Dominique Jacovides (AFP via Getty Images

The autocrats we enable

Ana Belén Soage

9 mins - 5 de Marzo de 2022, 07:00

The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to be yet another nail in the coffin of the international liberal order established after the Second World War – an order far from perfect but which at least has made war the exception, rather than the norm. Long gone is the triumphalism that accompanied the end of the cold war, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history and the victory of liberal democracy. We never got the New World Order announced by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, one in which great powers would cooperate to maintain peace and resolve pending conflicts. Instead, the very principles of the system that had supposedly proved its worth by defeating communism are increasingly being questioned.

It was a gradual process, one which first manifested itself in an explosion of identity politics: the growth of Islamism in much of the Muslim world, the rise of the Front National in France, the emergence of the Tea Party in the US... In a Russia that felt humiliated, Putin pursued an aggressive foreign policy to try to reverse his country's fall in status, while attempting to undermine and discredit the democratic system using Kremlin-funded media and troll farms. And China surged as a great power with a revisionist agenda to match its economic prowess. As a result, the conversation shifted to what Freedom House dubbed in its 2021 annual report "Democracy under Siege." A siege that has now turned into outright war.

You scratch my back…
One thing that Fukuyama was not wrong about was the decline of ideology. Or rather, no ideology has emerged to replace communism as an alternative to Western liberalism. The regimes that challenge the latter are not ideologically united, to say the least. Their models range from China's communism with Chinese characteristics to Iran’s Islamist theocracy to Putin’s exacerbated nationalism. As elegantly put by Anne Applebaum in a piece published in The Atlantic last November, "their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals."

In effect, the autocrats assist each other in a number of ways. Economically, they help circumvent international sanctions. China is one of Venezuela's main creditors, while Russian companies have made huge investments in its decrepit oil industry. When Western countries punished Alexander Lukashenko following his bogus victory in the 2020 presidential election, Russia opened its markets to Belarus, while the Russian-led Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development has offered it financial support. China has its largest European industrial park a few kilometres from Minsk and has also become the most important market for Iranian oil. 

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In developing countries, China's Belt and Road Initiative offers infrastructure deals without the pesky scrutiny that accompanies other sources of funding – and which have the advantage of providing plenty of opportunity for bribes and kickbacks, as regularly reported by anticorruption watchdogs. In return, China gets positive media coverage and diplomatic support. Last October, when a group of mostly Western countries tried to pass a statement at the UN Human Rights Council condemning China over its treatment of the Uyghurs, Asian and African states overwhelmingly supported the Chinese position. Similarly, the following month an Emirati general accused of torture was elected president of Interpol after a $50 million UAE donation to an Interpol foundation and a global lobbying tour which no doubt included offers of aid and investment.

Autocrats also collaborate on military and security matters. China and Russia have been conducting joint military exercises since 2005 – and since 2019, naval exercises with Iran –, and they have even announced their intention to build a joint research station on the Moon. Russia's 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war tipped the balance in favour of dictator Bashar al-Assad, while Western countries just wrung their hands over his violations of international law. And after massive anti-Lukashenko demonstrations that enjoyed widespread international support and coverage, Putin sent him advisers to train his security forces in the techniques used in Russia to intimidate the opposition. Now Belarus is supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while China, Iran and Cuba abstained in a UN vote condemning it; Venezuela was a no-show.

In spite of their ideological diversity, the autocrats agree on one thing: The pre-eminence of national sovereignty in the face of the rise of global norms such as election monitoring, human rights sanctions regimes and the responsibility to protect doctrine. In their discourse, human rights are merely a Western pretext to interfere in other countries. For China, where individual rights are subordinated to what the CCP considers the collective good, foreign policy is best summed up by the mantra cooperation without interference. And despite their rivalry, Iran and Saudi Arabia agree on an Islamic interpretation of human rights that denies their universality and enshrines discrimination against women and religious and sexual minorities.

The complicity of Western democracies

The mention of the UAE and Saudi Arabia brings us to the topic of these autocratic 'friends' of the West. They are the leading members of the club of more or less absolute monarchies known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, which carries out joint military exercises and helps hunt down dissidents across borders. During the Arab Spring, their fear that democracy could prove contagious led them to arrange for counterrevolutions – militarily in Bahrain, more subtly in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. In Yemen, the failure of their scheming unleashed a brutal war which Saudi Arabia is finding it difficult to extricate itself from. Both countries have cultivated strong ties with China, supporting its policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the UN. Their response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been muted, to say the least. 

The West does not just turn a blind eye to autocratic abuses when convenient; it actively aids and abets them. Saudi Arabia counts with British and, until February 2021, US assistance in its war in Yemen, in the form of training, intelligence and logistical support. During his visit to Jeddah last December, French President Emmanuel Macron used the difficult situation in Lebanon as an excuse to be the first Western leader to publicly shake Mohammad bin Salman's hand after the gruesome assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but the primary objective of his Gulf tour was the signing of a flurry of arms deals. Likewise, Israel has sold the ostensibly antiterrorist Pegasus spyware to autocratic regimes, enabling them to better monitor and harass their critics.

We can also point to the many Western institutions and companies happy to cater to the needs of the autocrats. The most important tax havens are not in the Caribbean islands anymore; they are in the US. Its different states compete fiercely for corporate registrations and Delaware has become "the world's biggest offshore haven," according to Casey Michael, author of 'American Kleptocracy. How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History'. But Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada ... all appear in the Pandora Papers leaked last October as prominent destinations for dodgy money. Western banks set up shell companies and trusts to launder money stolen from treasuries or from the exploitation of national resources. Western lawyers help with paperwork and keep prosecutors at bay. Western consultants and public relations firms protect reputations. Western estate agents offer pieds-à-terre in Paris and New York and summer houses in Tuscany and the Costa del Sol. And Western luxury goods vendors make sure dictators and oligarchs and their progeny, wives and girlfriends can flaunt Rolex watches, Cartier jewellery, Louis Vuitton bags and Lamborghini sports cars. All for a hefty fee, of course.

We could add to the list of Western moral failings the highly questionable 'global war on terror' that justified the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as illegal policies such as rendition and indefinite detention. Or the growing xenophobia that is reflected in the rise of the extreme right, to which certain democratic parties have responded by moving in that direction in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. No wonder autocrats accuse the West of hypocrisy and double standards. In March last year, China's State Council Information Office published an 18-page report denouncing US shortcomings such as racial discrimination, failure to deal effectively with the covid-19 pandemic and the crisis of its democratic institutions. It was entitled I can’t breathe – George Floyd's last words.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine makes it more urgent than ever to try to prevent a return to an anarchic world order in which strong countries can just invade their weaker neighbours with impunity. And to achieve that, the West needs to live up to the values that legitimise the liberal order. The sanctions against Russia are appropriate in these circumstances, but by definition sanctions are extraordinary measures. As a matter of course, Western governments should respect human rights, both at home and abroad; cooperate to close down tax havens and implement money-laundering laws; and agree not to sell weapons to oppressive regimes, so the situation stops resembling a zero-sum-game in which one’s scruples become someone else’s profits. Only then will our speeches in defence of democracy and the rule of law have credibility in the eyes of the world.
(Here, the Spanish version)
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