Authoritarian Regimes and Liberal Democracies: How to Deal with Authoritarian Leaders

By Robbin Laird

American Presidents have overseen the overthrow of major authoritarian regimes in the past.

The most notable have been President Wilson and the overthrow of the German monarchy; the second were Presidents Roosevelt and Truman with regard to the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire; and the third was President Reagan and the overthrow of the Soviet Union.

We face similar challenges today and no greater authoritarian challenge is being posed than by President Xi of the PRC.

We published a report by the late Danny Lam on how to confront, confound and deal with this regime and undercut its legitimacy and that report can be read at the end of this article.

President Trump certainly challenged what President Xi is doing globally, and despite the Chinese role in the COVID-19 pandemic, liberal democratic states are continuing to deal with President Xi as if he were the head of a normal state, one which plays by the extant global rules.

He does not.

A major challenge facing Western governments is to understand what is going on inside authoritarian regimes, and how to leverage what is going on to the advantage of the liberal democratic states.

This rarely happens.

What normally happens is that Western leaders manage the expectations of their government and their supporters to shape an approach to an authoritarian state and deal with the leader of that state as if he is the sole representative of that nation.

So President XI as the PRC leader is the embodiment of the Chinese national interest.

He is not.

A telling example of how Western leaders work and disregard the hard to see internal politics in authoritarian states is the experience of the European leaders when dealing with the leader of the Third Reich in the run up to the Munich agreement.

In a seminal look at what was actually going on within Nazi Germany prior to that agreement, Terry Parssinen carefully examined the Oster conspiracy which was being shaped at very high levels in the military and diplomatic circles within the Third Reich to overthrow Hitler and to change the course of history.

The book would provide the foundation for another Alan Furst novel.

The book details the formation of the conspiracy, and how the success of the conspiracy rested on the desire of the German people not to face a general war in 1938 over Hitler’s plan to seize Czechoslovakia.

And in spite of informing London multiple times through various means of the existence of the conspiracy and the need for Britain to be firm in backing France guaranteeing Czech sovereignty, Chamberlin’s own vision and domestic politics simply led him to not take seriously the opportunity to rid the world of Hitler.

Instead, he focused on how to work a bilateral UK-German agreement for the future of Europe.

The Czechs would have inflicted significant damage on the German forces as long as they could leverage their fortifications in the Sudetenland.

One can substitute Taiwan for the Czechs if you want to make this a current policy insight rather than simply a history lesson.

If Britain had sent forces to France to exercise a joint defense of France and the prepare the fleet for a German blockade, the weak defenses of Germany against France would have been exposed.

More to the point, the position of very signifiant military leaders in Germany was that an invasion of Germany from France would lead to the rapid defeat of Germany.

Britain ignored all of this to prop up Hitler against his own internal enemies.

But that generally is how Western leaders work.

It is easier to accept the notion that President XI is a man you can work with rather than than to take him own in his own backyard.

That is too risky.

But the reality is that the real risk is to accept such an authoritarian leader as a “man you can work with.”

Or you end up in the position highlighted by the author in the conclusion to his book:

Erich Kordt wrote: “The Munich Conference prevented the coup d’etat in Berlin.”

Gisevius was even more blunt: “Chamberlin saved Hitler.”

It is more likely than not that in some future history this will be said about one of the Western leaders or organizations who currently are bolstering up President Xi, the leader for life, until he isn’t.

Also, see the following:

China, Australia and Global Change: Why a European Agreement Now?

Rethinking China Policy: Shaping A Counter-Approach