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The Rise of the World’s New Emperors—with America’s Help

The New Yorker: So much for freedom’s ring. The twentieth century’s defining pivots were the collapse of empires (on four continents) and the spread of democracy (to dozens of nations, new and old). But history didn’t end, after all.

Over the past year, the most striking global trend has been the entrenchment of imperious autocrats. This weekend, China announced it is abolishing term limits, enabling President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely. Next month, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will compete in farcical Presidential elections without meaningful opponents because they have been arrested, banished, or intimidated into silence. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power—over the king’s court, oil, the military, and government planning through 2030—once based on consensus within the sprawling royal family. Turkey amended its constitution to create an executive Presidency with sweeping political, judicial, and military powers, diminishing its parliament. After seven years of war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reclaimed physical control over most of his country and reëstablished his draconian political dominance. There’s a growing array of wannabes, too, from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Seventy-one countries—more than a third of the world’s total—witnessed declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, Freedom House’s annual survey reported last month. “A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle,” Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, wrote. “Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.”

The consequences ripple well beyond borders. Emboldened autocrats—some of whom enjoy broad popular support—are altering the regional and international balance of power. Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimea region, part of an undisguised plan to reëstablish Soviet-era muscular sway in Europe. China has pushed territorial claims deep into the South China Sea, reflecting the shift from building economic strength at home under Deng Xiaoping to claiming global position under Xi. Turkey has dispatched troops into northern Syria, indirectly challenging the United States—its NATO ally—in a fight against Syrian rebels advised by American troops. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen, blockaded Qatar, and demanded that Lebanon’s Prime Minister resign, its most aggressive actions since the kingdom was created, in 1932. Territorial power plays are changing the global geography.

“Why now? Why is there such a pattern here? To some extent, it may be domestic,” Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the former head of the State Department’s policy-planning staff, told me. “All these countries face real challenges in terms of economic growth and employment and distribution of wealth. As a result, societies on the edge seem willing to accept authoritarianism in the hope that it will deliver the goods. That’s half the answer. The other half is that there doesn’t seem to be any political price for acting illiberally. No one of stature is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression. Leaders feel somewhat enabled.”

The United States shares a big chunk of the blame, according to career diplomats as well as both Republicans and Democrats who have helped craft American foreign policy for decades.

“Some of this has to do with the resurgence of old powers, but it also has to do with reckless American detachment over the past year, which has accelerated the ambitions of other leaders. When vacuums are created, they get filled,” William J. Burns, a career diplomat who served as the Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration and Ambassador to Russia during the George W. Bush Administration, told me.

“The American model has been tarnished over the past year. So a lot of authoritarian rulers feel wind in their sails and see themselves as agenda-setters, after a long period when the U.S. was the agenda-setter for the world order,” Burns, who is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. “They see new space in terms of their geostrategic positions. They’re increasingly cocky about their model.” >>>