The Renaissance Of Authoritarianism
“WARNING SIGNS ABOUND ACROSS THE GLOBE: THE DISCARDING OF MAINSTREAM POLITICIANS, THE EMERGENCE OF LEADERS WHO SEEK TO DIVIDE RATHER THAN UNITE, THE PURSUIT OF POLITICAL VICTORY AT ALL COSTS AND THE INVOCATION OF NATIONAL GREATNESS BY PEOPLE WHO IDENTIFY GREATNESS ONLY WITH THEMSELVES.. TYRANNY IS ONCE AGAIN AWAKENING FROM ITS SLUMBER.” MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.S SENATE HEARING 2019.
There is little doubt that liberal democracy is at least in part responsible for the tremendous advancement of humanity in the past century. The near universalization of concepts such as inherent human rights, the rule of law, and peaceful conflict resolution would not have happened if it wasn’t for the flourishing of liberal democracy in many parts of the world. Liberal democracy isn’t just inherently good, but it also offers the most promising path for security and economic development. The accumulated evidence suggests theorists such as Kant are correct; liberal democracies are less likely to engage in armed conflict with one another. So too, the rise of political leaders in a state that protects free speech, increases the trust between leaders and citizens as well as between other nations The lawful regulation of violence controls the rise of terrorism and violent internal conflicts. Freedom of expression channels dissent in a more peaceful and productive manner. Fair and just economies ensure equal opportunity for upward mobility. Never were humans more free and prosperous than in the liberal democratic world. However, In a world of uncertainty and a sense of impending turmoil, never were the values of liberal democracies in more danger.
As a child of the nineties, I grew up in unprecedented global stability. The world order established by the United States following World War II delivered on its promises; an international community built upon mutual respect, peaceful conflict resolution, and open fair markets. One could buy a pair of Nikes and access the internet virtually anywhere on the planet. Immeasurable numbers of people were lifted out of poverty. Inconceivable amounts of wealth were amassed. Liberal capitalist democracy was slowly taking hold in all continents. The last stronghold of totalitarianism and human misery, the Soviet Union, peacefully collapsed without a nuclear or a military conflict, racism was on the decline, and minority rights were on the rise. The American “sheriff” and his posse saved the day in Desert Storm and then again in Bosnia. Telecommunications were transforming the very notion of human community, all children were playing Nintendo, and everyone was watching Friends. Western liberals hailed the arrival of the golden age of democracy. Some called it “The End of History.” Two decades later, it seems “history” is coming back with a vengeance.
The now obvious fragility of the liberal democratic world order may be disturbing, but what is even more disturbing is how quickly this order cracked. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” was only written 27 years ago, and in it he proclaimed the stabilizing of western democratic liberalism as the final form of human governance which all nations will eventually come to. The view is the natural conclusion to the western liberal view of human history as an intrinsic component of the organic human evolutionary process. The assumption is that as technological and scientific advancements lead humanity into a more prosperous future, mankind will drop our long heritage of tribalism, aggression, violence, racism, tyranny, and authoritarianism along the way. Onward and upwards, so to speak. The proliferation of liberal democratic capitalist countries seemed inevitable in the eyes of many.
The post WWII developments were primarily responsible for this worldview of history. European nations gave up their regional hegemonic aspirations following the devastating war, along with their nationalistic world view following the Holocaust. Europeans began to channel their energy into friendly economic competition which was only aided by the rise of western economies and the enforcement of the liberal democratic model. So too, did Japan by performing an economic and industrial miracle, transforming itself from an oppressive imperialist state to an indispensable ally of the free world. The establishment of the UN as an international body tasked with the prevention of armed conflicts globally bolstered confidence in order and peace.The rise of the United States as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of mankind gave liberal democracy enough legitimacy for it to be a popular idea in Latin and South America, Africa, Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe. Reformed Germany liberalized so much it gave up its own currency in favor of the pan-European euro. Opening China contributed in lifting over a half billion people out of poverty and heralds of optimism promised it will inevitably reform into a liberal democracy. And finally, the quiet peaceful end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the ultimate victory that liberal democracy needed. All of this led to historical determinism that emboldened the belief in the inevitability of human progress. 10 years later, 19 young men inspired by one reformed Saudi playboy started a ripple of events which exposed the subterranean currents, lurking under the surface and waiting to shatter our illusion of irreversible globalized liberal democracy.
