The last five years have been a master class in comparative politics, because something happened that we’d never seen before at the same time: The world’s three most powerful leaders — Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump — each took drastic steps to hold onto power beyond their designated terms of office. One failed. Two succeeded. And therein lies a tale that says so much about our world today.
Trump failed for one very simple reason: American institutions, laws and norms forced him to cede power at the end of his four years — barely — despite both his efforts to discredit the electoral results and his unleashing of supporters to intimidate lawmakers into overturning his loss at the polls.
Putin and Xi fared better — so far. Unencumbered by institutions and democratic norms, they installed new laws to make themselves, effectively, presidents for life.
Pity their nations.
Lord knows democracies have their problems today, but they still have some things autocracies lack — the ability to change course, often by changing leaders, and the ability to publicly examine and debate alternative ideas before embarking on a course of action. Those attributes are particularly valuable in an age of accelerating technological and climate change, when the odds are low that one person in his late 60s — as both Putin and Xi are — will make better and better decisions, more and more alone, as he gets older and older.
Yet Putin arm-twisted his Duma in 2020 to essentially eliminate his term limits, allowing him to run for president again in 2024 and the chance to remain in office until 2036. And in 2018, Xi induced his lawmakers to change China’s constitution and abolish presidential term limits altogether, so he can officially remain in office forever — assuming that he is re-elected president at the National People’s Congress session in 2023. And you can assume that he will be.
Deng Xiaoping imposed a two-consecutive-term limit to China’s presidency in 1982 for a reason — to prevent the emergence of another Mao Zedong, whose autocratic leadership and cult of personality combined to keep China poor, isolated and often in murderous chaos. Xi has driven right through that roadblock. He sees himself as indispensable and infallible.
But as we can all see plainly, Putin’s performance in Ukraine is a walking, talking, barking advertisement for the perils of having a president for life, who believes that he’s indispensable and infallible.
Ukraine is Putin’s war, and he got everything wrong: He overestimated the strength of his own armed forces, underestimated the willingness of Ukrainians to fight and die for their freedom and totally misread the willingness of the West, both governments and businesses, to unite to support Ukraine. Either Putin was fed nonsense by aides afraid to tell him the truth, or he had grown so sure of his infallibility that he never questioned himself or prepared his government or society for what his own spokesman has described as an “unprecedented” economic war by Western sanctions. All we know for sure is that he has banned all media criticism and made it virtually impossible for Russians to punish him at the polls for his barbaric folly.
China is a more serious place, having brought some 800 million Chinese out of extreme poverty since the late 1970s. Nevertheless, the perils of autocracy are showing. Xi was unwilling to do a serious investigation of how the coronavirus emerged, most likely in Wuhan, or, at least, share any findings with the world — for fear, it seems, that doing so might reflect poorly on his leadership. His reliance on a strategy of lockdowns, and on Chinese vaccines that appear to be less effective than other vaccines against the Omicron variant, is now seriously stressing his economy.
And Xi’s bet on an alliance with Putin’s Russia has gone bad fast. When the two leaders met on Feb. 4, at the opening of the Olympics in China, they released a statement declaring that the “friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
The fact that Putin apparently took that limitless friendship as a green light to invade Ukraine has clearly left Xi flummoxed and floundering. China is a big importer of oil, corn and wheat from Russia and Ukraine, so the Russian invasion has nudged up its costs for these and other food imports, while also helping to drive down China’s stock market (though it is bouncing back). It has also forced China to appear indifferent to Russia’s savaging of Ukraine, straining Beijing’s relations with the European Union, China’s biggest trading partner.
I wonder how many officials in Beijing are now muttering: “If this is what happens when you have a president for life. …”
I do take succor in the fact that one of the most hackneyed clichés in foreign policy is being exposed as nonsense: The leaders of China and Russia are so savvy, and always play the game of nations like chess grandmasters, while those stupid Americans — with their plodding, meat-and-potatoes approach to the world — know only how to play checkers.
It actually looks to me as if Putin has not been playing chess, but Russian roulette — and that he ran out of luck and blew a hole right through the heart of the Russian economy. And Xi seems paralyzed, unable to figure out what game to play, as his heart wants to oppose the West and his head tells him that he can’t afford to. So, China stands neutral in the face of the biggest war crimes perpetrated in Europe since World War II.
Meanwhile, Sleepy Joe over in the corner has been playing Legos — methodically adding one piece, one ally, after another, bound together by shared values and threats, and has built a solid coalition to manage this crisis.
In short, for now at least, the messy democracies with their regular rotations in powers are outmaneuvering the presidents for life, who need to choke off all sources of dissent more than ever.
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:
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