Xi, Putin and Trump: The Strongmen Follies

This contrast could not come at a better time — when the global democracy movement had been stalling everywhere. Think of the evolution of democracy around the globe since World War II as having gone through several phases, argues Larry Diamond, the Stanford democracy expert and author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”

After World War II, the U.S. and its Western allies had amazing momentum, so democracy began spreading across the globe before getting bogged down by the Cold War and actually going in reverse in the 1960s, as a result of a wave of military and executive coups in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But another wave of democracy started in the mid-1970s, after the downfall of dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece. Democracy also spread to Asia — and almost China in Tiananmen Square. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 let loose another democracy wave in Eastern and Central Europe, and Russia.

But beginning in 2006, with the weakening of America because of two wars in the Middle East and the 2008 financial crisis — and the stunning economic rise of China — democracy went into “a global recession,” Diamond told me. “And China and Russia relentlessly pushed the narrative: ‘Democracies are weak and morally and politically decadent. They can’t get things done. Authoritarianism is the future.’”

The question now, Diamond added, is this: Was that Feb. 4 declaration by Xi and Putin — “spelling out all the reasons why their ‘democratic’ systems were superior to the bankrupt, feckless liberal democracies”— actually the high-water mark for their autocracies?

Because one thing is clear, quipped Diamond: The recent missteps of Putin and Xi “are giving authoritarianism a bad name.”

But for the authoritarian wave to be sustainably reversed, two big things are necessary. One is for Putin’s savaging of Ukraine to fail. That could cause him to lose power. To be sure, a Russia with no Putin could turn out to be no better — or even worse. But if it is better, the whole world becomes better if Russia has a decent leader in the Kremlin.

The second thing is even more important: It would be for America to demonstrate that it’s not just good at forging alliances abroad but that it can also build healthy coalitions again at home — to deliver good government, growth, uncontested transfers of power and a more perfect union. Our ability to do that in the past is what earned us the world’s esteem and emulation. That used to be us — and it can be again.

If it is, then my favorite lyrics from the musical “Hamilton” will be so relevant. It is when George Washington explains to Alexander Hamilton why he is voluntarily stepping down and not running for a third term:

Washington: “If we get this right/ We’re gonna teach ’em how to say goodbye,/ You and I——”
Hamilton: “Mister President, they will say you’re weak.”
Washington: “No, they will see we’re strong.”

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