If Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is so determined to gild his nation’s Islamic credentials, why has he been cooperating with Beijing to extradite Uighur Muslim refugees? Why hasn’t he protested against Xi Jinping’s mass detention and reeducation camps?
When not currying favor with Xi, Erdoğan has also been busy consulting with Vladimir Putin — despite the fact that their two nations backed different sides in the Syrian Civil War. After a face-to-face meeting with Putin in March just before the global shutdown, the Turkish and Russian presidents were coordinating policy on everything from Syria to Libya to a new border war between two of their shared neighbours.
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Welcome to the Dictators’ Club. Erdoğan’s antics are just a few indicators of a growing network of personal connections and cooperation between the world’s most notorious autocrats. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are clearly the ring leaders: the two have built a high-profile relationship, having met several times a year since the Chinese President took power. Xi refers to the Russian leader as his “best friend“; Putin has marked Xi’s birthday by buying him ice cream. Each was among the first to congratulate the other for their respective “re-elections” in 2018, and they have publicly supported each other’s altering of their constitutions to extend their power for years to come.
And together they have their hearts set on expanding the club. Xi has had multiple summits with Kim Jong Un, continuing China’s support for the North Korean dictator’s family; Putin met Kim for the first time last year, strengthening what had been a tangential relationship between Russia and its most secretive neighbour. Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman has been shaking hands with Xi and high-fiving Putin. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Syria’s Bashir al-Assad have each grown publicly closer to the Chinese and Russian Presidents — and have established a relationship with one another as well. Both Xi and Putin have even met directly with the reclusive Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Dictators’ Club is more than just high fives and ice creams: it’s a source of significant material support as well. The Wall Street Journal warns of a “China-Russia-Iran arms alliance” as China and Russia oppose extending US-backed arms sanctions against the Islamic Republic; Iran will likely make arms deals with both nations if the sanctions are lifted. Similarly, both China and Russia have emerged as conduits through which Venezuela has been evading US oil sanctions, and Xi and Putin have both made oil deals with MBS. Individually and jointly through the UN Security Council, the ringleaders have been working to prop up beleaguered dictators, gaining customers for Russian weapons and partners for China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative in return.
The Dictators’ Club is alarming, but not unprecedented. On the contrary, the current moment in international relations is reminiscent of the century that followed the defeat of Napoleon, when the hereditary monarchs and nobility of Europe fought to suppress a wave of nationalism, republicanism and liberalism fanning out from France.
When the French Revolution beheaded King Louis XVI, France’s neighbours responded by launching war against the country. The monarchs of Europe wanted not only to strike their rival while it was internally divided, but also to contain the revolutionary ideology. To the surprise of Europe, France won these wars, and then went on the offensive under Napoleon’s leadership. It wasn’t just Mr. Bonaparte’s tactical brilliance that had given France an edge. The French armies, mobilised by a new spirit of nationalism, proved to be more motivated and effective than the forces of other European powers fighting at the command of distant monarchs. Liberty, equality and fraternity were inspiring forces — and dangerous to the status quo.
And so the monarchs of Europe dedicated themselves to cooperating in suppression of these forces. The resultant international order, the Concert of Europe, brought together Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox autocrats; united Germans and Slavs; and superseded national rivalries in the name of propping up the existing political order.
Likewise, the members of the current Dictators’ Club have largely put aside religion, culture and ideology in lieu of naked power — hence why Erdoğan, MBS and Khamenei (all self-proclaimed defenders of Islam) have been silent or supportive of China’s oppression of its Muslim Uighurs. As the club expands, it has courted dictators from across the political spectrum, ranging from socialist Maduro to Right-wing dictators-in-the-making like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the end of the Cold War, a number of scholars made bold predictions of what the new international order would look like, but none of them quite match what we see today. Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed that we’d reached the “end of history”: the moment when liberal democracy had triumphed over all its alternatives — from monarchy to fascism to communism — as the only legitimate form of government. Even dictators, he claimed, would pretend to be democracies and attempt to legitimise their rule, and in the long run, real elections and respect for human and civil rights would proliferate.
In contrast, Fukuyama’s former teacher, famed political scientist Samuel Huntington, predicted that the world would again divide into opposing camps, not based on nationality or economic systems but along more fundamental lines of religion, culture and worldview. The resultant “clash of civilizations” would carve up the world into a handful of mutually antagonist blocs — Western, Islamic, Confucian, Latin American and so on — with a high degree of tension and war between the civilizations to be expected.
