Rise of the Autocrats Liberal Democracy Is Under Attack

Autocratic leaders and wannabes, from Putin to Trump, are making political inroads around the world. In recent years, Western liberal democracy has failed to live up to some of its core promises, helping to fuel the current wave of illiberalism. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't actually all that interested in football. He's more of a martial arts guy, and he loves ice hockey. But when the World Cup football championship gets started on Thursday in Moscow, Putin will strive to be the perfect host. The tournament logo is a football with stars trailing behind it, evoking Sputnik, and a billion people will be tuning in as Putin presents Russia as a strong and modern country.

During the dress rehearsal, last summer's Confed Cup, Putin held an opening address in which he spoke of "uncompromising, fair and honest play ... until the very last moments of the match." Now, it's time for the main event, the World Cup, giving Putin an opportunity to showcase his country to the world.

The World Cup, though, will be merely the apex of the great autocrat festival of 2018. On June 24, Turkish voters will head to the polls for the first time since approving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's constitutional reforms last year. The result of the vote will in all likelihood cement his claim to virtually absolute power until 2023 or even beyond. Should he miss out on an absolute majority in the first round of voting -- which is certainly possible given rising inflation in the country -- then he'll get it in the second round. The result will likely be a Turkey -- a country with around 170 journalists behind bars and where more than 70,000 people have been arrested since the coup attempt two years ago, sometimes with no grounds for suspicion - that is even more authoritarian than it is today.

And then there is Donald Trump who, after turning the G-7 summit in Canada into a farce, headed to Singapore for a Tuesday meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. And many pundits have argued this week that the greatest beneficiary of that summit was actually Chinese President Xi Jinping, the man who poses a greater challenge to Western democracy than all the rest.

At home, Trump is continuing his assault on the widely accepted norms regarding how a president should behave. He has the "absolute right" to pardon himself in the Russian affair, he recently claimed -- and then he went off the rails in Canada, picking fights with his allies and revoking his support for the summit's closing statement by sending out a tweet from Air Force One as he left. Trump, to be sure, is an elected president, but he is one who dreams of wielding absolute power and sees himself as being both above the law and above internationally accepted norms of behavior.

The Backward Slide

The upshot is that global politics are currently dominated by a handful of men -- and only men -- who have nothing but contempt for liberal democracy and who aspire to absolute control of politics, of the economy, of the judiciary and of the media. They are the predominant figures of the present -- and the decisions they make will go a long way toward shaping the future ahead. The globalized, high-tech, constantly informed and enlightened world of the 21st century finds itself in the middle of a slide back into the age of authoritarianism.

And this is not merely the lament of Western cultural pessimists, it is a statement rooted in statistics. A recent study by the German foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung found that 3.3 billion people live under autocratic regimes, while the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit found that just 4.5 percent of the global population, around 350 million people, live in a "full democracy." In its most recent annual report, issued in January of this year, the nongovernmental organization Freedom House wrote that in 2017, "democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades." It went on to note that "the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press and the rule of law are under assault and in retreat globally."

How can this global trend be explained? Are autocrats really so strong, or are democrats too weak? Is liberal democracy only able to function well in relatively homogeneous societies where prosperity is growing? Why do so many people doubt democracy's ability to solve the problems of the 21st century, challenges such as climate change, the tech revolution, shifting demographics and the distribution of wealth?

The optimistic Western premises -- that greater prosperity leads to more freedom, increased communication leads to greater pluralism, and more free trade leads to increased economic integration -- have unraveled. Following the end of the Cold War, the American political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan said in 1996 that Western democracy was "the only game in town." Now, though, it would seem to have lost its attraction. The expectation that democracy's triumphant march would be impossible to stop has proven illusory. China is currently showing the world that economic success and societal prosperity are also possible in an authoritarian system.

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The fact that established dictatorships in the world, such as those in Belarus, Zimbabwe or Vietnam, aren't showing any signs of change is only part of the problem. Rather, everywhere in the world, authoritarian phases are following on the heels of brief -- or more extended -- experiments with democracy, a development seen in places like Egypt, Thailand, Venezuela and Nicaragua, for example. At the same time, liberal democracy is eroding in many countries in the West.

Perhaps the greatest danger, though, is the increasing attraction of autocratic thinking in Europe. Some elements of such systems are sneaking into Western democracies, such as the growing contempt for established political parties, the media and minorities.

In Italy, a new government was just sworn in under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, an avowed Putin fan. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán just won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections held, according to OSCE election observers, in an atmosphere of "intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric." Polish voters are set to go to the polls next year, and there too, the right-wing nationalist PiS stands a good chance of emerging victorious.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. under the leadership of Donald Trump has thus far resisted sliding into autocracy, but only because the institutional hurdles in the form of the judicial and legislative branches of government have managed to hold their ground. Nevertheless, liberal democracy is under attack in precisely the country where it first emerged.

Anxiety is likewise growing in other Western democracies. "Until recently, liberal democracy reigned triumphant. For all its shortcomings, most citizens seemed deeply committed to their form of government. The economy was growing. Radical parties were insignificant," writes the Harvard-based German-American political scientist Yascha Mounk in his book "The People vs. Democracy." But then the situation began changing rapid: Brexit, Trump's election and the success of other right-wing populist movements in Europe. The question, Mounk writes, is "whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age -- and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt."

The Western political system, Mounk writes, is "decomposing into its component parts, giving rise to illiberal democracy on the one side and undemocratic liberalism on the other." The one, he argues, is dominated by manipulated majority opinion while the other is controlled by institutions such as central banks, constitutional courts and supranational bureaucracies like the European Commission that can operate independent of direct, democratic debate.

