Strongmen are on the rise. Here’s how to defeat them

The salon crowd in Washington is all atwitter at the notion of the return of the strongman. Ideological competition, they tell us, is back. In this Cold War redux, the forces of liberalism are at daggers drawn with the forces of “anti-liberalism,” who are interfering in our elections, supporting terrorists, money laundering, and stealing, oppressing their people, and spreading political corruption. The tale has good news and bad news. The bad news is obvious: today’s authoritarians are fueled by illicit gain, culturally diverse, viral, and autonomously mutate. But the good news is better: illiberalism is not an ideology. And without realizing it, the United States already has the tools to address this threat.

It’s imperative to acknowledge that the United States and our fellow liberal democracies are under assault. But this is not the return of Soviet communism in another guise. The totalitarian, communist ideologies of the past were clear about their often-destructive prescriptions: religion is the opiate of the masses, violent revolution is necessary for progress, the state should own as much as possible, central planning works best, independent thought is dangerous. Today’s domestic and international conflicts — such as Russian election interference, Islamic terrorism, immigration, international money laundering, transnational criminality, and political corruption — are more about the nuts and bolts of domestic governance than some unified, global conspiracy.

Understanding and correctly characterizing the nature of the threat is key to defeating it. Can powerful and lasting ideas about how societies should function be founded solely upon what they are against? Can North Korea’s official state ideology of Juche (self-reliance) effectively coordinate with other prevailing ideologies, such as China’s state-enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought,” Putin’s doctrine of kleptomaniacal nationalism, Iran’s state-sponsored religion of Twelverist rapture, or Viktor Orban’s proposal of “illiberal democracy.” Can one realistically imagine Salafi-jihadists, white nationalists, Antifa(scist)s, and the QAnon nut-jobs agreeing to a shared vision for a more perfect society?

These questions are not as ridiculous as they may sound. Tactically, disparate state and non-state actors do seem to be converging. Terrorist attacks by white nationalists have increasingly become a mirror image of jihadist attacks. The religiously tyrannical ISIS and Taliban launder money through and profit off drug and sex trafficking. Forced immigration has been weaponized by Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Bashar al-Assad in Syria to sow discord in nearby free societies. China supports North Korea through trade, and Russia supplies weapons to Iran while laundering the proceeds of oligarchic corruption. All adherents of an “anti-liberal” ideology, including those hiding behind the mask of online anonymity, abuse new technologies to turn the media, electoral, and financial environments of democracies into cesspools of contempt and division.

But does this convergence of anti-liberal tactics represent a new system of belief that must be countered in the same way communism was during the Cold War? The answer is no. The authoritarian threat is not a grand international conspiracy, it’s simply the natural result of decades of “End of History” ideological neglect within democracies.

Defeating the various forces of anti-liberalism will be no easy task, but it’s not rocket science either. Nobody really wants to live amidst the corruption, violence, and fragility of the anti-world. A counter-strongman strategy boils down to a reinvestment at home and abroad in the basics: a vibrant private sector, free and fair elections, rule of law, transparency, and fierce competition; the global structures that have underpinned a staggering growth of prosperity since the end of World War II are desperately in need of a tune-up. Truth be told, the United States and our fellow democratic nations have disinvested in the global institutions and rule of law systems that underpinned the world’s transformation in the second half of the 20th century. And while we disinvested, bad guys, violent guys — and yes, it is almost always strong-“men” — have deeply invested in corrupting those institutions and systems. It’s time to take them back.

Too often, agenda-driven politicos in both the United States and Europe have substituted rhetorical fealty to creaking international institutions when new thinking is imperative. Whether it is the WTO that the People’s Republic of China has bent to its will, or the NAFTA that has failed to keep up with modern trade, or the United Nations that can no more make peace than regulate itself, or the NATO some of whose members no longer remain committed to either financing or believing in the organization’s mission, it is time for a radical refresh of the free world’s structures and mission.

Assuming that authoritarians have a coherent ideology capable of replacing democratic capitalism gives their fragile beliefs far more credit than they deserve. When liberty and the rule of law are forcefully defended in the competition of ideas, authoritarians quickly collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions and conspiracy theories. Knowing what one is against is only half of any ideological battle. Winners always know what they stand for. Do you know what you are for?

Clay R. Fuller is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on authoritarian survival, corruption, and the means through which dictators, terrorists, and criminals use free markets to restrict freedom, sow discord, and legitimize their actions. He also collects data on the use of special economic zones and sovereign wealth funds in nondemocratic countries.

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