The Age of the Strong Man Gideon Rachman Bodley Head, €16.99
Liberalism and its Dissatisfaction
Profile books, €14.99
Wladimir Putin cheated the Russian people in his first televised address as acting president on New Year’s Eve 1999. In a speech from the Kremlin, Putin pledged to protect freedom of expression, conscience and the mass media.
The lies continued. “Dear citizens of Russia. We want our Russia to be a free, prosperous, prosperous, strong and civilized country, proud of its citizens and respected in the world,” he declared in his official inaugural speech as President of the Russian Federation in May 2000.
“While Putin probably had no illusions about reassembling the Soviet Union, he was determined to return Russia to the front rank of world powers,” writes Gideon Rachman The age of the strongman. The British journalist separates Putin’s empty promises from Russia’s actual long-term future.
First, there is Russia’s disastrous war against Ukraine. Not to mention Putin’s ruthless lawbreaking over the past two decades – including numerous illegal assassinations abroad. Both have led to ongoing international sanctions and turned Russia into an international pariah state.
Then there is the murder of local critics, including many journalists. And the imprisonment of scores of opposition political figures, such as Alexei Navalny (still in prison) and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who spent a decade behind bars).
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It underscores that Putin’s continued iron rule “is ultimately based not on success and popular consent, but on violence and repression,” as Rachman puts it.
He believes that Putin represents “the archetype for the current generation of strong leaders” who have come to power with the rise of global populism in the post-millennium era. This suggests that Putin’s popularity in Russia is no accident of history.
By the turn of the millennium, many Russians were fed up with the humiliation and chaos of the Yeltsin years. The collapse of the Soviet system indicated that democracy and freedom of speech could be a real possibility in Russia.
But Russia’s attempt to place a centrally planned economy in the hands of self-interested oligarchs ripped apart the very fabric of Russian society.
Rachman quotes from a 1999 UN report that described a “rise in self-destructive behavior” across Russia without Soviet tutelage. Rising poverty rates, unemployment and financial insecurity soon followed. The fundamental problem was not just the economy.
Territorial shrinkage contributed to Russia’s mounting global humiliation in the 1990s — as 14 post-Soviet states declared independence from their former Moscow overlords and former Warsaw Pact members in central and eastern Europe looked to NATO and the EU.
Russia suddenly became the United States’ little brother when the Cold War seemed to be over. “Under these circumstances, a strong leader who promised to turn back the clock to better days had real appeal,” Rachman writes.
He also gives us a deep dive into other “self-proclaimed ‘strongmen’ like Boris Johnson, donald trump, Xi Jinping and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. In a speech he delivered to ethnic Hungarians in Romania in the summer of 2014, the prime minister said he wanted to build “an illiberal new state based on national values”. Orban then named China, Russia and Turkey as model states that Hungary should emulate.
The “strongman appeal” that Rachman’s book brilliantly dissects here is summed up simply: Give me paternalistic power and unquestionable loyalty, and I will improve the economy, keep enemies at bay, while restoring this country to being a global cultural and political force again.
Typically, strong men are nationalists and cultural conservatives with little tolerance for minorities. They also distrust mainstream media, a strong court system, and tend to seek out enemies at home and abroad for their own political popularity.
Rachman’s rich journalistic experience lends his well-considered and reasonable arguments considerable persuasion. After all, he has met with many of the world leaders whom he criticizes here.
Regardless of cultural differences, their leadership styles share four common traits: the creation of a cult of personality; disregard for the rule of law; the claim to represent the real people against the elites, and politics driven by fear and nationalism.
It points to a worrying trend, Rachman says. We are currently witnessing the most sustained global attack on liberal democratic values since the 1930s.
Francis Fukuyama comes to the same conclusion. “I believe that liberalism is under serious threat, but its virtues need to be re-articulated and celebrated,” writes the Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Liberalism and its Dissatisfaction.
A short but fascinating book of commentary on current global political affairs and culture wars on social media. Both attack liberalism from left and right, claims the political scientist.
Fukuyama (whose seminal 1989 essay, The end of the story? declared the West to be a post-ideological age) deals mainly with political theory and history. Liberalism typically revolves around three main ideas: the fundamental importance of equal individual rights, the rule of law, and personal freedom.
Neither book offers liberal societies a viable idea for resolutely confronting this ongoing threat from authoritarian powers. However, Ukraine’s bold response to Russia’s war of aggression does.
Ukrainians are showing the West that liberal values are never guaranteed indefinitely. Sometimes many lives must be sacrificed to defend them.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/political-strongmen-examined-in-two-new-books-in-which-happy-endings-are-moot-41600642.html Political leaders explores in two new books where happy endings are debatable