Better-off siding with Russia or China: there's no dictator's dilemma today

Democracy promotion by the west has been a grubby, hypocritical affair. Is there any hope for doing it properly?

Keith Kahn-Harris
30 October 2016

Whether you are a despot or merely an oligarch, you are likely to be looking longingly at Aleppo at the moment.  This is what every leader of an authoritarian regime could ever dream of: a superpower that will support you, that will help you to keep your ruling class in power, that will help you destroy your enemies, but without one-hand tied behind its back; without making you spout pious formulas about peace and democracy.

Of course, the deal is that you become a satellite state. But that hardly matters. From Belarus to Chechnya, Russian satellite regimes allow local elites to live high on the hog, without pretense, without shame.

If military support isn’t what you need, and you have raw materials to exploit, then China is also a tempting superpower for many regimes in Africa. You can merrily sell off your assets, collect the payoffs, distribute them to your cronies and to your house in the South of France. So long as China gets what it needs to build gadgets for export to the west, what does it care?

In contrast, what does the US and the west have to offer? They might support your despotism, but you have to continue the tiresome pretense that you are on the road to greater democratization. You have to pay the likes of Tony Blair consultancy fees to pretend to ‘modernize’ your government, as in Kazakhstan. You have to splash out vast sums in soft-power exercises that convince no one, as in Azerbaijan. You have to find ways round anti-corruption and transparency campaigns while outwardly supporting them. It’s hard work!

Then there is the humiliation of the US and other western powers outsourcing their dirty work to you – as with ‘extraordinary renditions’ – but trying to keep it a secret. Who wants to be the west’s embarrassing, but necessary, relation? Why can’t they do their torturing themselves or at least let their clients be open about it?

And even when you do indulge the west, it might not be enough. Look at Egypt: what did Mubarak get as his reward for decades of faithful service? Look at Iraq: Saddam Hussein had the ground cut from under his feet in 1990 and beyond. Then in 2003 it was as though the US was trying all the different tactics of imperialism without really committing to any of them: sometimes yearning for a strongman and sometimes preaching democracy, sometimes supporting minorities and sometimes national unity, sometimes splashing the cash around and sometimes looting its assets. Bewilderingly, even while it undermined a bastion of Sunni dominance, the US also railed against the Iranian-led Shia resurgence that it itself had unleashed.  

Anyway, even during the good times, you can never be sure that elections won’t change US and other western foreign policies. Ah for the consistency and predictability of Russia and China!

If you’re a western aligned power, you’d be forgiven for yearning for the blank cheque that a non-western superpower could offer. It’s no wonder that some figures on the Israeli right flirt with the idea of pivoting towards Russia and the other non-western superpowers. No wonder that President Duterte of the Philippines is insulting Obama and pivoting towards China.  No wonder the smarter non-democratic regimes, such as Qatar, hedge their bets diplomatically. If I was someone like Paul Kagame of Rwanda, right now I’d be asking myself whether it was worth indulging in western delusions any longer – why can I not be the leader I want to be? Why does Assad get to be himself when I cannot?

Ah for the good old days of the cold war!

Under US tutelage you could commit atrocities and ransack your country with abandon. You could even get away with genocide, as in Guatemala and Indonesia. If you were really lucky, as in Chile, they might put you in power in the first place.

You had to be a special kind of idiot and have nowhere else to turn for the US to abandon you – look at South Africa (and even then the US provided a certain amount of cover by restraining sanctions as long as they could).

In contrast, what did the Soviets offer at the time? Yes they’d be happy to watch benignly while you undertook the necessary work of turning your idealistic liberation movement into a self-sustaining elite. But it was a pretty dull kind of oligarchy you could build under communism. You had to parrot a huge amount of stultifying verbiage, sit through endless meaningless speeches. The Soviets didn’t offer luxury goods worth the name. You couldn’t enjoy the glittering prizes of consumerism. The best rewards for being a member of the elite would be the chance to buy Rice Crispies and Johnny Walker at the hard currency store, or perhaps a cushy diplomatic posting in Paris. What Vietnamese apparachik wouldn’t have looked at their Thai or the Filipino counterparts with envious eyes?

Given the rise of Russia, perhaps the US and other western countries will start offering a more competitive package once again. But they’ve been caught in their own contradictions: having been crowing for years about liberal interventionism and spreading democracy, it will be hard to go back to the days of openly supporting the worst dictators. In the more overlooked nooks and crannies of Africa and Central Asia the west can still just about manage to offer something that local elites still want. Admittedly US support for Saudia Arabia remains unwavering, but they are pretty much stuck with each other now and I can well imagine that some members of the Saudi elites must now be looking at their Shia neighbours with a degree of envy as well as fear.

Or there’s an alternative: for the west to stop vacillating, take a deep breath and actually follow through in promoting democracy, and abandon the embarrassed support for oligarchies and despotism that currently satisfies no one (least of all the oligarchs and despots).

It’s not as though the US and its allies have never managed to be a genuine force for spreading freedom and democracy. The creation of a stable West Germany after the war, lubricated by the vast sums given through Marshall Aid, was a massive achievement.  In Yugoslavia (albeit far too late) and Northern Ireland, the US showed it could act as a peacemaker. For all its faults, the US and other western states still provide inspiration for people around longing for freer societies. And what refugee wants to go to China or Russia?

The problem is that US and other western nation states sometimes act as nation states do – in their own interest, to extend their power. And yet at the same time they are also states that profess democratic ideals which they also seek to export. Occasionally, as in the aftermath of World War Two, idealistic self-interest is possible. But much of the time it leads to confusion, hypocrisy and bizarre circumlocutions.

The problem is that promoting democratic ideals too often doesn’t just backfire – and be experienced simply as imperialism – it can be an effectively impossible project in some contexts. In that case, the only alternative that is consistent with believing in democracy can be simply to retreat. But that’s a risky solution, as the vacuum left by the west can be filled by other powers, such as Russia, who can make a much better offer to local elites. Or, regional superpowers, such as Iran, Saudia Arabia, Israel or Cuba, can seek to extend their own reach in the absence of, or in addition to, superpower interest.

What’s the solution? Ultimately it lies in building a world without imperialism, without authoritarian states, without elites, without national power politics. At best, that’s a multi-generational project if it’s possible at all. In the short to medium term, there are no easy solutions. Now that non-western superpowers have something more tempting to offer non-democratic elites than the west can offer, the immediate future looks bleak. The west withdrawing from support for authoritarian regimes would not only involve authoritarian superpowers gleefully stepping into the breach, inevitably, the west would have to look on as even worse atrocities are committed.  Maybe in the long-term, the authoritarian superpowers will collapse and the people under the yoke of authoritarian client states will have the strength to build something better.

Perhaps though, there are some limited things that could be done to partially fill some of the vacuum left if the west were to commit itself to only supporting democracies.

First of all, there may still be parts of the world that the other superpowers don’t care about, that have no raw materials and strategic interest, and that are ravaged by conflict and despotism. Maybe the west could intervene in such places and actually show that it genuinely supports freedom, rather than client states under a democratic veneer. Do such places actually exist? And could western electorates tolerate the vast sums necessary to transform them into decent societies, without any kind of material return? We will never know unless we try.

Second, at the very least we can stop facilitating the entrenching of authoritarian elites. The use of London as a haven for oligarchical loot from across the world doesn’t just destabilize the London property market, it provides comfort and stability for precisely those people who are oppressing vast swathes of the world. If oligarchs want a safe place for their money, let them build their own tax havens.  

Finally – and this is going to sound appallingly cynical - maybe we need to think about how we can buy off dictators, oligarchs and elites in ways that don’t collude in them ravaging their countries. Perhaps giving Assad several billion and sticking him in a cab is the way forward. Just think: all the financial benefits of ruling with none of the messy work of government! If I was a despot, I’d be pretty tempted.

Does anyone have any better ideas?

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