No Limits to Evil?

Not all world leaders are evil.  The Russians are bombing hospitals in Syria, but the president of Ethiopia has just won the Nobel Prize for fostering peace in the Horn of Africa.  Meanwhile, the presidents of China, Russia, India, Turkey, and  the United States are distinguished by their almost unimaginably evil actions.   

Claiming that he will restore China’s former glory, President Xi  Jinping is becoming the country’s most supreme bully since Mao Zedong.  Establishing a totalitarian dictatorship, he uses omnipresent surveillance cameras to grade everyone’s behavior. His Great Firewall filters information from outside. Human rights lawyers and dissidents languish in jail.  More than a million Uighurs endure concentration camps while their children learn Xi Jinping Thought in boarding schools.  Similar destinies are rolling out for Tibetans and other minorities. Defying an international court, China claims most of the South China Sea. What fate awaits the demands of Hong Kongers for freedom?

Post-Soviet Russia has combined the worst excesses of free enterprise with a police state and neo-imperialism.  Ex-Communists became billionaires while Boris Yeltsin waged two wars against Chechens and kept troops in Moldova. President Vladimir Putin has seized borderlands from Georgia, annexed Crimea, and occupied eastern Ukraine.  Having resumed the Soviet patronship of   the Assad dictatorship,  Putin’s forces now pulverize civilians in northern Syria. Even though the Russian economy goes nowhere, Putin invests in planes and missiles that menace most of NATO (except, for now, Turkey).  Putin’s hackers wreak havoc from Estonia to the United States.

New Delhi continues its holier-than-thou posturing while doing little  to improve the lot of most Indians still wallowing in poverty, ill health, and ignorance. Fanning widespread hostility to Muslims, President Narender Modi  locks down millions of Kashmiris and refuses to consider a plebiscite or mediation.  When Pakistan protests, Modi hints at nuclear war.

The Ottomans allowed some tolerance to minorities.  Modern Turkey, however, has sought to eliminate—physically and culturally—Kurds, Armenians, and its other non-Turkish inhabitants. Persecuted also in Iran, Iraq,  and Syria, many Kurds have sought their own independent state.  The United States and other outsiders have occasionally allied with Kurds as partners.  Now Donald Trump has deserted them again and opened the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to extend his  genocide across Turkey’s border.

President Trump is no better than the other potentates except that his evil is often mindless except to mollify his  base. Having pledged in 2016 to withdraw from the Middle East, Trump spoke with Erdoğan and then redeployed U.S. troops away from northern Syria where Americans had backed Kurds in fighting the Islamic State.  Awakened to his own blunder, Trump immediately stated that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”  True to form, however, he has done almost nothing.  Forces from Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey have moved into the vacuum.  Trump’s mindless if not treasonous foreign policies parallel his rampages against air and water quality in the  fifty states.  Both at home and abroad he has catered to mafia-types while striving to enhance his own often ill-gained wealth.

Evil on the world stage is not new. The cruel policies of leaders in  Iran, Saudi Arabia,  Israel, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Brazil are also well known.  Power readily corrupts.  Even the richest and most powerful individuals often twist every rule to gain more wealth and power. Americans have often joined this wrong-doing. Since 1945, however, the United States and other democracies have done much to bolster human rights and  development. They have helped to realize Immanuel Kant’s vision of a democratic peace.  But something is new. “Once upon a time,” Michelle Goldberg writes, Americans “spread ideals of democracy and the rule of law” to places like Ukraine. “Now? We send Giuliani”—now being investigated by the FBI.

The United Nations cannot curtail the evils being inflicted  on humanity unless the democracies do more than decry bad behavior. Liberal forces in Russia are denied a place on the ballot. In India they are drowned out by fanatic Hindus. In Israel they are stymied by fear of terrorists. In Europe they are subdued by fears of immigrants and cracks in the European Union.  In the USA  Republicans backed by a third of the electorate do nothing to curtail the evils of their own leader. Can there be any prospect for a better world unless a farsighted administration wins power in Washington and pushes other  governments and global actors to do the right things?

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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