Vladimir Putin is giving us all a crash course in the evils of autocracy. It’s a “hands on” course. His gratuitous war is killing and wounding hundreds or thousands of real people. It’s destroying buildings, bridges, power plants and other infrastructure. It’s obliterating social, political and family ties, some of which have lasted decades or even most of a millennium. It’s uprooting and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, maybe eventually millions. And it’s doing all this in the middle of a global pandemic.
No one doubts that this is Putin’s war and his alone. There is no one who can restrain him, no one whom he trusts and heeds. When meeting with others, he sits at the edge of a twenty-foot table, highlighting his personal isolation. While alone, he ferments in his fevered dreams of restoring a bygone empire. Some of his closest observers, and many professionals—those paid to observe him and analyze his words and actions—are beginning to suggest that he is slowly going mad.
Even the monarchs of old had their grand viziers, their wise men, their Sir Thomas Mores. Not Putin. A single man holds the future of Ukraine, and perhaps Eastern Europe, in his hands. A single man has his finger on the nuclear button and repeatedly makes not-so-veiled threats to push it unless others help make his fevered dreams real.
Democracy is absent in Russia. It’s also under siege worldwide. But there’s a big chasm between any kind of democracy and what Russia is doing to Ukraine today.
As this particular autocracy threatens regional and even global catastrophe, it behooves us all to think of ways that any government can avoid the kind of sick and dangerous autocracy that Russia has become. While dreaming of the best, we must think of ways to keep the best from becoming a permanent enemy of the good.
To make the point, let’s compare China. No one in his right mind would call today’s China a democracy. But it’s nothing like Putin’s Russia. Xi Jinping must answer to a seven member committee, the Plenum of the Central Committee, of which he is part. The Communist Party, with some 90 million members nationwide, has some sway over who gets on that committee, as well as local, regional and national policy.
In contrast, Russia today has no real political party. The United Russia “party” that supported Putin’s last (disputed) election was and is little more than than a propaganda campaign and a few PR slogans. Real power in Russia lies in the hands of Putin and, subject to his whim, his favored oligarchs. In contrast, China’s Party, with its ninety million members, holds regular meetings and selects, oversees and disciplines local and regional leaders. It makes and interprets laws and runs local and regional government on a day-to-day basis.
Although different in name, China’s Communist Party is heir to China’s ancient Mandarin system. In China’s historical heyday, that system translated the Emperor’s edicts into local and regional policy, taking local conditions and problems into account.
Sometimes local and regional considerations still prevail. An ancient Chinese proverb encapsulates the intrinsic difficulty of turning a great nation’s national norms into local reality: “Heaven is very high, and the Emperor is far away.” That’s precisely the philosophy that our own governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis were following when they banned mask mandates without regard to federal pandemic guidelines.
The results of China’s less-than-fully-autocratic government are also worth noting. Since 1954, the end of the Korean War, into which China sent hundreds of thousands of troops to save North Korea’s bacon, China has not started a single war. It has built a fearsome military, bullied its neighbors, and even sunk a few fishing boats to make a point. Just now, it’s bullying Taiwan with aggressive overflights and aggressive language. But it has not started a single war. Not one.
In contrast, Russia has invaded and made war in Chechnya, (former Soviet) Georgia, and Ukraine (now twice). We have started two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we gratuitously picked up our Vietnam debacle from colonial France. (Gulf I, the only recent big war we actually won, was started by Saddam Hussein when he took over Kuwait’s oil fields.)
One more thing about China before moving on. We Americans fear China because it’s big, it’s powerful, and its leaders are smart. For the past two generations, they have out-thought, out-played and out-maneuvered us. So we tend to exaggerate China’s faults and sins.
But we need to think clearly about China if we are to live with it, let alone prosper, as it continues to rise. Of all the great powers in human history, including us, China since 1949 has likely been the least warlike. Today’s China, unlike most great powers in human history, repeatedly and credibly disclaims dreams of world domination, or even political hegemony. (Profitable trade and sharp business dealings are another matter.)
