A review of “The Age Of The Strongman” by Gideon Rachman (2022)

Rachman is the chief foreign affairs columnist for the British newspaper the “Financial Times”. He has written a well-researched, immensely informative, very readable and – at least for my liberal sensibilities – insightful and balanced review of the rise over the past two decades of a series of political figures whom he calls the strongmen but who – at least in countries with elections – could be called populist or nationalist politicians.

Who are they? The main individuals profiled are Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Xi Jinping of China, Narendra Modi of India, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Donald Trump of the United States, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, and Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia.

It is a genuinely worldwide spread, but Rachman acknowledges immediately that these strongman leaders are “part of a continuum”. At one end are unchallenged autocrats like Xi and MBS; then there are those who are subject some some kind of constraint such as Putin and Erdogan: and there are those who operate in democracies but subvert them as exemplified by Trump and Modi.

What they have in common are the following behaviours: “the creation of a cult of personality, contempt for the rule of law, the claim to represent the real people against the elites, and a politics driven by fear and nationalism”. They have little or no regard for the truth, they are contemptuous of all opposition, and they have psychotic belief in their own righteousness. As a result of their global power and influence, Rachman asserts: “We are now in the midst of the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s”.

Why have strongmen come to power in so many countries? Rachman sees economics as a major factor: “the dislocating effects of a period of rapid globalisation – including mass migration of people and industries – have increased the nostalgic appeal of a more stable, homogeneous and nation-centred past”. In many countries – especially in the developing world – there is a sense that “corruption has ensured that the gains of globalisation have gone overwhelmingly to a connected elite”.

But it is not just about economics: “It is when economic grievances are linked to broader fears – such as immigration, crime or national decline – that strongman leaders really come into their own”. So how and when will the age of the strongman come to an end? Rachman looks at the efforts of liberal politicians – notably Angela Merkel in Germany, Emmanuel Macron in France and Joe Biden in the USA – and global leaders – especially George Soros – to provide an alternative agenda.

Although he admits that “All efforts at historical periodisation are slightly artificial”, he opines that post-war politics have tended to follow three distinct eras, each lasting around three decades: the stability and growth of 1945-1975, the stagflation and neoliberalism of the next 30 years, and the age of populism and autocracy in which we now find ourselves. If this model has validity, then the age of the strongman – which he sees beginning with Putin in 2000 – should come to end around 2030.

Rachman is ultimately optimistic: “strongman rule is an inherently flawed and unstable form of government. It will ultimately collapse in China and most other places where it is tried. But there may be a lot of turmoil and suffering before the Age of the Strongman is finally consigned to history”. Broadly speaking, I share this analysis, but I suspect that China will the last to embrace liberalism and it will not be in this decade.


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