The horror of the holocaust didn’t stop other genocides from occurring in Bosnia, Armenia, Rwanda, Cambodia, or Darfur. Although India and Pakistan sign peace treaties, the two nuclear neighbors seem to have a constant narrative of war. America has gone through almost 43 economic depressions, yet appear to be on the learning curve. History has a way of repeating itself. So are these recurrences inevitable, or are we ignoring the “red flags” and signs of caution that predict their onset?
The state of our political world today is well narrated by Graham Allison- an American Political Scientist- in explaining the Thucydides trap. “When rising powers threaten the position of established powers, the inevitable competition can lead to conflict and, eventually, war.” Today the Thucydides trap is playing out around the world, but so is the “Caesar-Amin ruse”.
Julius Caesar went from being a great leader who was loved by his people, to eventually being assassinated by his closest ally Brutus. Beating Pompey in a battle, refusing the crown three times, and not being able to understand his enemy’s playbook made him a nemesis of the public and his allies. The politicians who conspired to murder him feared that he had become too obsessed with his own importance. Fast forward in time, another flawed leader was honed in the African continent.
Idi Amin’s charismatic personality helped him gain popularity among the common people. But his sudden volatile executive orders and power-blind actions saw his reign (and Uganda) fall terribly. Today, the combined failures of these two leaders is a trap that populist politicians are falling prey to. From yesteryear populist leaders like Pol Pot and Muammar Gaddafi, to recent figures like Hugo Chavez; the recipe for their downfall is unsurprising. Their inability to plan for change, lack of effort to engage in dialogues rather than wars, and the adrenaline rush they enjoy to remain in power is how history seems to be repeating itself. World War 1 didn’t stop World War 2, and we are now at the threat of World War 3. While there can be different interpretations to the reasons for it, this essay analyses how today’s populist leadership style threatens global peace- a red flag we shouldn’t ignore.
Political control around the world is in the hands of populist leaders. Whether it is Donald Trump in the United states, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines,or Vladimir Putin in Russia, their leadership style is distinctly populist.
Who are populist leaders?
They are not defined by one description. Fascists, communists, and capitalists alike have been labeled populist leaders through history. Thus it is not about their political or economic affiliations as it is about their charismatic personality that appeals to the masses and makes them such leaders. The problem arises when these populist leaders appeal to the masses to such an extent that they sweep aside institutions and worsen political diplomacy. After a point, the love of the people is transformed to fear. Populist leaders are turning into self-defined dictators and there is little being done to stop them. In terms of leadership styles, the historic actions of leaders don’t seem to emulate the situation today.
Although World War 1 was sparked by the shooting of the Archduke of Austria, the problems were brewing long before. Whether it was Britain, France, Russia, or Austria- each leader had made their intentions and alliances clear. ‘Secret diplomacy’ wasn’t really clandestine. Historic conflicts have shown a relatively more predictable style of leadership. The Cuban missile crisis for example was also handled in a relatively expected way by Presidents John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.
The United States had a 17-1 advantage on nuclear weaponry, the USSR did not pay head to America’s warnings, and the thirteen-day arms race had kept the world at the edge of their seats. Although there was fear of a horrific war, and each head of state was engaging in a power play, the outcome was rehearsed. Mass destruction was definitely a looming fear. Yet, both parties understood the repercussions of their decisions if a nuclear war were declared. The leaders engaged in careful planning and strategic peacekeeping in order to keep the world out of a state of unpredictable combat. However, turning the clock to today, leaders seem to lack foresight to engage in diplomatic conversations. Their confrontational style to prove their worth doesn’t leave room for dialogue. From the east to west, the lack of leadership and inability to build geo-political trust makes our future looks meek.
The Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world wants their nation to be the next ‘Super Power’. In this race to the top, there is a fear of ignoring signs of history repeating itself. Threats to power, political disharmony, and lack of diplomacy can be seen by the actions of todays world representatives.
The United States of America has always projected themselves as protectors of freedom, a known devil for arbitration. Today the perception seems to have tilted. President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist, and homophobic actions are not his only letdowns. Politically he has failed to take a diplomatic route when it comes to relations with Russia, talks with the Mexican govt., strategically planning moves in Syria, maintaining relations in Israel, mending the ongoing hostility with North Korea, or even with his internal healthcare and insurance policies. The “great moral voice” that the United States built itself on is starting to shake.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the other hand has not been able to move away from the Alt- right affiliations that he has.
Vladimir Putin for Russia, and Xi Jinping’s leadership in China are dressed as “benevolent dictatorships” in the media, but is an autocracy nonetheless. Turkey’s failed military coup gave President Erdogan free resigns to rule a totalitarian regime under the legal veil of an ‘elected’ President. This outcome has not only affected Turkey’s internal politics, but its international relations as well. The Polish populist politician Jaroslaw Kacynski pushed for a law to make the phrase “Polish death camps” illegal. What are we seeing through these leadership styles?
Freedom of expression is dying. Dissent is forbidden. Under the veil of populism and illusion of great voices, a lot of these leaders’ actions have strained relations with other countries.
With America and Russia having a role to play in the Middle East conflict, the diplomatic strains worsen. The Arab Spring ended once, but the same cannot be guaranteed in the future. It could take a tiny incident to blow this conflict out into a global blood bath. Political dictatorship is shaping the nature of leadership around the world. Is this a sign of progress?
