversed the decision of the Constitutional Court, the highest authority of the land, within hours after the latter had ordered the release of two journalists incarcerated for more than a year. In Venezuela, the Constitutional Court banned the participation of the two leading opposition leaders in the upcoming elections, thereby ensuring the reelection of the unpopular President Maduro. Similarly, the Russian Constitutional Court refused opposition leader and activist Alexsei Navalny’s appeal, banning him from the ballot in presidential elections.
All this is accompanied by an onslaught of false information generated by a sycophantic press that lauds the authoritarian leaders’ great achievements. Press outlets have but one duty, and that is to make the leader look good and show how he is defeating the country’s foreign enemies (read: the United States). There is, therefore, little room at home to organize resistance or confront the institutionalization of authoritarianism.
The challenge these leaders pose, especially to the West and the liberal order, is that they are increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception. While the Putins, Dutertes, Maduros, and Erdogans of the world can get along well with each other, they also present themselves as an alternative vision. That vision seems to suggest that you can co-exist and do business, plenty of it in fact, with the advanced Western countries without having to pay a serious live up to basic principles such as the rule of law.
In fact, the United States and the West in general have chosen to accommodate these leaders. To be sure, here and there leaders will offer occasional criticisms and reprimands for outrageous behavior. But Western leaders generally arrive at the conclusion that little can be done to prevent authoritarians from further consolidating their hold on power, much less reverse their gains. Having reduced the cost of pursuing authoritarian policies to almost zero, Western nations have indirectly become these leaders’ accomplices.
If we’re being fair, we should admit that this is not all President Donald Trump’s doing. Indeed, the Obama Administration was rather lackadaisical in its own approach to bullies. Often, it simply chose to ignore certain kinds of behavior if it thought it would be too difficult to change it.
At this moment in time, however, not doing anything is an invitation to authoritarians all over the world to flout all the rules. Would Putin have ordered an assassination of a former spy and dissident in broad daylight in Salisbury, if he thought there was a serious chance of a severe response? Similarly, would Erdogan have dared to imprison three Turkish citizens and long-time employees of the U.S. diplomatic service if he had he been worried about serious repercussions? Both of these cases have potentially disastrous consequences for the way we treat dissidents or do diplomacy. Why should anyone work for the State Department if the U.S. government cannot protect its own employees?
As in the post-Cold War era, when the demonstrative effect of expanding democratic developments created a kind of momentum, today a countervailing force is gathering momentum. To be sure, no one expects Western arguments to persuade Putin to allow more room for democracy, but abandoning the discourse on democracy elsewhere is another way of enhancing Russian influence.
Europe’s and America’s lack of credible response to the despots’ rise is likely to undermine their mutual interests in a peaceful liberal world order that privileges open societies and markets. If Erdogan today has the temerity to take ordinary Americans and Europeans as hostage because he thinks Turkey is too important for the West to ignore, then imagine a world order (or lack thereof) in which small and medium-sized tyrants, whose primary currency is intimidation, bullying, and blackmail, strut around. Yet, most of these authoritarian leaders are free riders. They depend on Western markets to finance their economies, to buy their exports, and, in short, to supply their well-being. The notion that other powers, Russia or China, represent alternative sources of support, political or economic, for them is fantasy.
What is to be done? At this stage it may be difficult to tackle every single would-be despot simultaneously. A more prudent policy would be for a selected group of influential European states and the United States to take the lead in coordinating effective strategies. These strategies may include everything from the symbolic—for example, byrefusing to host or visit autocratic leaders—to the economic, by refusing to provide the financial or other types guarantees that lubricate their economies. In the final analysis, it is the Western financial markets that call the shots when it comes to exchange rates, interest rates, and foreign exchange liquidity. Even as his policies have imposed hardships on the Venezuelan people, Maduro has made sure to religiously service his debt obligations to international financial centers. He knows that the moment he breaks from these “imperialist” institutions, it would be almost impossible to borrow another dime. And neither the Chinese nor the Russians are lining up at Maduro’s door to offer him substantial financial support.
The policy challenge of confronting the autocrats has been further compounded with the emergence of Trump, who has shown little concern for the traditional American interest of expanding democratic governance and the rule of law abroad. This attitude, in turn, weakens Europe’s own resolve and room to maneuver. And Europe’s plate is already full as it struggles with the likes of Poland and Hungary in its midst, as well as the rising electoral appeal of nativist populists in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Turkey is always there, ready to threaten to unleash its 2.5 million Syrian refugees.
Trump’s governing style, the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the sudden focus on the Korean peninsula, and institutional weaknesses all have the Executive Branch in a state of disarray. Ironically, this leaves a lot of room for Congress to get involved. Members of both houses in Congress have demonstrated a great deal of unease with the Trump Administration’s lack of a serious response to growing authoritarianism among allies and countries of consequence for the United States. While it is difficult for legislators to construct coherent policies precisely because there are so many decision-makers and parochial interests involved, what the Hill can do is force the Administration’s hand. It can legislate and put in front of the President proposals that will force the Executive Branch at the very least to take public positions and defend itself. In some cases, this will not be pretty to watch.
Expecting the Trump Administration to seriously tackle this problem when it has not even defined it in the first place would be like waiting for Godot. In the meantime, our allies need to know that the United States will support them when they push back. Congress today is the only institution that can fill this policy vacuum.