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World on the Threshold of World War III
Noted German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller believed that global history moves in cycles. We end up in same situations our predecessors had faced in the past. Nearly a century ago, many developed nations found themselves in clutches of economic depression whereas developing states were left stranded in the seas of gloom. Therefore, Interwar period, i.e. 1919-1939, led to the rise of autocrats and strongmen whose toxic nationalism and sabre rattling pushed the world into another – and more destructive – World War. Excruciating War on Terror and economic recession of 2008-09 left the world again at the mercy of brinksmanship of authoritarian and populist leaders.
In normal sense, authoritarianism and populism are exactly the opposites. Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms whereas populism is a political philosophy that supports the rights and power of the people in their struggle against privileged elites. In an authoritarian system, powers are concentrated among elite whereas populism is a struggle against these privileged groups. So, how in this age of globalization, authoritarianism and populism have been reconciled under the charade of democracy?
Answer to this critical question lies in current liberal democratic world order wherein democracy and free market go hand in hand. Democracy promises political progress while free market economy guarantees economic development. But, this is not the case in current era. Authoritarian regime of China has become the greatest economic powerhouse in stark contrast to the recession-stricken economy of liberal democratic America. Faith in democracy is waning. Democracy is messy and difficult and, hence, must be defended constantly. People don’t want to bother as they seem wishfully pining for a strongman to make everything all better overnight. They think it “rigged” — but instead of working hard to fix it bit by bit, they want to give up and let the big daddy do the job. Instead of entrusting institutions with solving the problems, they run after strong leaders.
The origin of global authoritarian epidemic could not be more interesting. Russia, the beloved land of Stalin, re-elected ruthless, ambitious and jingoist Vladimir Putin though he had dragged Russia in futile wars in Chechnya and Georgia. Wars can be detrimental for a political government; but for the autocrats, they are mobilizing force for authoritarian and populist leaders like Putin as they have emerged from the nations which yearn for their historic despots like Stalin. Even if they could not find war on international front, they can invent it on domestic front as Duterte did in Philippines by fuelling his so-called War on Drugs by following in the footsteps of his autocratic predecessor Ferdinand Marcos who did witch-hunting of his opponents under the guise of War on Communism.
There are different trajectories of this new breed of authoritarian and populist leaders. Some of them started their careers while working with democratic institutions but their leadership style turned authoritarian after long stay in power like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Sheikh Haseena Wajid of Bangladesh. After exhaustion of their public mandate, these leaders opted for rhetoric and repression against their opponents at home and abroad. They use ethnic and nationalist propaganda to justify their policies. Erdogan is selling his dictatorial presidential system as a countermove to Kurdish insurgency. Sheikh Haseena is also repressing opposition and is fuelling anti-Pakistan sentiment in the country.
Similar leaders also emerge from countries that have a longstanding democratic tradition but popular discontent with tortuous institutional and bureaucratic procedures resulted in coming of populist leaders, who seem inclined for personalized and authoritarian administration at the expense of institutions, at the helm. Donald Trump is once such example. Many democratic countries which once were part of the Communist authoritarianism are also giving way to populist autocratic leaders like Victor Orban in Hungary and Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland. These people are dismantling hard-won democratic rights and policies.
Most dangerous of all these autocratic trends in global politics is the intensification of authoritarian establishment in states which are considered strongholds of totalitarianism. After American withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Islamic Republic is drifting towards more authoritarianism. The Guardian Council wants more control over government affairs. They do not want moderate leaders like Hassan Rouhani who may work out compromises with the West or leaders like the conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad who can become center of anti-Westernism and give Iranian clerics a run for their money. Many conservative clerics are suggesting more control over election process so that the ultimate winner is the one of their choice.
But, the most significant developments can be observed in China where authoritarianism is getting starker. Chinese communist authoritarianism survived half a century because of its impersonality and emphasis on Communist Party rather than any individual. After Mao, no Chinese autocrat could develop a personality cult as observed in other Communist countries like Soviet Union, Cuba, Romania and North Korea. But recent decision to end term limitation for President Xi Jinping shows a volta-face in Chinese policy. Strong position of Xi Jinping also means that China will take tougher position on Taiwan, South China Sea and trade war with the United States.