"Take back control" was the slogan used by the Brexiteers during their successful campaign. Indeed, the feeling of living in an era in which they have lost control is likely a common denominator among all European populists. Taking back that control is something they all promise.

It is combined with the desire to shake off the corset that allegedly makes life in the West anything but free. All the laws, rules, decrees and contracts that dictate to people, companies and entire countries how to behave. What they are allowed to say and what not. What they can buy and what is off limits. How things may or may not be produced. This desire to apply a new set of self-made, simpler rules to the world is feeding the popularity of the autocratically minded.

These days, it is rare that democracies collapse under attack from armed, uniformed adversaries. Such images belong to the past; the coup d'état has become a rarity. On the contrary, many autocrats have come to power by way of the ballot box, govern in the name of the people and regularly hold referenda to solidify their power.

But once in power -- in Turkey, Venezuela or Russia -- they bring the institutions of democracy under their control. They tend not to be committed ideologues. Rather, they are strategists of power who used ideologies without necessarily believing in them themselves. Furthermore, they don't generally wield violence indiscriminately, another difference to the murderous regimes of the past. Sometimes, a journalist loses their life, or an oligarch ends up in jail. But otherwise, the new autocrats are much subtler than their totalitarian predecessors. Generally, a timely threat issued to insubordinate citizens suffices. And they are particularly adept at the dark art of propaganda. They know that many people have become insecure and are afraid of the future and foreigners. They have learned how to augment those fears, so they can then pose as guarantors of stability.

China's System Works Well

The Beijing airport lies like an enormous red manta ray in the city's northeast, one of the world's largest buildings. Following four years of construction, it was opened in 2008 and is now the second busiest airport in the world. But the airport's three terminals are already hopelessly overcrowded, so a new, even larger airport is currently under construction to the south of the city. It is to be opened in 2019, also after just four years of construction.

Only very few people doubt that the new airport will open on time. The past 40 years have demonstrated that most government forecasts end up being quite accurate, both the positive ones and the more negative prognoses, both the general ones, and the more specific.

When President Xi Jinping came into office in 2013, China's economy was already the second largest in the world. Today, five years later, it has grown by another 50 percent. Hourly wages have tripled in the last 10 years and household disposable income has doubled. Even the poorest Chinese are faring better than they were just a few years ago and they expect to see their incomes continue rising.

That expectation is one of the Communist Party's primary instruments of power. Political scientists speak of "legitimacy through performance," a classic leadership principle of authoritarian developing nations. China's rulers have pushed this principle to the limit, with government experts thinking in terms of decades and in global dimensions. Because they are undisturbed by individual interests and the election cycles seen in democracies, their plans tend to be realized. Thus far, the mixture of planned and free-market economy has worked well.

But the economy is but one of several instruments. The Communist Party's power, China expert Minxin Pei has written, is today based on four pillars: robust growth, sophisticated repression, state-sponsored nationalism and co-opting social elites.

China is also setting new benchmarks when it comes to the second pillar. The melding of Leninism with technology has given birth to an unprecedented surveillance system. The internet, seen in Western democracies as a tool of free speech, is increasingly used in China as a means of social control, as a mood barometer and instrument of manipulation.

At the same time, the regime disseminates a grand narrative of the fatherland on state media and the internet, referred to as the "Chinese Dream" or the "Renaissance of the Chinese Nation," depending on the context. The message is clear: China, a leading political and economic power until the outbreak of the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, is returning to "center stage," as President Xi put it at the 19th party congress in October, following more than 100 years of degradation and colonialism. It is an effective narrative on two counts: Domestically, it serves to solidify a nationalist consensus while at the same time radiating Beijing's growing self-confidence to the world at large.

Thus far, the country's leadership has been satisfied with the ideological and economic projection of its power. In contrast to its geopolitical rivals USA and Russia, China has avoided military adventures such as those in Ukraine or the Middle East. But the country's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its arms buildup clearly demonstrate that it might do so in the future.

One year ago, Beijing hosted a noteworthy summit focused on the most ambitious development project of the century: The New Silk Road. Recep Tayyip Erdogan came from Turkey as did Rodrigo Duterte from the Philippines, Viktor Orbán from Hungary and Vladimir Putin from Russia. They parked their government airplanes on the tarmac of the airport in the Chinese capital and headed for the Great Wall, where Xi presented his vision of a new world. It was a meeting of the like-minded. Western politicians were also present, but they seemed strangely sidelined.

The New Silk Road is the core of China's 21st century development policy. At first glance, it looks like a vast infrastructure project that will connect China with Africa and Europe. In truth, though, it is a plan for a new world order dominated by China.

China, he said, will set an example and connect the West and East in "peace, harmony and a better future." China, the country's president said, is "ready to share practices of development with other countries, but we have no intention to interfere in other countries' internal affairs." The word "dynasty" came up five times in the speech and "invest" appeared nine times. The terms "democracy," "rule of law" and "freedom of opinion" were missing entirely.

The Chinese dictatorship of development poses the greatest economic, political and intellectual challenge to the liberal world order. Because of its size and population, China creates economic dependencies that smaller countries on its periphery simply cannot escape. But even politicians and business leaders in Western industrialized nations fall victim to the dynamism and efficiency of the Chinese model.

"The China One Belt, One Road," Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said at Davos in January, using the formal name of the project, "is going to be the new WTO, like it or not."

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