Is Thuggery the Emerging New World (Dis)Order?
November was marked by the anniversaries of two events separated by nearly a century. One hundred years ago a ceasefire ended the First World War; two years ago Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The anniversary of World War I led some thoughtful observers to ask whether the lessons of that extraordinarily bloody, essentially senseless conflict have been lost on current leaders and publics. Trump’s rise—and that of such other illiberal politicians with authoritarian dispositions as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, Rodrigo Duterte, N. D. Modi and, most recently, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro—are commonly attributed to some mixture of populism, nationalism, globalization’s economic fallout, concern about immigrants, or a general alienation from politics as usual and the politicians associated with it.
In a valuable essay published on the day of this month’s midterm election, Dan Slater (After Democracy) provided an interesting analysis of these distressing trends and concluded that simply remarking the erosion or distortion of democracy is insufficient for understanding it. He argues that two distinct types of authoritarianism have emerged: “illiberal democracy” and “electoral authoritarianism.” And he suggests that a growing number of regimes other than those named here may be moving in the direction of one or the other of those types. Slater’s augury of the spread of such regimes is a strong recommendation to look beyond their domestic political arenas.
The factors generally associated with illiberal democracy and what Slater terms electoral authoritarianism may be germane, but their effects are not uniformly present in every case. What most analyses overlook or underestimate is the effects of changes in world politics on the proliferation of regimes headed by thugs—for thuggery is the common denominator that best characterizes the new illiberal and autocratic regimes. By doing so, they also fail to give sufficient consideration to the reciprocal influences of the spread of despotism on the future of world politics and the potential for the emergence of a vicious cycle: if autocratic regimes contribute to the destabilization of the international system, an increasing disorder in international relations may pave the way for more such regimes and make their survival more likely.
Trump, Putin, Orbán, Duterte, Bolsonaro and their ilk are thugs. They talk like thugs and act like thugs, and it is the connections between their words and acts that makes for thuggery. With their rhetoric they attack established norms—including laws to which they are nominally subject, treaties to which their countries are signatories, rules embodied in multilateral institutions—and they do so with impunity. They excuse or condone murder and, in Bolsonaro’s case, openly suggest genocide as a policy tool; they violate widely held, progressively more ingrained expectations for decent, humane behavior, including the expectations of some of their own supporters. They have formal positions of authority and political power in the support of segments of elites they coopt and publics they gull or lull. From that base they can dissimulate, lie, challenge well-substantiated facts or make up their own “alternative facts” to justify their policies and neutralize actual or potential opposition by impugning its legitimacy (“fake news,” “enemies of the people,” “foreign agents,” “cosmopolitans”).
Direct attacks on norms relativize right and wrong (“there are some very good people on both sides”). Challenges to multilateral agreements and institutions vitiate the checks on thugs and their regimes embodied in such agreements and institutions. Unilateral withdrawal from treaties and agreements, denigration of institutions, flaunting—directly or through creative reinterpretation—treaty obligations and restrictions weaken those institutions. They also lower the incentives for others to meet their commitments, and, significantly, they make states reluctant to join multilateral peaceful and constructive undertakings, whether to lessen the chances of war or to protect the environment or human rights.
In sum, thuggery in the international arena militates against trust and the creation and operation of effective multilateral institutions. In the absence of trust, states are more likely to engage in “self-help”—pursuing short-term national interests at the expense of longer term, mutually beneficial outcomes in international relations. Without attentiveness to widely shared norms and established rules in relationships within institutions bilateral quid pro quo transactional relationships will become more common.
The many multilateral institutions and rules of the international system developed in the wake of World War II—not only global organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund but regional economic and security bodies, such as the European Union, NATO and many others blanketing virtually all world regions—were built gradually, over several generations. Disrupting them and weakening their normative underpinnings can be accomplished in much shorter time. The task of rebuilding them, if that becomes necessary, will be much more problematic, given the erosion of trust and loss of institutions’ credibility.
If more thug regimes come into being—as Slater’s look into the not-so-distant future ominously cautions—the destructive potential of thuggery in both the domestic and international arenas will be magnified by a thugs’ mutual admiration society. Trump, after all, has approvingly cited the “strength” of Putin and Duterte and was among the first to congratulate Brazil’s Bolsonaro on his electoral victory. Thuggery may become normalized, by gaining acceptance in some quarters as it is increasingly expected—much as expectations of seemingly almost daily mass shootings in the United States has conditioned an unwilling but real tolerance for such acts. (It is difficult to avoid thinking that the inspiration to murder Khashoggi in Istanbul owed no debt at all to the murderous attacks of Russian dissidents in Britain.)
Future posts will explore more specific implications of thuggery for world politics, including the likelihood of state-to-state conflict, internal conflicts that generate massive refugee flows, the destruction of the vestiges of migration regimes, and economic warfare.