Although these leaders belong to different regions and systems of governments and ideologies, there is a similar pattern in their actions, policies and rhetoric. First and foremost of these patterns is mistrust in global liberal order. If international community or international institutions intervene in their oppressive and malignant policies, they attack the very legitimacy of these institutions. Protectionist policies of Trump and condemnation of international human rights institutions by Netanyahu and Duterte are clear manifestations of bias these leaders have towards established international norms.
Xenophobia is another tool of popular mobilization for these leaders. Anti-immigration policies of Trump, Orban, Netanyahu and Morawiecki remind one of xenophobia of Fascists and Nazis. These populist leaders are inflating their voters by inculcating in them a sense of superiority rather than focusing on the problems their countries are faced with. They are using migrants as smoke-screen to peddle their own agenda. Forced separation of migrant families is one of these brutal policies adopted by Donald Trump to spark outrage among Americans that will ultimately strengthen his divisive politics. Besides migrants, these leaders also use ethnic minorities as scapegoats to conceal their failures. This trend can be noticed in Erdogan’s hate campaign against Kurds and Xi Jinping’s cultural and social policies against Tibetans and Uighurs.
Aggressive policies are also used by these leaders to create a sense of emergency in their countries. These actions especially become rampant when these leaders are under institutional pressure for their dirty politics. American pullout from Iran Nuclear Deal coincided with Muller investigation against Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential elections, in favour of Trump. Netanyahu is using violence against Palestinians to ease off pressure created by criminal investigation being made into corruption allegations against him. Duterte is fuelling the South China Sea conflict only to divert attention from his human rights violations. Sometimes, these aggressive policies turn into wars just for the interests of these demagogues. Putin’s adventures in Ukraine and Syria are nothing more than diversions from domestic political and economic problems. Erdogan started military crackdown of Kurds in Eastern Turkey when he was challenged politically. To shore up his support and stoke nationalist fervour in Turks, he did not hesitate even from invading Syrian Kurdish region of Afrin and embroiled his country in Syrian quagmire which already has devastated the whole region.
There is a pattern of behaviour across the world in which leaders justify their erroneous policies as well as corruption on the basis of support from popular mandate. They assert that if people are electing them, it means that they are willing to embrace their flawed actions and personal shortcomings. Trump believes that Muller investigation against his corrupt campaign policies is an effort to undermine American mandate. Ironically, Muller investigation is being conducted to protect American mandate from Russian intervention and malicious campaign tactics of Trump administration. Autocratic Netanyahu is repressing legitimate and peaceful Palestinian protests condemned by even moderate Israelis but like his fellow populist leaders, he stresses that his brutal policies are supported by majority of Israelis who had voted for him.
Language of these leaders is also very important. Instead of using formal and institutional language like democratic leaders, they use informal and aggressive language. Rather than consultation and communication with state institutions, they seek to communicate directly to people like Trump and Orban who use twitter excessively to communicate with general populace. It is not necessarily a bad thing but these leaders use informal means of communication in order to mislead the masses. Duterte and Netanyahu normally use abusive words which are unbecoming of a high office like head of government. These leaders seem to believe and portray that any resistance to their policies is against national interests of their nations. President Trump accused Democrat Congressmen of treason when they did not stand up at the end of his State of the Union address in 2018. Similarly, President Erdogan calls Kurds terrorists because they oppose him. Duterte does not differentiate between drug dealers and human rights activists who oppose him.
The rise of these leaders through the ballot box mirrors the ascent of Hitler and Mussolini who also manipulated electoral process for their authoritarian and aggressive policies. It is particularly alarming because this autocratic boom in global politics is contagious as a British daily The Guardian predicted that in next decade, populist leaders will lead the states like Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria and Slovakia. The xenophobic, self-interested and aggressive agenda of these leaders are pushing the already fragile global stability towards conflict. This conflict is not limited to military sphere but it involves economy, race and natural resources. From US-China trade war to Middle Eastern crisis, these leaders are converting their rhetoric into confrontation which is expanding continuously. The world is more connected than it was it 1919 which means the chances of transformation of regional conflicts into a global war is more likely. This global conflict can only be averted when people around the globe will use their electoral power to keep these autocratic trends in check. There is hope as American people already have chosen a new congress which is resisting aggressive agenda of President Trump. Nations across the globe must trust international laws and global institutions for stability and progress otherwise current mistrust, fuelled by populist leaders can end up in disaster.