By enabling Putin and other global kleptocrats, the West has undermined democracy

By | March 15, 2022

In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Anne Applebaum writes:

All of us have in our mind a cartoon image of what an autocratic state looks like. There is a bad man at the top. He controls the police. The police threaten the people with violence. There are evil collaborators, and maybe some brave dissidents.

But in the 21st century, that cartoon bears little resemblance to reality. Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance personnel), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with their counterparts in another, with the profits going to the leader and his inner circle. Oligarchs from multiple countries all use the same accountants and lawyers to hide their money in Europe and America. The police forces in one country can arm, equip, and train the police forces in another; China notoriously sells surveillance technology all around the world. Propagandists share resources and tactics—the Russian troll farms that promote Putin’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of Belarus or Venezuela. They also pound home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America. Chinese sources are right now echoing fake Russian stories about nonexistent Ukrainian chemical weapons. Their goal is to launch false narratives and confuse audiences in the United States and other free societies. They do so in order to make us believe that there is nothing we can do in response.

This is not to say that there is a conspiracy—some super-secret room where bad guys meet, as in a James Bond movie. The new autocratic alliance doesn’t have a structure, let alone an ideology. Among modern autocrats are people who call themselves communists, nationalists, and theocrats. Washington likes to talk about China and Chinese influence because that’s easy, but what really links the leaders of these countries is a common desire to preserve their personal power. Unlike military or political alliances from other times and places, the members of this group don’t operate like a bloc, but rather like a loose agglomeration of companies. Call it Autocracy, Inc. Their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals—deals designed to replace Western sanctions or take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich—which is why they can operate across geographical and historical lines. [Continue reading…]

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