Anne Applebaum’s endless world war against autocracies
One of the world’s most accomplished historians of the former Soviet bloc, Anne Applebaum, sets out to warn us in The Atlantic that the “forces of autocracy” are out to “destroy democracies.” For her, those forces not only include the obvious candidate — Vladimir Putin’s Russia — but also an array of other apparently threatening actors, such as Belarus, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Nicaragua, Hungary and “potentially many others.”
The punch line is that “we” (i.e. liberal democracies) are at war with them all.
“War” is not used here in some metaphorical but rather in a very literal sense for Applebaum asserts that fighting autocracies “requires armies, strategies, weapons, and long-term plans.” NATO is the military muscle behind the “liberal order,” according to her.
Now, defending and reinvigorating the “liberal order” is a worthy enterprise. Although it has been applied rather selectively, an alternative world order would explicitly endorse the principle that, in the words of a pro-Putin Russian academic, “the level of the sovereignty of the states will only be determined by their relative power.” It would legitimize the strong preying on the weak and dispense with any notion of the universality of human rights.
The glimpses of such an order are already visible. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine provided a cover for lesser despots to act in increasingly brazen ways, such as Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev’s apparent determination to ethnically cleanse the remaining Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, or mass executions carried out by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Some of Applebaum’s proposals to push back against such trends are sensible — notably those involving improving democracies from within. Yet her global narrative is riddled with inconsistencies, ideological over-simplifications, and a disturbingly narcissistic view of the “democratic world.” It reflects a dangerously militarized worldview.
“As long as Russia is ruled by Putin, Russia is at war with us,” she declares. Yet she also notes that in the early 1990s, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was “already seething with resentment at the West” and displaying neo-imperialist reflexes. It is entirely reasonable to argue that most of it was Moscow’s own fault, due to its inability to reform and work constructively with the United States and NATO.
Yet, the fact that, for all their differences, both Yeltsin and Putin vehemently opposed NATO’s expansion to Russia’s western borders points to something fundamental: that any Russian government, even a democratic one, would view it as threatening Russia’s national security. The idea of a “Europe whole and free,” as envisaged by George H.W. Bush and initially embraced by Bill Clinton gave way to what many in Russia, including liberals, saw as the West taking advantage of Russia’s temporary weakness. By focusing excessively on the “democracy-autocracy” faultline, Applebaum fails to acknowledge that states act primarily in terms of their perceived interests, not as a function of their forms of governance.
A second major deficiency in Applebaum’s narrative is her tendency to exaggerate the threat posed by disparate authoritarian actors. Tellingly, in search of a suitable blueprint for action, she harks back to the aftermath of 9/11. It follows that for the “liberal order” to survive, the “global war on terror” should be now replaced by the “global war on autocracies.” This entails nothing less than an open-ended commitment to war until humanity achieves some sort of democratic perfection. But do all autocracies represent a threat so acute as to justify embarking on such a missionary crusade?
Putin’s Russia is clearly a threat to the West. So, in the long run, may be China. But, taking Applebaum’s list of villains, what grounds exist to believe that the West is at war with Nicaragua? Daniel Ortega’s regime may be obnoxious and corrupt, but it does not pose a threat to the United States and the wider liberal community.
Another of Applebaum’s pariahs — Iran — poses a regional threat at most. Whatever attempts the Islamic Republic undertook to mimic Russian influence operations in the West, those were puny and amateurish by comparison. Applebaum bemoans “the billions of dollars we have sent to Iran” for its oil and gas, seemingly oblivious to Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign that crippled the country’s economy. She also does not explain how being at war with Iran is consistent with negotiations on the restoration of the nuclear agreement. If Iran is at war “with us,” shouldn’t those negotiations be abandoned immediately? Conversely, why would Tehran negotiate in good faith if the West is to consider itself at war with Iran anyway?
Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela may be a repressive authoritarian regime, but it is now negotiating renewed oil sales to the United States to compensate for the loss of Russian oil. That hardly amounts to being at war with the West.
And this is only about the countries that are on Applebaum’s list. There are many other authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states in the world, such as Turkey, Singapore, Vietnam, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and many others that, despite their autocratic governance, seek cooperation with the West in variety of ways. Should they all be rebuffed due to their lack of democratic credentials? Can’t conditions exist under which engagement with authoritarian states may foster positive change — if not outright democratization, then at least some forms of liberalization and openness?
Historically, engagement with authoritarian regimes in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile prepared the ground for imperfect, but workable democratic transitions. And isn’t the urgent need to fight climate change and achieve the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals the ultimate argument in favor of preserving some form of cooperation with China? With her simplistic democracy-autocracy dichotomy, Applebaum doesn’t even come close to trying to unpack these complex dilemmas.
Not only does Applebaum fail to usefully discriminate between different authoritarian regimes, but her pitch to enlarge the community of democracies is deeply flawed. She recognizes the need to reach out to allies in Africa, the Asia/Pacific region, and Latin America, but declares that the “language of democracy, anti-corruption, and justice originates in the democratic world, our world.”
To the publics in the Global South, this sounds monumentally tone deaf given the legacy of the ill-fated “war on terror,” with its invasion of Iraq (which Applebaum avidly supported), torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, rendition flights, and racial profiling. This came on top of decades of U.S. support for some of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the Middle East and Latin America, not to mention direct involvement in coups against the popular governments in Chile, Guatemala, and Iran.
These are not mere footnotes in history books, but enduring realities that shape people’s attitudes in the Global South. For the “democratic world” to enlist new allies, it has to rebuild its reputation first. Exercising some humility and living up to its own declared values and commitments would be a good place to start.
There is no doubt that Applebaum is sincere in her concern about the survival of the liberal order. It is also true that it is under assault from some unscrupulous autocrats and demagogues. Yet the way she proposes to go about saving it — a permanent war against evil — is a classic case of good intentions paving the road to hell.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group or the European Parliament.