11 December 2021

The Atlantic: “The Bad Guys are Winning”

All of us have in our minds a cartoon image of what an autocratic state looks like. There is a bad man at the top. He controls the police. The police threaten the people with violence. There are evil collaborators, and maybe some brave dissidents.

But in the 21st century, that cartoon bears little resemblance to reality. Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America.

Anne Applebaum

Some interesting points in this article, but I think its central premise – that the autocratic state of the 21st century is somehow fundamentally different than autocratic states of the past – misses the mark considerably. Sure, some of their methods for spreading propaganda have been updated considerably and have vastly more reach in a digital age, and they lack a shared ideology, but other aspects are quite similar to the 20th century. I mean, the Soviet Union and its client states formed a literal military defensive treaty to counter NATO, and their economic ties were extensive as well – how much more collaborative could they get? The Soviet Union has supported China and Cuba on numerous occasions, invaded countries to either install a puppet regime or quell uprisings such as the Prague Spring. That’s hardly different from the actions of Russia in neighboring states during recent years, or China’s in Hong Kong.

A lattice consisting of multiple photos of hands in dark suits in a handshake on red background
Michael Houtz

At the same time, a part of the American left has abandoned the idea that “democracy” belongs at the heart of U.S. foreign policy—not out of greed and cynicism but out of a loss of faith in democracy at home. Convinced that the history of America is the history of genocide, slavery, exploitation, and not much else, they don’t see the value of making common cause with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Nursiman Abdureshid, or any of the other ordinary people around the world forced into politics by their experience of profound injustice. Focused on America’s own bitter problems, they no longer believe America has anything to offer the rest of the world: Although the Hong Kong prodemocracy protesters waving American flags believe many of the same things we believe, their requests for American support in 2019 did not elicit a significant wave of youthful activism in the United States, not even something comparable to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.

A more accurate assessment I think would be based on the relative power and political will of democracies versus authoritarians. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe left behind a power vacuum among the authoritarian states, and democracy stepped in to fill that void. But America became complacent in its support for democracy, on the naïve belief that democratic advances would last forever, by some inertia that would no longer require their intervention and support. Instead, Putin has steadily consolidated his power in Russia, and started kicking back in both overt and subversive ways. China also, emboldened by its economic might, no longer wants to play by the rules of others and is busy carving out its own sphere of influence, both economically and in the digital space. The tides seem to be turning in their favor, for now…

The section about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opponent of Alexander Lukashenko in the Belarus election last year, was somewhat head-scratching and demoralizing. She has no political or administrative experience whatsoever, and people expected her to successfully lead a country?! I admire and support her courage standing up to a terrorizing regime, but she was in no way prepared for this role. People virulently criticized Trump’s inexperience, but we’re supposed to put our hopes for democracy in Belarus on this housewife?! I am now perplexed that Lukashenko didn’t let her assume the presidency – in the long run it would have been a smart strategic move, reassuring Western democracies that peaceful transitions of power are still possible in Belarus. All he had to do then was sit back and wait for her administration to screw up – perhaps undermining her efforts covertly with assistance from Putin – and return at the next election cycle with the aura of a savior and full legitimacy.

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