Today we face a weakened and insecure United States. We see a global loss of trust in liberal democratic political and journalistic institutions, a new rise of antisemitism and racist worldviews, an aggressive and imperialistic Russia, an increasingly totalitarian and hegemonic China, a devastated Middle East, a new Turkish Sultan, rising authoritarianism in Brazil and Egypt, and ultra nationalist India, a politically distressed Europe sounding off populist and ultra-nationalist cries, a dangerous North Korea, and a rogue Iran. One can’t help but wonder, are we at the doorsteps of the great revival of authoritarianism? And if so, what went wrong?
To answer this question, one must reexamine one’s own view of history. There is nothing in human history which suggests the inevitability of the rise of liberal democracies. If anything, thousands of years of history of both humans and chimpanzees suggests liberal democracies shouldn’t arise. Religious and ethnic dystopia as we see in the Middle East today is the norm rather than the exception throughout history. The history of mankind is the history of strongmen, tyranny, poverty, genocide, and racism rather than international cosmopolitanism and human rights oriented societies. While it is true our technological and scientific advancements did empower us economically, it did not bring about any sustainable change in human nature, and thus behavior. In the timeline of history, liberty and human rights are the exception, and everything else is the norm.
It is easy to forget that democracy was meant to flourish in Europe in 1919 after the First World War. It took only two decades for Moussolini and Hitler to rise to power and for the entire content to devolve into the most devastating war the world has ever known. Mind you, those were not Muslim or Asian countries but countries built upon the same Judeo-Christian tradition hailed today by some as the only possilbe civilization in which democracy and liberalism could flourish. Even after the war, Eastern Europe under the grip of the Soviets suffered from a grey dystopian reality which produced refugees and prisoners, conducted executions, and proliferated human misery. What enabled liberal democracy to flourish in Western Europe was not the natural inclination of ex-Nazis, ex-fascists, and ex-colonialists to love freedom and abhor authoritarianism, but the complete devastation of depletion of their military powers and the rise of the overwhelming military force on the United States to ensure the safety, security, and political stability of democracy. It was US Army bases all over Germany and Italy which ensured Europeans won’t revert to their pre-war political tendencies, and it was the might of US Navy which ensured open and free oceans for international trade. The tight grip of the US in Europe and Japan following the war is what halted the horrific, human rights violating Japanese empire, and eventually created the alliances of western democratic capitalist states which dominated the last 70 years of human history. This successful alliance, with its unparalleled economic powers, created the universal appeal of liberal democracy that the rest of the world aspired to. So much so, in fact, that even China was forced to implement many “capitalistic” policies in order to compete in the economic market.
Outside of the world dominated by the American model, it was business as usual. Poverty, tyranny, strongman politics, armed conflicts, and the proclivity of tribalism were and are the norm. The world witnessed the Chinease great leap famine, the Iranian revolution, the rise of Saddam Hussein, Islamic terrorism, civil wars, the African politics of Idi Amin style dictators, the Rwanda genocide, widespread Chinese human rights violations, and the violent fall of Yugoslavia with astounding failures of the international community to act. The reluctant “sheriff” wasn’t all that innocent either; the clandestine interventions of the US which contributed to the rise of murderous dictators in Latin America cast serious doubt on the morality of a world order dominated by the United States.
The heralds of the inevitability of human progress adhere to several serious logical fallacies, and a very central one is that societies will self-democratize as they become more economically prosperous. This assumption might seem reasonable to some, but it is in fact completely speculative and baseless. While a certain level of economic growth is a prerequisite for a democratic government to function, it is by no means a guarantee. Arab oil monarchies and China serve as a prime example to this. Arab petromonarchies with substantial amounts of wealth chose to buy off their people through tax free economies and substantial payouts rather than developing functional modern democracies. China, as it is becoming the second largest economy in the world, is showing no sign of liberalization, on the contrary, the Chinese police state is at the forefront of cutting edge technological advancements to maintain a dystopian authoritarian order. In the last century, liberal democracy was popularized by the fact the world was dominated by the wealthy liberal democratic and capitalistic America. And it is beyond doubt, a prosperous and wealthy authoritarian China will repopularize authoritarianism and will make it appealing again, at least from the perspective of world leaders. People who once thought “Why can’t we be like America?” are now more than likely to think “Why can’t we be like China?”
