In the spring of 2018, the White House was preparing for a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. In the Old Executive Office Building, where the US president’s national security staff work, one of Trump’s aides remarked to me, with a slightly sheepish smile: “The president enjoys dealing face-to-face with authoritarian leaders.”
It was clear that Trump’s fondness for dictators made even some of his senior staff squirm. The unspoken thought, left hanging in the White House air, was that Trump himself had introduced some of the habits of a dictatorship into the heart of the world’s greatest democracy. The president’s wild rhetoric, his fondness for military parades, his tolerance for conflicts of interest and intolerance for journalists and judges are all features of the “strongman style” in politics – a style that, until recently, was thought to be alien to the mature democracies of the West.
But Trump was in tune with his times. Since 2000 the rise of the strongman leader has become a central feature of global politics. In capitals as diverse as Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, Ankara, Budapest, Warsaw, Manila, Riyadh and Brasilia, self-styled “strongmen” (and, so far, they are all men) have risen to power.
Typically, these leaders are nationalists and cultural conservatives, with little tolerance for minorities, dissent or the interests of foreigners. At home, they claim to be standing up for the common man against the “globalist” elites. Overseas, they posture as the embodiment of their nations. And, everywhere they go, they encourage a cult of personality. The Age of the Strongman began long before Trump won the White House. It will continue to be a central theme of world politics in the post-Trump era. The two emerging superpowers of the twenty-first century, China and India, have both fallen prey to strongman politics.
Although they operate in very different political systems, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have led their countries towards a more personalized style of leadership that embraces nationalism, a rhetoric of strength and a fierce hostility to liberalism. The two most important powers on the eastern borders of the European Union, Russia and Turkey, are run by strongman leaders. Both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an have now been in power for the best part of twenty years. The strongman style has entered the EU itself through Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Even Britain’s Boris Johnson has flirted with this style of politics – in his attitudes to law, diplomacy and dissent within his own party. Latin America’s two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, are currently led by Jair Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as Amlo). Bolsonaro is on the far right; Amlo is on the populist left. But both leaders fit the strongman template, encouraging a cult of personality and contempt for state institutions.
This international pattern underlines a central theme of this book: the strongman style is not confined to authoritarian systems. It is now also common among elected politicians in democracies. A strongman leader operating in a democracy, such as Donald Trump, faces institutional constraints that do not inhibit the likes of Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin. But the instincts of a Trump, a Duterte or a Bolsonaro are disconcertingly similar to strongman leaders in China and Russia.
The rise of strongman leaders across the world has fundamentally changed world politics. We are now in the midst of the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s. From the wreckage of the Second World War, political freedom advanced around the world for roughly sixty years. The progress was unsteady, and definitions of democracy are imprecise, but the overall direction of travel was clear. In 1945, there were just twelve democracies in the world. In the year 2002, that figure had risen to ninety-two, exceeding the number of autocracies for the first time ever.
Since then, the group of countries formally defined as democracies has stayed just ahead of autocratic regimes. But a process of democratic erosion has set in. Freedom House, which reports annually on political liberty around the world, pointed out that 2020 was the fifteenth consecutive year of declines in global freedom. After the post-Cold War surge in civil and political liberties, the tide turned in 2005. In every year since then, the number of countries where freedom has diminished has been larger than those experiencing an increase in political and civil liberties. As Freedom House put it, “The long democratic recession is deepening.” The rise of strongman leaders has been central to this process. That is because the political style of the strongman puts the leader’s instincts above the law and institutions.
Today’s strongman leaders are operating in a global political environment that is very different from that of the dictators of the 1930s. Wars between great powers are no longer common. Globalization has transformed the world economy. The spread of international law has created new expectations about how international leaders behave. But the technologies of the twenty-first century are also handing strongman leaders new ways of communicating directly with the masses, as well as dangerous new tools of social control – in particular the ability to monitor the movements and behavior of citizens. As these tools are deployed, they could strengthen the twenty-first century’s authoritarian turn.
Joe Biden has made the global promotion of democracy a central goal of his presidency. But he has come to power in the midst of the Age of the Strongman. Populist and authoritarian leaders are now shaping the direction of world politics. They are riding a tide of resurgent nationalism and cultural and territorial conflict that may be too powerful to be turned back by Biden’s reassertion of liberal values and American leadership.
Even in the US itself, Biden’s victory has not definitively turned the page on strongman politics. Donald Trump did well enough in the 2020 presidential election to spark immediate talk of him running for the presidency again in 2024. Even if Trump himself pulls back from frontline politics, future Republican contenders are likely to embrace the political formula he has identified.
