Autocracy, Inc: The Dictators Who Want to Run the World by Anne Applebaum - review by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff

Brothers in Arms or Just Good Friends?

Autocracy, Inc: The Dictators Who Want to Run the World


Allen Lane 228pp £20

Nearly three quarters of the world’s population, according to the experts, live in autocracies. Anne Applebaum’s Autocracy, Inc wants us to see the resemblances in these single-party, single-leader regimes, the network of connections they have established and the risk they pose to free peoples. The problem with her analysis is that these regimes differ as much as they resemble each other. 

Autocracies, just like democracies, need legitimacy with their people. In each case, the legitimacy principle is different. Xi Jinping’s Communist Party can claim that it has raised people’s living standards for fifty years and made China a world power. It has done so by working within the global economic order put in place by the Americans after 1945. China is now challenging American hegemony, but not the open economy that American hegemony sustains. Putin’s autocracy is totally different. He has no interest in sustaining the world economic order, from which, in any case, he has been shut out by sanctions. Nor does his legitimacy depend on raising his people’s living standards. Most of the country, outside St Petersburg and Moscow, is as poor as it was under the communists. Instead, he has pinned his regime’s future on the reconquest of the lost Russian empire. If he succeeds in Ukraine, the regime will endure for generations. If he fails, it will collapse and China will have to steer clear of the wreckage. As for the other autocratic regimes around the world, they are a ragbag, without much in the way of global influence. This disparate crew, ranging from the Kim dynasty in North Korea to the Iranian theocracy and the kleptocratic governments of Zimbabwe, Syria and Venezuela, holds on to power through force, inertia and corruption.

The crucial question about these autocracies is whether, one day, they will make common cause against America and its allies. The weak ones can’t do it on their own, and the strong ones are still hedging their bets. China eyes Taiwan but hesitates to take it by force. Russia’s struggles in Ukraine have reinforced China’s caution, but if Russia were to break Ukraine and force it into a Carthaginian peace or conquer it altogether, China’s hesitations might vanish and a concerted challenge to US power might begin. In this case, North Korea would supply some of the ammunition and Iran would deploy its Houthi, Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. The United States might then find itself facing a coordinated ‘axis of resistance’ that challenged its power all at once in Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe. 

These are dire possibilities, but for all the gloom aroused by the current world situation, they are not certainties. Applebaum’s survey doesn’t ask the crucial question: whether these autocracies have the capacity to mount a collective and coordinated military challenge to American power and the system of rules that the United States created after 1945. She argues that they certainly harbour the intention to do so. She writes ‘of a conscious plan to undermine the network of ideas, rules, and treaties that had been built into international law since 1945, to destroy the European order created after 1989, and, most important, to damage the influence and reputation of the United States and its democratic allies’. 

But what ‘conscious plan’, and whose plan exactly? Yes, Putin and Xi have met countless times and made a pledge of unlimited partnership; both say they want a ‘multipolar’ world, meaning the end of American hegemony. But that doesn’t mean that they have either the capacity or the desire to risk a full-blown military confrontation with the United States. Moreover, their ultimate interests conflict. Xi still seems to need an open international economy for Chinese exports, while Putin’s Russia is a petrostate that can only survive outside the world economy by selling oil to China, Iran and North Korea. Applebaum makes the case for ideological alignment around shared resentment of American power, but concertation of core strategic interests and a shared willingness to risk confrontation are a very different matter. For all the talk of an ‘axis of resistance’, it remains unclear that these very different autocracies have the capability or even the desire to mount a concerted military challenge to the military power of the United States and the Western liberal democracies that shelter under her inconstant protection.

Applebaum fails to make the case that these autocracies are planning a joint confrontation with Western powers, but she does present an eye-opening investigation into the ties that bind them together. The crucial tie is money, hence the book’s title, Autocracy, Inc. Autocrats use state power to extract resources from their own people and from every contract they sign with each other, with the money going into their own private pockets. Moreover, they collaborate with each other, laundering each other’s dirty money and sheltering ill-gotten gains in each other’s financial institutions. ‘Corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another,’ Applebaum writes. They sell each other the most advanced technologies of repression in an attempt to control the internet and their citizens. Applebaum’s inventory of these relationships is thorough and revealing, but here too the differences between autocracies are important. Putin has never run a concerted campaign against corruption within his regime. The occasional defenestration of only the most spectacular crooks is his modus operandi. In China, Xi since 2012 has taken on his entire party cadre in his attempts to root out corruption in local and regional party offices. In Russia, corruption is the essence of the regime, while in China it is an abuse which the regime struggles to control.

Western democracies are doing their level best to exploit these divergences and keep the ‘axis of resistance’ divided. Western companies are reducing their exposure to authoritarian markets, and Western governments are repenting at leisure for their role, wittingly or unwitting, in helping authoritarian regimes consolidate their power. Applebaum offers an eloquent indictment of Western collusion in the creation of these autocracies: ‘When Americans condemn Russian, Ukrainian, or post-Soviet corruption, they rarely reckon with the role their fellow citizens have played, or are still playing, in enabling it.’ Instead of achieving ‘change through trade’, as the Germans hoped after 1989, the West’s economic engagement with the emerging autocracies of Russia and China benefited local oligarchs, while entrenching and enriching party bosses. Instead of furthering democracy, capitalism helped fund and consolidate authoritarianism throughout Eurasia. While Western leaders were lecturing Putin about the benefits of democracy, he was pocketing handsome sums from his deals with German businessmen. No wonder, Applebaum writes, the Russian leader sees us as hypocrites: ‘By the time Putin became president, he was well acquainted with the double standards of Western democracies, which preached liberal values at home but were very happy to help build illiberal regimes everywhere else.’

Applebaum’s previous books, which include a Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Soviet Gulag, have made her a formidable authority on dictatorships. Her lifelong engagement with the cause of freedom in eastern Europe, especially Poland, marks her out as the American thinker and commentator most deeply engaged with the future of democracy in that region. Autocracy, Inc is a slimmer volume than her previous books and fails to explain whether the autocrats she discusses seek a strategic confrontation, but it is a clear-sighted and unflinching look at the ideas, resentments, assumptions and practices of the regimes that are challenging liberal democracy.

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