In Other News – Authoritarian Leaders Alliances Complicated by Effects of Globalization – 9/8/2022

September 8, 2022

Authoritarian leaders are attempting to strengthen their alliances, but their efforts will be complicated by the lingering effects of globalization. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have been living in an era marked by increased global links between people and companies, where state-level leadership has at times felt secondary to the power of cross-border, private relationships. Over these years, widespread internet access has allowed individuals to connect, communicate and collaborate in an unprecedented way, serving to advance business and trade relations. Simultaneously, the internet also led to a new type of security threat marked by borderless, ideological alliances. Indeed, individuals like ISIS affiliates, empowered by a global support network of ideas or funding, became a high-level national security threat, while the threat posed by many state-level actors retreated to the background.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine last February, state-level efforts and alliances again soared to the forefront. NATO and allies, in contrast to the Afghanistan withdrawal last year, came together in a powerful way around their shared democratic mission. At the same time, Putin has made a concerted effort to recruit authoritarian state leaders as allies, most visibly China’s President Xi, but also the leaders of Serbia, Belarus, Hungary, and Turkey, among others, with mixed results. When hit with sanctions, Russia has looked to these friendly nations for economic relief and relations. Likewise, Ukraine has looked to its allies for continued economic and military aid, and this support has contributed to Ukraine’s military successes, including its recent counteroffensive efforts.

Indeed, the future of Ukraine’s effort will depend on the commitment of its allies. This week, US Defense Secretary Austin remarked that Kyiv’s allies need to sustain Ukraine’s fighters “for the long haul”, announcing $675m more in US military aid that includes heavy weapons. On top of that, US Secretary of State Blinken announced $2bn for Ukraine and other European countries threatened by Russia. While the United States and other Western nations and allies continue to demonstrate their support for Ukraine, even in an increasingly challenging environment due to global economic conditions, Russia is trying to double down on its partnerships.

Next week Putin plans to meet with President Xi on what will be Xi’s first major trip abroad since the pandemic. In addition to visiting other Central Asian nations, Xi will travel to Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s meeting scheduled for September 15-16. It will be a time for multiple authoritarian leaders to convene, and for Putin to reinforce his anti-Western narrative on the Ukraine invasion. But China, that plays a key role in Russia’s economic future, is significantly intertwined with the West. Notably, while US-China trade tensions are currently high, China-EU relations have long been defined as separate from direct geographical conflicts, making space for trade despite political upheaval. Further, both Russia and China still depend on access to technologies produced in the West, and this economic interdependency isn’t going to be easily displaced.

It’s clear that Putin is still threatened by what’s been set into motion over the past twenty or thirty years. Earlier this week, Putin remarked that “modern development can only be based on sovereignty”, implying that the state, not the world, will dictate economic success. He’s trying to capitalize on the worldwide ascent of populist and authoritarian leaders championing a nationalist agenda, and he’ll likely achieve some degree of success. Indeed, this increasing alliance of global authoritarian leaders will necessitate a shift in the focus of the intelligence community to state-level actors and will impact the ability of international organizations to help navigate, or supersede, inter-state conflicts.

But we also aren’t in an era of simple state-level competition. There’s already such a high degree of economic interdependence, and global issues like the pandemic and climate change will serve to encourage collaboration beyond borders. Further, for every step towards attempted authoritarian domination, there are also countermeasures. Internet access, for example, is being increasingly restricted by authoritarian leaders, but developments to circumvent the restrictions and use technology to validate unjust state actions is everywhere apparent. Indeed, while the era of globalization might be waning, the process has made the world a more nuanced place, and this will influence national strategies moving forward.