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Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

What to do about neo-authoritarians? Ingredients to start a debate

Analyses - 29 November 2018

We made it clear in the introduction to our first portrait, that of Vladimir Putin: we selected the 10 sort of emblematic figures of "neo-authoritarianism" - which seems to be very popular these days - arbitrarily, without applying any rigorous selection criteria nor following any guiding concept.

Let us face it: we let ourselves be guided by zeitgeist. Once the frozen despotisms from Belarus, former Soviet countries or African dictators were dismissed, we chose different figures who, through various forms, make the authoritarian model attractive. 

One can regret notable absences in our gallery: that of Latin America’s new dictators (a Nicolas Maduro) who revive the Bolivarian pathway, or that of Asia’s strong men (a Rodrigo Duterte) perhaps fascinated by the Xi model. Other European or Mediterranean leaders would have well suited our bestiary (some readers ask for a "second wave" of portraits). On the other hand, our selection can be criticized for having combined in the same series authentic dictators, some of whom are truly barbaric, like Assad, and democratic leaders "only" - so to speak - attracted by authoritarianism or inspired by populism (the launch pad for "authoritarian drifts").

The heterogeneity of our sample makes it difficult, the wise and scholars will say, to draw general conclusions from our gallery of portraits.

Without falling into Marxism, it is likely that the economy - globalization, 40 years of neoliberalism, the 2008 crisis - has something to do (at least in Western countries) with the phenomenon we describe.

And yet... First lesson: something happened in the first 18 years of this 21st century, which, regardless of the boundaries separating political systems, has led to the decline of the values of the Enlightenment. 

Viktor Orbàn was elected Vice President of the Liberal International in a congress in Mainz at the end of the 1990s. In the year 2000, Mr Putin still appeared as a ‘liberal' in a Russia emerging from the post-Soviet chaos. At the time, Mr Erdogan proposed to reconcile political Islam and democracy. At the other end of the spectrum, Mr Xi was in 2000 already pursuing the typical career of a senior Chinese CP official, with the ambition of reaching the top. Yet he only added his "personal" touch, which now characterizes his absolute exercise of power, much later.

At the dawn of this century, Assad was already a hereditary dictator of course, but he still had the facade of a reformist. Sissi’s model seems immutable, if not like a step backwards, but MBZ and MBS, as shown by our portraitist, unquestionably renew the style of the traditional Arab "strong man".

Without falling into Marxism, it is likely that the economy - globalization, 40 years of neoliberalism, the 2008 crisis - has something to do (at least in Western countries) with the phenomenon we describe. The latter is certainly inseparable from the middle-class crisis, the explosion of inequalities, the devaluation of politics, perceived by many as subjected to the market.

Lesson two: the way these authoritarians of the 21st century are attracted to each other is striking. Putin is their patriarch. His longevity, his (at least apparent) successes and his ideological choices confer respectability to the neo-authoritarian brotherhood. As Bush’s counterpoint and later Obama’s opponent, he is the one who broke the taboo regarding the ineluctable simultaneous "victory" of political liberalism and market economy. Rapprochements between authoritarian regimes gradually emerged, based on converging interests but also on profound affinities from regime to regime. Such affinities played a key role, for example, in Russia's action alongside Assad in Syria - has the era of "neo-authoritarian military expeditions" not replaced that of "neoconservative interventions"? - and in the strategic Turkey-Russia-Iran cooperation on the Levant.

Rapprochements between authoritarian regimes gradually emerged, based on converging interests but also on profound affinities from regime to regime.

Here lies one of the reasons for including Donald Trump in our portrait gallery: the famous New York real estate developer, who both disrupts the liberal international order and plays with the limits of democracy in his own country, obviously appreciates Mr Putin, Mr Xi and Mr Kim. He would like to be friends with Mr Erdogan. He despises his European and Canadian allies - while encouraging proponents of populism in Europe. We have not yet reached the point where he could adhere to an "authoritarian international", and, as our portraitist Alexis Clérel points out, safety ropes fortunately exist in the world’s oldest democracy. For the time being, however, Trump's behavior has a legitimizing effect on authoritarian and illiberal leaders.

The distance taken by the middle classes from the standards of political liberalism paved the way towards the identity impulses that are now present almost everywhere

Lesson three: the relationships new authoritarians have to their societies deserve at least as much attention as their personal profiles. Despite, once again, the differences in contexts, filiations and itineraries, a few common guiding principles can be identified.

