I am not a pessimistic person usually. My personal inclination and more than two and half decades as a diplomat have taught me the importance and value of remaining optimistic. Optimism for a diplomat is as essential as courage for a soldier. An effective diplomat is confident that persistent and effective diplomacy can solve a great many problems between and among nations.
But my usual optimism is being sorely tested these days. One glance at international headlines is enough to send anyone into extended binge-watching of online films or some other manner of escapism. At some point, though, one cannot ignore the dark clouds on the horizon, or in some cases directly overhead.
Democracy in Danger
It’s easy to compare the foreboding circumstances of today’s world with those preceding World Wars I and World War II. Indeed, there are some real similarities: headstrong dictators bent on conquest, tense regional rivalries, distracted democracies beset by internal problems or economic challenges, and restless publics stirred by extremists of all manner. But 2022 presents its own unique conditions that make it very different from the years preceding previous global conflicts. The most obvious looms menacingly over the entire planet: nuclear weapons. Another is the already present danger of climate change and the inescapable need for nations to work together in addressing it, especially the major powers. So, no, today’s crises are not like the previous world wars. The stakes are much higher.
Rising of Totalitarians, Distracted Democracies
The closing of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in which Xi Jingping effectively made himself dictator for life of the world’s most populous country and second largest economy, was at once predictable and ominous. Xi made clear that he isn’t backing off. China’s aggressive and belligerent behavior will continue. Having named sycophants to sit with him on the party’s politburo and its standing committee ensures that he will hear no opposition, no alternative ideas and no dissent to his diktat. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has now moved decidedly from authoritarian to totalitarian government. That is not only dangerous for the people of China but also for the rest of the world as PRC’s military forces gear up for a potential conflict over Taiwan.
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Juxtaposed against that looming threat is China’s “no-limits” partnership with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin, another autocrat seized with blindly conceived grand ambitions, has already laid his cards on the table, or, to be more accurate, on Ukraine. Granted Xi’s commitment to him was made before Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, but China has yet to back away from its Russian relationship. This is despite the fact that the war in Ukraine has largely been a disaster for Putin. In fact, Putin’s setbacks might have turned Russia into a veritable vasal state of China. Arguably, this is good for Xi (maybe) and bad for Putin. Despite this situation not being good for Russia, what are Putin’s options?
Next on the totalitarian hit parade is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which maintains very good relations with the aforementioned autocrats. Its ruling theocracy governs with comparable iron-fisted policies and a heavy dose of neolithic ideology. As hundreds of thousands throughout Iran take to the streets again at considerable risk of arrest, torture and even death, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responds with pearls of medieval wisdom: “If we want to prevent our society from being plunged into corruption and turmoil, we should keep women in hijab.”
Protesters show no signs of backing down. So, naturally, the Iranian government needs a distraction. The mullahs blame America. It is the Islamist Republic’s timeless trope, ignored by the vast majority of Iranians for its sheer baselessness. Despite public discontent, Tehran has thrown its lot with fellow autocrat Putin in his unjust war against Ukraine. Iran has joined Russia in attacking the people of Ukraine by sending drones, missiles, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operators and trainers for Russian troops.
Protesters show no signs of backing down. So, naturally, the Iranian government needs a distraction. It has joined Russia in attacking the people of Ukraine by sending drones, missiles and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operators and trainers for Putin’s troops. By throwing in its lot with Russia in a brutal and illegal war against Ukraine, Iran reveals the single-minded obtuseness of Khamenei and the desperation of Putin. Such is the wont of dictators who do what they want. They need not listen to their citizenry and even foreclose the possibility of doing so.
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Further down the list of the planet’s wretched leaders, one cannot ignore the head of the model pariah state, North Korea. One would be hard pressed to identify a single policy or manner of behavior that is not repugnant and anathema to the UN Charter and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the helm of the Hermit Kingdom is Kim-Jung Un, aka “dear leader,” (the titles “supreme leader,” “paramount leader,” and “great leader” having been already taken by others). The North Korean economy is almost entirely dependent on neighboring China, which sees the tyrant-ruled nation as a useful nuisance and distraction for the US, South Korea and Japan. Otherwise, were North Korea to fall into the ocean tomorrow, it would hardly be missed by the people’s colossus next door. Kim fulfills his role well, periodically launching intermediate-range missiles menacingly near and over South Korea and Japan. The dear leader has most recently threatened to test nuclear weapons, which it continues to produce in flagrant contravention of numerous UN Security Council resolutions.
Three of these nations have nuclear weapons capable of annihilating millions. The fourth, Iran, seems poised to get them unless the P5+1 negotiators can manage to pull a rabbit from their negotiating hats and conclude reimposition of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. But that agreement seems very unlikely after three months of moribund talks, the growing popular protests in Iran and the Islamic Republic’s decision to join forces with Russia against Ukraine. Even so, many predict, Iran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability within the near-to-medium term is almost certain. Such a prospect would almost assure across-the-Gulf neighbor Saudi Arabia’s rush for its own bomb.
Although Saudi Arabia is nominally led by an absolute monarch, currently King Salman bin Abdulaziz, its effective leader today is his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he is widely known, is an absolutist autocrat but oversees a nation dependent on protection from the US. That dependency relationship could easily change if the kingdom was to obtain or develop nuclear weapons. Unlike North Korea, it has enough oil the world desperately needs to sustain its economy. In fact, Saudi Arabia has so much oil that Iran-like economic sanctions are unlikely. They could lead to a meltdown of the global economy.
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Given the deteriorating relations between the kingdom and the US and, in particular, between MBS and US President Joe Biden, the world should not discount the prospect of Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons and of MBS finally severing his nation’s dependency on the US, thus empowering one more autocrat with the ultimate weapon. It will require herculean diplomacy on the part of the US and others to ensure that doesn’t happen. Autocrats have their ambitions and are rarely disposed to changing them.
Arrayed against this dangerous lineup of totalitarian states is the US, still considered the world’s premier superpower. Its network of alliances and defense treaties in Europe and Asia give the US formidable military and economic clout. The US and its allies are united not only by treaties and alliances but also and especially by shared values, particularly democracy, liberty, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The aforementioned autocrats see these values as an American imposition on the international order because the US had overwhelming power since the end of World War II.
This anti-American posturing is self-serving. Let us be honest. The problem with these values is not that they are American, the problem with them is that they counter the autocrats’ justification for one-man rule. Antipathy toward the US and toward the values it espouses is what unites the world’s autocrats. There really is nothing more these nations share, which is revealing in itself.
The Global Rest
Left unmentioned is the “global rest,” the large majority of nations in Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia and elsewhere that have avoided choosing sides. Their reasons are several and not always unjustified. Many are former colonies with lingering resentment toward and suspicions of their former colonizers. In addition, many may see getting drawn into the conflict as counterproductive to their own interests, particularly their economic interests. The larger nations of this group — India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Nigeria — are stressed democracies like Turkey, Hungary and even the US. Despite their flaws, these democracies would find the ruling styles of China or Russia anathema. For the time being, however, they are not threatened directly nor are their interests jeopardized by the current tensions.
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That could easily change, though, and perhaps faster than anyone would want or could predict. An unrestrained Xi might decide to order an invasion of Taiwan, consequently closing the Taiwan Strait, shutting down half of the world’s tanker traffic and sending the global economy spiraling. If Western nations currently supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia were to let up on their support, it would assure a Russian victory. This would empower Putin to plan further expansion in accordance with his revanchist imperial dream of a greater Russia. All of Western and Eastern Europe would be drawn into a resulting continental conflict, also creating conditions for global economic disaster and fertile ground for totalitarian opportunists elsewhere. Overhanging both scenarios is the prospect of nuclear conflict, already broached by a flailing and ever-desperate Putin.
Inability to resurrect the JCPOA nuclear accord would remove any incentive for Iran to shut down its nuclear weapons program. Whether it actually builds a nuclear bomb or not, the mere prospect could set off war in the Middle East as Israel and possibly Saudi Arabia act militarily to foreclose Iran’s nuclear advancement. As we have seen in the past, war in the Gulf is highly destabilizing to both the region and to a global economy dependent on the region’s oil. China alone looks to the region for 40% of its oil needs.