Chinese nationalists frequently portray Biden as an old, weak leader, presiding over an America that is facing irreversible decline. By contrast, China portrays itself as a resurgent power, under a strong and vigorous leader. In the emerging world order, the president of China may soon contest the title routinely bestowed on the president of the United States – the “most powerful man in the world.”
The central challenge for Biden as president will be to demonstrate the vitality of liberal democracy both at home and abroad. If he fails, the Biden presidency may prove to be just an interlude in the Age of the Strongman.
If political liberals are to win the battle with strongman politics, they need to understand what they are dealing with. This book will attempt to answer three central questions about the Age of the Strongman. When did the strongman tendency take hold? What are its main characteristics? And why did it happen?
On December 31, 1999, Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia. He was to become an important symbol and even an inspiration for a new generation of would-be authoritarians who admire his nationalism, his daring, his willingness to use violence and his contempt for “political correctness.”
But in his early years in power, Putin was keen to be seen as a reliable partner in an established world order. When Bill Clinton met him at the Kremlin in June 2000, the US president declared his Russian counterpart “fully capable of building a prosperous, strong Russia, while preserving freedom and pluralism and the rule of law.” At his first meeting with George W. Bush in 2001, Putin impressed the US president, who remarked: “We had a very good dialogue. I got a sense of his soul.”
Putin only truly emerged as a foe of the US-led order with a speech denouncing America in Munich in 2007, followed by Russia’s military assault on neighboring Georgia in 2008. From then on, Putin’s bombastic and aggressive political style seemed anomalous set alongside the cautious pragmatism of the other key world leaders of the time: Barack Obama in the US, Angela Merkel in Germany and Hu Jintao in China. Merkel dismissed Putin as a leader using nineteenth-century means to solve twenty-first-century problems. But rather than being an anachronism, Putin was a harbinger of things to come. Symbolically, he had taken power at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
In 2003, three years after Putin took power in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an became prime minister of Turkey. As with Putin, Erdog˘an’s embrace of the strongman style took a while to emerge. Initially widely hailed in the West as a liberal reformer, Erdog˘an has become increasingly autocratic over two decades in power – imprisoning journalists and political rivals, purging the army, the courts and the civil service, building himself a massive palace in Ankara, and embracing a paranoid and conspiratorial world view.
Russia and Turkey are both big countries with economies large enough to qualify for membership of the G20. But they are no longer superpowers. So the moment at which the Age of the Strongman became truly entrenched as a global phenomenon is best pinpointed to 2012: the year that Xi Jinping took power in China.
In the decades that followed the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party had carefully moved towards a more collective style of leadership. But although China is now an unrecognizably richer and more sophisticated country than it was in Mao’s era, President Xi is clearly nostalgic for some of the Maoist themes of his youth. Under his leadership, the party propaganda machine began to create a cult of personality around “Xi Dada” (Uncle Xi). The move towards strongman leadership was cemented when presidential term limits were abolished in 2018 – potentially allowing Xi to rule for life.
Asia’s other emerging superpower, India, followed a similar path in 2014 with the election of Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP. As an opposition leader, Modi had been sufficiently controversial to be banned from entering the US because of concerns about his role in an anti-Muslim pogrom in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. As India’s leader, he positioned himself as the man who would stand up to the nation’s enemies at home and abroad. His willingness to bomb alleged terrorist bases in Pakistan in 2019 thrilled many Indians and set the stage for a successful re-election campaign, in which Modi assured voters: “When you vote for the Lotus [his party’s symbol], you are not pushing a button but pressing a trigger to shoot terrorists in the head.” In 2015, the strongman style also made an important breakthrough inside the European Union, which styles itself as a club of liberal democracies. That year Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister, became a hero for the populist right in the West by leading the campaign to stop the arrival of refugees and migrants from the Middle East. In that same year, Law and Justice, a populist right-wing party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won both presidential and parliamentary elections in Poland.
Europe’s migration crisis also served as the backdrop to Britain’s Brexit referendum in June 2016. The Leave campaign led by Boris Johnson capitalized on fear of Muslim immigration, claiming falsely that Turkey was poised to join the EU and would swamp Britain with new migrants. Vote Leave’s chosen slogan “Take Back Control” was a potent vote winner powering the campaign to a surprise victory. Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, later claimed that the moment he knew Trump would win the presidency was when Britain voted for Brexit.
So when Trump did indeed win the White House in November 2016 he was – in some ways – just part of an established global trend. But the unique economic and cultural power of the US meant that Trump’s ascent changed the atmosphere of global politics, strengthening and legitimizing the strongman style, and giving rise to a wave of emulators.
