Have you ever wondered what an article comprised completely of buzzwords, clichés and hackneyed tropes would look like? Well, wonder no more. This piece in “The Diplomat” (and if this is what diplomats really read, it explains a lot) – thanks, Kirill – is a nonstop thrill ride for those who are convinced that Russia is the root of all evil in the world, that its Dr. Evil authoritarian leader made it that way, and that the only sensible way to deal with it would be to shoot it like a rabid dog. Although some other countries allegorical to the “bad crowd” that hang together on the street corner – smoking, spitting on the sidewalk and plotting no good – are included, of course Russia is the ringleader, with Vladimir Putin cast as Oz The Great And Terrible, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons from behind his screen. The “Axis of Authoritarianism”, we are told, arose from Vladimir Putin’s resumption of the presidency of Russia.
I took the trouble to count how many times the word “authoritarian” is used in this piece, and it appears 22 times. I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say Mr. Martel relies heavily on it to get his point across. That’s curious, because although Mr. Martel appears to have never served in the military himself, he has been associated with it most of his adult and professional life (6 years at the Air War College, another 6 at the Naval War College, served in an editorial capacity at the latter). Is the military authoritarian? You bet it is. In fact, the authoritarian leadership model is a recognized and desirable leadership technique from the U.S. Army Handbook, and is taught at military leadership centers throughout the western powers. Here’s how the Army views authoritarian leadership: “This style is used when leaders tell their employees what they want done and how they want it accomplished, without getting the advice of their followers. Some of the appropriate conditions to use it is when you have all the information to solve the problem, you are short on time, and your employees are well motivated. Some people tend to think of this style as a vehicle for yelling, using demeaning language, and leading by threats and abusing their power. This is not the authoritarian style, rather it is an abusive, unprofessional style called “bossing people around.” It has no place in a leader’s repertoire.The authoritarian style should normally only be used on rare occasions. If you have the time and want to gain more commitment and motivation from your employees, then you should use the participative style.“
It’s worth discussing the participative style here as well, because I’m going to argue that this is much more accurately Vladimir Putin’s leadership style – but first, permit me to suggest the military is generally more authoritarian than any government. Although the amplification of the authoritarian model says it should be used only rarely, the military in fact uses it pretty much all the time. The boss tells you what to do, and you do it. He doesn’t huddle with you, explain his reasoning, and then ask you if you maybe can think of a better way it could be done. Not even when you’re both the same rank, but he or she is delegated command, never mind when he or she is a couple of ranks higher. Everybody is made to practice all three popular leadership styles – authoritarian, participative and free rein – during leadership training, but if you forgot every one except authoritarian after that, the military would not be too upset with you. More to the point, people who want every decision to be a consensus after consultation typically do not rise rapidly in the military, because they are seen to be unable to make a decision.
Anyway, the participative style: “This style involves the leader including one or more employees in the decision making process (determining what to do and how to do it). However, the leader maintains the final decision making authority. Using this style is not a sign of weakness, rather it is a sign of strength that your employees will respect. This is normally used when you have part of the information, and your employees have other parts. Note that a leader is not expected to know everything — this is why you employ knowledgeable and skillful employees. Using this style is of mutual benefit — it allows them to become part of the team and allows you to make better decisions.”
How is that not Vladimir Putin’s governing style? Does Mr. Putin personally tell everybody in Russia what to do every single day? Of course not; the authoritarian model is based on your being able to personally address every individual who will be involved in completing the task, telling him or her what to do and how to do it, when you expect it to be completed and to what standard, and then you follow up to ensure you, as the leader, were understood and that the results reflect those you ordered. As much as think-tank wonks love the term “authoritarian”, it is practically impossible to rule as a true authoritarian over a group much larger than you could fit in a sports arena.
In practice, Mr. Putin has a group of employees – called “ministers” – who advise him during the decision-making process, contributing advice from their areas of expertise, while the decision is his alone. Does Putin write all of Russia’s laws himself? Any of them? Of course not. Does he dictate transport policy without the advice of the appropriate ministry? Of course not. This is the participative model, and a variation of the one every civilized government uses. It seems to me a hell of a lot further from “authoritarian” than a government in which the president signs a new law into being by appending a signing statement that establishes his right to disregard it if he finds it inconvenient to realization of his objectives.