None of this is over-the-top alarmism. All of the autocrats mentioned have at one time or other threatened use of force. What recourse do democracies have against this unprecedented alignment of nuclear-empowered autocrats? Is it even possible to talk a dictator out of carrying out actions seen as indispensable to some grand plan? And if not, then what?
Perhaps the first step is shaking the citizens of democracies, most especially in the United States, out of their domestic political navel-gazing and into an awareness of the enormity of the challenge before them. In their increasingly partisan culture wars, Americans appear to be swatting at mosquitoes as dragons, bears and snakes stalk the neighborhood. They would be wise to follow the advice of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his May, 1941 fireside chat. The 32nd president argued then that defense meant not only a well-armed military force but also “… the use of a greater American common sense in discarding rumor and distorted statement… (and) recognizing, for what they are, racketeers and fifth columnists, who are the incendiary bombs in this country of the moment.” Substitute disinformation and alternative facts for “rumor” and election deniers for “racketeers and fifth columnists” and Roosevelt’s words ring true for America today.
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Roosevelt was facing a major threat to the world’s oldest democracy. In the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, America had withdrawn into its isolationist island, flirting with all manner of “America First,” racist and Nazi ideas, and organizations. Meanwhile Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had begun their march through Europe and Asia, and expansion across the Pacific. Only Japan’s strategic blunder in attacking Pearl Harbor succeeded in breaking America out of its isolationist never-never land and launched it into a war to reestablish global security, and ultimately the international global order we know today. It is this very order that Xi, Putin, Khamenei and Kim-Jung Un seek to undo. Neither the US nor other nations should count on either Beijing or Moscow making a mistake like Pearl Harbor again.
The attention and support of voters well informed of the threats before them are indispensable to successfully confronting Totalitarianism Incorporated of today. The alignment of these dictatorial states could be described by the same words Roosevelt used in his December 1940 fireside chat, an “unholy alliance of power and pelf to dominate and to enslave the human race.” The totalitarian order is predicated on obedience to a single authority, aka the great leader. It is an order and peace of the dictator. The democratic alternative is an alliance of nations composed of citizens loyal to a set of ideals and principles. It is an order and peace of free people.
Deterrence, Diplomacy and Unity
What then is to be done? Deterrence is critical. And it is also expensive. Yet it is essential because totalitarians respect power. Therefore, democracies will have to arm themselves to demonstrate resolve and a clear determination to resist totalitarian ambitions. Ukrainians prove today that dictators, regardless of level of brutality, can be stopped. It’s an example to all democracies.
Diplomacy is important too. Yet it can only be effective when backed up by unflinching deterrence and iron resolve. Diplomacy may work with dictators when they see the costs of challenging well-armed and resolute democratic states. In the absence of credible deterrence, diplomacy descends into appeasement, enabling the easiest of victories for a dictator.
At the moment, the US and the West have to embark on a vital diplomatic initiative with the rest of the world. Many nations are still unwilling to commit themselves to confronting the totalitarian challenge. They must be convinced that their continued fence-sitting ultimately will undermine their respective national goals, and the very global order that permits their flourishing. The rallying cry must be that in a peaceful, prosperous and secure world, sovereignty, borders and a rules-based international order are the sine qua non of peace. They are sacrosanct. Without an explicit, unqualified embrace of these simple concepts, no nation is safe. Peace and prosperity for all peoples become elusive. Fear and foreboding envelope societies. Liberty evaporates. Human progress is stymied.
That undertaking — the gathering of all nations together to staunch the advance of aggressive totalitarianism — is necessary and urgent. Done successfully, it may be the best way to avoid war and fix a barrier around all those seeking to impose their will on other nations. No nation, regardless of size, should or can afford to be neutral on this matter.
The lessons of the last century’s two world wars and the Cold War taught us that both military power, and principled and determined diplomacy are necessary when confronting totalitarianism. It is time to apply those lessons with renewed vigor today.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.