Trump’s first overseas visit as president was to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. In that same year Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the de facto leader of that country – the richest and most powerful Arab nation. The new leader swiftly built a global profile of a sort that was unprecedented among the secretive and introverted Saudi royal family. MBS, as he became known, was hailed by some in the West as just the kind of authoritarian reformist that Saudi Arabia needed – until the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist, shocked the crown prince’s Western fans. When MBS was embraced by a laughing Vladimir Putin at the next G20 summit, the image seemed to sum up the lawlessness and impunity of the Age of the Strongman.
Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, fell to the lure of strongman politics in 2018 with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president. The “Trump of the tropics” emerged from a career spent on the obscure fringes of right-wing politics to win the presidential election, after adopting many of the themes and slogans of Trumpism – denouncing “political correctness,” “globalism,” the “fake-news media” and environmental NGOs, while embracing gun owners, evangelicals, ranchers and the state of Israel.
Africa in 2018 seemed to offer some relief from the onward march of strongman politics. Abiy Ahmed, the new leader of Ethiopia – the second most populous country on the continent – gained international attention by releasing political prisoners and ending a long war with Eritrea. He was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. But the following year, the Ethiopian leader launched a military campaign against rebels in Tigray province, which led to thousands of deaths and allegations of war crimes. Abiy’s about-face raised fears that he would be the latest world leader to be hailed in the West as a liberal reformer only to turn into a strongman autocrat.
This tendency for Western commentators to initially mistake strongman leaders for liberal reformers is something of a pattern. When Erdog˘an first came to power in Turkey, he was described in the New York Times as “an Islamic politician who favors democratic pluralism.” In a similar vein, Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, predicted in 2013 that Xi “would spur a resurgence of economic reform and probably some political easing as well.” He expressed the hope that under Xi “Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square.” Two years later, Thomas Friedman, another influential New York Times columnist, portrayed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a reforming whirlwind, “on a mission to transform how Saudi Arabia has been governed.” In 2017, as complaints about MBS’s human-rights record mounted, Friedman appeared to wave away these objections, writing that “Perfect is not on the menu here. Someone had to do this job – wrench Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century.”
And then there was the British columnist who welcomed Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014 with an article headlined: “India needs a jolt and Modi is a risk worth taking.” Who was that? Me, actually. I also described the Indian leader’s rise from humble tea seller to the leader of the country as “thrilling.” Today, having witnessed Modi’s cavalier attitude to civil rights, I would choose a different word.
Looking back at this catalogue of naive predictions and dashed hopes, it is interesting to ask why Western commentators kept getting it wrong. In retrospect, I think it was a mixture of overconfidence in the power of liberal political and economic ideas born from “victory” in the Cold War and wishful thinking. As a result, Western opinion-formers were slow to grasp that the global tide was turning against liberalism. By 2020, however, a generation after Putin took power, it was hard to miss what was happening. Liberal values such as freedom of speech, independent courts and minority rights were under assault all over the world.
This bleak trend leads on to two further questions: what is strongman politics and why is it on the rise?
The argument that we are now living in an Age of the Strongman is open to an obvious objection: is it really possible to compare democratically elected leaders such as Trump or Modi with unelected autocrats like Xi or MBS?
Such comparisons need to be handled with care and a sense of proportion, but I believe they are valid – and, indeed, vital. The strongman leaders discussed in this book are part of a continuum. At one end, there are unchallenged autocrats such as the leaders of China and Saudi Arabia. Then there are figures in the middle like Putin and Erdog˘an. They are subject to some of the constraints of a democracy, such as elections and limited press freedom; but they are also able to imprison opponents and to rule for decades. Then there are politicians who operate in democracies but who display contempt for democratic norms and who seem intent on eroding them: Trump, Orbán, Modi and Bolsonaro are at this end of the spectrum.
This book is not intended to be a guide to the world’s dictators, however. While I discuss strongman leaders like Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, I have excluded a tyrant such as Kim Jong-un, and other thuggish leaders, such as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus or Hun Sen of Cambodia. Age of the Strongman describes the rise of a new generation and type of nationalist and populist leader, linked by their contempt for liberalism and their embrace of new methods of authoritarian rule. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the strongman phenomenon has taken hold in almost all the world’s major power centers: the US, China, Russia, India, the EU and Latin America. By contrast, Hun Sen and Lukashenko control small states and were both in power by the 1990s; the Kim dynasty has run North Korea since 1948. These three leaders all have strongman traits, but they are not central to the change in the climate of global politics over the last twenty years.