The Rise of the World’s New Emperors—with America’s Help

The Rise of the World’s New Emperors—with America’s Help

So much for freedom’s ring. The twentieth century’s defining pivots were the collapse of empires (on four continents) and the spread of democracy (to dozens of nations, new and old). But history didn’t end, after all.

Over the past year, the most striking global trend has been the entrenchment of imperious autocrats. This weekend, China announced it is abolishing term limits, enabling President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely. Next month, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will compete in farcical Presidential elections without meaningful opponents because they have been arrested, banished, or intimidated into silence. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power—over the king’s court, oil, the military, and government planning through 2030—once based on consensus within the sprawling royal family. Turkey amended its constitution to create an executive Presidency with sweeping political, judicial, and military powers, diminishing its parliament. After seven years of war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reclaimed physical control over most of his country and reëstablished his draconian political dominance. There’s a growing array of wannabes, too, from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Seventy-one countries—more than a third of the world’s total—witnessed declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, Freedom House’s annual survey reported last month. “A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle,” Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, wrote. “Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.”

The consequences ripple well beyond borders. Emboldened autocrats—some of whom enjoy broad popular support—are altering the regional and international balance of power. Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimea region, part of an undisguised plan to reëstablish Soviet-era muscular sway in Europe. China has pushed territorial claims deep into the South China Sea, reflecting the shift from building economic strength at home under Deng Xiaoping to claiming global position under Xi. Turkey has dispatched troops into northern Syria, indirectly challenging the United States—its NATO ally—in a fight against Syrian rebels advised by American troops. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen, blockaded Qatar, and demanded that Lebanon’s Prime Minister resign, its most aggressive actions since the kingdom was created, in 1932. Territorial power plays are changing the global geography.

“Why now? Why is there such a pattern here? To some extent, it may be domestic,” Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the former head of the State Department’s policy-planning staff, told me. “All these countries face real challenges in terms of economic growth and employment and distribution of wealth. As a result, societies on the edge seem willing to accept authoritarianism in the hope that it will deliver the goods. That’s half the answer. The other half is that there doesn’t seem to be any political price for acting illiberally. No one of stature is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression. Leaders feel somewhat enabled.”

The United States shares a big chunk of the blame, according to career diplomats as well as both Republicans and Democrats who have helped craft American foreign policy for decades.

“Some of this has to do with the resurgence of old powers, but it also has to do with reckless American detachment over the past year, which has accelerated the ambitions of other leaders. When vacuums are created, they get filled,” William J. Burns, a career diplomat who served as the Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration and Ambassador to Russia during the George W. Bush Administration, told me.

“The American model has been tarnished over the past year. So a lot of authoritarian rulers feel wind in their sails and see themselves as agenda-setters, after a long period when the U.S. was the agenda-setter for the world order,” Burns, who is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. “They see new space in terms of their geostrategic positions. They’re increasingly cocky about their model.”

Video From The New Yorker

Putin, Russia, and Trump

Each country has its own political context, culture, challenges, insecurities, and historic claims to territory. Each leader makes a different case. “Each of these guys has his own virtue narrative,” Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told me. “It’s not imperial, it’s ‘good for the world’—which is classically imperial, the ‘civilizing mission’ of empires. It’s the classic trope.”

In plotting their strategies, some authoritarians argue that they’re taking a page out of America’s post-Cold War manual. “They look at the U.S. and see a country that took a truly unipolar moment fifteen to twenty years ago—when we had the ability to insure a rule-based order was enshrined—and instead, in their view, pursued relatively unvarnished self-interests, including the use of force,” Rojansky said. “They feel, therefore, that there is no rules-based order—so they can justify any use of their own force.”

The rise of repressive and aggressive strongmen today imperils the principles crafted after the Second World War that, by the century’s end, gave the West the political edge over rival ideologies. Or so it seemed. The assumptions now look either naïve or illusory.

“There’s a passive and aggressive dimension with the new dictators,” Strobe Talbott, the former president of the Brookings Institution and a former Deputy Secretary of State, told me. “They have taken advantage of the weakness, the confusion, and the self-doubt in the liberal world order. All they have to do is watch us crumble a bit, but they’re doing more than that. They’re taking active measures to accelerate and sustain the decline of the West.”

The United States could still check the trend. “There’s plenty to worry about,” Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of a forthcoming book on the importance of preserving the liberal world order, said. “But mostly what we’ve seen, especially out of Russia and China, are long-standing ambitions—regardless of who is ruling—that have not yet been fully accomplished. Putin has not restored the Soviet Union or regained imperial domination in Eastern Europe. China is still facing the same regional configuration.”

There’s little sign today, however, of an American strategy—or even political will—to counter aggressive strongmen. “The U.S. is still capable of containing those ambitions,” Kagan, who is also a former member of the State Department’s policy-planning staff, told me. “But we have to be willing to support the same order that contained them in the past—the alliance with Europe, the trade regimes established after World War II.”

Over the past year, the array of experts said, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is memorable for allowing—or, in the case of the European Union’s future, encouraging—the erosion of alliances and institutions that were the foundation of global order for seven decades. In other words, Washington is doing little to stop the pushy pseudo-emperors and ambitious autocrats.


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