Show caption Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing in February 2022. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/AP Opinion Joe Biden has picked a fight with tyranny. The west must hope he wins Simon Tisdall To counter the influence of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the US-led alliance has to show that freedom is worth fighting for Sun 4 Sep 2022 07.00 BST Share on Facebook
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It was a deadly week for democracy. US president Joe Biden launched a rescue effort to save the “soul of the nation” that the dementor-in-chief, Donald Trump, AKA Lord Voldemort, is conspiring to steal.
Russia lost a great man whose titanic struggle for reform was fatally torpedoed by a pint-sized usurper named Vladimir Putin. And China was saddled with indefinite dictatorship under the dead hand of Xi Jinping.
Is there hope of resurrection? Perhaps. The more the western democracies are threatened externally by totalitarian regimes and internally by populist extremism, the stronger they may grow.
The dangers posed by a rising tide of authoritarianism help free peoples realise how vulnerable and valuable their freedoms are – and strengthen their will to defend them.
That, at least, is how the fingers-crossed theory goes. It’s a hypothesis Democrats may test to destruction this autumn as they navigate the US midterm elections.
Having avoided confrontation with Trump, Biden has at last switched to offence, furiously condemning the “semi-fascism” of “ultra-Maga Republicans” who seek power by violent means. Attention-seeking Trump will sneer he has forced Biden to engage. Yet his arrogant rejection of any criticism, including legitimate judicial inquiries, is quintessentially anti-democratic. He believes he’s above the law.
Despite endless lies, the grassroots threat Trump represents remains truly potent. His standing among Republican voters is rising again, according to one recent poll. About 59% believe he “deserves re-election” in 2024.
In the US, the death of democracy is a prediction. In Russia, it has already happened. The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, love him or hate him, was a sad reminder to Russians of all they have lost and all they might have been. Gorbachev worked to open his country to the world. Spiteful Putin, who has refused to honour the last Soviet leader with a full state funeral, has been rebuilding walls ever since.
The longer the Ukraine war continues, the more evident that Putin’s complaints about Nato’s expansion and western plots weakening Mother Russia are mostly eyewash.
What this nasty little thug cannot stand is the idea of an open democracy flourishing on his doorstep
What this nasty little thug really cannot stand is the idea of an open democracy flourishing on his doorstep, serving as a constant reproach. As Gorbachev knew too well, it gives the lie to Putin’s claptrap about a golden era of Soviet rule.
China’s Xi has similar hang-ups about Taiwan, which, ominously, has begun shooting back after weeks of provocations. “Xi’s view of Taiwan is analogous to Putin’s view of Ukraine,” wrote Dan Sullivan and Daniel Twining in Foreign Affairs.
“Taiwan is a thriving Chinese democracy with free media, a vibrant civil society and competitive elections: living proof that the autocracy of the Chinese Communist party need not be China’s natural state.”
Two developments last week dramatised China’s descent into the worst kind of dictatorship.
A closed-door politburo meeting opened the way for October’s party congress to award Xi an unprecedented third presidential term, plus the daft moniker of “great leader”. Grim echoes here of Mao Zedong’s mad rule and miscellaneous North Korean dictators.
In battered Hong Kong, meanwhile, Beijing’s campaign to destroy basic human rights, in line with the rest of China, advanced after confirmation that Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai will be tried on trumped-up national security charges without a jury. Instead, officially approved judges will decide Lai’s fate. The separate trial of 47 pro-democracy activists is another travesty.
It’s not only the doings of leading powers that give cause for concern. Britain, self-described birthplace of parliamentary democracy, is backsliding badly too.
A new prime minister, picked neither by the people nor the House of Commons, will assume office this week without a ghost of a mandate. Which genius heir to Tom Paine decided this was OK? It wasn’t the voters. They weren’t asked.
The roots and causes of democratic breakdown and haemorrhaging public confidence are no big mystery. Electoral systems are flawed and unrepresentative. Ancient constitutional mechanisms no longer work.
Leaders are distrusted, not least because they lie. Corrupt politicos fix votes in advance or reject the outcome. The inevitable result? Too many people are left behind. Just ask frustrated Pakistani, Iraqi, Kenyan or Angolan voters, the latest victims of dysfunctional democracy.
All the same, the stark contrast between muddle and malpractice and the deliberate, sustained misanthropy of anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes is impossible to hide.
Following a trend set in Syria, no war in history has been as closely watched or recorded as Ukraine. No Russian crime goes undiscovered for long. If China attacks Taiwan, it, too, will answer to a global audience – as it must now over what the UN calls Beijing’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
There’s an opportunity here to forge a new consensus while repairing and advancing global democracy. If Democrats and Republicans, Tories and Labour agree on one thing, it’s the danger posed by China and Russia. Xi and Putin “pursue revisionist policies of aggression to bolster domestic autocratic control and dismantle the foreign network of democratic alliances led by the US”, Sullivan and Twining argued. Their aim? “To make the world safe for autocracy.”
Much more could and should be done to prevent that outcome and mobilise international opinion against the autocrats – in Ukraine, Taiwan and across the board.
What’s needed is a western-led campaign to restate the vital importance of democratic governance for individual rights and collective progress. This would help create common ground in polarised societies and curb the influence of those on the far right who, like Trump, excuse and emulate tyrants.
Make electoral politics work better. Stop taking freedom for granted. Show it’s worth fighting for. Because Biden is right. The soul-wrenching global battle against authoritarianism is a defining 21st-century challenge.
But it can only be won if trust and faith in democracy are restored.
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