The Era of Dictators

One would have thought that the end of the Soviet empire and the triumph of the liberal democratic paradigm (the Hegelian “end of history” Fukuyama so controversially cited at the time) would create an environment in which authoritarians were on the defensive, constantly having to justify themselves under the weight of a universally accepted liberal democratic standard.

Thirty-some years later, it is not the case. Authoritarianism is the real paradigm (albeit a pretty amorphous one, given the plurality of authoritarian types in existence), while liberal ideas and institutions have been devalued, even if they continue to command some prestige and international recognition. Authoritarian regimes are extremely influential in parts of the world (China in Asia, Russia in Eurasia, Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, Turkey in what used to be called Asia Minor, Iran among Shiites everywhere, and left-wing populists in Latin America). Their attempts to create zones of influence or establish outright hegemony are not accompanied by a sophisticated narrative aimed at providing legitimacy to their role in the world order. By and large they oppose the U.S. and espouse a multipolar world not dominated by Washington, but they do not stand for a set of ideological principles; they are content to incarnate illiberalism but do not feel the need to oppose an authoritarian ethos to the liberal democratic idea.

Xi Jinping´s crony-capitalist nationalism, Putin’s acts of aggression in the name of combatting Nato’s expansion, Erdogan’s defense of Islam among Arabs are not supported by an ideological construct remotely comparable in its ambition and depth to the cause of liberalism. Naked power politics, 19th century-style balance of power politics and nationalist/imperialist impulses manifest themselves unabashedly, often brutally, without even the semblance of a credo. The differences among all these authoritarians are blatant—some espouse global trade, others economic nationalism, some ally themselves with the right, others with the left (notice the fact that the left-wing Argentine president, Alberto Fernández, has cozied up to Putin, an authoritarian of the right, and that El Salvador´s right-wing autocrat, Nayib Bukele, has become a darling of China’s Communist Party). Between the recluse, semi-autarchic Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s tyrant, and Mohammed Bin Salman, the flamboyant Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, there is a world of difference. And not all authoritarians oppose the U.S.

The problem is compounded by the deterioration of the U.S. as a symbol of liberal values, in part due to a mediocre leadership, in part to the emergence, left and right, of illiberal forces visibly at work inside America’s polity and civil society. Nor does the European scene offer much hope of in the liberal democratic camp. To the lack of inspiring leadership able or willing to convey a vision of individual rights and the rule of Law as a universal paradigm of civilization is added the absence of a robust, post-welfare-state socioeconomic model that could serve as an effective model to others. Not to speak of the deep soul-searching among Europeans about how European they want to be or not to be.

These are tough times for those of us who profess liberal ideas and loathe the predatory environment in which so many autocrats are getting away with so much.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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