One of the United States’ greatest geopolitical imperatives is to prevent the rise of regional hegemons with the ability to challenge it. Russia’s historical dominance of Eurasia, the Soviet Union’s rise as a superpower after World War II and its resulting political, economic and military rivalry with the United States have long made Russia a target of Washington’s actions abroad. But the onset of the Cold War and the expansion of Soviet power — itself an outgrowth of Russia’s own strategic imperatives to buffer its heartland from invasion — gave rise to a U.S. strategy known as containment. The policy essentially boiled down to blocking and countering the Soviet Union and its allies “whenever and wherever they posed a risk of gaining influence.” It went on to serve as the principal U.S. strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.
Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States continued to apply the idea of containment to the newly formed Russian Federation. Though Russia no longer posed a global challenge to the United States, it still wielded considerable demographic, economic and military resources. Those, along with its location, positioned Russia to re-emerge as a formidable regional power. In part to try to prevent its resurgence, the United States supported the expansion of NATO and the European Union into the former Eastern Bloc in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Yet by 2008, when NATO pledged to expand its membership into former Soviet republics abutting the Russian heartland such as Ukraine and Georgia, Russia had recovered much of its might. An economy buoyed by high oil prices and the consolidation of political power by President Vladimir Putin gave Russia the opportunity to send the message that it had resumed its role as a regional power. With its invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Moscow exposed the West’s lack of commitment not only to Georgian security but also to that of other territories on the Russian periphery. President Barack Obama’s policy reset all but failed as well as Russia challenged the West’s position in Eurasia through the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine.
As President Donald Trump assumes office, Washington’s relationship with Moscow could change. During his campaign, Trump highlighted the need for greater cooperation with Russia in the Syrian conflict. He also criticized the sanctions against Russia as ineffective and bad for business. Trump has even hinted that a bargain between Washington and Moscow could be in the making, saying the United States might ease sanctions against Russia in exchange for a nuclear arms reduction deal. But no matter who is in the White House, Washington’s imperative to contain regional hegemons will continue to be a mainstay of its foreign policy.
The edge of darkness
It’s time to defeat the demagogues of populist politics, writes Chris Maxon.
Human Rights Watch has warned the world that “We are on the edge of darkness”, as the global rise of populism threatens liberal democracy as we know it. As they claim to be legitimate spokespersons of “the people”, this new generation of demagogues treats rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will.
They believe democratic principles are only an impediment to defending the people from perceived threats and evils. Rather than accept that the bill of rights protects everyone, they encourage people to adopt the dangerous credence that they will never need their rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.
The appeal of these populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo. In the West and in South Africa, many people feel left behind by either technological change, or youth unemployment, or the global economy, or growing inequality. The rise of terrorism sows apprehension and fear. Some are uneasy with societies that are more ethnically, religiously, and racially diverse. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns.
In this cauldron of discontent, a certain breed of politician is flourishing by portraying rights as protecting only the beneficiaries of patronage or the corrupt elite at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and social preferences of the presumed poor majority. They scapegoat the landless, those living in informal settlements and workers. In their rhetoric, truth is a frequent casualty. Community uprisings, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny are on the rise.
Let’s take, for an example, Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign which is seen by many as a vivid illustration of the politics of intolerance. Sometimes overtly, sometimes through code and indirection, he breached basic principles of dignity and equality. He stereotyped migrants, vilified refugees, attacked a judge for his Mexican ancestry, mocked a journalist with disabilities, dismissed multiple allegations of sexual assault, and pledged to roll back women’s ability to control their own fertility.
We see a similar scapegoating of asylum-seekers, immigrant communities, and Muslims in Europe. Leading the charge have been Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, but there are echoes of these arguments of intolerance in the Brexit campaign, the rhetoric of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and far-right parties from Germany to Greece.
Throughout the European continent, officials and politicians hark back to distant, even fanciful, times of perceived national ethnic purity, despite established immigrant communities whose integration as productive members of society is undermined by this hostility.
In South Africa, we have come to be entertained by this new trend, that of disrupting the business of legislatures be it the national parliament or provincial legislatures. It seems, though, that little was gained (except for media mention) either in Gauteng or the Western Cape due to the rather amateurish disruptions of both state of the province addresses recently.
In various legislatures and councils, the Speakers have on numerous occasions been compelled to suspend the proceedings. In the Western Cape Helen Zille had to promptly deliver her state of the province address before the media. In Gauteng, Premier David Makhura was also interrupted several times by unruly Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members.
