Political strongmen examined in two new books in which happy endings are moot

The Age of the Strongman Gideon Rachman Bodley Head, €16.99

Liberalism and its Discontents
Francis Fukuyama
Profile Books, €14.99

Vladimir Putin deceived the Russian people in his first televised speech as acting president on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Speaking from the Kremlin, Putin promised to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of the mass media. 

The lies continued. “Distinguished citizens of Russia. We want our Russia to be a free, prosperous, wealthy, strong and civilised land, in which its citizens take pride and which commands respect in the world,” he declared in his official inaugural speech, as President of the Russian Federation in May 2000.

“While Putin probably did not harbour any illusions about sticking the Soviet Union back together again, he was determined to return Russia to the first rank of world powers,” Gideon Rachman writes in The Age of the Strongman. The British journalist separates Putin’s empty promises from Russia’s actual long-term future.

There is Russia’s disastrous war against Ukraine for starters. Not to mention Putin’s reckless lawbreaking over the last two decades – which includes numerous illegal overseas assassinations. Both have led to ongoing international sanctions, making Russia an international pariah state.

Then there is the murder of domestic critics, which includes many journalists. And the jailing of numerous opposition political figures, like Alexei Navalny (still in prison) and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who spent a decade behind bars).

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It underlines how Putin’s continued iron-fisted rule “ultimately rests not on success and popular consent but on force and repression”, as Rachman says.

He believes Putin represents “the archetype for the current generation of strongman leaders” that we have seen come to power with the rise of global populism in the post-millennial age. This suggests Putin’s popularity inside Russia is no accident of history.

By the turn of the millennium, many Russians had grown tired of the humiliation and chaos of the Yeltsin years. The collapse of the Soviet system hinted that democracy and freedom of speech in Russia might be a real possibility.

But Russia’s attempt to move a centrally planned economy into the hands of self-interested oligarchs ripped the fabric of Russian society apart.

Rachman quotes from a UN report published in 1999 which described a “rise in self-destructive behaviour” across Russia in the absence of Soviet paternalism. Rising poverty rates, unemployment and financial insecurity soon followed. The fundamental problem wasn’t just economics.

Territorial downsizing added to Russia’s growing global humiliation during the 1990s – when 14 post-Soviet states declared independence from their former Moscow overlords, and former members of the Warsaw Pact in Central and Eastern Europe looked toward Nato and the EU.

Russia suddenly became little brother to the United States as the Cold War seemed to be over. “Under those circumstances, a strong leader who promised to turn back the clock to better days had real appeal,” Rachman writes.

He also gives us an in-depth look at other “self-styled ‘strongmen” figures, such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. In a speech he gave to ethnic Hungarians in Romania back in the summer of 2014, the prime minister declared how he intended to build “an illiberal new state based on national values”. Orban then cited China, Russia, and Turkey as model states that Hungary should strive to emulate.

The “strongman appeal” Rachman’s book brilliantly dissects here is simply summarised: give me paternalistic power and unquestionable loyalty and I will improve the economy, keep out enemies, while also making this country a global cultural and political force again.

Typically, strongmen are nationalists and cultural conservatives, with little tolerance for minorities. They also distrust mainstream media, a strong court system, and like to pick enemies at home and abroad for their own political popularity.

Rachman’s wealth of journalistic experience gives his measured and sensible arguments considerable powers of persuasion. He has, after all, met with many of the world leaders he criticises here.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, their style of leadership shares four common traits: the creation of a cult of personality; contempt for the rule of law; the claim to represent the real people against the elites, and a politics driven by fear and nationalism.

It points to a worrying trend, Rachman says. We are presently living through the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s.

Francis Fukuyama reaches the same conclusion. “I believe that liberalism is under severe threat but its virtues need to be clearly articulated and celebrated again,” the Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies writes in Liberalism and its Discontents.

A brief but fascinating book, it makes comments about present-day global political affairs, and about culture wars on social media. Both are attacking liberalism from the left and the right, the political scientist claims.

Fukuyama (whose 1989 seminal essay, The End of History? declared the west to have created a post-ideological age) is mainly concerned with political theory and history. Liberalism, he notes, typically circulates around three main ideas: the foundational importance of equal individual rights, the rule of law, and personal freedom.

Neither book offers liberal societies a viable idea to robustly challenge this ongoing threat from authoritarian powers. Ukraine’s brave response to Russia’s war of aggression does, however.

Ukrainians are showing the West how liberal values are never guaranteed indefinitely. Sometimes many lives have to be sacrificed to defend them.

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