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Historical eras tend to have characteristic leadership types: the fledgling democrats of the 1920s, the dictators of the 1930s and 1940s, the nationalist anticolonialists of the 1950s and 1960s, the gerontocrats of the 1970s, the fledgling democrats (again) of the 1980s and 1990s. Now we’re back to dictators.
The leading figures on the world stage today practice a brutal, smashmouth politics, a personalized authoritarianism. Old-school strongmen, they do whatever is needed to grasp and hold on to power. Here we profile five to see what makes them tick. All fought their way from obscurity to the throne and then took a hard authoritarian turn. But how, and why?
Susan Glasser says that Russia’s Vladimir Putin sees himself as a latter-day Peter the Great. He fetishizes strength, dreams of restoring imperial grandeur, and rules by the old tsarist doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.”
According to Richard McGregor, China’s Xi Jinping is driven by paternal hero worship and devotion to the Chinese Communist Party. Having concluded that the party’s rule was under growing threat, he has devoted his time in office to restoring its dominance.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is harder to pin down, writes Kaya Genc. A fiery Islamist turned reformer turned populist authoritarian, he has become the country’s longest-serving and most significant leader since Ataturk.
Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is comfortable shooting people and wants you to know it, notes Sheila Coronel. He made his name as a tough mayor bringing order to a crime-ridden city, and as president, he offers that experience as a national model—“Singapore with thugs instead of technocrats.”
And Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Paul Lendvai explains, started off as a liberal activist before cynically switching to populist nationalism when the political winds shifted—and as prime minister, he has proceeded to dismantle democratic institutions and undermine the rule of law.
There is no scholarly consensus on what role individuals play in history, relative to broader structural forces in their environment. You can tell any political story you want through the lens of the people involved, making it appear that their choices mattered greatly. And you can tell the same story with abstract trends doing the work and human particularity washed out of the picture. So how much do details about these men’s lives and characters matter? How would history be unfolding without them, and how much of what happens next will be determined by their personal whims? Good questions.