Robert Kagan: “The Strongmen Strike Back” –- Summary

Authoritarianism has returned as an ideological and strategic force, writes Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. And it returns at just the moment when the liberal world is suffering a major crisis of confidence. “Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic world — a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge. And we have no idea how to confront it,” Kagan writes in his significant piece which was published by The Washington Post on 14 March 2019.

Following is a summary of the article:

The article centers around the ideological and strategic resurgence of authoritarianism as the greatest geopolitical transformation facing liberal democracy. Kegan argues that authoritarianism is “a real alternative with comprehensive vision of human nature, politics, economics, and governances shaping the behavior and thought of individuals and challenging a classic view that traditional autocracies are ‘devoid’ of grand theories with no universalistic pretensions of ideology to challenge liberalism”. Driving on China, Russia and Middle East example, Kegan confirms that the serious use  social control and disruption tools undermine liberal societies’ privacy and future.

The article draws an interesting comparison between Communism and authoritarianism. To Kegan, the real dispute that liberalism posed to traditional autocracies was not the obstruction of people’s ‘habitual rhythms’  that  traditional autocrats allowed while subjecting individuals’ souls and bodies to secular and spiritual rulers. Rather, it was, and still, the challenge of traditional beliefs and social mores that united communities around race, tribe and family ties. Lest, liberalism represented a direct cut of individuals from all ties and hierarchies, while communism remains adaptable to liberalism.

The article turns to a quick sight on history to show the existential struggle between liberalism and traditional authoritarianism. Kegan illustrates that Europe fought and killed for divine-right absolutism, the authority of the church and the natural hierarchy of society. This fight posed the greatest 19th century threat to America’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ that capitalized on the 17th century Enlightenment philosopher John Lock’s ideas of ‘natural rights’. Hence, the battle between liberalism and traditional autocracy was the ideological battle for one and half century and the principles set forth in the ‘Declaration of Independence’ were the reason behind the Civil War. Only until the late 19th century that traditional autocracy was constrained to the governance forms in Germany’s Hohenzollerns, Russia’s czars and Austria’s Habsburgs.

Thereof, WW1 as Fought to defend Europe’s ‘liberties’ against German’s militarism and ‘Prussianism’ before the rise of Nazism and Imperial Japan forfeit this aim. By end of WWII all authoritarian 19th and 20th century powers were destroyed – the Ottomans, Habsburg, Chinese, Prussian and then German and Japanese empires, just before a communist revolution start the Cold War between Liberalism and Communism.

The author argues that unlike traditional autocracy, communism was neither unreformable nor irreversible, noting the shortcomings of Kirkpatrick’s 1979 famous doctrine of supporting ‘traditional autocracies’ in the struggle against ‘totalitarian communism’, because communism could not survive in a competitive world and “its fanatical utopianism was at too much odds with some fundamental elements of human nature” subjecting its application to repression and violence and both were not sustainable as long-term governance policies. Also, Kegan argues that communists “measured success in material terms”, thus when “Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the system to improve the living standards, he brought its demise”. In this way, Kegan concludes that “liberal democracies overestimated communism and underestimated traditional authoritarianism that struggled to survive, at first, before they regain power by the end of the Cold War”.

On this point, the article elaborates that “periodic weakness of right-wing dictatorships that depended on the US for money and protection used to pay lip service to liberal norms and principles”.. By the end of the Cold War, authoritarian governments led by Putin dismantled weak liberal institutions and his model promised strong leadership defending traditional values and exalting ‘Asiatic’ character over western orientation, while few autocracies that survived the Cold War did so by giving concessions, unless “the US needed them or they had the strength and independence to weather liberal disapproval”. China, Kegan confirms, had both, and thus was allowed to crush all liberal tendencies inside and outside its ruling oligarchy, while the Arab dictatorships survived by oil and some concessions only before the US return to supporting ‘Dictator friends’ against radical Islamism after 9/11 incidents.

Kegan continues that since 9/11 the authoritarian backlash has spread globally “from Egypt to Turkey to Venezuela to Zimbabwe by restricting civil society spaces, cutting foreign support, curbing free expression and independent media and defending their different ‘value systems’ in a ‘market of ideas’ as noted by Sergei Lavrov in 2007”.

Meanwhile, Kegan add to intrinsic difference between the two ideologies that authoritarians success “is not because their states are more powerful to weather democratic pressures, but also because anti-liberal critique is powerful highlighting the failings of liberal society”. The liberals inherited a premise that ‘all humans at all times sought above all the recognition of intrinsic worth as individuals and protection against all the traditional threats to their freedom, their lives and their dignity that came from state, church, or community”. Rather, Kegan states, “humans do not yearn only for freedom. They also seek security (….) that comes from family, tribe, race, and culture (And) often charismatic leaders who can provide that kind of protection”. Meanwhile, “liberalism’s main purpose was never to provide the kind of security that people find in tribe and family, it was only concerned with the security of the individual and with treating all individuals equally regardless of where they come from , what gods they worship, or who are their parents (…) while exalting individual rights, weaken church and family and tribal authorities that dictate what individuals believe and how they must behave” By taking aim at family, race, culture, class, gender, and all ties that pressured and shaped individual freedom, it could not help undermining ‘traditional values’ and cultures. Rather, it gave a temporal end to white Christian ascendency ideology  by recognizing rights of people of color, Jews, Muslims, gays, refugees and migrants  and “any rights of the few as superseding the preferences of the many”.