If we choose to forget the demagogues of yesteryear it shall be at our own peril – the fascists, dictators and their ilk that claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual.
The rising tide of populism in the name of a perceived majority parallels a new infatuation with strongman rule. The populist-fuelled passions of the moment tend to obscure the longer-term dangers to a society of strongman rule.
President Vladimir Putin, for instance, has presided over a weakening Russian economy plagued by massive crony corruption. Fearing popular discontent, he has introduced draconian restrictions on assembly and expression, imposed unprecedented sanctions for online dissent, and crippled civil society groups while embarking on various military adventures to distract from dwindling economic prospects at home.
Military action in Ukraine prompted Western sanctions that only deepened Russia’s economic decline.
The danger of this populist politics spectrum is stimulation of strongman politics and dictatorial tendencies at an alarming rate.
The disconcerting number of African leaders refusing to transfer power peacefully (through the so-called constitutional coup) has become common occurrence. Others have launched violent crackdowns to suppress opposition and public protest over flawed or unfair elections. In South Africa we are beginning to see traits of strongman politics in intraparty contests for leadership positions. Principles tend to be the first victim as they are forgotten or altered to put emphasis on the person at the expense of goals that must be achieved.
We must be aware that demagogues strive in sophistry. They build popular support by spinning false explanations and cheap solutions to genuine ills. There is a tragic irony in all this: populism in power commits the very political sins of which it accuses elites: excluding citizens and usurping the state. Lies do not become truth just because they are propagated by an army of internet trolls or a legion of partisans.
What are the risks? The risk of the rise populism is stalemate and a power vacuum. People often think that populism is about protest and mobilisation – with ‘things kicking off’. That’s in part true, but the real risk is the uncertainty that these forces create, and their impact on governments and on states. What markets and investors should worry about is things grinding to a halt.
This halt can be seen in France where they are becoming unable to act in Europe, unable to shoulder responsibilities as an economic, political and military power because its mainstream politicians are held to ransom by Marine Le Pen and her potential voters. Ditto for Cameron whose referendum on Brexit – almost regardless of the outcome – is a massive own goal that resulted from all sorts of populist pressures including the threat of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). This is a huge power vacuum at the heart of Europe.
The other main consequence in geo-political terms is that populist politics end up emboldening rogue actors who can spot an opportunity to act, to “get away with” poor behaviour because of the low probability of retaliation.
This means that catastrophic events (terrorist attacks, or belligerent behaviour in military and trade terms for instance) are a lot more likely because the fundamental balance of power has been upset. That’s what we all need to worry about too, because, aside from the human and political toll, this is when markets around the world react.
So how should we react to the current wave of populism in the West and in Africa?
To begin with, we must admit that populism is often fuelled by legitimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. Citizens in many countries have good reason to be furious with their political and economic leaders. When Bernie Sanders shouts that the economic system is rigged and Trump thunders against an out-of-touch political class, they have a point.
We should stop the inflationary use of the term “populism”. There is no reason to put the EFF, for an example, into the same category as Trump, Farage and Erdogan – only the latter group claims exclusively to represent the one authentic people, whereas the former are just more or less plausible attempts to reinvent social democracy.
Second, we should call populists for what they are: a threat to democracy and not a useful corrective for too much elite power, as they too often naively assume. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid engaging them politically: talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. Otherwise, one ends up in a paradoxical situation: because populists exclude, we exclude them; because they demonise their opponents, we demonise them. Instead, we should concede that some of their complaints may have been justified (the land issue in South Africa remains relevant and emotive and not a figment of the populist imagination).
Finally, we have to face up to a genuine conflict that characterises our time (which is hardly about “elites versus the people”). We need to look deep into the populists’ slogans and rhetoric to expose the truth behind them. For an example; Donald trump’s call for “Making America Great Again” can actually turn out to mean: “Make sure white males continue to rule”.
It is time to put an end to this nonsense. The rise of this manipulative, dishonest, divisive politics not only degrades the countries in which it flourishes but history shows us where it ultimately leads. As these voices of intolerance prevail, we all risk entering a dark era.
The result is a world increasingly beset by the politics of fear and loathing; commentators have grown fond of quoting the line from WB Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, written after the First World War: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. But we should also keep in mind lines later in the verse: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. It is time to prove Yeats wrong.