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What to Do About Neo-Authoritarians? Ingredients for a Political Response

What to Do About Neo-Authoritarians? Ingredients for a Political Response
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

In the bubbling scum of world news, some recent events are worth making note of: the joinder of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Orbán, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which had significant consequences, the Russian coup de force in the Kerch Strait, the election in Brasilia of Mr Bolsonaro, Mr Trump's great admirer, and, closer to home, the departure of the Central European University from Budapest, strangled by Mr Orbán. One common thread underlies these various developments: a certain way of doing international politics proper to new authoritarian leaders.

The series of portraits of "neo-authoritarians" that we published this Summer was somewhat successful. Putin, Orbán, Erdogan, Sissi, MBZ and MBS, Assad, Modi, Xi and, last but not least, Trump were successively depicted by writers who are as alert as they are renowned. Some readers have asked us to complete our initial distribution, hence this new gallery composed of Salvini, Kaczyński, Duterte, Kim, Netanyahu, Kagame, Maduro and Bolsonaro. Our portraits are once again illustrated by David Martin's talented caricatures. Of course, we have received some criticism. Why, for example, talk about neo-authoritarians rather than populists? We, of course, do not deny the deep kinship between the two phenomena. Let us risk an immodest comparison: in the painting "The Night Watch", the characters detach themselves from the shadow under a certain profile, in the light of the lantern placed in the center of the scene. Let us suppose we imaginarily moved the lantern: the same characters would appear under a new light. Speaking of "neo-authoritarianism" is a way of somewhat dealing with foreign policy, or the foreign policy implications of populism.

    Some of our guinea pigs are apparently quite classic "strong men", but with a desire to deeply reshape the societies they lead [...] Others are only potential neo-authoritarians, who evolve in relatively solid or fragile democratic environments.

    Yet this is only true to a certain extent. In our Summer series - and in the additional gallery that this article concludes - we juxtapose characters from very different political traditions in a disorderly manner: some of these neo-authoritarians, including Mr Xi, are authentic dictators (or even mass criminals: Assad in the first series, Kim in the second), the products of "authoritarian regimes" who thus operate in a sphere completely different to that of populism. Some of our guinea pigs - such as MBZ and MBS, or in our new series, Paul Kagame - are apparently quite classic "strong men", but with a desire to deeply reshape the societies they lead, by using methods that contrast with previous models. Others are only potential neo-authoritarians (we will leave it up to the reader to choose the names behind this label), who evolve in relatively solid or fragile democratic environments, depending on the country.

    We included Mr Trump in our first series and Mr Netanyahu in our second, because we think that both their policies have the effect of somewhat legitimizing the spread of neo-authoritarian powers throughout the world. Others still - we fear that this is the case of Mr Orbán - have led their country down the road from democracy to illiberal democracy, then to the exit of democracy (can there still be truly free elections in Hungary?). The value of our selection, precisely because it is random and arbitrary, lies in the fact that it reveals a continuum in modern authoritarian powers (we leave aside fossilized dictatorships), which are heterogeneous, but which end up encircling liberal democracies and placing them on the defensive.

    What can be done? In our article this Summer, we mentioned three possible directions for action.

    • The first was the need for awareness. We are trying to contribute again to this goal by completing our corpus with this second series. Our authors were completely free to deal with their subject in whichever way they wanted, and there is no "Montaigne doctrine" regarding the various controversial figures approached by the experts who have taken part in this project. We are convinced that the debate must be pursued and deepened. Institut Montaigne will take additional initiatives to further its understanding of the phenomenon of new authoritarianism - particularly in geopolitical terms. A sort of international anti-liberal arena has emerged in the world, and constitutes the underside of what remains of the liberal order that originated from the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. This key subject and its different dimensions should be understood much more precisely than it is today. It is clear that a stock of ideas or reflexes is circulating within the new anti-liberal arena: nationalism, sovereignism, kleptocracy, xenophobia, manipulation of information, etc. More specifically, are there not also common techniques, such as the conditioning of elections, since the new authoritarians very often respect the forms of democracy that have enabled them to come to power? What connivance and what limits to a dynamic of rapprochement can be observed in the interactions between neo-authoritarians?
    • The second course of action we were advocating this Summer was precisely geopolitical. While an international anti-liberal arena is currently being built, it is not the equivalent of what the dark web is to the Internet; there are many grey areas and the goal of liberal democracies should be to take advantage of these grey areas in order to prevent, where possible, collusion between neo-authoritarians. For us, the French, the danger starts in Europe. However, the scenario where Katczińsky's Poland joins Orbán's Hungary is not inevitable. There is still time to understand the root causes of Central Europe's distancing from liberal values. It can for instance partly be explained by the region’s strong attachment to national sovereignty, which is crucial for people whose entire history has been a struggle to exist as nation states. The European project was first perceived by these countries’ opinions as a way to support this aspiration, yet this perception was reversed at some point. A speech and actions coming from a country like France, that takes this feeling into account, are prerequisites for a policy of psychological and almost spiritual reunification of Europe, which has unfortunately become essential. In our minds, defending the liberal model at the geopolitical level does not mean locking oneself into principled positions: diplomacy must defend principles through the means of diplomacy. We just mentioned Central Europe. We could also talk about the new Brazilian President: there is a strong risk that Mr Bolsonaro will decide to withdraw his country from the Paris Agreement, which could have a contagious effect. For this reason alone, and despite his profoundly disheartening character, we must try to reach out to him.
    • We also alluded to a third course of action: the relationship with civil societies. We started from the idea that, in many cases, the public sphere of countries governed by neo-authoritarians is not completely closed. Our second gallery of portraits backs this diagnosis. Now of course, this last course of action is difficult to implement. It’s all a matter of soft power. France once benefitted from a great image in the world, as it was served by an extensive network of embassies and cultural centers. This image has gone through ups and downs, and diplomatic and cultural services are now holed below the waterline. Here again, let us give a concrete example: in the Arab world, the causes that sparked the Arab springs are still present; societies have begun a long march, under the influence of economic, demographic and social upheavals. It would be dangerous for our long-term security if, in a country such as Egypt, for example, France's policy were to be perceived as limited to arms sales. If Europeans, and in particular the French, are not able to send messages of understanding to Arab societies, a difficult future is to be expected. These messages are first and foremost words, speeches and symbols. They also involve programs helping with development, education in many forms, the emancipation of women, the progress of the rule of law and the defense of human rights.
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