The Year of the Dictators

posted by Robert Madsen on December 31, 2017 - 12:00am

The global economy ends 2017 and enters 2018 in apparent good health.  The odds are that world GDP growth, measured at market exchange rates, will continue at a year-over-year rate of nearly 3%.  The main economic risks to this scenario—primarily the deflation of asset bubbles in the US or a debt crisis in China’s corporate sector—seem unlikely.  More worrisome are geopolitical trends.  

In recent years many countries have evinced a trend towards greater concentration and personalization of political power.    This matters because narrower governance structures are less resilient when addressing crises, and personalized regimes are sometimes led by the preferences and characteristics of individual leaders into strategic miscalculation.  The danger is even more acute when strongmen arise simultaneously in different countries.

In China, the rising global power, Xi Jinping just consolidated his position and imposed tighter censorship over information as he sought to assert Beijing’s primacy in East Asia and abroad.  Donald Trump, president of the declining hegemon, facilitated Xi’s efforts by withdrawing the United States from a Trans-Pacific Partnership that was designed largely to slow China’s ascent, by gutting the State Department, and by using “the big lie” to divide the electorate and cast doubt on governmental institutions and experts.  Vladimir Putin sometimes had difficulty concealing his glee at this state of affairs as he expanded Moscow’s influence over Ukraine and other former Soviet possessions while also dramatically curtaining the US presence in Syria.

The resulting instability has enabled regional autocrats to pursue their own agendas with less restraint.  North Korea’s Kim Jong Un availed himself of American confusion to accelerate his nuclear armament program and now finds himself in an unnervingly personal confrontation with the mercurial American president.  Meanwhile Turkey’s Erdogan tightened his grip on information and potential opposition at home and, when visiting Washington, permitted his bodyguards to beat US residents in the streets.  In Saudi Arabia the sybaritic and inexperienced Mohammed bin Salman has, in the name of reform and with the sympathy of the White House, arrested several of his political rivals and increased the intensity of the country’s proxy wars with Iran and its allies—a dangerous move at any time let alone when Tehran faces intense popular pressure and will inevitably be tempted to react assertively and nationalistically.  

2018 thus begins at a time when names like Putin, Xi, Kim, and even Erdogan are unusually prominent in the public discourse.  The accretion and personalization of power is especially unsettling in anticipation of elections with potentially global implications in the United States, Russia, Italy and other European countries, and Iraq; for during campaigns governments become more introspective and politicians incline further towards nationalistic sentiment.  The consequent risk of geopolitical disturbances is what should keep people awake at night in the New Year.