At War with it Self

In this part, Kegan reflects on the anti-liberal backlash revived with Viktor Orban’s proclaimed ‘illiberalism’, Marine Le pen of France and Geert Wilders in Netherlands, among other international leaders. However, he argues that the most significant backlash was in the United States raising Conservatives’ age-long questioning of liberalism and the ‘whole concept of universal natural rights’. The aim to ground American democracy, not in the ‘Declaration of Independence’ but in white, Anglo—Saxon and Protestant political culture that stands superior to that of the immigrants is the greatest threat to liberalism.

He proceeds that these voices were also present in shaping foreign policy by campaigning for ‘America First’, restrictive tariffs and immigration policies, and ‘White nationalism’ that fostered anti-internationalism tendencies while becoming ‘authoritarians’ sympathetic friends’. Putin’s speech in 2013 confirming that Euro Atlantic countries reject their ‘roots’ , ‘moral principles’  and Christian values which were basis of Western civilization, became a much-hailed speech by populist conservatives around the world and among Trump supporters, as conservative thinker Caldwell argues.

Liberalism under Attack in home from both left and right

In this part Kegan argues that Liberalism is under attack not only by intellectuals but also ‘mainstream center-right parties’ and the US conservative president whose Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoes Hazony’s ‘the Virtue of Nationalism” by highlighting “nationalism and nation state, not liberalism, as basis of democratic freedom and national interests”. In this way he proves that the US administration and Putin are both aiding illiberal nationalism in Europe, giving rise to crusades against the EU’s ‘liberal imperialism’ in different countries and decrying the ‘liberal world order’, the international trade, and financial regime, and almost all liberal institutions.

To all these attacks, no plausible defense of liberalism is present today. Rather, Kegan states that “a broad alliance between far right to self-described realists to progressive left wants the US to refrain its resistance to rising authoritarianism and allow China and Russia having their spheres of influence they demand in Europe Asia and elsewhere and thus accepting the world’s ideological diversity”.

Since most Americans appear indifferent to the threat of autocracy, that author confirms that “today’s battle goes between two binaries: countries with permanent institutions and unchanging norms that protect unalienable rights of individuals against all infringement by state, majority, and the illiberal where the state and the majority violate individual rights”.

The New Tools of Oppression in the ‘Illiberal’ State

This interesting part compares between dictators’ previous lack of means to oppress the effectively and affordably, in addition to fears of losing political and military incentives that the US may withdraw as punishment, with today’s scientifically effective oppression. Kegan argues that today’s autocracies in Russia, china, and Egypt “have given up the pretense of competitive elections since liberal power lack either will or ability to complain”. By drawing upon communication and technology advances, China leads the world in using internet and social media, data collection and artificial intelligence to control its population through sophisticated all-encompassing and efficient surveillance system that neither Stalin, Hitler, and George Orwell could have imagined. In this way, the Chinese government knows what every individual sees, says and does, where he travels, whom he knows through hardware and software systems which it markets to all autocrat and would-be autocrat states. Even in the nominally democratic countries like Italy, Hungary and Poland, social media is used by the state “to confuse, mislead and divide the public as is the case in authoritarian countries”. The article provides an interesting notice that today’s autocracies demand that all foreign companies locate their data-storage devices on its national territory where the government can hack and control it.

Thereof, the article concludes, “economics and science are leading toward the perfection of dictatorship in what is termed ‘post-modern totalitarians’, which results into radicalizing the society, crushing the moderates and liberals rather than eliminating the radicals and revolutionaries”, because autocracies know that threats of radical Islamism kept financial and military support flowing from Washington. Taking Mubarak as an example, Kegan argues that by suppressing the moderates and “allowing space for the Muslim Brotherhood knowing that the threat of the brotherhood victory will keep the Americans on his side (…)he lost control of society and caused the brotherhood victory at the ballots box in 2012”. Thus Kegan believes that “a similar course of supporting authoritarianism under Crown Prince MBS will result into bringing the radicals to power”.

Finally, the article gives two more reasons not to support autocracies, including the ‘friendly’ ones. As dictators acquire new methods and technologies developed by Russia and China to implement efficient control, they provide the two powers with access to an ever-expanding pool of data on everyone on earth, including the Americans. The threat to Americans’ privacy is added to rising humanitarian austerities that challenge liberalism’s claims that all possibilities to new genocides and holocausts is untrue. He argues, “concentration camps in China where over one million Uighur Muslims are subject to mental and physical torture is only one scene to ongoing atrocities inside and by liberal nations who only recoil them while authoritarian regimes do not”. The author concludes that we need to “start imagining what it will be like to live in such a world, even if the UN does not fall prey to these forces”. “Whatever our critiques to liberalism, we should remember that only liberalism is what keep us from being burned at the stake for what we believe”. 

The article makes clear that defending liberalism is necessary to preserve individual Americans’ privacy and prevent the spread of humanitarian austerities. It raises concerns over how and when serious revision to liberal thought will allow individuals survive family, cultural, and race ties while enjoying a certain degree of privacy. Kegan criticizes communism for fanatical premises about human nature and private property but fails to explain today’s fall of liberalism to promoting radical binaries, demolishing social ties, and ‘enforcing’ a hypothetical supremacy of individuals privacy to their need for security and belongingness. The clue is not blind defense of liberalism but a decent compromise between community and individual rights and needs. Only then may popular support to traditional authoritarianism in the Middle East now and soon in America and all-over Europe will give way to liberal revival.



Authoritarianism has returned as an ideological and strategic force, writes Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

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