You may be wondering what the military has to do with this. Well, for one thing, the United States military functions just fine as an authoritarian institution, and few Americans suggest it should be more of a group-thinky sort of organization. For another, who does America send in first to overthrow governments it doesn’t care for, suppress resistance to the forceful injection of American values and set up the transitional government? That’s right – the military. The newly-liberated Iraq had a government imposed upon it led by a retired Lieutenant General. Oddly enough, he provided excellent leadership and, of the conservative favourites and native turncoats who had a shot at running the place after him, Jay Garner was probably the man who tried hardest to give the Iraqi people a shot at success.
For another, among the “Russia Democratic Reform Working Group” that supplied expertise to “Russia’s Democratic Moment? Defining U.S. Policy to Promote Democratic Opportunities in Russia” – co-edited by Mr. Martel – high-ranking military officers outnumbered civilians 17 to 3. What the hell, I guess we’re not too busy: let’s take a look inside. “The time that it takes a totalitarian state” they tell us “to transform itself into a democratic state is bereft of any historical experience or empirical foundation. To be blunt, we simply do not know how long the transformation will take or whether it will succeed. For all we know, the Russian people may have their energies absorbed by democratic reform for ten, fifty or one hundred years – or the grand experiment with democracy may collapse in civil war and the rebirth of an authoritarian society.” Even then (1995), they had a thing about that word. I think it’s safe to say, though, that when they said “democracy”, they meant democracy written for them and steered at every stage by the west and especially the United States. It stretches the imagination pretty far to propose that a country obsessed with being Number One and with full-spectrum dominance would deliberately enable a powerful challenger with a huge resource base that might one day disagree with them. Then again, that’s the same country that is now busily setting up Islamist governments all over the Middle East and Africa. In any case, it seems fairly clear that although they claimed then not to have any idea how long it would take for Russia to become a democracy, their patience is now exhausted, and we’re at the, “Are you a democracy now? How about now?” stage. Back then, although they believed “...it is in the national interest of the United States to influence democratic reform in Russia…, they also believed “…how Russia manages democratic reform is up to the Russian people themselves.” Only certain Russian people though. Like Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov and Lilia Shevtsova and Vladimir Ryzkhov. People who, when we say “Bashar Assad has got to go”, will say, “Yassuh, Boss; where do I sign?”
Well, let’s take a look at the article. Without further ado, I present you – the Axis of Authoritarianism: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. Not Libya, you notice, which has a NATO-empowered al Qaeda government, but the less said about that the better, apparently. What North Korea is doing in there is beyond me, unless Martel simply wanted to include a country that was indisputably a dictatorship and which would excite nobody’s sympathies. I guess Burkina Faso was on vacation or something.
This axis, we are told, “can only inject turmoil into the international system”. The international system the Axis of Good Guyz has done such a great job stabilizing, I suppose he means. The Single Most Powerful State In Economic, Military, And Technological Terms, Mr. Martel hopes you know, would bitchslap them into next week, because they fear Democracy, Freedom and Liberty, except that “weakness and confusion in American policy from wars, recession and political divisions in Washington” mean that might have to be put off for a little bit.
There’s a good deal more feelgood flag-waving like that, but I got tired of it fairly quickly. Let’s get to work. These states, we hear, are on the wrong side of history, politics and economics – and they know it.
That “wrong side of history” chestnut is a throwaway that is growing tired from overuse, and simply means that if you do not accept western benevolence implicit in all its actions or you question its authority to do as it pleases regardless what the law says, you are on the wrong side of history. Ooooo – hurt me. Politics? Russia’s leader has job approval ratings up over 70%; ratings that, according to ABC News, the American president “can only dream about”. A Pew Research Center Global Opinion Poll found that nearly 75% polled believed Russia deserves more respect from other countries. Meanwhile the USA waited with bated breath to see if the Supreme Court would overturn as unconstitutional a law on health care that the president had already signed, and which copies heavily from a state law passed by the opposition’s candidate, while political gridlock due to grandstanding antics by the minority party prevents the passage of any meaningful legislation. Wrong side of politics? Doesn’t look like it to me. Economics? I’m glad you asked. Here’s Russia’s Current Account to GDP figures, currently a surplus of 5.5% of the country’s GDP and described by Trading Economics as “an indication of the level of international competitiveness of a country. Usually, countries recording a strong current account surplus have an economy heavily dependent on exports revenues, with high savings ratings but weak domestic demand. On the other hand, countries recording a current account deficit have strong imports, a low saving rates and high personal consumption rates as a percentage of disposable incomes.” Here’s the USA’s, -3.1% of GDP. Good luck spinning that “strong imports” as a positive: they’re not free, and those people with the low savings and high personal consumption rates are paying for them. Unemployment? Around 5.4% for Russia, 8.2% for the USA. Balance of trade? Why, I’d be delighted. Russia, a $19 Billion surplus. The United States, a $50 Billion deficit. Just for fun, let’s look at China’s benchmark interest rate; currently 6.31% in solid, planned increases that are making the government a ton of money. The USA? Currently holding at a record low of .25%, and the government dare not raise it. Mushroom-cloud badboy Iran? Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) increased 20% year-over-year in 2010 despite economic sanctions imposed by the west, and had increased an astonishing 139% between 2008 and 2010 alongside collapsing FDI in U.S. satellites like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. I imagine the softening of world oil prices has made a significant dent in that, but it is apparent the they’re-making-a-nuclear-weapon caterwauling is not frightening everybody away. GDP growth in Venezuela is a robust 5.6%, while growth in the USA is an anemic less-than-half at 1.9%. Yet in Martel-World, all these authoritarian nations are suffering from fundamentally weak economies because they are cursed with lots of oil.
