The revenge of history, the return of strongmen and the retreat of liberalism
Hisham Melhem contributes a powerful essay recounting the fortunes of two of the world's more persistent strongmen
More than 25 years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the end of history and the triumph of Western liberal capitalist democracy, as the final form of political development and human governance. The end of history, according to Fukuyama, did not mean that history will end, but that liberal democracy will always re-assert itself as the highest form of governance. Globalisation is here to stay. The traditional concept of state sovereignty would give way to new forms of economic, political, legal and even cultural forms of international integrations. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, led many in the West to believe that soft power would eclipse hard power. It was believed by some in this supposedly brave new world, increasingly fueled by trade liberalisation and widening respect for the rule of law, that diplomacy will settle what’s left of the international disputes and regional crises.
Alas, good old-fashioned history proved to be tenacious, autocratic forms of governance have come back with vengeance and the traditional concepts of sovereignty and the inviolability of national borders are being resurrected by nationalist strongmen. Since the beginning of the new century, liberalism has been in retreat in Europe, particularly in Hungary, Turkey and Greece. In Syria, Yemen and Libya the uprisings succumbed to the forces of religious atavism and sectarianism and entrenched traditional social and economic interests plunging these brittle societies in civil strife, and regional proxy wars.
There is an assertion that economic progress and accumulation of wealth will inevitably bring in its wake political liberalism. Even in those countries where liberal democracy was on the ascendancy, like the United States, its promise of economic prosperity was not inclusive, as we have seen in the increased numbers of the unemployed and underemployed and others who were economically marginalised by globalisation, income inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor. Donald Trump cynically and effectively rode this wave of American discontent to the White House, becoming our first illiberal president.
In the second decade of the 21st century we are seeing that history did not end, that liberal democracy is on the defensive and that for the first time since the end of the Second World War, a Eurasian power, Russia has dismembered a major European country the Ukraine, by force of arms, with little punitive consequences. Old-fashioned geopolitical power plays are on full display from Crimea on the Black Sea to the disputed waters and islands of the South China Sea. The ideals that were at the core of the European Union, like open borders, economic integration, assimilating immigrants and refugees, are being assaulted by rising autocratic tendencies and the growth of nationalist parties. The Brexit vote in Britain was a clear manifestation of the revenge of history.
Even in the United States, the rise of Trump Nation reflects the emergence of a crude form of nativism and narrow nationalism that is suspicious of trade liberalisation and hostile to immigrants, refugees and Muslims. There is more than a whiff of bigotry and chauvinism in Donald Trump’s views of America and the world.
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There are many international and domestic reasons that explain the rise of autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including economic downturns, the negative impact of globalisation, the concern over the influence of the digital revolution and the fear that dissidents and their international supporters could use it against their entrenched power. However, America’s lacklustre leadership role in the world since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is one of the main reasons that explains the impunity with which Russia continues its total disregard of international law in the Ukraine and its obscene war crimes against the Syrian people. In fact, America’s diplomacy during the Obama administration all but ceded to Russia the leading role in the management of the war and the political machinations in Syria. The Trump administration contrary to its public claims is following the same policy. Iran has been rampaging in Syria and Iraq for years and successfully diminishing American influence in the two countries. The administration of George W Bush could only voice its objection to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, because America was stuck then in the two longest wars in its history. The Obama administration’s aversion to conflict led to the adoption of the pacifist concept of “strategic patience” in dealing with the threat posed by North Korea, which allowed Pyongyang to conduct four additional nuclear tests with impunity. The same could be said about the overall timid US response to China’s aggressive military moves in the South China Sea, even after the international tribunal at The Hague had issued a ruling rejecting China’s claims to the territorial waters of the Philippines an old American ally.
Vladimir Putin sees himself as the saviour of the old realm, the restorer of Russia’s fading imperial legacy and the centrality of the Orthodox Church in Russia’s life. But for those who live uncomfortably in the shadow of Russia from the Baltic States to the Ukraine and all the way to Georgia, Mr Putin is the prince of darkness.
With scant regard for international law, Mr Putin invaded and dismembered Georgia in 2008. In 2014 his forces occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine, then moved to wage a clandestine war in Eastern Ukraine. In 2015, he dispatched special forces and air assets to Syria, then began extensive raids, ostensibly to fight the forces of ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, but in fact Russia’s air force spewed crude unguided bombs and incendiary munitions against civilians and Syrian opposition groups. It has been thoroughly documented that Russia had extensively used banned cluster munitions, against hospitals, schools, bakeries, water treatment plants and even mosques in northern Syria, particularly during the assault against Aleppo last year.
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Mr Erdogan’s military moves in Syria, particularly against a coalition of Syrian opposition groups dominated by Kurdish forces, reflect a new found military assertiveness. Mr Erdogan, who refused to join western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea, sees Mr Putin as a role model. While the social and religious backgrounds of both men are different, they seem to use similar tactics in rewarding their economic cronies and relatives, while claiming to be combatting corruption, tax evasion and undermining monopolies, tactics that are employed to drag powerful enterprises and wealthy people to stand trial, if they prove to be uncooperative. Watching the way they manipulate religion and history, one is forgiven if one concludes that Mr Putin fancies himself as a modern day Tsar, just as Mr Erdogan fancies himself as a modern day Ottoman Sultan.
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Both men, who are strong-willed, politically cunning and charismatic leaders, use the same playbook to silence their domestic critics: they use the judiciary to threaten and intimidate them, and the pro-government media to smear journalists, scholars and researchers particularly those who dare criticise the way they abuse their authorities. In the witch-hunt that followed the failed coup attempt in Turkey last summer, the authorities rounded up or dismissed thousands of teachers, bureaucrats, judges and police officers.
The timid American response to the depredations of autocrats like Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan in Syria, has prolonged the tragedy of that country, and created the worst refugee problem since the Second World War, a crisis that is undermining the very structure of the European Union. Mr Putin is exploiting the refugee problem to weaken the EU and help the rise of far right in Hungary, France and Italy. In the xenophobic rhetoric of these parties, the Syrian refugees are like an invading alien army to be fought back. It is disturbing to say the least, to see Arab, Iranian and Israeli leaders and others trekking to Moscow to meet the strong autocrat, who tells anyone willing to listen that he stands by his friends when they are in need, unlike the United States. History is back with vengeance and the confederacy of autocrats is on the ascendancy.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist for the Lebanese daily Annahar and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
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Updated: August 19, 2017 10:23 AM