In his 2020 bestseller Rage, Washington legendary journalist and author Bob Woodward recalls discussing the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy with the President. Mentioning his dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding the war in Syria, the commander-in-chief said: “I get along very well with Erdogan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says ‘What a horrible guy’. But for me it works out good. It’s funny the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know?”
In his captivating recent book The Age of the Strongman (Other Press), Financial Times foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman quotes former National Security Affairs specialist Fiona Hill when she declared that her former boss was seduced by “autocrat envy”. From Jair Bolsonaro (in Brazil) to Vladimir Putin, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 45th President got along quite well with those whom he perceived as being strong, an expression easily interchangeable with being autocratic. This trend was confirmed early last month when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) gathering in Dallas, Texas.
The book provides a tour d’horizon of a phenomenon that is not only observable on every continent, but also extremely impactful in the conduct of international affairs, if only because all of them are agents of the Manicheism according to which the public sphere is divided between friends and foes.
There is no official or universal definition of what a strongman is. Gideon Rachman dates the crystallization of the phenomenon to Xi Jinping’s arrival to power in 2012. This said, strongmen (there is no woman so far in the club) come in all sizes and shapes. Some are royals, like MBS. Others sprung from modest origins, such as Orbán and Bolsonaro. Some started as liberal reformers like Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, while others first cut their teeth at the municipal and local levels like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. They are very apt at adapting themselves to circumstances – Narendra Modi’s rise to power in India is captivating in that regard – and critics are always prone to underestimate their capacities. Nationalism is a tool of choice for the whole lot and some, like Erdogan and Trump for example, are not shy to push the envelope as to trying to create a political dynasty through the active participation of family members.
While it might be tempting to think that democracy is an antidote to autocracy, beacons of the ballot box like the United States and Great Britain have also produced statesmen who courted autocratic tendencies in the personas of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – even though they did not last long. They have succeeded and their followers might emulate them because “[…] illiberal, nationalist and anti-democratic ideas have taken hold on the American right and begun to flow back from the US into Europe.” The vigor of the candidates supported by Donald Trump for the 2022 midterm elections and the selection of a Johnson loyalist, Liz Truss, might be an indication that the trend is far from being extinct, even though things are certainly not as catastrophic in the UK.
I was nevertheless doubtful when the author included Benjamin Netanyahu on that list. In my opinion, the former and potentially future Prime Minister of Israel (depending on the results of this coming November election) is more of a pragmatic who tried to benefit from the autocrat’s bandwagon to advance his pieces on the chess board. “Bibi” might be more guilty by association than anything else, but the arguments advanced by the author are no less pertinent in the sense that the Israeli politician’s actions contribute to a wider trend. Having studied the phenomenon for years and having probably met all the characters he portrays, Gideon Rachman observes that “[…] the strongman style is not confined to authoritarian systems. It is now also common among elected politicians in democracies.”
“The last fifteen years have seen the most sustained decline in political freedom around the world since the 1930s”, continues the Financial Times commentator. It is difficult to predict how the autocratic trend will evolve. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, for instance, might win again the trust of the voters at the ballot boxes. Things will evolve in a different direction when Presidents Putin and Jinping leave the scene. Henry Kissinger voiced at some point that we are destined to see the emergence of nonconformist characters on the international scene because there are no norms anymore. This is a dangerous, but inevitable phase in history, according to this shrewd connoisseur on leadership and world affairs. The phenomenon explained by Gideon Rachman is therefore not about to recede in the near future.
For the time being, The Age of the Strongman is a revealing group picture of leaders who are pragmatic, shrewd, and brutal in their desire to shape the world, using any means at their disposal to achieve their ends. The only frustration the reader will encounter with this book will be the need to put it down at some point to perform one mundane task or another, because the delightful quality of the writing is matched by the enthralling nature of the topic.
Gideon Rachman, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World, New York, Other Press, 2022, 288 pages.
I would like to express all my gratitude to Supipi Weerasooriya of Penguin Random House Canada for providing me a copy of this excellent book and for her continued and much appreciated support for this blog.