China, a colossus that is only gathering speed in spite of a temporary slowdown while the developed world decides if it is going to slide into a recession again, is forecast to pass the USA as the world’s largest economy in just 4 years from this date. Speaking of lots of oil, China is not waiting around until there isn’t. They’re the world’s largest producer of not only domestic renewable energy, but renewable-energy components such as wind turbines and solar panels…for all those countries who think the petroleum express is a perpetual motion machine. One of the sources Martel cites is a New York Times story which croaks about tumbling electricity demand in China owing to the slowing economy, and implies regional managers are fudging their statistics. This is a common feature of emerging economies the USA does not care for – if their statistics look cheery, they’re fabricated. I could see the “1 or 2 percentage points” the article claims (according to western economists and a couple of disgruntled executives) – but China’s demand for electricity has quadrupled in a decade, according to the CIA World Factbook, whom you would expect to trim the figures a little to allow for alleged fabrication.
Similarly, according to Mr. Martel, Russia’s FDI is “almost non-existent”. Is that so? No, I’m afraid it’s not. According to Ernst & Young’s “Growing Opportunities Russia FDI Report” from last year, Russia is the fourth-largest FDI destination in Europe, and has doubled its attractiveness to investors during the same time period former leader Western Europe lost 28% in a world where FDI values are steadily converging. Moscow ranked 7th of the top 10 European cities for FDI projects. The same reference reports that although Russia does rely heavily on its energy sector, industry has begun to catch up, and manufacturing provided 60% of aggregate GDP growth in 2010. But in Martel-World, it’s an authoritarian petro-state with nothing but nuclear ballistic missiles, oil and gas sales and a president for life. Don’t let bitterness be a blindfold, Bill.
Mr. Martel reports Iran’s currency is “in free fall”. Is it? Against the U.S. dollar, yes. Whoopty-do. Iran was spearheading an effort to dump the U.S. dollar for oil sales anyway, in favour of the Euro, against which the Iranian rial fell sharply between January and May of this year, but which has since regained almost half its value, more or less a mirror image of the exchange rate for the Russian ruble. The rial fell sharply against the Chinese Renminbi Yuan, but that’s because the Chinese peg their currency to the U.S. dollar. They have their own reasons for doing that, and are unlikely to rewrite monetary policy in order to help Iran. The point is that the U.S. dollar is not the only currency out there – might not even be the world reserve currency any more if China really does pull ahead in 2016 or thereabouts (they overtook Japan faster than forecast), and the dollar is not Iran’s only foreign exchange recourse. Since Iran dumped the dollar in 2009 in favour of the Euro for calculating the value of its Oil Stabilization Fund, the rial’s fall against the dollar does not hurt Iran as badly as Mr. Martel would have you believe.
In Martel-World, China, Russia and the others fear the United States because they are afraid of the powerful salutary effects of freedom and democracy. The economies of all the authoritarian countries except China are a catastrophe, and China is an unknown because they just make shit up when it comes to statistics. The United States – with its 99.5% debt-to-GDP ratio and its strongest allies drowning in a sea of red ink – symbolizes to these pariah states “the success of free societies that authoritarian societies most deeply oppose”, because its democratic values threaten their existence.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a little bit sorry for him.