18.07.2021 – 08:13
By Philip Stephens, Financial Times
High carbon steel is as strong as it is brittle if it tries to bend, exerting a great force on it. Mild steel with low carbon content, is prone to bending, but is less likely to break.
Both of these types of metals are useful metaphors for the opposite properties of democratic and authoritarian governments. The rich democracies of the world have been somewhat distorted recently. A brief look at legislative initiatives to exclude millions of people from voting, undertaken by the Republican Party in the US, proves that America still bears the severe distortions it suffered during Donald Trump’s presidency.
In Europe, populists have launched countless attacks on pluralist values and norms. And yet, although they may have been deformed under the weight of these attacks, the institutions of democracy have been shown to be agile enough to withstand the blows.
As for the autocrats, Vladimir Putin remains in his Kremlin palace; Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan still resides his magnificent palace in Ankara; and in Beijing the “emperor” Xi Jinping has become increasingly aggressive in his attempt to destroy the international order once built by the West.
But it is in the nature of their rule, that autocrats are omnipotent until one day they become powerless. A British diplomat once told me about his work on the Soviet issue in the Foreign Office.
It was the early 1980s, and the Soviet Union seemed to be at the height of its military power. But seen from the West, the Soviet system of state economic planning was unstable. On the other hand, there was an assumption that it would last forever.
The same opposite expectations often characterize the West’s view of Putin’s Russia. This month, the Russian government released its updated National Security Strategy.
Anyone who has shown a passing interest in the Kremlin worldview knows the general trend. Nationalist autocrats need foreign enemies to justify political oppression in the country, and the Russian president has long found this enemy in the West.
According to him, Russia is surrounded by a hostile US and its NATO allies. Enemy forces – some of whom, including the United States, are now officially designated as “unfriendly states” – are moving their armies closer to the Russian border.
Washington is using its international financial power against Moscow. Western economic sanctions are an integral part of this long-standing attack on Russia’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The threat, the document continues, goes beyond military and economic proportions.
The attack is against Russian culture and civilization. Westerners are spreading social and moral attitudes that “contradict the traditions, beliefs and beliefs of the peoples of the Russian Federation.” The country must be defended against foreign ideologies and values.
And this is not the analysis of a Russian leader, who now demands a fundamental change in relations with the West. Vladimir Putin’s last meeting with US President Joe Biden in Geneva, Switzerland, may have reformatted relations with Washington, but he has not re-established it.
For all this, Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, reveals an important addition to the latest strategy – a recognition of internal and external threats. They include poor economic performance, heavy dependence on oil and gas, unfavorable demographics and backward technologies.
According to Trenin: “The Russian leadership has every reason to start now addressing the obvious weaknesses, imbalances and inequalities of the internal situation of the country.” Add to that the rampant corruption that starts with the Kremlin and goes down, and here you have the explanation for Putin’s fears from Alexei Navalny, the jailed leader of the Russian opposition.
Foreigners can not be blamed for state corruption, or falling living standards.
And the de-carbonization of energy sources will begin to reduce very quickly the amount of money entering the Kremlin coffers from the sale of oil and gas. The temptation is to think that we can be back in the 1980s – that the cracks will widen into cracks, which will one day collapse the current system.
In my opinion this is premature. Putin’s only concern is maintaining his power. He will gladly steal Russia’s future to maintain his current position. This is what he is doing by getting very close to China Xi.
And when Russia pays the cost of this alliance, Putin will have long since left this world. However, it is equally wrong to believe that the trajectory of the authoritarian states of the world is fixed. The autocrats, with their detailed Potemkian facades, understand quite well the fragility of their rule.
Even for the emperor of China, Xi Jingping, oppression is as much a means of causing fear as it is an instrument of controlling power. The key question is that of time. Like high carbon steel, these modes will retain their shape until they break.