Strongman leaders are on the rise. Blame it on the West’s moral cowardice
- Christopher Johnson says double standards and hypocrisy have undercut the erstwhile moral authority of the West, leaving the door open for authoritarian rulers to strut on the world stage
A clear pattern has emerged in recent years as strident nations such as China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia increasingly exploit weakness in the doormat diplomacy of the United States, Canada, Germany, France and other Western nations losing clout on the world stage.
Machiavellian strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman are taking advantage of voters’ fetish for “cute” compliant leaders: the boy wonders Emmanuel Macron, 41, and Justin Trudeau, 47; the impish media circus clown Donald Trump; and so-called progressive, “open-minded” wunderkinds such as Angela Merkel, blamed for upsetting the post-war status quo in Europe.
These hypocritical, wishy-washy Western leaders lack moral authority. They say one thing, do the other, and evade responsibility. Why should China and others respect that?
Trump calls North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man’ and later praises his “great personality”. He talks big about slamming doors on Muslims and Latin Americans while letting Russia taint elections. He says he might use Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who has been detained in Canada on a US government request, as a pawn in trade negotiations with China, but accuses China of unfair practices.
Trump and other US presidents have disparaged international institutions to the point where China can ignore their rulings as “a piece of paper”, expand operations in the South China Sea, send 3,000 troops to Russia’s biggest military exercise since 1981, and detain businessmen or diplomats with little consequence.
Putin has little reason to fear the West. After his post-Olympic invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Russian president merely had to shrug off Merkel’s pleas in a hotel room, at their meeting in 2015, then circumvent the financial sanctions. Merkel is the chief architect of doormat diplomacy. Her embrace of Muslim war victims created havoc across Europe, fuelled neo-Nazi movements, gave false hope to millions of migrants and led thousands to watery deaths in the Mediterranean, not to mention almost weekly terrorist attacks in European cities.
Remember when Erdogan detained thousands of Turkish academics, journalists and bureaucrats? Merkel’s “cosmopolitan” Germany used to let his hardliners campaign inside Germany for elections in Turkey, before banning the practice in 2017. She also cheered for German football star Mesut Ozil, who met Erdogan then quit the German team, citing racism.
Or how about the global outrage over the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s role in the war and mass starvation in Yemen? That hasn’t stopped France, America, Britain and Canada from selling arms to Saudi Arabia. At the G20 summit in Argentina, Macron even told the 33-year-old Saudi crown prince “I am worried”.
Championing human rights, Western leaders used to fight for hostages held in Iran in the 1970s or the Philippines over a decade ago. Now Chinese leaders are the ones sticking up for citizens such as Meng Wanzhou and Su Bin, who was arrested in Canada in 2014 and jailed in the US for accessing military secrets. Some Chinese also protested in Vancouver with “Free Ms Meng” placards. Canadians aren’t howling on Twitter or hitting the streets to demand China release Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig. Instead, former diplomats to China are leading calls for action.
In Meng’s case, Trudeau has found a convenient excuse for inaction by claiming that politics has no sway over the justice system. But Canada, like the US, is selective about when it applies the “rule of law”. Like Merkel, Trudeau gave thousands of illegal migrants false hope that they could walk over the US border to begin new lives in Canada, and now his government – amid public outrage – is rounding them up for deportation. Lawmakers and police agencies have long ignored intelligence officials and cybersecurity experts’ accusations that foreigners are smuggling money, guns and opioids into Canada and hacking and ruining local telecommunications firms such as Nortel and BlackBerry Limited.
Ignorant Canadian politicians have wrongly suggested that Chinese officials probably don’t understand the workings of our democracy. In fact, Chinese increasingly travel the world and study at prestigious Western universities. Competing to build the 5G network, Huawei employs former Canadian politicians, receives tax breaks and funds research and development projects at universities.
With official Western posture lacking backbone, almost anyone can influence actual policy. It’s like amateur night at the local karaoke bar. Angry rural folk in England, not the London-based political class, won the surprising vote to break away from Europe. Goldman Sachs executives are reportedly trying to influence US trade talks with China. They must be laughing in Beijing.
Based in Asia since 1987, Christopher Johnson (www.globalitemagazine.com) is author of Siamese Dreams, Kobe Blue and Freedom’s Rainbow