Mugabe’s Departure Won’t Derail The Cult Of The Political Strongman

Macron, May, Merkel, Trudeau... these aren’t the names establishing the new world order
Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Though the curtain may have come down on Robert Mugabe’s infamous 30-year reign of tyranny, the global rise of the nationalist “strongman” is unlikely to take a hit.

The Zimbabwean despot - whose tactics came straight out of the guerrilla-war playbook - is just one in a line of embattled leaders to have recently fallen foul to some form revolution. The ill-famed line-up of Gaddafi of Libya, Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia all felt their autocracies swiftly crumble beneath their feet after years at the helm. And, even now, the regimes of Al-Assad and al-Bashir also teeter on the brink.

This begs the question then - are we witnessing the retreat of the era of strongmen? Hardly. If anything, political leaders of this type have never been so omnipotent.

Last year marked the 11th consecutive year that global freedom has declined. This, according to the think tank Freedom House’s assessment of the state of democracy worldwide, can be directly attributed to the significant gains made by populist and nationalist forces in democratic states.

A combination of globalisation, mass migration of refugees, ultra-swift technological change and the emergence of radical ideologies has created the perfect conditions for the rise of the hardened nationalist leader. All in all, these individuals are the direct product of decades of worldwide political and economic uncertainty still fresh in the memory.

Xi Jinping. Vladimir Putin. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. All of these men have one thing in common - they believe in getting things done; their way. They have a plan and they intend to stick to it. Forget any political posturing, these guys only play hardball.

The political positioning work of this choice set of individuals is flawless. Many of them have successfully depicted the outside world as awash with hostile and unpredictable forces, whilst also claiming to be constantly fighting to tame the contemptible demon of the establishment at home.

This brand of leadership is not outward-looking, progressive or ecumenical, nor does it view wider international diplomacy as a means to broker better outcomes for all mankind. Instead it attracts those protectionist individuals who seek to consolidate power purely for their nation; one-dimensional strongmen who believe that any global dispute must be resolved mano a mano.

Notably, the leader of the free world hasn’t shied away from his public praise of this approach. Trump’s bullish stance on domestic and international affairs is predicated on the desire to tick things off his hypothetical to-do list, no matter the cost, consequences, cause or effect.

But, of course, despite the need for the President to remain within the boundaries of human rights, the rule of law, executive oversight and the scrutiny of a free and independent press, he looks upon these elements - fundamental to any democratic society - with disdain, and as nothing more than hindrances to the completion of his own agenda.

Though Western politics has accommodated the more liberal, compromising voices of Macron, May, Merkel and Trudeau, these aren’t the names establishing the new world order.

As cartoon-like and captivating as this revitalised form of personalised democracy may be, it’s a surefire path to universal instability. Let’s hope the will of the strongman bends before it’s too late.


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