Recent years have witnessed many Western politicians flirting with authoritarianism. Think of Farage, Le Pen, Orbán, Sarkozy and president elect Trump and their admiration for Vladimir Putin. The same goes for many of the people who post comments underneath online newspaper articles whenever Russia or China acts ‘robustly’ against Islamists. ‘Hurrah’ cried most British readers when Thailand ‘refouled’ dozens of Uighurs back to Beijing in orange costumes and hoods that deliberately mimicked those worn by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. ‘Hurrah’ many of them cry as eastern Aleppo is pulverised by Russian bombers, even as the editorials deplore the carnage.
The authoritarians know that they cannot easily win universal approval for their world-view in established democracies, but they can influence policy, especially when the electorates are in volatile mood. Since the 2008 financial crisis, authoritarian governments have been crowing over the failures of Western capitalism; the US presidential election has given the Chinese plenty of ammunition to argue that the orderly decennial alternation of highly educated and experienced technocrats is better than having to choose between Clinton and Trump. After all, China has proved that authoritarianism and modernity can go together, in defiance of traditional views. The internet is an example. Some 640 million Chinese may be online, but it is ringed by the Great Firewall of China and monitored by thousands of spies (even the VPNs used to circumvent state control are sold at a profit by fronts run by the authorities). Iran and Russia have now adopted Chinese best practice.
A moment’s thought suggests why this authoritarian temptation is not a good idea. Forget about pursuing Chechen jihadis ‘into the shitter’ to kill them, attractive though that may be. Imagine your old car has a minor collision with a speeding convoy of SUVs carrying an oligarch or a government official, or their spoiled sons, on a lonely Russian road. The bodyguards attack you and then the obliging police arrest you when they arrive. Imagine you love the village where your ancestors have been buried for centuries and that now developers want to build new apartments and a shopping mall there. The local authorities, courts and police collude in your forced expropriation (for you have no legal title) and you join the huddled masses in the city slums. (See the film Leviathan to get an idea of how this works in Russia; even the local bishop is in on the act.) Finally, imagine you are an American-Iranian dual national and that you decide to show your children the old country. The mere fact of dual nationality results in your indefinite detention in a grim prison on charges you will never learn. This is before we even get on to the many journalists, publishers and opposition politicians who are murdered or abducted, often in broad daylight.
The main thing to note about the new authoritarian camp is its heterodox composition. Officially atheist China sits alongside an assertively conservative Christian Russia and an Islamic theocracy that has both democratic and revolutionary tinges. Eager hangers-on include the left-wing Chavista regime in Venezuela, the Saudi despots and Turkey’s Kemalist-cum-Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
This authoritarian turn is the central theme in a timely new collection of essays, Authoritarianism Goes Global. As a series of essays it lacks the coherent thrust of William Dobson’s fine The Dictator’s Learning Curve, about how autocrats no longer rely on naked repression, but the case is forcefully argued and some of the pieces are very good.
The finest is by Alexander Cooley. It explores how authoritarian regimes undermine democratic norms by copying the language and institutions used in the West. Fear of Western-engineered ‘colour revolutions’, similar to those that broke out in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in 2003–5, haunts all the regimes concerned, while a second Arab Spring is the cauchemar of Gulf rulers.
One tactic is to turn the West’s fabled ‘soft power’ against it. Many of the contributors, most notably Peter Pomerantsev, focus on television as the authoritarian medium of choice. The South American channel TeleSUR was apparently the inspiration for Iran’s Press TV, though both China’s CCTV News and Russia’s RT offered global English-language services earlier. But this is not just a matter of propaganda and the West is not entirely innocent of what is going on. Many of the West’s problems are self-generated.
The rise of the security state in the years since 9/11 has made the job of authoritarian regimes much easier, since nowadays anyone can be designated a terrorist. The Joint Security Agreement of the Gulf Cooperation Council makes it possible to extradite ‘extremists’ merely on suspicion of ‘terrorism’. After the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia added sixty thousand extra staff to the already large Interior Ministry. Interpol ‘red notices’ also make apprehension simple, as do mutual legal assistance treaties, which this country has signed up to. (How convenient that in early November a Chinese police chief was elected the head of Interpol.) The FSB can now pop into a police station in Omsk and cause the system to be activated on a global scale. Any erring citizen (or renegade oligarch) will find himself stopped at the first airport he visits if the Russian regime decides to blight his existence. It might also force him to ‘re-nationalise’ (in other words, repatriate) money kept in such pirate lairs as the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Panama and London.
But there is a bigger battle of ideas too. Founded in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation consists of China, Russia and four of the Central Asian ’stans (several other countries are trying to join it). This is the main international forum for asserting absolute state sovereignty (except when it comes to Ukraine). It also demands ‘respect for civilizational diversity’ (a nice touch, that last, talismanic word so beloved by academia) and ‘defense of traditional values’, a term that conjures up quaint Inuit folkways rather than hanging gays from cranes. Indeed, containing the values of what the Kremlin calls ‘Gayropa’ is very much part of the authoritarian strategy to rally the support of traditionally minded folk, something Putin has done most successfully. It is a pity that in an otherwise astute essay, Lilia Shevtsova does not ask why Putin’s fusion of Orthodoxy and neo-fascism resonates with many Russians, despite the pervasive corruption and poverty. At least the content Chinese middle classes have the excuse of a house price bonanza, and no capital gains and income taxes too.
If there is one glaring omission from this book it concerns the relationship between NGOs and Western intelligence agencies, as most obviously symbolised – manna from heaven for China and Russia – by James Woolsey, a former CIA director who went on to chair Freedom House. Such cases only fuel authoritarian suspicions that NGOs are fifth columns for Western governments. Some authoritarian regimes have created pseudo-NGOs that mimic the language of rights – Iran’s judiciary has established a Human Rights Council – and government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) to ensure, among other things, that rigged elections are declared fair. Thus, in 2013, forty-two ‘zombie’ monitoring agencies no one had heard of declared fair the re-election of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, even though his ‘victory’, with 73 per cent of the vote, was accidentally announced before the polling stations had even opened. This figure was massaged upwards to 85 per cent on the day of the election.
Authoritarian states have learned how to manipulate international organisations too. This enables them to leverage their power in a ‘jiujitsu-like’ fashion. As Andrew Nathan shows in an excellent chapter on China, the world’s biggest autocratic power seems intent on reshaping international organisations from within. Beijing is quietly trying to take over UN peacekeeping operations, minus human rights monitors of course. The authoritarians can also create cover versions of international agencies, with distasteful features edited out. The proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will, it is hoped, rival the World Bank and IMF, but without coupling aid to a demand to uphold human rights. China’s aid and investment programme is untransparent: you do not see the strings attached.
The two essays devoted to Iran are among the finest in the book. The best is by Abbas Milani. It shows how four forces are in permanent tension in Iran: Shia Islam, authoritarianism, revolution and democracy (the country has had a parliament since 1906 and the voting age was only recently increased from fifteen to eighteen). This ensures that the power of the clergy is counterbalanced by regular waves of democratic opinion. Reformist presidents, such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, have therefore managed to get elected, despite the many obstacles the system puts in their way, be it the mass disqualification of reformist candidates or the rigging of polls, as in the re-election in 2009 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A chapter by Alex Vatanka examines the role of China in helping Tehran to establish the Great Firewall of Persia, probably with blocking and surveillance technology that the Chinese acquired from their friends in Israel, who also help their new Saudi friends monitor social media.
What to do about this authoritarian turn is easier to answer in the negative. A revival of Cold War agencies like the Foreign Office Research Department won’t cut it. Nor will pastiche versions of Encounter. Will conservative Western newspapers – in a country like ours, which allows an ex-KGB man to own a mass-circulation newspaper – stop publishing lavish advertorial supplements from China or Russia? The concluding essay, by Christopher Walker, does not offer many solutions to this challenge, beyond the need for democracies to jointly counter it. That is as hopeless as wishing the challenge would go away. It won’t, and cyber-interference in Western elections is just the latest step. More needs to be done to highlight what living in these states actually means for anyone without power or money. In the latter case, even that is often not enough to protect you.