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The State of the Authoritarian Wave
After Erdogan's victory, what is the state of the authoritarian wave?
It goes without saying that this has been a trying time for democracies. Democracies, in general, have declined around the world for the 17th consecutive year, according to Freedom House. More specifically, in Central Europe to Central Asia, democratic governance has been in decline for 19 years in a row, according to Nations in Transit, also by Freedom House. Witness: the real time Ukraine War, pitting democratic Ukraine against Putin’s right-wing, populist autocratic regime. Further, Erdogan’s election runoff victory this weekend showed that the autocrat-democrat tensions strikes close to home — deep into the heart of NATO itself, the defense alliance of Western democracies. Soner Cagapte writes for Foreign Affairs:
Erdogan has been at Turkey’s helm since 2003, first as prime minister and then, since 2014, as president. His latest win gives him another five-year presidential term. Together with a sweep in the parliamentary polls on May 14 that yielded pro-Erdogan far-right- and right-wing parties a solid majority in the country’s legislature, his victory all but anoints Erdogan as Turkey’s indisputable sultan.
Several commentators have called the phenomenon “neo-Ottomanism.” Add to all of this a marked downturn in press freedom and a rise in the incidences of coups — particularly on the African continent — and one comes away with the uneasy sense that autocracies might actually be winning. That somehow the passivity with which the West is addressing the right-populist wave is actually accelerating the process. Dave Lawlor of Axios reported in January 2022:
Between 2015 and 2020, the world never saw more than two successful coup attempts in a year. But there have now been eight coups in the past 12 months — most recently in Burkina Faso …
There were five successful coups in 2021, the most in any year since 1999, according to research from Clayton Thyne of the University of Kentucky and Jonathan Powell of the University of Central Florida.
The big picture: Coups are now for the most part "limited to the poorest countries in the world" and tend to happen where there are severe security threats or civil wars, as well as a past history of coups, Powell tells Axios.
And while only a single coup between 2015 and 2019 was successful (Zimbabwe), there are further, more harrowing signs that the shadow of illiberalism is lengthening across the African continent. Western nations need to seriously rethink their approach to the various “benevolent” African autocracies, because the present strategy is yielding too many thorns and too little fruit.
These concerns came up, briefly, at the end of last year, as Biden hosted the US-Africa Leaders Summit. At the summit was the controversial President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, whose government wrongfully detained Paul Rusesabagina, who was very favorably portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda,” sheltering hundreds of people during the central African nation’s 1994 genocide. To put this in perspective, “wrongfully detained” is the same official State Department designation that was conferred to Britney Griner, who was detained by our favorite Russia’s autocrat. Kagame has been in power in Rwanda for 23 years, and has been accused of deftly disappearing political dissidents, another thing he has in common with Vladmir Putin.
Another “benevolent African autocrat,” Uganda’s President, Yowiri Museveni, attended the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Political torture in Uganda of dissidents is even more prevalent and documented than in Rwanda, which means more problems for the Biden administration. Uganda is a stalwart ally in the war on terrorism, but Museveni recently signed a law cementing himself as perhaps the most prominent of the African “benevolent” right-wing autocrats. Museveni this week signed one of the most restrictive anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the world, with punishments including 20 years in prison and the death penalty. Uganda joins a lamentable group of nine countries around the world that threaten LGBTQ+ people with the death penalty, including: Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Mauritania, and Somalia. (Averted Gaze)
Museveni, we cannot fail to mention, has been in power in Uganda for 37 years. When do these so-called friends of democracy go back to the pastoral life of the farmer and leave the politicking to another generation?
I don’t envy Joe Biden and Jake Sullivan, his National Security Advisor. How do they navigate the Scylla of the growing internal domestic pressure to stand up to these African leaders, once considered “benevolent,” strategic allies and the Charybdis of the influence of China and the Wagner Group? Putin and Xi are practically salivating for there to be space between the West and African nations rich with mineral wealth. Even South Africa, perhaps feeling the temperature in the room, appears to be gravitating towards the orbit of Russia and China.
Autocrats in general view democratic nations as weak, corrupt and in the thrall of globalist elites. Nationalism is a xenophobic, nostalgic-defensive posture against the “contagion” of neo-liberalism. COVID, of course, probably didn’t help (although international cooperation did). Democratic leaders, to autocrats, are self-righteous hypocrites, lecturing them on good governance and human rights and international law, while enriching its elites on the backs of the world’s poor.
