Over the past few weeks, we have been treated to two major examples of disastrous decision-making by authoritarian great powers. The first was, clearly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which to date has killed tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians. The cost to Russia has been enormous as well, with a significant fraction of the invasion force having been annihilated and forced to retreat from Kyiv. President Vladimir Putin evidently ordered the attack believing that the Ukrainian government would fall in a matter of days, and that ordinary people would welcome the Russians as liberators. Instead, resistance was fierce and skilled, and Putin has had to scale back his objectives to conquering the eastern Donbas. The NATO alliance has shown strong solidarity. While Putin blamed NATO expansion for his attack on Ukraine, his actions are likely lead to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance as well. The Russian army has been humiliated as Ukrainian farmers tow away abandoned Russian tanks with their tractors.
At the other end of Eurasia, China is engaged in a senseless struggle to maintain its zero-Covid strategy in the face of a massive outbreak of new variants of the virus. The strategy involves locking down entire cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, with parents being separated from their children, thousands of asymptomatic people being put in massive quarantine facilities, and shut-in citizens wailing about being unable to buy food or medicines. These shutdowns will have huge consequences for the Chinese economy, since China remains crucial to global supply chains that have already suffered huge disruptions from Covid outbreaks outside of China.
All countries make big policy mistakes, and the United States has unfortunately seen a large share of them so far in this century. But the disastrous choices made by Russia and China in recent weeks are the results not simply of poor information or bad judgment on the part of individual leaders; they result directly from the authoritarian nature of the two countries’ political systems. Both Russia and China have evolved a form of personalistic authoritarianism that gives untrammeled authority to a single individual at the top. There are very few checks on that individual’s power, and no easy way of the system reversing course in the face of evident failure.
This lack of checks on power is particularly evident in the case of Russia. Many commentators have noted that Putin has become very isolated in the course of the Covid epidemic. This was symbolized by the photos of him conferring with key advisors at the end of a long table, evidently due to his fear of being infected.
Just prior to the war, he was shown meeting with members of his national security council, who sat in a large circle far away from him. The Russian president went on to deliver a humiliating dressing-down to the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR) Sergey Naryshkin. Russia evidently had very poor intelligence on its neighbor to the south, and remained unaware of the way that Ukrainian national identity had evolved since the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas in 2014. There are reports that Putin has ordered the arrest of the FSB officers responsible for Ukraine, as well as the commander of the Black Sea Fleet following the sinking of that fleet’s flagship, the Moskva, by Ukrainian missiles.
This relationship between Putin and his closest advisors, based entirely on fear, does not point to a political system that is capable of intelligent debate and deliberation. One imagines that any subordinate having information that contradicts the president’s preconceptions would be loath to express his views. All of this reinforces the information bubble that Putin has built for himself, and guarantees continuing bad results.
We know somewhat less about the nature of high-level Chinese decision-making, but it is highly likely that something similar has been going on with President Xi Jinping. One of the hallmarks of the political system created by Deng Xiaoping after 1978 was a reliance on collective decision-making within at least the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo. China was ruled by a CCP dictatorship, but it was a highly institutionalized one with term limits on the length of service of senior leaders, mandatory retirement ages, and a distinct aversion to the kind of charismatic leadership characteristic of the Mao Zedong era.
Many of these institutional checks have been dismantled by Xi, most notably the ten-year limit on his own term as party general secretary and president. From what we know about the current system, much of the collective leadership system created by Deng has been dismantled. None of the other members of the Standing Committee has remotely the power and prestige of Xi. The latter has also sought to build a cult of personality around himself, with an ideological emphasis on “Xi Jinping thought” and frequent comparisons of himself to great Chinese leaders of the past. As in the case of Russia, it is not clear that anyone in the senior leadership is capable of standing up against him. Xi has personally invested a huge amount of his own prestige in the zero-Covid strategy, and one imagines that it is extremely dangerous for anyone else in the CCP hierarchy to suggest otherwise.
The world has become increasingly divided between a part that is liberal democratic and a part that is autocratic. This division does not correspond neatly to the old 20th-century ideological divisions between communism, fascism, and democracy, so much as to differing approaches to state power. A liberal state seeks to limit the authority of the executive through multiple mechanisms. The most important is a rule of law, which constrains power by having it exercised under transparent and agreed-upon rules. Liberal polities create constitutional checks and balances to make sure that single individuals cannot simply do whatever they want, and if they are also democratic, leaders are subject to accountability for their actions.
The checks on power of a liberal system accumulated slowly over time. We are all familiar with the Magna Carta of 1215, under which the English King John agreed to limitations on his power over his barons. English kings were required to consult with their privy councils before making important decisions—the “king-in-council,” which was later expanded to the “king in Parliament.” Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, power shifted altogether to Parliament and a prime minister, and an ever expanding circle of power holders.
The Chinese Communist Party from 1978–2013 had in effect a king-in-council system that forced the paramount leader to gain leadership consensus. This system is precisely the system that is being dismantled by Xi. Russia would have benefited greatly had Putin been forced to seek advice from a similar council, as there is evidence that some military officers were leery of invading Ukraine before the fact. What we have instead is a mad king Vladimir who, in the tradition of Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, can make arbitrary life-and-death decisions affecting the lives of millions of people, totally unconnected from reality.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the United States and other liberal democracies have developed overly constrained decision-making systems where so many stakeholders can block initiatives they don’t like such that the system becomes a paralyzed “vetocracy.” Yet this is an argument for loosening up our system a bit, and not for moving toward a Chinese-style dictatorship in the interests of efficiency or decisiveness. Fear of unconstrained power is one of the key reasons for preferring liberal government, with its checks and balances and need for broad consensus. We are being treated today to clear demonstrations of exactly why autocracy is so dangerous.
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