Autocracies United
Why “reset” with Russia and “engagement” with Iran have failed


Clifford D. May

Kagan puts this into historical context, noting that there is no international consensus on the optimal form of governance. On the contrary, “the struggle between liberalism and autocracy has endured since the Enlightenment.” It was not settled by World War I or World War II or by the Cold War. Those who rule Russia, as well as those who rule China, Iran, Syria, and many other nations are committed to maintaining strong central governments, “managing” their populations through coercion, harassment, imprisonment, and when necessary — or even just convenient — murder, as well as maximizing power on the world stage through whatever means are available. 

“The modern liberal mind,” Kagan argues, “may not appreciate the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world.” But autocrats, he adds, really do “believe in autocracy. They see it as a superior form of government. As have rulers and prominent political thinkers going back to Plato and Aristotle, they regard democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob,” which renders it inherently weak, unstable, and chaotic. Recent events, not only in modern Greece, no doubt reinforce this view.

Much as we might wish otherwise, the ideal of an “international community” that embraces peace, freedom, human and civil rights, tolerance, democracy, and the rule of law as universal values is a fiction, a fantasy, a pipe dream.

The autocrats’ foreign-policy priority is to make the world safe for themselves. Had Ambassador Rice understood that, she would have expected the Russian and Chinese vetoes. If President Obama and Secretary Clinton grasped that, they’d recognize that Putin will agree to no resets of the relationship that do not benefit Russia and disadvantage the United States. 

For example, in the missile defense negotiations now under way, led by Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher, the Russians are seeking legally binding assurances that no American missile defense system will be effective against Russian missiles. In other words, Putin wants us to agree to remain vulnerable to his nuclear weapons. That we are even considering this demand is astonishing and appalling.

It should by now be apparent: The 21st century has ushered in an era of competition among three divergent visions of how mankind should be governed. Liberal democracy is one. Autocracy is a second. The third is Islamism, which it would not be inaccurate to describe as theocratic autocracy. In any case, more and more, the autocrats and Islamists have been finding common ground and making common cause against their common enemy: liberal democracies.

Putin supports the regimes that rule Syria and Iran not least because their aim is to diminish the United States, which Putin sees as consistent with Russia’s national interest and the interest of what might be called the United Autocratic Nations. 

Putin has made very clear that he is a committed autocrat, not an aspiring democrat. The Age of Obama has changed neither his policies nor his personality. A Machiavellian if ever there was one, he would rather be feared than loved. Similarly, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does not crave the respect and friendship of Western infidels. He holds President Obama in no higher esteem than he held President Bush. Those who rule Syria, China, Venezuela, and other autocratic countries are not interested in what we call “reform.” They are not seeking membership in the liberal democratic country club. 

President Obama has conducted a meaningful experiment. But now the data are in: They indicate that American policies require readjustment — they need to be reset — in line with what we should by now have learned.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.