So, when Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change accepts money from nations like Rwanda, or Liberia, and then is not transparent about those amounts, it only goes to prove the point of autocrats. See — they seem to be saying — even a former British Prime Minister accepts, essentially, bribes from foreign elites. How is that patriotic? It is anti-patriotic! Their leaders and their ruling class are out only for their own financial gains. We will not run our society like them. That’s how business is done in democracies; all this talk of human rights and the rule of law is just, essentially, chatter.
And it is not that these notions are coming out of thin air. As Abu-Bakarr Jalloh writes for DW, the historical practice of Realpolitik has come back to bite the West at a most inopportune moment:
The United States, France, Germany and Norway openly criticize the arbitrary arrests of opposition politicians in Uganda and police brutality in Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria. But they continue to import their raw materials from those countries. The Democratic Republic of Congo is embroiled in a protracted war in which the biggest victims are civilians. But that's no problem for the West — as long as the supply of cobalt and coltan continues to flow and power their smartphones, smart cars and smart homes.
These double standards have consequences. After 60 years of development aid, Africa remains the poorest continent in the world and still suffers the highest number of protracted civil wars.
I know: It's better to work with the devil you know than the angel you don't, right?
It is easy — and foolish — for the American right to dismiss these concerns altogether or even toss them aside lightly as “woke.” Because the majority of the world is well aware of what the CIA did — in Africa; in Latin-America; in Asia — during the Cold War, when the Agency was governed by an overriding, noxious ethos of corporatism, entitlement and white supremacy. Say what one will about former President Obama, at least he began the process of addressing the past of our intelligence operations around the world. If more Presidents took that path, perhaps we would win more hearts and minds in the developing world …
And how about Jared Kushner’s sweet little $2 billion deal with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund? What do leaders across the Middle East think of that act of supreme and utter selfishness on his way out? What does that say about America’s commitment to international law and being a fair broker for all sides in the Middle East conflicts? It is pretty clear that the Trump administration gave nothing to the Iranian side of the equation, in retrospect.
Or, look at ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Of his very strange, persistent and loving relationship with Vladimir Putin’s money and power (above). Or, for that matter, whatever the fuck it is between Putin and Trump, which may or may not get them 20 years in prison or the death penalty if they practice it illicitly in Uganda.
My final point being — the struggle against the autocratic threat is still large and may last well beyond our lifetimes. In 2023, Democracy Scores declined in 11 out of the 29 countries in the latest Freedom House report. As was mentioned earlier, we have gone through nearly two decades of democratic decline. COVID may have added fuel to the anti-democratic forces. Biden, smartly, has abandoned neo-liberalism proper, disentangling American democracy from an economic policy that had its thumb on the scale in favor of elites. Further, like his Democrat predecessor — there is little “drama,” little corruption on the scale of a Jared Kushner, or anything like that hot mess. Historians of the future may look at the Biden administration as a perfectly executed waystation to post neo-liberalism, towards a left-populism. Will the future be about Biden’s industrial policy? Or Trump pulling us out of NATO?
Or something else, altogether unforeseen?
What exactly is South Africa getting from its diplomatic dalliance with Russia and other BRICS states? (Ken Opalo)
“Ukrainian officials confronted Beijing’s special envoy this month over the surge of Chinese electronics and semiconductors being shipped to Russia during the past year, many of which are ending in the Kremlin’s weapons systems, according to a key advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.” (semafor)
‘Numbers Nobody Has Ever Seen’: How the GOP Lost Wisconsin (David Siders/Politico)
Succession's Marital Freakshow (Nina Burleigh)
Soul-Crushing Misogyny Made “Succession” the Perfect Show for Our Time (Joan Walsh)
“It is no coincidence that maps of the world’s healthiest democracies and maps of the world’s freest press environments are essentially identical.” (CJR)
“Plots really matter only in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is—what is it? A hook.” (Martin Amis/The Paris Review)
Democrats hope the Senate could finally have more than one Black woman (Ally Mutnik/Politico)
NATO members mull secret plans for responding to Russia attack (Responsible Statecraft)