To deem 2016 an unpredictable year would be a grave understatement, especially if you’re a pollster or a political prognosticator.
Developments that once seemed impossible – or at least highly unlikely – suddenly became the status quo. The Brits, for one, voted to break away from Europe. Not to be outdone, the Americans elected a billionaire and former reality TV star to be their next president. And those are only two examples.
If there’s one thing these once unimaginable developments have made crystal clear, it’s that our expectations and understandings of how the world works are no longer relevant.
We’ve entered an era in which autocrats are no longer a phenomenon limited to far away countries with weak economies and no political clout.
More than a bump in the road to democracy, 2016 has been like a violent U-turn.
One of the first consequences of this departure from convention will be a significant reduction in the impact of value-based foreign policy. As more autocrats call the shots politically, finding common ground based on common values will become much more difficult. This will be especially true when each side’s interests diverge. As values take a backseat to practical interests, realpolitik will become the order of the day.
The old ways of conducting foreign policy will prove ineffectual in the new world order.
As a result, policymakers will be hard-pressed to play by any other rules but those of the new system. Without a predictable relationship with Russia or Turkey, there can be no sensible European foreign and security policy. But what is a European diplomat to do?
Autocrats tend to have a rather cynical impression of values. Interests, on the other hand, they take very seriously. One thing that’s consistent in their policies is an unabashed, unwavering adherence to their own interests.
When seeking predictability in bilateral relations, whether political or economic, one must address the common interests of both countries without losing sight of an autocrat’s specific understanding of his own.
This doesn’t mean subjecting oneself to the will of an autocrat, but it does mean realizing that attacking his interests is no longer an effective level for the enforcement of values. Only weak and dependent autocrats let themselves be influenced in such a way. As the number of autocratic rulers grew in 2016, so did the percentage of them who are strong-willed and self-confident. The old ways of conducting foreign policy will prove ineffectual in the new world order.
For autocrats, it’s characteristic to arbitrarily and quickly change tack. Take Russian-Turkish relations, which already have a long history of belligerence, for instance. Things turned icy again last summer after the Turks shot down a Russian jet that had allegedly violated their airspace. Tensions have since thawed but this could change again at any moment.
What unites the leaders of these two countries more than anything is a common opponent (in this case, the European Union with all of its political admonitions and threats of economic sanctions). But once that common enemy is no longer in play, the two sides’ opposing interests are exposed once again and the temporary coalition is dissolved.
If the E.U. wants to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from getting too chummy with one another, it must end its policy of exhortations and threats of sanctions and act according to the age-old principle of “divide and conquer.”
This, however, would represent a complete departure from decades of value-driven statecraft and would make Europe vulnerable to accusations of cynicism. For that reason alone, it’s not a likely outcome.
And it’s not only the orientation of values that is affected by the rise of autocrats. There are also implications for the fundamental assumptions about the political sphere in the 21st century and how much room to maneuver it has vis-à-vis economic and societal realms.
Amid the growing complexity of an increasingly intertwined world, the return of the autocrats came as a surprise to many observers of international politics. Indeed, many people had written off the possibility of an individual imposing his will over the power of structure and entrenchment. Businesses’ confidence in the rationality of politics was based, in part, on a belief in their own political influence.
One of the central sources of legitimacy for patriarchal autocrats is the notion that they have helped win back respect and self-esteem for the downtrodden and those who have been cast aside.
Business leaders thought themselves and their entities to be shielded from election results. Sure, business-friendly politicians could come and go, but the system in and of itself was there to stay. Or so they thought.
This relatively sudden adoration for autocratic leaders is a protest against the very notion that there is an inherent need for a “system” in the first place. Autocrats embody the belief that nothing, no matter how taken for granted, lasts forever.
But it remains to be seen whether the likes of Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan or – most recently – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will be able to enact long-lasting change in the political sphere or whether they will merely succeed at portraying themselves as “strongmen.”
Mr. Putin, for instance, went to great lengths to present himself to the Russians as someone who has things under control. If any mistakes or ineffectual policies were exposed, the blame was masterfully shifted to one of his subordinates, who received a reprimand. Mr. Putin seemed to take on the role of the stern family patriarch caring for his children.
But such an image can make an autocrat vulnerable too, if, for example, people are subjected to prolonged suffering. If that’s the case, blame must quickly be shifted away from the autocrat and to the machinations of the big bad Europeans or Americans, who, in turn, are chided for imposing sanctions on Russia for merely trying to regain its sense of self-respect.
For Mr. Erdogan, it’s no different. He, too, masks his autocratic policies with the impression that he’s simply trying to do what’s best for his countrymen. This strategy has worked so far because Turkey has blossomed economically in the last decade and many people are better off now than ever before. Mr. Erdogan, for his part, hasn’t missed an opportunity to celebrate himself for reestablishing Turkey as a regional heavyweight.
One of the central sources of legitimacy for patriarchal autocrats is the notion that they have helped win back respect and self-esteem for the downtrodden and those who have been cast aside. This can be a risky endeavor, though, should an autocrat feel compelled to assert himself not only verbally, but militarily as well. Defense budgets can quickly sap welfare or other programs that benefit wide swathes of society.
