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The Three Dictateers

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

I do not easily subscribe to the idea that men/women make history. I am much more at home with the notion that history shapes the environment in which people act and react. 

There are moments, however, when individuals’ destinies can play a decisive role in determining historical outcomes. We may be at just such a juncture. 

The three strategically most important countries in the world – the countries with the most lethal weapons and with the greatest geopolitical ambitions and responsibilities - are led by either serving or would-be dictators. 

You know whom I am talking about. 

Over Russia rules Vladimir Putin, who has enjoyed unchallenged power since the last day of 1999. Putin has a mandate to rule until 2024 but it is widely expected that he will go for more, using perhaps a restructuring of the Russian political structure or a reconfiguring of the relations between Russia and another post-Soviet state in an effort to create a new governmental paradigm that would allow him to claim that he was staying on legitimately.

Over China rules Xi Lin Ping who in 2012 was named Communist Party Secretary General for life. Can you imagine a Western politician staking out such a claim? Xi, in upcoming Party meetings, will be looking to secure confirmation as the life-long top guy in the other two leading sectors of the Chinese power paradigm - the government and the military - that he does not yet dominate, at least not officially.

Over America, Donald Trump does not yet rule, as unchallenged in his country’s power structures, as do his Russian and Chinese counterparts in theirs. To overcome this is clearly his ambition. And if the ongoing impeachment trial indicates the direction American politics are moving in, the prospects that the US will have to contend with a King Donald, unbeholden to oversight and independent control, are looking much better than even.

Neither Putin, nor Xi nor Trump can afford to lose power. They have too many albatrosses around their necks. They need to die on the job, for if they don’t, they (and perhaps also their family members, certainly in the case of Trump) will experience jail if not worse. 

The three dictateers’ crimes differ but they are equally grave. Common to all three is a disregard for the popular will and a penchant for imposing a self-serving narrative on society as a whole. 

All three leaders face burgeoning domestic crises. They are different in nature, but only quantitatively. In Russia and China, it is about a democracy that needs to be realized, if these two great states are to survive. Their prevailing authoritarian and antiquated governance paradigms will not work through the 21st. They can pump up their muscles as much as they want, but the writing is on their walls. In America, it is about a democracy that has lost its way and that has to be reinvented. That said, the challenge it faces is no less daunting. Its unity may also be at risk.

How will the three leaders try to deal with these crises? The short answer is that they will try to manipulate their domestic and foreign political situations in an effort to keep their “base” constituencies on their side. 

For world peace, the foreign dimension is particularly threatening. In a globalized world, what is seen to be an essentially a local or regional crisis can easily become one that has international political dimensions. Think Mexico in the US context, Hong Kong or Taiwan in the Chinese one, Donbass or Belarus in the Russian one - or Cubazuela or Syrbia.

Often, the best concocted plans of what we tend to call strongmen are undone by allied actors that they do not really have under their control. In the case of the three musketeers, it was D’Artagnan that changed their world. We do not as yet know who might be the D’Artagnan of our three dictateers, but I expect it is only a question of time before we will.

I also expect that none of our three dictateers wants to go to war, at least not in a way that would fundamentally threaten international security. History is, however, replete with stories about how dictators stumble into conflict despite themselves. They believe that their weapons make them invincible, but they don’t. They think the other side will back down, but it doesn’t. They think they can avoid conflict escalation, but they can’t.

And so, the world runs the risk of yet again descending into another global conflict, one that is likely to be much more destructive than any of those that have gone before.

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