After a brief period of modernization and generous grants from the West, Russia actively chose to revert to an aggressive posture and a defensive expansionist mentality. Russian confrontationalism is alive and kicking, invading Ukraine, poisoning journalists in London, safeguarding a murderous dictator in Syria, aiding the psychopaths of Iran, and intentionally undermining electoral democracy in western countries. In June 2019, and before leaving the G20 summit, Putin said the ideology that has underpinned western democracies for decades had "outlived its purpose." The rise of Putin correlated with the rise of the Obama doctrine, which perpetuated the idea that the US had outplayed its hand in foreign policy, and we must realize the limits of American power. America’s retreat and reluctance to utilize its power for good empowered a daring and more aggressive Putin to take up the mantle.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
During the Cold War, the Middle East became part of the global power struggle. The United States chose to support Arab tyrants who were able to maintain order and stability and prevent the spread of communism, as well as the collapse of the region into Islamist movements. America assumed the post Ottoman Middle East was stable. Ill and dysfunctional Arab authoritarian states accepted the vital support of US in order to maintain their control over territory, and agreed to associate with the liberal democratic world order. The civil war in Lebanon and the Iraq-Iran war were not recognized as a symptom of the volatility of that order. The liberal democratic world assumed the Middle East will eventually self-stabilize and self-democratize. But Islamist movements continued to challenge Arab rulers. America relied on Arab dictators to suppress a form of mysterious religious fascism the West can’t understand. Yet, the struggle of Islamism was and is far from over and it arrived to the skies of New York City on the morning of 9/11.
Islamists saw the American support for authoritarian states as a Christian attempt to bring about the death of Islamic rule, which Islamists sought so much to revive. America was hurt. Seeking to destroy Islamic anarchists, America inadvertently destabilized the already volatile status quo of the Muslim world. Through the most expensive military campaign in the Middle East in terms of lives and resources, Americans found themselves stuck in a major regional, sectarian, national, and ethnic conflicts of the former Muslim empire. Americans came to question their role and place in the world. This American inconfidence was manifested in the election of President Obama. Barack Obama, a student of Edward Said himself, was supposed to be the token of brotherhood and peace to the world. He brought an administration which viewed America as the destabilizer of world order, not the maintainer.
Shortly after Obama’s election, a wave of popular protests labeled the Arab Spring was supposed to plant the seed of liberty and democracy in the Middle East, but instead it ended in the unhinged rise of Islamism, tribalism, authoritarianism, and regional geopolitics threatening the world with a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race. Those uprisings were primarily challenges to the legitimacy of post Ottoman authoritarian states. Within this wave, Islamist powers who insist the historic Islamic Caliphate isn’t over, started challenging regimes in several Muslim countries and wreacking havoc on them. Mistaking this violent turmoil for a democratic revolution, the United States helped topple Ghaddafi in Libya which triggered a devastating civil war. A revival of the historic Muslim Caliphate was declared in Iraq and Syria while establishing bases in other Muslim countries.
The Arab Spring left countries either in ruins, such as Yemen and Libya, or in brutal totalitarian authoritarianism such as in Egypt, Jordan and Gulf countries who frantically cracked down in order to maintain power. It took the Middle East only 5 years to send shockwaves in the form of HD beheadings and millions of refugees all over the world-- to rock the boat of western stability. Even the attempts to restore authoritarian order in the Middle East remains an immensely difficult task in light of the presence of major regional agitators.
Barack Obama ended up authorizing more drone strikes and covert operations in the Middle East and the Muslim world than any other president. This was not due to Obama’s betrayal of his principles but because of an attempt to contain the violent reshaping of the Muslim world. Yet his reluctance to act in Syria allowed Russia to claim its place as the sponsor of Middle Eastern old fashioned authoritarian stability. Arab Sunni states were on the verge of collapse and with the presence of a reluctant US administration, they sought support from Putin. After nearly collapsing into the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Military assumed power and strengthened ties with Russia as they saw they could no longer rely on American assurances for stability.
This violent turmoil in the Islamic world initiated a global ripple effect that threatened the foundations of liberal democracy itself. A combination of classical Middle Eastern tribalism, unabated Syrian tyranny, a reluctant America, apocalyptic religious beliefs, a Turkish aspirational sultan, and an adamant Russian intent to disturb western order, caused tens of millions to flee their homes with significant numbers of them migrating to Europe. Caliphate enthusiasts terrorized European theaters, streets, and kosher shops. The current upheaval western democracies are facing is a direct result of this as all the polls show immigration to be the most important concern in many European states. In the UK, France, and Germany both populist right and left politics are on the rise. Germany, for the first time since WWII, is witnessing the rise of nationalist German voices. Populist nationalist Marine Le Pen almost won the French presidency, and the UK decided to break away from the European Union. New democracies in the Balkan republics are now falling to challenges from neo-authoritarianism. Eastern Europe is freely giving power to clearly authoritarian nationalists. Hungary is now settling for “illiberal democracy.” In India a nationalist populist movement is on the rise, and antisemitism is at its highest levels since WWII, with many European countries advising Jews not to be visibly Jewish.