But military strength is central to both Mr. Putin’s and Mr. Erdogan’s neo-imperial aspirations. They are driven by historical recollections of their respective countries’ former greatness, whether it’s the empire of the tsars or the Ottoman Empire. Feigned concern for people living on these countries’ peripheries, whether they are ethnic Russians or Turkic people, is also an effective distraction should the economy go south.
The lesson is that if the patriarchal autocrat weakens, he can always be replaced by the neo-imperial autocrat.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, deserves his own categorization. The neo-isolationist elements in his foreign political statements have suggested that the United States will soon revise – and likely scale back – its international commitments. In other words, the president-elect intends to pursue a foreign policy that goes in the opposite direction as that of either Mr. Putin or Mr. Erdogan. But what both political strategies have in common are the disorder they will provoke on an international level.
An autocrat can rarely be stopped by simply warning against the potentially disastrous consequences of his decisions or policy announcements. The short-term gains are more important to him than the long-term losses.
Ironically, completely different strategies can have a similar effect globally when they’re pursued by autocrats. The sudden withdrawal of the U.S. from its former role as the “guardian of stability” around the world will increase the likelihood of conflicts and wars abroad just as much as attempts by either Russia or Turkey to meddle in the affairs of the countries on their peripheries.
The reasons for the U.S.’ change of heart are of the same domestic political nature as the Russians’ and the Turks’. But while the Russians and Turks are motivated by a new perception of their own strength, many Americans simply feel overwhelmed. They are put off by the thought that their government is spending money to build up other countries when their infrastructure at home is crumbling and society is falling apart at the seams. Indeed, Mr. Trump managed to tap into the feeling that others are profiting more from the U.S.’ expenditures than the country itself (regardless of whether or not this is actually the case).
President Barack Obama had already established that the U.S. could no longer afford to play the role of global paymaster and police force. His announcement that the U.S. would begin to focus more on the Pacific than the Atlantic was a consequence of this insight.
President Obama’s “pivot” contained three messages. The first was that the age in which the U.S. stood in to ensure the continuation of the existing global order was coming to an end. Second, China is more important to U.S. interests in the 21st century than Europe. Third, the Europeans must learn to ensure stability along their periphery on their own without the help of the Americans.
Had Hillary Clinton been elected, she would presumably have pushed forward with this reorientation of the U.S. position abroad and encouraged the Europeans to handle their own security policy. But she wouldn’t have made a screeching U-turn; she would have executed a planned maneuver. She would have seen a rapid change as too dangerous, of course.
In doing so, she would have proven herself to be an experienced politician, just like she presented herself during the election campaign. But that image wasn’t sufficient to convince enough of the American electorate, and neither were her warnings about the potentially disastrous consequences of a sudden and reckless change in policy.
An autocrat, on the other hand, can rarely be stopped by simply warning against the potentially disastrous consequences of his decisions or policy announcements. The short-term gains are more important to him than the long-term losses. Whoever strikes a note of caution is usually portrayed as an insufferable pessimist. This lends the autocrat a degree of political flexibility that the experienced politician cannot match. Ms. Clinton’s experience turned out to be more of a burden than a blessing.
Unlike Ms. Clinton, Donald Trump even managed to portray himself as a savior for the working class, someone who would fight for the rights of classical industrialists and the other losers of ever-expanding free-trade policies. Mr. Trump made his the voice of resentment against the establishment in Washington and on Wall Street in New York.
If Mr. Trump were to suddenly bow out, it would not mean that the political system would return to the way it was before he came to power. The kind of break in convention that Mr. Trump has triggered doesn't go away quite so easily.
But anti-establishment gripes alone wouldn’t have sufficed to win over all of the resigned white men in the country. So Mr. Trump added a layer of racism and sexism to the mix, lashing out against “political correctness” and promising to help mainstream white voters reclaim their former privilege.
In doing so, he unabashedly aroused just the right resentments that he needed to win the election. He won over the losers of globalization by speaking out against the establishment and polemicizing against various minorities. Mr. Trump is the prototype of the agitational autocrat who justifies his own political rise by pointing to widening gaps in society.
In contrast to the patriarchal autocrat, the agitational autocrat is merely a transitional one. He may be able to intensify the degree of his agitation for a while, taking aim at new enemies and other minorities, but eventually he will be forced to make good on at least some of his promises. If he’s successful, he will transition from the agitational autocrat to the patriarchal autocrat. If he’s unsuccessful, he always has the option of resigning with the claim that he accomplished his goal of provoking a shift in politics and must now leave others to take care of the rest. Even with Donald Trump, the latter option cannot be ruled out.
But if Mr. Trump were to suddenly bow out, it would not mean that the political system would return to the way it was before he came to power. The kind of break in convention that Mr. Trump has triggered doesn’t go away quite so easily. It would be even more likely for another, more radical autocratic leader to pick up where he left off.
For this reason, the year 2016 won’t be an exception. The opposite is actually more likely to be the case. As a rule, when an autocrat replaces another autocrat, hope for change is often lost. But when an autocrat replaces a democratic leader, it changes the political – and economic – atmosphere forever.
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