As a Disorienting Decade Closes, a Perilous One Begins

A world without American leadership and in search of a fairer, post-carbon economic model is finely balanced between ascendant authoritarianism and popular protest against injustice and repression. It does not take much to push people over the edge. A subway fare hike in Chile or a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls in Beirut is enough to ignite uprisings.

The philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote of the “morbid symptoms” that characterize the interregnum between the death of the old and the birth of the new. Today they abound. Capitalist economies perform but fail to spread well-being. Resentment grows. Disorientation sets in as societies abandon facts for delusion. Old assumptions — about American leadership, gradual Chinese liberalization, European integration, the freeing impact of technology, the unity of Great Britain — collapse. It is a time of anxiety, loneliness and fluidity. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fixed point in a turning world, will soon be gone.

The first two decades of the 21st century have not produced a clear trend line. The assumption of liberal democracy’s triumph proved misplaced. But predictions of its demise beneath the nationalist, xenophobic wave that brought Donald Trump to power and Brexit to Britain also look wrong. Rules, truth, morality and the American idea have eroded. A younger generation, empowered by social media, is inspired not by a utopian vision but by a pragmatic quest for salvation of the planet and a more equal life on it for women and men.

A demonstrator flashes a V sign during an anti-government protest in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 21.Credit…Ali Hashisho/Reuters

Many of the images of 2019 that come to mind are imbued with hope. Young protesters in the streets of Beirut telling me of their ironclad determination to overturn a corrupt system based on sectarian division of the spoils. The young prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, explaining to me how “free and proud Armenian citizens” overturned another corrupt system in the bloodless revolution of 2018 to create a society of opportunity. The brave, tear-gassed youth of Hong Kong defending the vibrant economy born of Chinese industry and English common law. They know that permitting extradition into the lawlessness of the mainland one-party state would shake the very foundation of their free society.

A pivotal struggle over liberty is underway. The ideological confrontation between the United States and China has sharpened as President Xi Jinping declares himself ruler for life, fast-forwards the Surveillance State, offers the Chinese model as global paradigm, makes the quest for technological dominance by 2025 explicit and pursues both maritime and territorial expansion, whether overtly military or cloaked in slogans like “Belt and Road.”

“Hide our capacities and bide our time,” advised Deng Xiaoping. President Xi has other ideas. He is an emperor in a hurry. He does not believe in the sacredness of the individual. He believes in the sacredness of the Chinese Communist Party. Repression in China has grown exponentially. Mr. Xi’s model is not totalitarianism, which is passé, but “techtarianism,” a surveillance state based on advanced facial recognition technology.

Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of Istanbul poses with a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular Turkish republic, in the city of Diyarbakir on Aug. 31. Credit…Ilyas Akengin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

We will see the Hong Kong battle playing out in various guises and with varying degrees of violence over the coming decades. The fight is between the autocratic command economy of a risen China and the economies of democratic systems based on checks and balances, independent judiciaries and the rule of law. The question is whether a conflagration can be avoided.

According to a report on the state of democracy by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, almost one-third of the world’s population now lives in countries undergoing “autocratization,” rising to 2.3 billion people in 2018 from 415 million in 2016. These nations include Brazil, the United States, India, Poland and Hungary. At the same time, 21 countries, including Tunisia, Armenia, Georgia and Burkina Faso, have grown more democratic over the past decade. It’s a mixed picture, not uniformly bleak, but far from uplifting.

Institutions upholding the law fought back in 2019 against leaders who believed that they were above it. President Trump is facing impeachment in the House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He has responded to the whole process with cries of “lynching” and called the Democrats “crazy.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges. He dismissed the accusations as a “coup.”

In Mr. Trump’s view it was irreproachable behavior to reduce Ukraine to a source of dirt on a political opponent in the 2020 election. Mr. Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine is the same as that of his friend Vladimir Putin: It is a nothing country that might as well be part of Greater Russia. Mr. Trump has no notion of, or interest in, Western efforts to consolidate Ukrainian independence through closer integration with Western Europe. His foreign policy is laughably erratic.

President Trump will almost certainly escape conviction in the Senate and remain in office to fight in the November 2020 election. Mr. Netanyahu may yet wriggle out of his legal corner. For both men, clinging to power has become something more than a political struggle. It is a desperate attempt to stay out of jail.

I worry about what Mr. Trump may do if he loses the 2020 election narrowly. He, too, may cry coup. As a would-be autocrat he has empowered autocrats around the world, in Saudi Arabia, in China, in Russia, in the Philippines. The United States backed plenty of autocrats during the Cold War for strategic reasons but has never before had a president who was so obviously envious of such leaders. I have no hesitation in calling Mr. Trump hateful; whether he is actually evil is another matter. To be evil you have to be focused and purposeful. Much of Mr. Trump’s behavior is inconsistent and inconsequential. Still, it is damaging.

Mr. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. As Paul Polman, the former chief executive of Unilever has said, “business cannot succeed in societies that fail.” Western democracies have failed. A decade ago, the world was mired in the global financial crisis. Those responsible walked away. Insurrection today is the child of impunity and inequity.

Economies must be made to work for more people. Justice, equal opportunity, education and sustainability should be guiding values. Too many people for far too long have felt invisible, disposable and worthless. That is why nationalist messages have resonated. They assuage every grievance with empty promises of restored glory. They have carried charlatans to high office in Washington and London.

“The future does not belong to globalists,” President Trump told the United Nations in September. If it belongs to Mr. Trump and “America First” for another five years, the consequences will be grave for everything from the climate to international stability, not to mention plain old decency. A Trump victory in 2020 is possible, particularly since the Democratic Party’s candidates look weak at the moment. But the message of 2019 is that free, open, uncorrupt, rule-of-law societies have brave backing from Tehran to Santiago.

I was in the office of Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, earlier this year. He was traveling but his top aide showed me around. Mr. Imamoglu, an opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was elected, had his victory annulled by Mr. Erdogan (who, like Mr. Trump, considers himself invincible), then won again by a huge margin. This was a significant blow to the Turkish president.

Behind Mr. Imamoglu’s desk hung a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey’s secular republic. It had just been rehung. Followers of Mr. Erdogan, an anti-secular leader with dreams of a restored Ottoman Empire, had earlier removed it. The portrait’s back-and-forth struck me as an image of a world hovering between autocracy and resistance.

In the office of Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan hangs another significant painting — of snow-capped Mount Ararat. Today the mountain is in Turkey, but for long periods of history, it was part of Armenia. In the collective psyche, it still is. A genocide museum in the capital, Yerevan, recalls the Ottoman Empire’s killing of more than one million Armenians that began in 1915. Many photographs are too appalling to contemplate. To this day the Turkish republic denies that there was an organized campaign to slaughter Armenians.

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler said in 1939, as Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Truth denied is dangerous. It is freighted with future tragedy. China and Russia deny truth. Mr. Trump abets them. The protesters of 2019 have awoken to the peril. “Fight for freedom,” chanted 800,000 protesters in the streets of Hong Kong recently. It’s as simple as that if life is to be worth living.

© 2019 Roger Cohen. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor.