Review: The Age of the Strongman

About a dozen unscrupulous, socially conservative nationalists have risen to power around the world in recent decades. Their “archetype” is Vladimir Putin, Owen Bennett-Jones said in Literary Review – the “founding father of modern despotism”; others in his form include Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister.

These men all come from diverse backgrounds, but in this compelling book, Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times’ chief foreign policy columnist, argues that all were “helped to come to power by a series of unique circumstances” that arose at the beginning of this century. After the September 11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, there was a “crisis of confidence among the world’s liberals.” The strongman, he says, “filled the vacuum” and often rallied support by portraying his countries as victims of a “hypocritical West”.

What is striking (and depressing) is how many of these strongmen were initially considered “moderates and modernizers,” Lawrence Freedman said in The Sunday Times. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s recently re-elected prime minister, was a student activist in the last days of communism. Turkey’s Recep Erdogan has been hailed as the man who reformed Islam; and it was widely believed that Putin would bring order to Russia “while staying close to western states”.

All, however, slid into authoritarianism. Rachman offers a “sharp analysis” of the strategies they have employed to remain in power – typically a combination of media manipulation, rigged elections and populist rhetoric that aligns them with the “common people” against sinister global elites.

Against the background of Putin’s “war of annihilation” in Ukraine, this book certainly seems timely, said Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail. But that same background makes the chapter on Boris Johnson, which Rachman claims has “strongman elements”, largely due to his role in Brexit, seem rather odd. The prime minister is “far from being a strong leader” and he doesn’t belong in the same category as Putin.

The Ukraine conflict also challenges Rachman’s assumption that we are still in the “age of the strong man,” Roger Boyes said in The times. With each passing day of his botched “Blitzkrieg” Putin appears less as a strongman and more as a “weak commander” – and that could have consequences. “If the Kremlin leader shakes, so could the mini-Putins who are flexing their muscles around the world.”

Bodley Head 288 pages; £20

book cover of The Age of the Strong Man

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