America is losing its grip and finding itself in a volatile world. This sudden global turmoil led to a defensive reaction from America. Fearful of the perilous condition of the world and the threat to the American way of life Americans decided abandon politicians and to display power by electing Donald Trump, a man who represents American wealth and dominance but not American values. Trump ran a campaign centered around ensuring American interests come first. Unfortunately this messaging also inspired fringe groups of American white nationalist fascists, who previously were shunned by all political parties and leaders.
The Trump administration rushed to restore American support to Arab dictators capable of maintaining stability in their territories, intensified military presence in Eastern Europe with the biggest build up since the end of the Cold War, built a regional coalition against Iran, and challenged Turkey and China. It gave Arab dictators the greenlight in doing whatever they must in order to maintain the order of the former Caliphate and to prevent hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees from flooding Europe without protesting their human rights violation. In Egypt, the US government, for the first time, allowed dual citizens to be imprisoned and tortured without intervention. This is an appalling failure for a liberal democracy,yet it is justified as a necessary price to pay to maintain order. But the Trump administration has even demonstrated a conspicuous reluctance to deal with agitators like Russia. Growing Russian interference in western electoral systems has yet to be addressed.
Meanwhile China is observing the Muslim world warily. Asserting its power over its sphere, China decided to round up its Uyghur Muslim minority in internment camps making sure to sever all ties with Muslim conflicts. Contrary to western anger over human rights violations, Muslim countries declared support for China. In a world where religion is power, this support is a recognition of Chinese hegemony over its territory. China’s authoritarianism is not unique. With the third largest Muslim population in the world, Indian nationalist movements have made their way into power in India, and in August 2019, India started an unprecedented lock-down on the disputed region of predominantly Muslim Kashmir.
Meanwhile in the United States, economic conditions are not stable. Following the economic crisis of 2008, many became angry at the clear inequality corrupt capitalists have created. A once defunct idea, socialism is becoming so popular, major presidential candidates are adopting it in their political platforms. Authoritarianism, once a threat more associated with the nationalist right, now has a thriving fan base on the progressive left. Even further social and political divisiveness is made possible by every day use of social media more than the actual scheming of demagogues. Technological advancements permanently ended the age of privacy. Journalistic institutions have completely lost the confidence and trust of the public. American nationalist terrorism became a major security threat. Racial intolerance is on the rise, and once an exceptional case in Jewish history, America is witnessing some of the most violent and most scary manifestations of antisemitism in decades.
The world, as it seems, is on the brink of a disaster. All of this leaves Americans with one of two options, either to further retreat from the world, or ramp up their power in order to restore the liberal democratic order at any cost. As it may seem today, many Americans have lost interest in a liberal democractic world. A major challenge to Russia and China as well as apeaceful death of the Islamist extremism will be very costly. Americans have serious reservations about doing what is needed to restore a liberal democratic order.
All of this leaves us with a clear conclusion: history will never end, liberal democracies flourished in spite of human nature, not because of it. The rise of the liberal democratic and capitalistic world order following WWII was only possible due to the backing of the overwhelming power of the United States. Had Germany or Russia won the war, this world order would have never happened to begin with. The assumption that human history can be illustrated as an upwards graph is simply not true. We do not have a natural inclination to love freedom of speech, liberty, human rights, and to reject tyranny and authoritarianism. If thousands of years of human history teaches us anything, it is the opposite. The dystopian life of the Middle East resembles the norm of human history more than the life in the West does. Even in the freest countries, subterranean authoritarian currents never stopped undermining freedom and democracy. The recent return of authoritarianism should not be surprising, for it is not the first time and most definitely will not be the last time. Even if the current tide can be stopped and pushed back, there is no doubt it will arise again in the future. We must be vigilant in explaining why bad ideas are bad and good ideas are good.
In his book “The Jungle Grows Back,” Robert Kagan made an analogy of liberal democratic world as a garden which was erected in the midst of a jungle. At no point in time the jungle will ever stop trying to grow back and swallow the garden, and at no point can we stop pushing the garden back. Ronald Reagan said “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” Liberty, freedom, and democracy will always be exceptional ideas to man, and it will always be up to those who refuse to live without them to fight for them. There is no guarantee those ideas won’t be forgotten, but there is also no guarantee they won’t be reinvented. Progress is not inevitable, but neither is defeat. To have freedom is to go against the tide of human history. We have to let go of the presupposition of the inevitability of human progress will lead us to what we think we should be, for nothing suggests we are bound to be what we think we should be. There is no other alternative but to fight and resist the rising tide of tyranny and the renaissance of authoritarianism.