The rise of authoritarianism is a profound threat. On the plus side, it has discredited various myths and misperceptions making it considerably easier to develop a worldview.
“Worldview”, as used here, refers to how decisions are informed by beliefs and knowledge about how the world is evolving. In some important ways, the world has become simpler.
Knowing a lot about history and foundational theories is still important but less essential. The 20th century was largely about competing ideologies. Fascism’s appeal was extinguished by the Second World War. Capitalism triumphed over communism-styled economics during the subsequent Cold War.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of a new global era, the prevailing economic orthodoxy, a mix of capitalism and globalisation, is not under serious threat. Their economic merits far outweigh their various flaws, which can be mitigated.
This cold war, like a prolonged hot war, will favour the more economically resilient. Democracies are being challenged not by an economically grounded ideology but rather by a mix of old-fashioned authoritarianism alongside inflamed nationalism.
Today’s uncontested leaders of Russia and China are old-style imperialists who view democracies as inferior to strongman rule. They can only delight in watching their primary adversaries, G7 leaders, frequently stumble, trying to somehow please voters while seeking to support Ukraine.
Russia’s prospects for transforming from a resource-endowed and nuclear-armed superpower into a formidable 21st century economic contender were poor prior to harsh sanctions being recently enacted. However, as the world hasn’t yet transitioned from being highly reliant on fossil fuels, the sanctions have also highlighted the continued vulnerability of energy importers.
The central issue for developing a current worldview is whether, in this age largely defined by rapid and highly disruptive innovations, necessary policy responses can be better shaped by authoritarian or democratic governments. China’s President Xi seems to truly believe that the US is in decline and that this reflects its chaotic politics.
By teaming with Russia, Xi would have expected to be able to outsmart short-sighted decision-making from the White House. President Biden’s weak popularity amid high inflation has him eyeing lower-price imports from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and China.
From the perspectives of Xi and Putin, the US is strong economically and militarily but its politics make it weak. They can reasonably speculate that European and US voters will dial down their support for Ukraine so as to reliably access cheaper food and energy. If this happens, authoritarianism will have won an important round. This is quite possible, but what looks more likely is that Putin and Xi have underestimated the many adversaries they have provoked.
A central contention of autocrats like Xi and Putin is that democracies are weak because voters are weak. While we might soon witness a substantial erosion of support for Ukraine, the long-term consequences of the war for a Putin-led Russia will remain decisively negative.
Authoritarian leaders can exhibit greater resolve than their democratic counterparts who can be dispatched by voters. Conversely, autocrats become increasingly reliant on cronyism which undermines economic and military capabilities. Notwithstanding much of its economy being hyper-competitive, China is far from immune to patronage-induced inefficiencies expanding as it seeks to dial down its reliance on export-led growth.
Russia is the world’s largest and most resource-endowed country and China is the most populous with the largest manufacturing capacity. By combining forces they could be truly formidable, so long as the rest of the world kowtows submissively, as it did to Putin’s earlier land grabs around the Black Sea and Xi’s many aggressions in the South China Sea.
Russia will become less integrated into the global economy and China seems similarly inclined. Both Putin and Xi are avowed nationalists who tolerate minimal internal dissent and disdain criticisms from foreign quarters. But they are not natural bedfellows.
Whereas excessive reliance on Russia for energy has ended badly for Europeans, China has continued to maintain diverse supply lines. While both Russia and China appear reluctant to become highly reliant on each other, Russia has few options. From China’s perspective, a post-Putin Russia might correctly conclude that it should spurn China to embrace democratic countries.
People’s worldviews are always shaped by beliefs. South Africans’ beliefs were greatly influenced by the 1990s transition. Tremendous faith was placed in universal suffrage and Mandela-inspired expectations around bridging differences. Yet sustaining high growth always required intensely integrating into the global economy. Unfortunately, it was always much easier for our ruling party to prioritise redistribution at growth’s expense – while building a massive patronage network to maintain electoral dominance.
South Africa has adopted much of Russia’s political-economic playbook without adequate commodity export earnings or a large middle class to support the income requirements of a rampant patronage network. This, alongside mild efforts at cracking down on corruption, has triggered civil disobedience ranging from riots to illegal strikes and sabotage. The perpetrators would welcome a downward economic spiral that further erodes support for our institutions.
Democratic countries are likely to withstand authoritarian challenges on the world stage as their economies are highly integrated and competitive. If we don’t follow this path, our economy will be too damaged to ward off authoritarian opportunists.