Dictators in the modern age have become very adept at buying friends and reliable apologists. They are praised for their strong leadership in holding their countries together, building up their economies, staring down outside agitators and reawakening national pride. Well, so what? The Man of Steel Joseph Stalin can say that. The Führer Adolf Hitler can say that. The Great Helmsman Mao can. The Conducător Nicolae Ceaușescu can. Even Saddam ‘The Butcher of Bagdad’ Hussein could claim that.
Nowadays people in democracies are becoming less circumspect about iterating their coded admiration for the present generation of autocratic, corrupt and non-elected leaders of the world. The fact that Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Standing Committee members do not engage in the wholesale mass murder of their opponents like those above once did is enough for intelligent people to treat these autocrats as moral equals of democratic statesmen.
In non-western societies where ordinary people go without and witness disorder in their daily lives it is understandable that authoritarian leaders have a certain appeal. If it looks like the price for having cleaner safer streets and a chance for a better job is the erosion of democracy many would pay that price. And for societies that have both an inflated sense of national destiny and ingrained racial prejudices figures of order and greatness have a strong and sinister appeal.
Hitler remains a figure of emulation across the developing world and many ultra-nationalists, who would have been regarded as the racial enemies of the Aryan master race, draw on the example of National Socialism as a positive inspiration. Saddam Hussein was indoctrinated by his uncle Khairallah Talfah who was a fervid Hitler admirer and anti-Semite. Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt once considered the Führer a personal hero.
An article in Spiegel Online explores the lurid admiration people across South Asia, especially Pakistan, have for the Hitler and Nazi Germany. In India, the ultra-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh paramilitary (where the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent some time) which boasts some five million members has a long and documented fascination with Nazi policies. Its chief ideologue M. S. Golwalkar uttered innumerable compliments about National Socialism’s positive effect on Germany.
But the spread of the anti-democratic contagion to free countries is disturbing. Both sides of the political fence are guilty of dictator worship. The left and in particular the alleged human rights champion Justin Trudeau fawned over the late Fidel Castro the lifelong leader of an ossified Stalinist banana republic. During the murderous wars in the Balkans in the 1990s many prominent figures on the left including John Pilger and Noam Chomsky were notable for their silence while the Serbian ultra-nationalists were slaughtering the Bosnian Muslims. They preferred to criticise the United States for wanting to destroy the last remaining socialist government in Europe.
Now the wheel has turned and the parties of the right across the West have warm words for the one man one party regime in Moscow which only encounters the ‘opposition’ that it permits. You can tell a lot about a man by the company he keeps and the only major non-Putin parties allowed to operate unmolested in Russian politics are the Stalinist-nostalgic Communists and the anti-Semitic neo-imperialist (not to mention bizarrely named) Liberal Democratic Party.
It was reassuring to see One Nation’s flop in the WA election being partially attributed to Pauline Hanson’s ill-thought out praise for Vladimir Putin. More sinister was the then Indiana Governor Mike Pence asserting that the Kremlin despot was a stronger leader than his fellow countryman and small “d” democrat President Barack Obama. Whereas Trump’s apologetics when it comes to Putin may be genuine or purchased, Pence’s performance looked scripted but sinister none the less.
As I have written previously there is a growing naiveté about the nature of the Chinese state leadership that is being pushed by figures with a financial connection to Beijing. There is an extensive list of former statesmen, diplomats and academics who play down both the anti-democratic and destabilising strategic agenda of the Chinese state at the same time that they are treated most favourably by Chinese interests. The case of Sam Dastyari accepting monies from businesses with close links to the Chinese state and then ‘coincidentally’ reiterating the foreign policy of Beijing was plainly absurd but it may be a frightening indication of the ability of powerful foreign interests to bring political opinion in democracies into line.
Much of the praise for Putin derives from similar motivations. The Russian state has compensated for its hard power weaknesses by maximising its soft power capabilities and the new war is being waged through the news and social media. By maintaining such a pervasive and aggressive presence through RTV, Twitter and Facebook it is not just the Kremlin’s narrative that permeates. Political actors and opinion makers can decide, will I be the target of Russian abuse or Russian approval? With a few kind words for Putin but principally for keeping silent on the crimes of his regime, obscure or marginal actors can receive a torrent of favourable coverage from an increasingly powerful news source.
China far and away excels in this new strategy of regime security. Scores of students both within China and without will have been ‘educated’ thoroughly in the narrative of the CCP and will be conditioned to take the one-party state at its word. China watchers have been impressed by the extraordinary economic rise of China and the generally high functioning society and its people. And China is not the self-destructive, closed, totalitarian regime it was under Mao. But none the less it remains an authoritarian police state and there should be greater suspicion of the regime’s intentions.
An example of the erosion of the resilience of Western values was a statement by Martin Jacques who when asked if China was a democracy (hardly a trick question) replied ‘well what is democracy’. I personally thought the difference between a democracy and an autocracy was pretty straightforward. But this kind of jaded excuse making is increasingly common in discussions of dictators and can be heard across the political spectrum. I’m sure those who make these sorts of statements believe they are being sophisticated realists while they are receiving some sort of ‘incentive’ for their favourable commentary. The depressing reality is probably that the dictators are howling with laughter in their palaces at the fact that they have ‘purchased’ defence lawyers at knock down prices.
Recently in France, the pro-Russian candidate and daughter of France’s most prominent Vichy apologist Marine Le Pen has scored for herself an avalanche of support from Moscow. Official receptions in the Russian capital, favourable coverage on RT and financial support from a Russian bank have helped to put the Front National in a competitive position in the upcoming Presidential election. Le Pen like other figures on the extreme edge is enjoying the fruits of Russian hackers who are purposely leaking damaging information designed to destabilise European politics and bolster her campaign.
Of course, Vladimir Putin knocks off noisy opponents and the Chinese state puts internal troublemakers into prisons from which they never emerge but the use of assassination as a weapon of intimidation has fundamentally been sidelined. Sending out death squads is costly, dangerous and can invite retaliation as Gaddafi learnt when he murdered the crew and passengers of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. Why risk sanctions or air strikes when you can quietly obtain the consent of vast swathes of influential figures at a fraction of the cost.
Relativity can and should play a part in discussions such as these. Not every leader emerges from a political system typified by long periods of sustained and transparent democratic rule. But it’s one thing to recognise the achievements of an absolute monarch from pre-modern times, it’s quite another to excuse the crimes of dictatorial figures in the present age.
In a time of war or nation building, there are some things that could conceivably be considered as acceptable but we are far removed from such considerations in this time and place. No one on the left or right, for instance, praises Silvio Berlusconi because they understand what he is and what he was trying to do. Berlusconi was not a pale shade of Mussolini, as some of his critics alleged, but he compromised the weak democratic institutions of Italy in order to prevent his own financial and legal downfall.
The Cold War contributed to this problem of both sides inconsistently praising and condemning unelected leaders based on ideological preferences. The military leader of South Korea Park Chung-hee ran a police state that tortured its opponents but certainly did not kill as many internal opponents as the Castro regime did. Castro had executed hundreds of enemies of the revolution but not the thousands that Pinochet had ‘disappeared’. Then again Pinochet killed a fraction of the under criticised regime of Ho Chi Minh.
Even Peter Hitchens a highly principled conservative increasingly betrays a sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s world view and is jaded about his authoritarian rule within Russia. During an interview on The Young Turks (TYT), a far-left news network that now criticises left-wing opponents for being too aggressive towards Putin and Islamic radicalism, Hitchens asserted the argument that the interference of an authoritarian state in the election of a democracy is par for the course. The West may indeed have mishandled Putin and his strategic concerns but the suggestion that US support for democratic activities in the former Soviet Union is the moral equivalent of a cyber-attack against a legitimate party of government in a functioning democracy designed to swing the election result (no call on whether in fact it did) is unsettling.
Hitchens argument mirrors that of the far-left forces during the cold war that criticised the governments of Johnson, Nixon and Reagan for supporting democratic opponents of the communist dictatorships that once littered the landscape. And in terms of the left’s present treatment of authoritarian leaders this also has disturbing similarities to the arguments of the Communist parties of the 1930s who believed that moderate leftists and capitalists were a bigger obstacle than the rising forces of fascism. They believed that Hitler and his compatriots in Europe should be able to crush the democratic system because after they had torn down the institutions the swastika would be replaced by the hammer and sickle.
Discrimination is an inappropriate approach within a democratic state but in terms of international diplomacy, it has its place. Dictators should be kept at the margins of relations as much as is possible. They can be praised for responsible behaviours in strategic settings and law-governed democracies should certainly talk to their opposites in the interest of global peace and stability but there should not be any excessive fawning. And there should certainly be a greater awareness of efforts by both China and Russia to penetrate the political systems of democracies for their own nefarious ends.
When the Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang to negotiate a release of Japanese nationals kidnapped by the North Korean state Koizumi shook hands with Kim Jong-il but did not smile once in their meeting. Dictators do not deserve smiles and warm words they deserve our suspicion.
Illustration: Paramount Pictures/YouTube.
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