Over the past couple weeks, the global pattern of authoritarianism has become particularly visible, and particularly gut-wrenching. Global politics is changing quickly, with political discourse becoming increasingly degraded and dangerous in one country after the next.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party boasted of the mass book burning and destruction that it has, apparently, carried out since the failed coup in 2016, trying to literally eliminate the words of its political opponents. The numbers are staggering: Over 300,000 books have been removed from schools and libraries in order to be physically destroyed.
In China, the crackdown against protests in Hong Kong, in which huge numbers of residents have protested an attempt to impose an extradition treaty with the Chinese mainland government, intensified. Gangs, presumably working with a nod-and-a-wink of approval from China’s central authorities, descended on protesters and beat them indiscriminately. Then, as the protests continued apace, the People’s Liberation Army released a training video which, in great specificity, detailed how it was prepared to crush urban protests. Reports began surfacing at about that same time of thousands of Chinese troops amassed on Hong Kong’s borders, ready for the order to begin operations against the island dissenters — though the veracity of those claims remains unclear.
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Meanwhile, in India, the country’s Hindu nationalist government made the extraordinary decision to rip up the constitutional settlement regarding Jammu and Kashmir, in the far north of the country. That settlement, contained in Article 370 of the Indian constitution, granted the region a large degree of legislative autonomy, and also included land-ownership protections that prevented outsiders from the rest of the country and beyond from coming in and buying up real estate.
There was a long history preceding this: When India and Pakistan were carved out as independent states at the end of the British Raj, Jammu and Kashmir, with a Muslim majority but ruled by a Hindu rajah, chose to remain independent princedoms. Soon, however, India and Pakistan were engaged in proxy wars, and then in actual direct conflict over this mountainous buffer between them. The end result, after a vicious cycle of bloodshed, was a messy compromise: Jammu and Kashmir were ultimately incorporated into India, but were granted a level of regional autonomy no other state in India had. Although Hindu nationalists hated the deal, it was seen as a way for India’s government to preserve the country’s multiethnic, multireligious tapestry.
Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has fulfilled a longstanding nationalist goal and moved to dismantle that constitutional protection. Overnight, the Muslim-majority region was turned into a de facto occupied territory, with cell phone and internet services cut, local political leaders put under house arrest, a curfew imposed on the population, and reports of protests met with lethal force.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro took to the airwaves to urge police and vigilantes to kill criminals so that they “die in the streets like cockroaches,” promising those who did so immunity from prosecution. At the same time, reports emerged that, in the wake of the new president opening up the Amazon to unfettered logging and mining again, the rainforest was being destroyed at a record-breaking pace.
In the recent past, each of these events — and the broader global story they tell — would have merited White House opprobrium, not necessarily because Washington had any genuine commitment to human rights or to democracy, but because, for a period of time, the U.S. saw stability in international relations to be in its self-interest.
No more. Now the U.S. and its foreign policy-making and military bureaucracies are controlled by people such as Donald Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who seem to view the swirl of perpetual chaos, the playing off of countries against each other, as being the best way to ensure U.S. dominance. They are leery of long-term thinking, more desirous of making policy and alliances on the hoof. They generally avoid the language of human rights, and go out of their way to cultivate bullies on the global stage.
Trump has unofficially declared Bolsonaro an ideological soulmate. He is also giving the green light to a Hindu fundamentalist policy agenda in India that has the potential to trigger a war between nuclear armed antagonists on the subcontinent.
The U.S. government, as currently constituted, is no counter to the team of global strongmen; to the contrary, the president is firmly a part of it. He is interested only in his own reflection — witness his visiting the mass shooting scene in El Paso only to boast about the size of the crowds who had come to his recent rallies in the region — and in his ability to intimidate and to hurt his perceived enemies.
Under these circumstances, of course, the U.S. will not be taking a meaningful stand on any of these crises befalling other countries.
And as U.S. soft power ebbs, and irrationalism becomes the order of the day, so other countries and movements are rushing to fill the vacuum on the international stage. The result is a free-for-all, with every would-be-dictator, every authoritarian populist, every political party that longs for absolute powers, testing the waters and probing to see what they can get away with.
Of course, autocracies tend not to co-exist peacefully. Modi might, for now, score political points with his BJP base by ripping up Article 370, but it’s entirely possible that Pakistan’s political leadership will also feel compelled to respond by funneling more support to insurgents in the region, and the result could all too easily be conflict. China might feel empowered to eliminate the protections that Hong Kong currently enjoys, gambling that no other power will intervene to protect the island and its residents — but down the road, the U.S. or India or Japan or Russia will likely judge China’s geopolitical ambitions to be too destabilizing to ignore. A nationalist Turkey, largely unmoored from its post-World War II alliances and nostalgic for the glory days of Ottoman power, could all-too-easily end up clashing with Russia or even with the U.S. Bolsonaro’s shock-jock politics could end up so utterly destructive, both domestically and in terms of the global environmental consequences, that other countries will be forced toward economic sanctions and boycotts against Brazil.
We see flickerings of these potential conflicts in the ways that Trump has responded — or not responded — to autocratic actions. On the one hand, he goes out of his way to sweet talk autocrats such as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman; but on the other hand, depending on his mood, he threatens other autocrats with destruction. He has, at one time or another, made implicit nuclear threats against North Korea and Iran; and also threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy. This isn’t the rational politics of a sophisticated global player, it’s the fulminations of a man who trusts only his gut instincts.
Of course, no-one has a crystal ball here. But the trends aren’t encouraging. Autocracies have always done tremendous cultural, political and ultimately military damage in pursuit of short-term, narrow, nationalist gains. In the end, autocracies always seem to end up colliding with other violent and repressive regimes. Why should today’s global autocratic moment end up any differently?