The Age of the Strongman by Gideon Rachman review – democracy muscled out?

Show caption Photograph: Karolina Maliszewska/Alamy Book of the week The Age of the Strongman by Gideon Rachman review – democracy muscled out? This chilling examination of how the growing popularity of autocrats and their aspirants could upend western liberal values is forceful and timely Misha Glenny Sun 10 Apr 2022 07.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a long-term shift in the tectonic plates of history that even three months ago appeared extremely unlikely. We are only six weeks in but even now, it is clear this one event will have multiple consequences around the world for many years to come.

Books on current affairs and recent history always run the risk of being overtaken by events. The revolutions in eastern Europe upended many papers and books on policy, which were still confidently assuming that the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic or Yugoslavia would still be functioning states well into the millennium. (Even the CIA, as late as spring 1988, was predicting that no great upheaval in eastern Europe was likely in the coming years.) Such developments have consigned many a tome to the charity bookshops prematurely.

Occasionally, a book will buck this trend. Scholars and policymakers were quick to hail Francis Fukuyama’s essay The End of History, published in early 1989, and his subsequent book, as a work of prescient genius. It was only a few short years before various wars, terrorist incidents, emerging powers, financial collapses and more should have dispatched the book to the remainder bin of history, but in fact it continues to sell in significant numbers.

Even rarer than this is a book whose significance is enhanced by unpredictable events. But this is unquestionably the case with Gideon Rachman’s latest work, The Age of the Strongman, which goes some distance in explaining the bigger picture behind all this. Rachman is chief foreign policy commentator at the Financial Times. As such, not only has he studied many of the strongmen in this book, he knows most of them as well. This is one of the main reasons why the book hasn’t lost any relevance despite being finished before the Russian invasion.

Global politics are being rent asunder by an almighty struggle between democracy and autocracy

But there are others. At the moment, the media in Europe and the US are understandably focusing on the fighting in Ukraine, the unspeakable acts of violence perpetrated by the Russian military, the attendant refugee crisis, the impact on European energy supplies and western sanctions on Russia.

But the implications of Russia’s invasion go far beyond this. We are seeing the beginnings of remarkable strategic realignments in several parts of the world, including India and the Middle East. The rise in the price of a number of food staples – including wheat, sunflower oil and ingredients used in fertiliser – has already led many governments to hit the panic button. Egypt, with 100 million people, is scrambling to secure dwindling supplies, as are equally populous countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The events in Ukraine have led to an acceleration of the threats to the Amazon, already close to the much feared “die back” tipping point. In the past month the price of soya has increased 10%, making the widespread illegal deforestation under Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, even more lucrative than before. Brazil is blaming the problems with the supply of fertiliser not on Russia but on western sanctions, which were imposed without Brasília being consulted.

Political sub-dramas proliferate within the European Union, in the western Balkans, in the Horn of Africa and in the Caucasus. Thirty years after Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy was the pinnacle of a Hegelian historical process, global politics are being rent asunder by an almighty struggle between democracy and autocracy.

If western democratic values are to survive this, something that is by no means guaranteed, then the west’s multiple constituencies need to understand what exactly led us to this point and where our responsibility lies. We know that Vladimir Putin ordered the troops into Ukraine, but how did we contribute to this so soon after the proclamation of the End of History?

Rachman provides many answers by focusing on the growing popularity over the past decade of autocrats and their aspirants. They fall into roughly three groups. There are fully fledged dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Then come democratically elected leaders who have gone a long way in demolishing institutional checks and balances, such as independent courts and media. These include Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and more recently, Viktor Orban, who last week recorded another crushing electoral victory in Hungary. And finally we have those like Donald Trump who have attempted, if not with complete success, to smash democratic norms both by undermining institutions and by resorting to insurrectionary tactics where necessary.

Rachman anticipates some criticism for including Boris Johnson. He need not be shy. I, too, included Johnson in my podcast series, The Rise of the Iron Men, which dealt specifically with those strongmen who were elected democratically before setting about trying to destroy or undermine the very fundamentals that enabled their election in the first place.

‘Pithy and forceful’: Gideon Rachman.

Different circumstances lead to the development of varied strategies. One of Johnson’s primary tools, for example, includes absurdist knockabout bluster, a seemingly intentional combination of various comedic traditions including possibly Monty Python and Norman Wisdom (no offence intended to either).

The Age of the Strongman provides a useful list of characteristics that strongmen share whether democratically elected or not: “The creation of a cult of personality; contempt for the rule of law; the claim to represent the real people against the elites (otherwise known as populism); and a politics driven by fear and nationalism.”

I would add a fifth characteristic: they all lie. They lie every day, about issues great and small, about matters personal and public. And even when they are caught lying red handed, they simply respond by countering with an even greater lie – a Ponzi scheme of untruths.

Of course, Rachman also examines the long-term causes that have contributed to the rise of the strongmen: western hubris after its victory in the cold war; neoliberalism; a globalisation that has benefited the 1% and immiserated billions. But this book sensibly sets all this against the extraordinary characters who have exploited the insecurities and anxieties that have brought us here.

The outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine will go a long way in deciding whether western liberalism is running out of historical steam and the strongmen will succeed in extinguishing it altogether. The implications for the more fundamental problems we face, such as climate change, are incalculable. To begin working out what we do about this, you could do worse than by reading this pithy and forceful book.

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World by Gideon Rachman is published by Bodley Head (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply