sexta-feira, 5 de dezembro de 2014
This is the year of the political strongman
Xi Jinping is shaping up as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. Vladimir Putin has invaded one of Russia’s neighbours. In Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has eschewed the designation generalissimo in favour of the equally telling field marshal. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan occupies a presidential palace to put Louis XIV in the shade. We have been living through the year of the political strongman.
Alongside the authoritarian there are bona fide democrats in the line-up of tough guy leaders who are now making the geopolitical weather. Though properly elected, Mr Erdogan leans towards majoritarianism, but Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe have shown no inclination to subvert the liberal constitutional order in India and Japan
The connecting thread is rather an approach to interstate relations and an attachment to national sovereignty more rooted in the 19th than in the second half of the 20th century. Some would add Benjamin Netanyahu to such a list. For all their differences, Israel’s prime minister looks more comfortable in the company of Mr Putin than in that of soggy European liberals.
The collapse of Soviet communism was supposed to have ushered in a liberal internationalist order: Russia would prosper as a partner of the west and China would rise as a responsible stakeholder. New powers would understand that rules were a source of mutual advantage. The most optimistic internationalists saw Europe as the template for a postmodern future of multilateralism and pooled sovereignty.
By and large — and all these rough and ready judgments have their exceptions — the strongmen prefer competition over co-operation as the natural order of things; they are nationalists rather than internationalists; and, in the case of China and Russia, they are also unabashedly revisionist.
In most advanced democracies nationalism (as distinct from patriotism) is a term of political abuse. For Mr Xi and Mr Putin, it is at once a way to rally domestic support and an assertion of the primacy of national interests over what the west likes to call universal values. Their commitment to a liberal economic order is likewise constrained: the economy is viewed very much as an instrument of state power.
Europe’s great achievement has been to leave history behind. The strongmen see no reason to apologise for the past. They are busy rewriting school textbooks. History is retold as a way of rekindling past glories and, just as often, of reviving old grievances. Germany has remade itself through contrition. Mr Abe is fed up with saying sorry.
Mr Xi wants to settle scores reaching back to the opium wars. Mr Putin is still in mourning for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Seen through these lenses, the present rules-based order is a creature of the west. Military muscle and balancing alliances are the better currency of international relations.
All this is familiar to students of the great power struggles of the 19th century. It is no accident that officials in Beijing cite the 1823 Monroe doctrine and the build-up of US naval power in the opening years of the 20th century as precedent for China’s present drive for suzerainty over the western Pacific.
Great powers rule their own neighbourhoods, you hear them say. That is how things are done. So Mr Putin’s claim on Russia’s near abroad is mirrored by Mr Xi’s assertive posture in the East and South China Seas.
Mr Putin’s revanchism poses the most immediate challenge. The threat is felt particularly acutely in Europe — and not just because of the facts of geography. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine has upturned the founding assumption of the modern European security order: that borders could never again be changed by force. The continent’s postmodernists are now struggling to confront the world as it is rather than the one they imagined it would become.
The US finds it easier to adjust. The American commitment to the liberal order has always been self-consciously self-interested, and Washington has long been ambivalent about international rulemaking. The post-1945 settlement was as much about securing US hegemony as about any altruistic desire to extend peace and prosperity to friends and allies. The US is comfortable with the hard-headed realism that has seen the Obama administration shift its focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Russia, in US eyes, is a nuisance; China is the real strategic competitor.
It would be a mistake to see the rise of the strongmen as an unambiguous challenge to the west. There are as many arguments between them. Mr Erdogan may have been all smiles during Mr Putin’s visit this week to Ankara, but Turkey remains an albeit truculent member of Nato. Mr Abe’s ambition to rebuild Japan’s military strength is calculated to deter China. Border disputes with Beijing in the Himalayas have seen Mr Modi look for warmer relations with the US and a partnership with Mr Abe.
What these leaders do tell is that the multilateralist model of the second half of the 20th century is more likely to represent a historical interlude than a permanent shift in the nature of relations between states. Globalisation is already in retreat. As the strong men stride the stage, Kant is making way for Hobbes and multilateralism for great power politics. The west is about to relearn what it is like to live in a much rougher world.