Here’s a nightmare scenario: Unable to recruit enough soldiers from the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin takes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un up on his recent offer to send 100,000 North Koreans to join the Russian president’s ill-fated attempt to seize Ukraine. Kim has also promised to send North Korean workers to help rebuild that country’s Donbas region, parts of which Russian forces have destroyed in order to “save” it. Consider this an eerie echo of the fraternal aid that Eastern European Communist states provided Pyongyang in the 1950s after the devastation of the Korean War.
The current love connection between Russia and North Korea is anything but unprecedented. The Kremlin has provided a succession of Kims with military and economic support. If Putin were ultimately to rely on so many North Korean soldiers and laborers, however, it would mark the first time that country had returned the favor in any significant way. As a down payment on the new relationship, Pyongyang is already reportedly assisting Moscow’s war effort with shipments of Soviet-era rockets and ammunition.
An even tighter alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang, now just one goose step from reality, suggests the possibility of a future Eurasian Union of autocracies, including China and several Central Asian states. Just a few years ago, an anti-Western alliance making up nearly 20% of the world’s landmass and roughly the same percentage of its population would have seemed unlikely indeed. For all its autocratic tendencies, Russia was still pretending to be a democracy then and, together with China, maintaining reasonable economic relations with the West. North Korea, on the other hand, was an isolated outsider, suffering under a hereditary dictatorship and tight sanctions that restricted its access to the global economy.
Now, instead of North Korea adopting the political and economic norms of the international community, it’s surging to the front of the illiberal pack as Kim waves his tour-guide flag to encourage others to walk his way. Putin, for one, seems ready to enthusiastically follow his lead. Over the last decade, after all, he’s taken steps to eliminate Russian civil society, while creating a top-down, corporatist economy. After ordering the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian leader now faces the same kind of sanctions regime that plagues Pyongyang, forcing his country to pursue its own version of juche, North Korea’s philosophy of self-reliance. Both nations have largely replaced their governing ideologies of the 1990s — communism in North Korea, democracy in Russia — with an ugly, xenophobic nationalism.
At a more fundamental level, North Korea and Russia are both exemplars of exceptionalism. From its founding after World War II, North Korea has generally considered itself an exception to any rules governing international conduct. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, has cemented in place Putin’s version of a new Russian exceptionalism, meant to bury once and for all the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to bring the Soviet Union and its successor states into greater compliance with global norms.
Nor are Russia and North Korea exceptional in their exceptionalism. Thumbing a nose at international authorities has become an integral part of a growing authoritarian populism, which has manifested itself as anger at economic globalization and disenchantment with the liberal democratic elites who have supported that project. Although the assault on liberalism and the embrace of illiberal exceptionalism have taken an acutely violent form in the war in Ukraine, they can be found in less virulent but no less troubling forms in Europe (Hungary), Asia (Myanmar), Africa (Ethiopia), and Latin America (Brazil).
Ground zero for modern-day exceptionalism, however, has always been the United States, where a longstanding bipartisan consensus holds that America has the right to do almost anything it wants to maintain its global hegemony. Of course, exceptionalism here is also on a spectrum, with liberal internationalists like Joe Biden at one end and Donald Trump, a Russian-style autocrat in the making, at the other. Put differently, there’s a growing struggle here over the degree to which this country should play well with others.
What’s taking place in Ukraine — an exceptionalist power trying to crush a liberal internationalist system — is a version of that very same power struggle. Indeed, the ongoing bloodbath there anticipates the kind of carnage that could ensue in this country if Donald Trump or some politician like him were to take the White House in 2024.
The End of Accession?
Nationalists hate globalization because they believe that international bodies should not be writing the rules that constrain the conduct of their governments.
In Brazil, Trump-style President Jair Bolsonaro has lashed out at U.N. agencies and transnational environmental organizations for their criticism of his laissez-faire approach to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Euroskeptics like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers dislike having to abide by regulations from European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels covering everything from the size of cucumbers to the freedom of the press. Trump famously pulled the United States out of every international accord that came within swinging distance of his MAGA machete, including the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Ukraine has moved in the opposite direction. After the 2014 Euromaidan protests sent its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, packing, the more-or-less liberal governments that followed certainly didn’t shy away from appealing to Ukrainian nationalism. Still, they were also willing, even eager, to submit to the rules and regulations of external powers, at least those further to the west. The Ukrainian political struggles of 2013-2014, after all, centered around a desire to join the EU, support for which has recently topped 90%.
Putin has, of course, held out a very different kind of membership to Ukraine — in a Slavic brotherhood. Whatever the pluses or minuses of any future tight partnership with Russia and neighboring Belarus, it would flow from compliance with the parochial dictates of the Kremlin. In other words, Ukraine has faced an all-too-stark choice: become an unwilling partner of Russian exceptionalism or willingly accede to the rules of the West. Given such options, it’s hardly surprising that Euroskepticism barely registers there.
Nor, of course, is Ukraine the only country eager to knock on the EU’s door. Several others are already in the queue, undoubtedly including — if it votes to separate from the United Kingdom and its Brexiteers — Scotland. For Europe, in response to the challenges of economic globalization, including pressures to privatize and a potential race to the bottom when it comes to environmental and labor regulations, the response has been to establish a transnational system that preserves at least some social-democratic features. And that seems like an attractive compromise to a number of countries huddling outside the EU’s door, exposed to the harsh winds of free trade and onerous debt.