As for the Uyghurs, what China is doing with and to them is awful, but it’s not a “genocide.” Any word that ends in “-cide” involves killing. But the number of Uyghurs that China has deliberately killed, if any, is far lower than the number killed in industrial and transportation accidents. China has restrained, imprisoned, detained, displaced, and “re-educated” Uyghurs, and its appears to have subjected many to forced labor. But that’s not a “genocide” It’s nothing like the Holocaust. And we Americans, who have the highest per-capita incarceration rate of any developed nation, including China, are in a poor position to point fingers.
The point of this essay is hardly that China has not sinned. It’s treatment of Hong Kong and Taiwan, not to mention Tibet, involves human and political sins in many ways. In some ways it’s stupid and short-sighted. But it’s not war, and it’s not “genocide.” It doesn’t involve much, if any, killing. Oppressive politics and even incarceration are reversible; mass murder is not.
The point of this essay is that the absence of greater evils probably devolves, at least in part, from China’s distance from authentic one-man autocracy. Some kind of collective government, even if undemocratic and highly imperfect, can find smarter and more humane ways to attain its ends than killing and wanton destruction.
The danger for China (and the world) is Xi tightening his grip and becoming more like Mao, whom Xi presumes to emulate. Mao nearly destroyed China in his dotage, with such whimsical and ultimately catastrophic initiatives as the “Thousand Flowers” campaign (including attempts to make steel in every backyard) and the Cultural Revolution, which turned Chinese society upside down. It’s hard to imagine any such catastrophic mistakes, or what Putin is now doing in Ukraine, emerging from a committee, at least if its members have a reasonable simulacrum of equality of authority.
Now let’s look at the West. Western commentators tend to lump all democracies together, as if they were the same. But they’re self-evidently not. Hungary, Poland and Turkey, while still democratic in legal form, are tilting authoritarian, with little to stop them (but EU surveillance) from going all the way. Mexico is losing its democracy to violent semi-fascistic drug cartels.
And with our own Demagogue eagerly waiting in the wings to try another putsch, we Americans are in no position to lecture anyone about democracy. The two worst presidents of my lifetime—George W. Bush and the Demagogue—were both elected by a nationwide minority of voters. (Nixon, whom some might consider worse, was ultimately ejected by a system that seemed to work then.) Add to that the reason why our Senate and our Electoral College were designed from the outset for minority rule—perpetuating slavery—and you can see that the basic structure of our American democracy is nothing to brag about. (The Bill of Rights, which was an afterthought, is another matter. It was a unique product of Enlightenment thinking.)
So if we Americans can quell our unrealistic national pride and look objectively and analytically at the world today, what are the best practical ways we can see to avoid or mitigate autocracy? We have already examined rule by a committee: that’s one of the chief reasons why China is less autocratic than Russia today. Our own Federal Reserve Board, an independent committee of experts, also has done a good job of stabilizing our economy when under stress. What other ideas are out there for keeping autocracy at bay?
The most important, I think, is hiding in plain sight: term limits. In the abstract, term limits might seem counterproductive. Why give up a great leader who’s just hitting his or her stride? The trouble is, the vast majority of leaders are not great. Most are mediocre. Some are terrible. And some are catastrophic, including Mao in his dotage and Putin today.
If Putin had left office in 2012, after twelve years, he might now rate as one of Russia’s greatest leaders. He had successfully transitioned the Russian economy from the scientifically fictional system of Communism. He had even let Russia build some rudimentary political parties. His wars in Chechnya and Georgia had happened, but his grab for Ukraine had not. His successor might have made the same sort of deal for the Black Sea Fleet’s port in Sevastopol as we made with Cuba for Guantánamo. Then the world (not to mention Eastern Europe) might be a better, more stable, and more prosperous place, with Russia taking its place among normal nations. (I still remember Boris Yeltsin, who began Russia’s transition from Communism, announcing on his election as president that Russia was to become a normal country. Yeltsin must now be rolling over in his grave.)
