Putin’s Revenge of Power
As Vladimir Putin rampages his army through Ukraine, observers do not sense the cold calculation of strategic analysis. Instead, it’s impossible to interpret his behavior as anything less than revenge. He wants revenge from the West for the breakup of the Soviet Union.
He wants revenge from Ukraine for the Revolution of Dignity. His decisions no longer come across as sneaky or manipulative. Rather they seem vengeful and passionate.
Obviously, Moisés Naím did not anticipate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when he wrote The Revenge of Power. However, it’s a natural next step for an autocrat whose authority rests upon populism, polarization, and post-truth. Looking back it was always inevitable that the breakdown of democracies around the world would embolden autocratic leaders to impose their will beyond their borders.
Moreover, Vladimir Putin is possibly the closest we have to an archetype of what Naím calls the 3P autocrat. The 3P autocrat is the next-generation authoritarian leader who uses the tools of populism, polarization, and post-truth to consolidate their power. In so doing they overcome the forces from the first years of the 21st century that brought about a fragmentation of power. In other words, autocrats have found new ways to centralize power to undermine freedom and democracy. Naturally, Naím delivers his sequel on political power at the most relevant moment imaginable. Indeed, it’s already become required reading for anyone who wants to understand the underlying causes that have brought the world to the brink of a world war.
What’s at Stake
As the democratic recession moves past its sixteenth consecutive year, autocrats have grown emboldened to shape global norms. Globalization depended upon a liberal world order to facilitate trade, peace, and communication between nations. The widespread adoption of democracy in nearly every corner of the globe brought about new norms for international relations. Foreign affairs became increasingly predictable as countries integrated into the global community. However, it also exposed a weakness as countries became increasingly conservative in their foreign policy. Liberal democracies became complacent and risk-averse.
Unfortunately, caution is no longer a reasonable approach. Patience and hesitation convey weakness in this new international environment. Democracy is in danger today within many nations, but between them as well. Naím makes clear, “What’s at stake is not just whether democracy will thrive in the twenty-first century but whether it will even survive as the dominant system of government, the default setting in the global village. Freedom’s survival is not guaranteed.”
Naím argues 3P autocrats employ their techniques in democratic and authoritarian cultures. The United States continues to face misinformation from former President Donald Trump. Moreover, he uses it strategically to stoke polarization through the language of populism. Indeed, it’s a toolkit many authoritarian leaders have used from Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to Hugo Chávez and Viktor Orbán. Nonetheless, the most disappointing examples involve leaders like Boris Johnson or George W. Bush who fall short of the 3P autocrat label who nonetheless normalized this behavior. Pernicious polarization normalizes political extremism. It empowers the most dangerous voices and undermines opportunities for consensus. The 3P techniques have led to backsliding democracies and increasingly authoritarian autocracies.
Now some will overlook Naím’s depiction of power as hyperbole. His last book proclaimed The End of Power, so it’s easy to dismiss his latest title as exaggeration. However, Naím does not think of power simply as a concept. It’s more like a metaphor. A metaphor takes certain liberties with language, but also elevates the importance of the writer’s choice of words. It exchanges some of its literal meaning for greater symbolic value. So, it’s important to take Naím’s claim of revenge seriously. He could have titled the book The Rebirth of Power, The Return of Power, or The Reconsolidation of Power. Instead, he chose a more aggressive title, The Revenge of Power.
Among the book’s most important lines is easily it’s most overlooked. “Resentment,” Naím writes, “is just a suppressed longing for something harder to admit: a thirst for revenge. Populists who sow seeds of resentment must be prepared to serve up revenge if their followers’ appetite is to be sated.” It’s a peculiar line, because the autocrat “serves up revenge” for others. It is not the autocrat’s revenge. It is the people who thirst for vengeance. In other words, the revenge of power emanates from the people. It’s not what the reader expects. They infer the revenge happens to the public. Instead, we find it’s the people who demand revenge.
This insight builds upon Naím’s earlier work The End of Power where he argued power had become “easier to gain but harder to use and easier to lose.” It’s not just the autocrat who rebels against this phenomenon, but the people themselves. People have become willing to trade away freedom and democracy for governance. Indeed, Naím goes so far to write, “The 3P autocrats became popular because of their authoritarianism, not despite it.”
The final chapter of The Revenge of Power names five challenges democracies must overcome. However, Naím leaves out the most important: Democracies must show they can govern. The most simplistic definition of democracy describes it as a government of the people. But democracy has no meaning unless the people prove they actually can govern. The seductive lure of authoritarianism is its simplicity to deliver governance. However, it rarely (if ever) delivers good governance. Naím rightfully warns about the rise of criminalized governments. Unlike in a democracy where corruption is a defect, corruption is a necessary feature of autocracy. Putin’s claim to power depends on political corruption to keep elites complacent.
But Naím is right to believe it’s about more than just corruption. Autocracy makes the law subservient to the state. The state does not merely enforce the law, but rather uses it as a weapon against its opponents. It purposely creates legal impossibilities and contradictions so everyone finds it necessary to make legal compromises. Everyone becomes complicit. Nobody is innocent. As Jan-Werner Müller puts it, “Involving others in criminality compels their loyalty to the regime.”
This is what we must fight against. It’s not simply about elections or politics. It’s about a world based on justice, integrity, and fairness. At the same time, the enemy is within. It is our own inability to solve our problems that brings out our inner demons. Hopefully, we will find the inner strength to reclaim power as a force for justice.
Moisés Naím joins the Democracy Paradox tomorrow to discuss his new book The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century.
Anne Applebaum (2020) Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
Larry Diamond (2014), “Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled,” Journal of Democracy
Robert Kaufman and Stephan Haggard (2021) Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018), How Democracies Die
Jan-Werner Müller (2021) Democracy Rules
Moisés Naím (2022) “The Dictator’s New Playbook,” Foreign Affairs
Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz (2022) Freedom in the World:2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule
Joshua Yaffa (2020) Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia