The problem with today's autocrats is that we do nothing

The problem with today's autocrats is that we do nothing

In 1938 “appeasement” was not a dirty word. It was regarded as a legitimate response to Adolf Hitler’s increasingly menacing actions towards his neighbours. Today one could ask whether liberal democracies are similarly appeasing authoritarian regimes.

The situations are different, but there are similarities. It would be folly to suggest a pre-emptive war against any one or all of the authoritarian regimes around the world. But a little bit of deterrence would not go amiss.

Just as it would have perhaps prevented World War II or at least reduced its duration and cost, some deterrence now might stop the receding tide of democracy and the rise of autocracy around the world.

If the Allies had threatened military action against Germany as Hitler moved to remilitarise the Rhineland, occupy the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia and occupy the rest of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, he would not have been encouraged in each military action culminating in his invasion of Poland.

These days we (the liberal democracies) have allowed China to build islands on reefs in the South China Sea and to put airfields and other military infrastructure on them.


We have allowed Russia to interfere first in the Brexit referendum and then in the US election in a way that probably determined the results.

We have stood by while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has unleased extra-judicial murders of alleged drug dealers.

A Chinese H-6K bomber patrols the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

A Chinese H-6K bomber patrols the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.Credit:Liu Rui

We have done nothing while in Cambodia Hun Sen crushed opposition to in effect become dictator.

Similar events are happening or have happened in Turkey and Poland and a raft of other countries and the liberal democracies do virtually nothing – like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1937 and 1938.

Russia now seems to have got away with the murder of defectors, dissidents and journalists; the annexation of Crimea and the arming of Russian rebels in Ukraine that resulted in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

We thought that after the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that democracy was on the march. Briefly it was, but now a new form of government is emerging: elected autocracy. And the liberal democracies are appeasing it wherever it appears.

Yes, we self-righteously plead for a return to the rules-based order, but the implication is that that order has in fact already broken down.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, has quite sensibly pointed out that a whole lot of hand-wringing about returning to a rules-based order is all very well, but if China does not want to do that, what can we, in Australia and other liberal democracies, do?

He suggests not very much.

But not doing anything (or not very much) is appeasement, and appeasement leads to ever-bolder challenges to the rules-based system.

The liberal democracies are naïve, in denial, or clueless if they imagine that the new elected autocracies and China care about the rules-based order. They are only interested in what they can get away with.

That said, it would be unwise for the liberal democracies to treat whole nations and their people as the rule breakers.

The people of Germany did not want war in 1938 or 1939 and opinion polls, rudimentary as they were at the time, showed it.

The allies should have looked at the question not as “How do we deal with Germany?” but “How do we deal with Hitler?”

So, too, now.

Liberal democracies have to target the autocrats, not the autocracies.

The autocrat’s rise is similar everywhere – removing or emasculating every possible restraint on power: the media; opposition parties; constitutional impediments like term limits; representative assemblies; organisations in civil society; the rule of law and the judiciary and final any individual suspected of dissent.

They then manipulate the media (especially social media these days) to propagandise in their favour and surround themselves with cronies who they enrich.

And they invariably play the race card. They exploit the human fear of outsiders – the genetically evolved us-and-them response that helped humans survive as a species in the wild.

As an example, China only began its antics in the South China Sea and the Belt and Road project as Xi Jinping came to power sweeping away much internal opposition and removing the two-term limit. And note the Chinese treatment of the Tibetans and Uighurs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with local officials in Kaliningrad, Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with local officials in Kaliningrad, Russia.Credit:AP

Vladimir Putin similarly got around the term limit; took hostile media into state control and intimidated or ordered the killing of journalists and dissidents.

And note his appeal to a white Christian audience.

And in Cambodia Hun Sen recently banned the main Opposition party and “won” a rigged election.

Liberal democracies should target these individuals to a greater extent than is happening now. Sanctions, asset freezes, and statements of condemnation are just a start.

More importantly, the range of charges returnable at the International Criminal Court in The Hague should be widened, as should its jurisdiction. The US, still a liberal democracy despite the best efforts of its current president, should join that process.

Indictments against autocrats who are making their people’s lives a misery should make their liberty so precarious that becomes impossible for them to travel outside their own country.

The liberal democracies are too soft. It is bizarre that the mass murdering Kim Jong-un was allowed to go to Singapore.

Hun Sen when visiting Australia threatened violence again his opponents. He should have been charged and arrested.

As soon as any of these autocrats hit international airspace they should be taken to The Hague.

So, talk about not appeasing dictators is not a call for war against the countries they misrule, but against them personally.

The way not to do it is the way the US dealt with the dictator Saddam Hussein – invade the country causing the death and impoverishment of millions of innocents while many in the autocrat’s leadership cohort escape.

Hugh White is correct to ask what can be done about the challenge to the rules-based system. The answer is to take action against the individuals who are breaking the rules.

So any of the autocrats ruling China, Russia, Turkey, Cambodia, Venezuela and so on who dare leave the country they rule should expect not to be feted and lauded at summits and conferences, but to never be allowed to go home.