Still others, such as John Mearsheimer, assumed a return to “great power politics” — the international system that characterised Europe for centuries before the Concert, and during the early twentieth century. In the two World Wars, for instance, multiple powerful countries competed for power and position — fighting wars, making and breaking alliances, racing each other for colonial possessions, and so on.
By 2020, however, all these predictions seem faulty. Political liberty has entered a period of decline: the number of democracies in the world has dropped, and the remaining democracies are becoming less democratic. Meanwhile, after a period in which terrorism and religious fundamentalism appeared to back up the idea of incompatible civilisations, authoritarian-led countries are making alliances that cut across worldview. Just as Muslim autocrats are supporting Xi’s repression of Islam, Putin — who has taken a page from past Russian czars by presenting himself as a defender of Orthodox Christianity — has brushed aside Russian Christian’s outrage over Erdoğan’s decision to turn the disputed cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum that is the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque.
And even though states like China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been interfering with their neighbours, annexing territory and generally expanding their regional or world influence, there have not emerged the sort of great power conflicts that some have been worried would return. Today, these various expansionary and interventionist states have largely been content to stay out of one another’s way — allowing each to develop its own sphere of influence (the mutually hostile Iran and Saudi Arabia being the notable exception). Even before Covid-19, neither the predictions based on democracy nor culture nor political realism seemed to match the present reality.
The modern Dictators’ Club, much like the old Concert of Europe, is laser-focused on suppressing democracy and liberty. After Napoleon’s defeat, the European powers managed to last a whole century with few major wars between them, in which time they largely suppressed liberal revolutions within their territories and abroad. The monarchs intervened, for instance, to squash revolutions in Italy and Spain during the 1820s. Today, Russia and China are selling spying technology and techniques to authoritarians around the world. Yet the Concert of Europe broke down — temporarily, as nationalist and liberal revolts swept across Europe in 1848, and then permanently, as simmering tensions between the major powers boiled over into the First World War, a conflict that swept aside the last conservative monarchs of Europe.
Today’s Dictators’ Club is similarly powerful but fragile. Its strength is in many ways an effect of the unique foreign policy of Donald Trump — a confusing and incoherent mix of tough talk, admiration for autocrats, and most important, indifference to much of the world. Should Trump lose in November — or be convinced to take a different approach to the world in a second term — it might not be hard to widen the pre-existing cracks that exist between the world’s dictatorial regimes.
Significant, sometimes violent, tensions exist between Xi and Putin’s allies. Take the Middle Eastern triumvirate of MBS, Khamenei and Erdoğan: Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a Cold War; Iran and Turkey have have supported opposing sides in Syria; and Erdoğan has personally embarrassed MBS over the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Friendship with Xi and Putin also comes with costs that their autocratic buddies may not always be willing to pay. Duterte and Xi have still not come to terms over their disputed claims in the South China Sea; Russia and Saudi Arabia are fierce rivals in the international oil market and engaged in a brief price war just a few months ago. And some dictators, like Kim Jong Un, simply remain wild cards, who won’t be tamed. The friendship between the two ringleaders themselves may not be sustainable: the Brookings Institute recently issued a report concluding that strategic, economic and cultural differences between Russia and China will likely outweigh Xi and Putin’s personal relationship in the long run.
But even if these mutually supportive dictators are willing to ignore one another’s offences, the public may not be so forgiving. There has been outrage among Saudis and Iranians over the plight of the Uighurs; the Russian Orthodox church has condemned Erdoğan’s reverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Sometimes even dictators have to listen to their citizens, when they shout loud enough. Neither Xi nor Putin is invincible: both are currently facing significant public protests, in Hong Kong and eastern Russia respectively. And China and Russia (not to mention Iran) have been among the countries hardest hit by Covid-19 (of course, so too have the US and UK), which has had destabilising effects in both countries.
Two hundred years ago, the choice by the kings, emperors, and tsars of Europe to cooperate came from a place of weakness, not of strength. Napoleon’s victories and the growing sentiments of liberalism and nationalism had exposed the fragility of monarchy. And yet the Concert system lasted, partly because liberal states like the UK supported them for the sake of stability, while the US focused on its own hemisphere. Now, as long as the democratic powers remain divided, indifferent and ambivalent towards democracy (at home and abroad) the Dictators’ Club can continue to thrive — to the detriment of Hong Kongers, Uighurs, opposition leaders and others looking for liberty and freedom around the world.