But Brexit has hardly been the only challenge to the power and breadth of the European Union. A refusal to abide by the democratically determined policies of Brussels has united right-wing populists in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, even as it’s generated a strong current of Euroskepticism in countries like Romania. Support for the far right — as well as the Euroskeptical left — remains strong in France, particularly among the young. A coalition of far-right parties historically allergic to European federalism is poised to take over the governance of Italy after elections later this month. In fact, the EU faces a threat even greater than its possible fragmentation: a hostile takeover by right-wing forces determined to destroy the system from within.
Such authoritarian nationalism is on the rise elsewhere as well. According to the metrics of the largely government-funded research institute Freedom House, only 20% of the world’s population now lives in “free” countries. (In 2005, it was 46%.) And of that 20%, many are in countries where authoritarian nationalists — Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel — have a plausible chance of taking or retaking power in the near future.
What a far cry from the 1990s when much of the former Soviet sphere scrambled to join the EU after the Warsaw Pact dissolved. In that decade, too, even China lobbied hard to join the World Trade Organization, finally gaining Washington’s support in 1999. It was such a golden age of United Nations conferences and international agreements — from the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development to the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court — that the name the U.N. chose for the 1990s, the Decade of International Law, seemed extraordinarily apt. Unfortunately, today it seems more like ancient history.
Of course, the need for international cooperation has hardly disappeared. Think climate change, pandemics, and the loss of biodiversity, to mention just three urgent crises. But any enthusiasm for creating binding international commitments has dwindled to the vanishing point. The 2015 Paris climate accord was voluntary. Transnational cooperation during the Covid pandemic, beyond scientific circles, was minimal and often undermined by export restrictions on critical medical supplies. Nuclear arms control agreements remain at a standstill, while the”modernization” of such arsenals continues apace and military budgets rise as the weapons trade hits new highs.
The 2020s are shaping up to be the Decade of the International Scofflaw. Ukraine’s tragedy lies not just in its geography, so near to Russia and so far from God, but in its timing. Three decades ago, after the Soviet Union imploded, Ukraine’s desire to accede to international norms was unremarkable and its willingness to relinquish its nuclear weapons universally applauded. The worst response an EU application could have engendered back then was a cold shoulder from Brussels. Today, the desire to join Europe has led to war.
Autocrats often hide behind sovereignty. China argues that what’s happening to its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province is simply none of the international community’s business. North Korea insists that it has the sovereign right to develop nuclear weapons. And, of course, in the U.S., Donald Trump’s MAGA crew stoutly rejects snooty foreigners passing judgment on the American attachment to fossil fuels, border walls, and guns of all sizes.
Sovereignty was once the king’s prerogative; he was, after all, the sovereign. Today’s autocrats, like Vladimir Putin, are more likely to have been voted into office than born into the position like Kim Jong-un. The elections that elevate such autocrats might be questionable (and are likely to become ever more so during their reign), but popular support is an important feature of the new authoritarianism. Putin is currently backed by around 80% of Russians; Orban’s approval rating in Hungary hovers near 60%; and while Donald Trump could likely win again only thanks to voter suppression and increasingly antidemocratic features baked into the American political system, millions of Americans did put Trump in the White House in 2016 and continue to genuinely believe that he’s their savior. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Narendra Modi in India, Kais Saied in Tunisia: they were all elected.
Yes, such leaders are nationalists who often act like populists in promising all sorts of handouts and feel-good nostrums to their supporters. But what makes today’s autocrats particularly dangerous is their exceptionalism, their commitment to the kind of sovereignty that existed before the creation of the United Nations, the earlier League of Nations, or even the Treaty of Westphalia that established the modern interstate system in Europe in 1648. Both Trump and Xi Jinping harken back to a Golden Age all right — of rulers who counted on the unquestioned loyalty of their subjects and exercised a dominion unchallenged except by other monarchs.
Sovereignty is the ultimate trump — sorry for that! — card. It can be used to end every argument: I’m the king of this castle and my word is law inside its walls. Autocrats tend not to be team players, but increasingly democracies are playing the sovereignty card as well. Even Russia, in so obviously violating Ukrainian sovereignty, has done that by arguing that Ukraine had always been part of Russia.
The war in Ukraine boils down to a conflict between two conceptions of world order. The first is defined by a one-against-all exceptionalism, the second by an all-for-one transnational cooperation. Unfortunately, the latter has become associated with economic globalization (which is really about ruthless competition, not global cooperation), Davos-style political elitism (which is usually more focused on collusion than transparent collaboration), and trans-border migration (which results from wars, the miseries of global economic inequality, and the ever more devastating nightmare of climate change). Anger at these three elements of “globalism” pushes voters to support “the other side,” most commonly an authoritarian exceptionalism rather than an authentic internationalism.
The dismal endpoint of such political devolution could be a Russia with North Korean characteristics: isolated, belligerent, and tyrannical. Today, countries that take such a path risk the outlaw status North Korea has enjoyed for 75 years. The question is: What happens if, in some future moment, the outlaws constitute the majority?
What’s truly frightening, however, is that this larger geopolitical conflict is a two-front war. Even as the West unites against the Russia that Putin built, it finds itself fighting homegrown variants of authoritarian exceptionalism, from Trump to Orban. Think of this as the geopolitical version of that commonplace horror-film twist: the phone call from the serial killer that turns out to be coming from within the house.
Can the heroine of this story, true internationalism, survive the onslaught of lawless maniacs bent on reviving a world of unaccountable sovereigns and promoting a war of all against all? We can only hope that our heroine not only survives these harrowing challenges but goes on to star in less horrifying and more edifying sequels.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.