If Mao had stepped down after unifying China and ameliorating its wartime destruction, he would still be revered as the founder of modern China, and rightly so. The disasters of his loony late-life policies, attempting to institutionalize “perpetual revolution,” might never have occurred. Deng Xiaoping, or someone like him, might have converted China to state capitalism, and begun China’s “economic miracle,” even earlier. And without term limits, we Americans might be suffering, right now, under the caprice and corruption of the Demagogue as our first Emperor, aka President for Life.
Running any modern nation, with tens or hundreds of millions of people, is just too big a job for one person. It involves overseeing and coordinating experts in innumerable specialties, from foreign languages and relations, to computer and nuclear science, to medicine and public health in a pandemic. It’s exhausting and inevitably disappointing. If one person’s rule goes on too long, it produces delusions of grandeur, paranoia, omniscience and omnipotence. So leaders don’t age like wine. They age like eggs: they mostly get rotten. Or rarely, like FDR, they let doing an impossible but honest job consume them and die in the saddle.
At the end of the day, term limits are probably the strongest bulwark against autocracy and tyranny known to our species. That’s why our own George Washington, even had he done nothing else, would still deserve our species’ eternal gratitude. He established term limits as a custom, long before they became part of our Constitution: he adamantly stepped down, despite popular calls for more, after two terms as president.
I end this essay not with a conclusion, but with speculation and an hypothesis. In governments that purport to be democratic, political parties are vital. But how many parties best provide stable insurance against autocracy, creeping or otherwise?
China’s recent history shows that a single-party system can degenerate into autocracy, even with ameliorating customs like committee rule. Before Xi Jinping declared himself “Chairman” (a title used previously only by Mao) and removed term limits, China had had the same two-term limit on supreme leaders as George Washington had given us (albeit for five-year terms, not four). China’s was also an unwritten, customary rule, in China’s Plenum, which elects China’s supreme leader from its members, in a sort of “leadership apprenticeship”—also a very good idea. I have a firm conviction that China will regret acceding to Xi’s imperial self-declaration, as will the world, when Xi inevitably ages and becomes more autocratic and erratic.
So if single-party systems tend toward autocracy, what’s the best number of parties to have? We Americans pride ourselves on our two-party system, deriding the multi-party systems of foreign parliamentary democracies as unruly and indecisive. But are we right?
Our own recent history suggests that two-party systems are no proof against autocracy. For a long time, our two-party system has been unable to get much done legislatively, due to adamant and unreasoning opposition, especially among Republicans. Our two parties have become so antagonistic as to divide into warring tribes, with one seeking to “own” the other and both using every means, fair and foul, to gain power. As a result, we came within one election of devolving into autocracy, and we face a similar risk in the next presidential election.
Perhaps multiple parties, by focusing on issues and differing substantive priorities, not personalities, can avoid devolution into warring tribes. As for decisiveness, consider Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new Chancellor. The product of a narrow win by a fragile coalition of parties, he just managed to act decisively, after Russia invaded, by providing useful defensive weapons to Ukraine, and agreeing to impose SWIFT sanctions on Russia (albeit “targeted” ones, to ease his people’s pain).
On the hypothesis of the more parties, the better, the jury is still out. What’s clear is that term limits and collective government, whether by committees or cabinets, are good precautions against the excesses of autocracy. What’s also clear is that the governmental structure of our American Constitution, although taught in our schools as a product of ageless genius, is deeply flawed and dragging us down. It became a global model not because of its intrinsic merit, let alone its history, but only because we Americans managed to achieve economic and military supremacy despite its flaws. (Again, the Bill of Rights is another matter, separate from the structure of our government.)
Now, with democracy under siege globally and autocracy on the rise, it’s time to think hard about how to make democracy better, more durable and more popular. If we can’t do that, we must conceive of ways to ameliorate autocracy by institutional mechanisms and so make Vladimir Putin the last autocrat to singly threaten global peace, harmony and survival. That’s something for Russians and all of us to ponder, before someone pushes the Button by design, miscalculation or delusion.