The distance taken by the middle classes from the standards of political liberalism paved the way towards the identity impulses that are now present almost everywhere, from Mr Modi's Hindu voters to Mr Trump's "working-class white" base. New technologies, and new digital networks in particular, increased the means by which authoritarians can control their people, as well as their ability to disrupt the democratic game in open societies. Thus, whether you are a dictator from a traditional communist party, an honestly elected leader who opposes the system to assert your power, or an Arab Prince keen to gather around you a nation under construction, you can resort to the same recipes: xenophobia, hostility to immigrants, the "politics of fear and resentment" denounced by Barack Obama in his beautiful speech for Mandela's birthday, the exaltation of a dream of national identity or another. In traditionally liberal countries, or in those which have been subject to the imprint of liberalism (Turkey, India, Central Europe), features borrowed from the dictatorship system can be added to this list: exploitation of the anti-establishment sentiment, limitation of the freedom of the press, more generally, rejection of intermediate entities (or other "intermediaries", as political scientists say), and identification of the alleged "popular power" with a "strong" leader.

One of the most notable features of our zeitgeist is the continuum that now exists between regressive democracy and the most absolute form of dictatorship, with many intermediate degrees between these two archetypes.

What can be done about this wave of neo-authoritarians? We suggest that democracies' response must be threefold.

It is both necessary and urgent that debates on these issues be developed in our country and in Europe.

  • A necessary rise of awareness: we can no longer think about international affairs without taking the nature of regimes into account. This practice has seldom been used in recent decades, despite Western politicians’ theoretical declarations in support of human rights (in France in particular). The reason for this is simple: there is a risk that the authoritarian epidemy will now challenge the very sovereignty of states founded on liberal democracy. The idea that Westerners were wrong to proselytize in favor of the liberal model has always been questionable, but it is now out of step with reality. If we compare it with the early 2000s, the trend reversal means that the liberal model is now the one being threatened in the competition between great powers.

    To be complete, this awareness must include a clear view of the situation in Europe. The latter’s fate is currently being defined, as the dividing line between the liberal model and "illiberal democracy" cuts across the Old Continent. President Macron rightly mentioned it in his speech to the European Parliament on 17 April, and gave a clear definition of the challenge ahead: "Faced with the authoritarianism that surrounds us everywhere, the answer is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy"


  • The geopolitical approach: should the necessary rise of awareness of the "neo-authoritarian moment" (which could drag on forever!) lead to the formulation of "virtuous" foreign policies, guided exclusively by "ideological" considerations? Obviously not: the law of power relations, of state interests, of Realpolitik will continue to apply, simply because it is inherent to the international milieu. What matters is that, from now on, political decision-makers include in their calculations the parameters of the rise in power of neo-authoritarianism - an authoritarianism aligned with zeitgeist - and the threat it poses to liberal societies.

    This does not necessarily mean resurrecting the "alliance of democracies", dear to Mrs Albright. There is no "authoritarian block" for the moment, or at least not yet. As previously mentioned, we are now dealing with a continuum that has many nuances. The goal should be to exploit differences of strategic interest between authoritarian states in order to prevent liberal democracies from being encircled or suffocated. Even with Mr Modi, India is afraid of China's rise to power and of the risk of collusion between China and Russia. Even with Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan, Moscow and Ankara’s honeymoon will one day reach an end. Provided that they, and especially Europeans, play the cards at their disposal - and that they exploit neo-authoritarians’ weaknesses (e.g. their addiction to ill-gotten fortunes, often placed in Western banks).


  • The societal approach: the long-term battle must be fought in public opinion. However, one of the lessons of our series is that in many of the countries concerned, not all public space has disappeared: civil society still exists. Liberal democracies must consider that supporting civil societies is an investment for the future.

    Of course, policies in this field can only be very different from one another, depending on the situation. In some countries, such as in China, it is almost impossible to maintain a relationship with active elements of civil society. Or very indirect ways must be found. We at least know what should not be done: for example, selling control systems to opponents, as NGOs accuse the French government of doing with Egypt. In Turkey, India, Egypt, obviously Hungary and elsewhere, the NGO channel, cultural links, relations between cities or infra-state communities and others can be used. To avoid accusations of interference in domestic affairs, it is in any case necessary to increase the number of non-state relays. In the case of France, this requires calling oneself in question, given that we are so used to neglecting our soft power and, even in this field, to privileging state action. This also implies, on a case-by-case basis, having to sometimes negotiate access to civil society with certain countries, and to establish power relations to this end.

Finally, we feel it is both necessary and urgent that debates on these issues be developed in our country and in Europe. We would be happy if this series of portraits, thanks to highly skilled writers and embellished by David Martin's talented caricatures, managed to contribute to such a debate. Let us suggest that the latter should be an opportunity to engage a closer dialogue between those who defend liberal values on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us also note that one aspect of the challenge facing democrats should be subject to more research and reflection: if Mr Putin is for the time being the beacon of neo-authoritarians, is not Mr Xi the future of authoritarianism? Through which channels could a "Chinese model" of authoritarianism expand? What would such a model look like? What would its attractiveness be, what impact could it have in the world, despite the specificity of the Chinese experience?


Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne


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