The U.S. Ambassador’s Forum with Anne Applebaum, February 7, 2013, Kyiv, Ukraine (US Ambassador Ukraine/Flickr)
Anne Applebaum is peddling a democracy trope that no one is buying

Americans know that ideologues have cynically used the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ to push destructive policies on the world before.

Anne Applebaum has written an essay that takes aim at what she calls “Autocracy Inc.,” a loose collection of various authoritarian governments that collaborate with one another in sanctions busting and sharing tools of domestic repression. 

The portions of the article that recount the experiences of dissidents and victims of government abuses are informative, but her discussion of the global problem of rising authoritarianism is severely hampered by ideological blind spots that let many U.S. allies and clients off the hook for their own authoritarian practices and ignore the terrible toll that broad U.S. sanctions have taken on tens of millions of ordinary people in the targeted countries. 

Applebaum subscribes to a mythology of 20th century history in which the U.S. is the undoubted champion of democracy. This effectively erases huge parts of U.S. Cold War history and fails to take seriously the extent to which U.S. policies during the “war on terror” have been huge gifts to authoritarians everywhere. Her choice to focus almost exclusively on designated adversaries of the United States tells a convenient, partial story in which the U.S. is simply the foe of authoritarianism. A more comprehensive treatment of the issue would recognize how often our government has been its willing enabler. 

The essay is the cover article for the new edition of The Atlantic published under the title “The Bad Guys Are Winning.” The title sums up the simplistic and one-sided view contained in the essay: the “bad guys” are invariably the guys that also happen to be opposed to the United States, and almost all the authoritarians that are aligned with the U.S. receive no serious criticism. The image on the cover shows five leaders in a row wearing dark suits like some bad parody of Reservoir Dogs, and of these only one, Erdogan, is the head of state of a formal U.S. ally. The article briefly acknowledges Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways, but it seems that he was included on the cover mainly because Turkey has become more of a rogue actor in its foreign policy and “has become openly hostile to former European and NATO allies.” 

One will look in vain for any mention of the appalling human rights record of the Egyptian dictator Sisi that the U.S. continues to arm and support, and there are only the briefest references to the governments in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and then only because of their relationships with China. Despite their well-known role as benefactors of authoritarians throughout the region from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not counted as part of “Autocracy Inc.” To the extent that “bad guys” are “winning” today, at least part of the explanation for it is that some of them have been given carte blanche by Washington to jail and kill their critics, destabilize other countries, and commit war crimes in reckless military interventions. 

Applebaum’s chief complaint about sanctions on these states is that they are supposedly inadequate and are “deteriorating over time.” The huge numbers of people impoverished by these efforts to isolate their leaders are nowhere to be found. Applebaum acknowledges that sanctions aren’t changing regime behavior anywhere, but she never considers that this tool has worked to strengthen the grip of the authoritarian leaders over their peoples. Cutting a country off from the rest of the world is a boon for these leaders, who can then exploit the imposed scarcity to reward loyalists with access to the resources that remain. A sanctioned, impoverished country is one that is easier to control, and so the most-sanctioned states are also the ones that have some of the most entrenched authoritarian systems that have only become worse as “maximum pressure” has done its damage. 

Nations under siege by foreign powers rarely seek to change their governments, and instead they tend to tolerate even the worst leaders because of the external threat. Applebaum still thinks of sanctions as a weapon to be used against authoritarian rulers, but the reality is that authoritarianism thrives under such terrible conditions. It is usually when overall conditions improve, and the government lets its guard down, that meaningful political change can occur. The U.S. needs to find a better balance than its current fruitless punitive measures against one group of authoritarian states and lavish rewards for another set. Preferably, the U.S. should impose sanctions far less often, and it should also be much less willing to provide despots with advanced weapons.

It does not occur to Applebaum that the authoritarians are “winning” in part because of destructive U.S. policies that inflict collective punishment on innocent people while leaving the leaders and their cronies largely unscathed. She complains that the sanctioned states work together to evade sanctions without considering that waging multiple economic wars to compel other governments to give in to Washington’s demands is bound to drive them together in common cause. Insofar as “Autocracy Inc.” is a real thing, the U.S. has had a major role in creating it with its ham-fisted coercion and threats. In that sense, hawkish sanctions advocates have been the authoritarians’ unwitting allies. 

Applebaum also makes some insulting accusations against other Americans for their supposed loss of faith in the democratic cause. She asserts that “a part of the American left has abandoned the idea that ‘democracy’ belongs at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.” This is quite a claim, but she provides no real evidence to support it. It is true that many Americans on the left and the right do not subscribe to her crusading form of democracy promotion, but that is not because they devalue democracy or assume the worst about America. It is usually because they have seen how democratist ideologues have cynically used the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to sell the public on policies that have caused great destruction and misery. If many Americans are now more skeptical about crusading for democracy, the blame for that lies with those that wrapped an illegal war of aggression in the mantle of the “freedom agenda.”

She writes, “If Americans don’t help to hold murderous regimes to account, those regimes will retain their sense of impunity.” This is true, but it applies most of all to those governments that the U.S. arms and supports. The authoritarian governments that the U.S. has the most influence over are the ones that Applebaum ignores. 

The U.S. has no real clout with the pariah regimes that it has sanctioned for years and decades, and the major authoritarian powers are too powerful to coerce in any case, but it does have leverage with the client dictators and royals that it has backed to the hilt for generations. If we would hold murderous regimes to account, that is where we need to begin, because that is where our efforts might have the greatest success. 

If the U.S. wants to challenge authoritarianism, the best way for it to do that is to stop propping up authoritarians and stop giving political and diplomatic cover to their many crimes. The U.S. should also stop punishing tens of millions of innocent people for their leaders’ wrongdoing and allow these countries to chart their own political futures without our constant interference.

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