The Thucydides trap is playing itself out again. The United States is no longer the predictable peace keeper. Tensions are growing, and a threat of these countries falling into the trap will have global repercussions.
North Korea is accelerating its nuclear arms threats, and their arms drill on the 4th of July was a clear symbolic threat to America. Although Vladimir Putin urged the US to show “restraint” while dealing with this situation so as not to go down a path they’d regret, it is not a word that is easily followed by any world leader- including Putin himself. The lack of trust among political leaders is ending up straining diplomatic relations.
Russia and the US are both involved in the Syrian conflict, and both countries’ planes have been reportedly flying close during the bombing runs. Putin has himself threatened to shoot down all RAF and US jets in retaliation to US actions. Where were his skills of foresight and restraint?
On the other side of the world, China has five nuclear attack submarines, 53 diesel attack submarines, and other arms that are at par with its superpowers’. China has also warned India not to undermine its commitment to protect their borders in the conflict in Doklam. These threats are backed by formidable military minds. Although this event is currently being underplayed by the media, the risk of going to war with China is not one to be taken lightly. We have to me mindful that President Xi Jinping is also a populist leader and has to demonstrate his strength to the PLA.
Iran’s recent Presidential campaign was also laced with populist fervor. Corruption, religious ideals, and the promise of revolution is what is keeping President Rouhani in power. Is he on the way to becoming a political pariah or a supreme leader like Ayatollah Khamenei? Feelings of nationalism is now being linked to religion. Turkey and the Democratic Republic of Congo are not far behind in their uprisings, coups, protests, and corrupt governance. Is war inevitable or is it in the hands of today’s leaders to show ‘restraint’ and trust where needed, in order to prevent the same?
The problems brewing across the world are not just limited to arms and war. Israel’s decision to suspend the 2016 ‘Kotel deal’ is a slap in the face to any non-conservative Jew. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abandon a plan to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall highlighted the power orthodox Jews continue to have in controlling the state. The deal aimed at increasing egalitarian prayer spaces in the Western wall, and not it’s abandonment makes a liberal Jew or follower of other religions a hostile resident. Today Netanyahu is facing bigger personal challenges. His involvement in a widespread corruption scandal threatens his political career and could send him to jail. His incentive to consume the power he was fed as a populist leader is what set the table for deceit.
Economic insecurities are another area where populist leaders are failing to take charge. The Greek crisis unfolded in a rather dramatic and entertaining way over the last couple years. But today the world’s attention has shifted 1000s of kilo meters away from the Mediterranean to Japan, the world’s third largest economy. Japan’s debt is largely owned by the government, and printing more notes is not the issue. The threat of an inflationary crisis is the problem. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was as a right wing populist. His inexperience with left-wing ideologies is what arguably puts him at at loss to deal with the crisis. He took office after his grandfather and great uncle, and continued to gain the support of his people without moving with the time and preparing for change.
South Korea’s economy is also dwindling. They are lagging behind on competency compared to their powerful Asian neighbors. Economic disharmony and political strains is what caused the world to explode in gruesome battles over years. The horrors of early 20th century cannot be forgotten. But what now?
Our assessment is that, the past has shown that whether it was the failure of Napoleon I to remain king, Caesar’s assassination by his allies, Idi Amin’s exile, or Hitler’s suicide- populist leaders who have a need to prove their status rather than prepare for political changes have failed. Today the situation is no different. Colonies and traditional battlegrounds might not exist anymore, but free markets and nuclear deals do. Economic and geographic connectivity indicates that every major country in the world has a stake in the onset of a war. Religion, politics, and economic stability play as important motivators to guarantee a nation’s involvement in another world war. The difference today is that predictability is no longer the norm.
Today, Trump’s bans, sanctions, talks with Russia, or fiscal decisions are unpredictable. From seizing Crimea to sending their troops unexpectedly into Syria, Russia is not far behind in their surprises. Turkey’s referendum to introduce an autocratic Presidential system shows the desire of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to change the political narrative in his country. With Trump’s volatile actions, and North Korea’s growing nuclear threat its hard to predict the stance that China would take.
In the 1900s, the spread of communism was a real concern that propagated the animosity among nations. Today there continues to be a threat to freedom. The only difference being the nature of that threat is now that of populist leaders who are turning into self-destructive dictators. This threat is not restricted to one country or region. Populist leaders swept the votes, but are now finding it hard to give up power. Their need to prove and remain favorable is hindering their ability to clearly think through their policies and decisions. Thus populist leaders are increasingly becoming a symbol of concern, a red flag.
So what is the solution?
Is it to brace ourselves for the inevitable, or prepare ways to avoid it? The lack of communication, trust, and restraint, along with threats to political power is what lead to two world wars. Instead of watching history repeat itself it is wiser to learn from mistakes. Populist political leaders are out to prove their powers, and in many situations are arguably turning into self-appointed dictators. Feelings of nationalism and free speech are overridden by power-plays and terror. This article is not intended to paint a totally bleak and grim view of the world. But it is to warn the educated reader of the decisions they make when choosing political figures, and the responsibility that comes with it for them to perform.
Source: Sanya Pradhan, Synergia Foundation