Beyond the most imminent foreign policy challenges facing the new administration looms a macro-trend that deserves attention: the rise of personalist “strongmen” authoritarian governments.
Classic examples of personalist regimes include Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, and the Kim dynasty in North Korea. Yet less overtly repressive authoritarian regimes are progressing from consolidating power within their borders to projecting power beyond them. In Russia, for example, the centralization of internal power under Putin has taken place alongside adventurist foreign policies and military strategies in Ukraine, the near abroad, and in the Middle East.
Understanding the political dynamics within authoritarian systems such as Russia’s might help us better predict what they will do on the world stage.
A New Era of Authoritarianism
Over the last decade, authoritarians have pushed back against the world’s prevailing democratic order. For the 11th year in a row, Freedom House has announced an overall drop in freedom worldwide. Most countries today (55 percent) are considered not free or partly free according to the civil liberties and political rights citizens enjoy. At the same time, highly personalized regimes are taking control of autocratic and even democratic political systems.
Compared to the Cold War era when powerful Communist and socialist parties presided over most dictatorships, today around 40 percent of autocratic governments are ruled by strongmen. Across regions, consolidated power is settling into the hands of one man or a small group of illiberal individuals, ranging from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and leaders in Ecuador, Venezuela, Hungary, and Poland.
Classifying this global trend is complicated by the fact that authoritarian governments in the 21st century do not look like Stalinist Russia or Fascist Germany. In the absence of mobilizing ideologies, modern autocratic leaders abuse and corrupt other sources of power, including those that we recognize in democratic systems such as political competition, the rule of law, public debate, and access to open information.
Moreover, autocrats have taken advantage of globalized communications and advanced technologies to maintain control over their populations. Governments have more elusive and powerful tools of monitoring, censorship, and disinformation available at their fingertips, allowing political leaders to move their instruments of persuasion from the pulpit to the digital space. Leaders in nations as varied as Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Venezuela have tapped into popular national narratives that highlight how their countries have been exploited by the United States and the West. These leaders then project their ability to stand up to such exploitation, which resonates with their populations.
The Foreign Policy Implications of Domestic Power Structures
Personalist rule is just one distinct mold of autocracy. Other types of authoritarian systems include single-party regimes (where a strong party organization exercises some power over the leader) and military autocracies (in which one or several high-ranking military officers maintain centralized control). In comparison, personalist regimes concentrate power in the hands of one individual or a small group not accountable to the military or an institutionalized party. Personalist leaders have limited constraints on their decisionmaking abilities and are held less accountable for policies, including those with negative outcomes. They are able to appoint friends, relatives, and cronies to important offices. These handpicked insiders have strong incentives to remain loyal to and uncritical of the leader.
The implications of authoritarian rule do not stop at the water’s edge. Recent political science studies indicate the significance of political dynamics within authoritarian regimes for foreign policy. Among single-party dominated and military-led regimes, research shows that personalist authoritarians are the most likely to initiate conflicts abroad and pursue risky foreign policies. Not only are personalist authoritarians more aggressive abroad, they are also often unpredictable actors. With limited constraints on their power, personalist leaders are capable of carrying out volatile policies with little notice.
There are four primary reasons that personalist systems can lead to more aggressive foreign policies. First, the inherent characteristics of the kinds of individuals who become personalist rulers—ambitious, cut-throat and divisive—drive them to pursue more adventurist international goals than leaders of other kinds of regimes. Second, personalist leaders perceive lower costs of fighting than leaders of democracies or more constrained autocratic systems because they have fewer normative aversions to force, do not internalize the costs of fighting, and view force as more effective than other tools of statecraft. Third, personalist leaders do not fear defeat to the extent that other leaders do because of the lack of strong institutions able to punish the leader for his mistakes. Fourth, subordinates to personalist leaders are typically unwilling to challenge a leader’s personal biases, leading to profound “groupthink” and overestimation of the likelihood of victory.
Learning from Moscow
Russia under Putin illustrates the potential link between personalist authoritarianism and aggressive and risky foreign policies. In Russia’s political system, the Federal Assembly (Russia’s parliament) has become a rubber stamp on Putin’s policy proposals. Furthermore, Putin does not rely on Russia’s main political party, United Russia, as his primary power base. This means that he can rise above the political fray and insulate his personal popularity from the public’s lack of trust in the government and dismay over the direction of the country. Yet Putin is not entirely above the system; there is a governing apparatus that anchors him, even if it cannot be considered a formal collective or political party.
The narrowing of decisionmaking circles around Putin to a small group of loyalists and like-minded advisors has eliminated competing voices within his regime and has created a groupthink dynamic in the Kremlin’s decisionmaking. Putin is probably the least-constrained leader in the Kremlin since Stalin; there is no Politburo that could fire him, as it did Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. As a result, it has proven immensely difficult to predict Putin’s next moves until after they are done deals. Putin’s decision to annex Crimea in 2014 and intervene in Syria in 2015 are two examples of when the Russian leader’s unpredictability left analysts and even government insiders guessing.
While Russian trolls and propaganda machines carry out complex disinformation operations in Europe, and the United States, the Kremlin’s tightening control over the media at home ensures that the public receives only the official narrative of domestic and foreign events. Russia’s information landscape is aptly described by journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev as a space where “nothing is true and everything is possible,” and where it is difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. This too has foreign policy implications. Capitalizing on nationalism to mobilize the public on certain international objectives—warlike or not—is far more permissive in such an environment where the inherent definition of fact is constantly challenged by authority figures.
If cross-regional illustrations can teach us anything, it is that authoritarians, once in office, can impinge on judicial independence, civil liberties, and checks on overreach from the executive branch. Beyond domestic repercussions, we also know that there are implications for the conduct of foreign policy, particularly on issues of national security, where the executive has more flexibility and leverage over other branches of government. Personalist tendencies also impede critical foreign policy decisionmaking processes, as the impulsivity of individual leaders can go unconstrained by outside opinions, institutions, or channels of dissent.
As the Trump administration develops its nascent worldview and foreign policies, it should not ignore these powerful political dynamics brewing within autocratic states.
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