Was Orwell off by 32 years?
When Donald Trump suggested this month that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a better leader than President Obama because he has firmer control of his country, I checked the polls: It looked as though Trump has a real chance to become president of the United States, the country I chose to make my home a few years ago. What if this happened? Where on Earth could I go in search of a democratic country with opportunities for my children and grandchildren for freedom and the pursuit of happiness, without some Big Brother telling them, “Believe me, I and I only know how to solve all your problems,” “Believe me, we will win, win, win” — meaning, of course, “Just give me power”?
This kind of thing is familiar in Russia. When Putin came to power in 2000, nobody knew for sure his views on economic, social or foreign policy issues beyond vague promises to “get Russia off its knees” (make Russia great again), impose law and order and crush terrorism. The law and order turned into the harassment of critical journalists, control of the media and defamation of opponents, while the corruption and terrorism went on. The complacency of the Duma opened the way for restrictive legislation, and step by step an uncontestable National Leader was established. That’s the role model the 2016 Republican presidential contender followed.
I know that many Americans would be offended by such a comparison. And duly so: Unlike Russia, the United States is a long-established democracy with checks and balances famously built into its Constitution. So I hope — pray, in fact — that I’m being unnecessarily panicky. But where is my analysis wrong?
The party that pledged support for the candidate who prefers Putin to the U.S. president controls Congress. A federal judge who is presiding over a case involving the candidate’s business practices was accused of bias because of his descent, and the Supreme Court is divided along partisan lines, with a vacancy that the next president will get to fill. A number of journalists were bullied on the campaign trail, and respectable media enterprises were banned from public events. On major TV talk shows, a cohort of apologists bluntly defends all this. Emulating his role model, the candidate claims impunity for whatever he does: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he has proclaimed, and he made light of the possible assassination of his opponent. And all that is happening even before he clutches real power. The apprentice surpasses the tutor.
Is this a new definition of American leadership? The ready answer is that the authoritarian rule common in Russia or China is unlikely to succeed in the United States, because it has a different political culture. But as was demonstrated with the Brexit shock in Britain, stability cannot be taken for granted. What seemed unimaginable yesterday, such as building walls with neighboring countries, parting with long-standing allies and partners and stirring up fear and nativist rage, can become just another tool for seizing control of the government and the country.
Again, I expect some Americans to say: “It is our business. You, foreigner, have no say in it.” This would be so, were America not great. But America is great. It is a superpower that plays a unique global role. When there is some new national leader — “Il Duce” in Italian — trying to impose a new order anywhere in the world, the United States can and will contain him. That happened with World War II, and it happened with the Cold War. In places around the world, it continues to happen, with the help of NATO and other U.S. allies. That’s why democratically minded people everywhere look at the United States with gratitude and hope. Yet many of us are concerned, and we want our voices heard. We urge Americans to be mindful of their leading role and international responsibilities as a great country and a great democracy when they go into the voting booths.
Your mistake might spell a global disaster. There is no substitute for America as a pillar of world stability, and no one to contain an American Duce. Suddenly, browsing the world map, I recognize possible contours of the scenario described by George Orwell in the prophetic book he called simply “1984”: three autocratic powers dominating the international landscape, each seized by fear, bigotry and nationalism and controlled by the one and only strong leader or a politburo. Did Orwell simply made a 32-year mistake in timing?
Andrei Kozyrev, foreign minister of the Russian Federation from 1990 to 1996, is a distinguished fellow with the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. The views expressed are his own.