Case for a strong leader is undermined again

The wonder isn’t that men as bellicose as Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin fall out, but what took them so long

The most populous nation on Earth does not need a great power patron. For much of the cold war India was non-aligned – “at best”, some in Washington would say with bitterness. Its present leader has ideas about concentrated power, about religion and the state, that break somewhat with the Federalist Papers.

There is nothing ordained or inevitable, therefore, about India’s turn to the US. Yet something in China’s conduct has, for now, nudged a once-ambivalent nation into, if not an alliance, then an understanding with America. As unforced errors go, it might not be possible to make a more consequential one short of war.

In other words, the farrago in Russia is only the second-biggest case of autocratic misjudgment in the news. Pushing Narendra Modi into America’s muscular embrace is the one with century-shaping potential. One of these stories is about a lack of domestic executive grip. The other is a case of external policy gone wrong. But both are embarrassing. Each Western generation has to fight the idea that autocrats are generally, or even often, competent. To that end, the past week has been one to mark.

The question is how that myth – of the masterful, cat-stroking strongman – survives. Almost all of the world’s richest countries are democracies. So are almost all the countries to which people want to move. Nato expands; the Warsaw Pact is 32 years dead. Without even getting into Amartya Sen’s line about famine (it never happens in a “functioning democracy”) or the democratic peace theory (that no two democracies have ever fought), there shouldn’t be a meaningful debate about the practical efficacy of the two governing models. Even authoritarianism’s one boast, that it can take a nation from hardship to middle-income, isn’t special. Think Japan after 1945.


And still it endures: the Tech Bro view of geopolitics. It goes like this. While democratic leaders fret about the next election, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping think in hundred-year cycles. While the West falls for cultural fads, autocrats perceive eternal truths about human nature. Where the gloating liberal press sees a failed war on Ukraine, the Kremlin tots up dogged strategic gains. There is usually something in there about “warm water ports”, half-learned from Reddit threads.

Tech Bro, I say, but this habit of mind is older than that. Ex oriente lux, is an ancient cry. “Out of the east, light.” At times, as in the Middle Ages, when the Byzantine empire and Arab scholars kept the flame of classical civilisation going, the phrase is resonant with truth. But it can suggest something else: a credulous belief in the special wisdom of the non-liberal world. When this sets in, Western voters lose confidence. (Look at surveys of millennials.)

And so it matters to explain why – not just that – authoritarians misgovern. First, co-operation is beyond them. Their aggression, so intimidating to observe from afar is, in the end, almost without fail, turned on each other. Hitler’s war on Stalin and the Sino-Soviet split were cases of existential threats to the free world fracturing of their own (if this is the word) accord. But the same can happen within regimes. The wonder isn’t that men as bellicose as Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin fall out, but what took them so long.

What else undoes autocracies in the end is, and you’ll pardon the MBA-speak, the absence of feedback loops. Last week, David Cameron (56), a white male once of Westminster, reported to a building in the unlovely streets around Paddington station for two hours of questions on his planning for the Covid-19 pandemic. As he had stopped being prime minister four years before that crisis, his successors can expect similar or worse heat. Each squirm and nervous cough is free to stream live or at one’s leisure. The inquiry is expected to last into 2026.

What explains the autocratic misadventures – the botched war in Ukraine, the alienation of India – if not a void of accountability? A state with no checks on power, save factional intrigue, needs an executive genius at the top to function. History doesn’t produce enough.

The moral case for democracy is too hard to make. A system that came along a century ago, if we date it from the universal franchise, can’t be said to be intrinsic to human fulfilment. It is the utilitarian case – the battle for minds, not hearts – that Western leaders must prosecute. Two summers ago, as the US flunked its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its Covid death toll mounted, its autocratic enemies exuded a severe competence. Events are rather humanising them.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023