Democracies correct their mistakes. Dictatorships double down

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Wednesday in Moscow. (Alexei Babushkin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Wednesday in Moscow. (Alexei Babushkin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Liz Truss’s seven-week tenure as Britain’s prime minister was both ruinous and ludicrous. Her plan for massive, unfunded tax cuts sent the pound plunging and interest rates soaring, and she ended up with a  6 percent approval rating.

But Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president, is the last person who should be  laughing about her failure to outlast a head of lettuce. He serves as the pathetic lackey of a vicious dictator who passed his sell-by date many years ago and has done infinitely more damage to his country and the world than Truss ever could.

That someone as clueless as Truss became prime minister might be an indictment of the British political system (or at least the Tory party). But her rapid replacement by former finance minister  Rishi Sunak, who has vowed a more responsible fiscal agenda, demonstrates the most important advantage of democracy over dictatorship: the existence of checks and balances to limit how much damage even the most inept leader can do.

There are many reasons, from history to geography, why  per capita GDP in the United Kingdom ($47,334) is so much higher than in Russia ($12,172) or China ($12,556), but I would argue it ultimately comes down to governance. Britain, as a liberal democracy, has long been run for the benefit of its people, while Russia and China have always been run primarily for the benefit of their rulers

It is impossible to imagine any democratic leader in the modern world launching an unprovoked war of aggression, as Vladimir Putin did in Ukraine. The resulting conflict has resulted in terrible suffering for Ukrainians — but it’s no picnic, either, for the Russians in whose name the war is being fought.

Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are coming home in body bags; many more are gravely wounded. Russian civilians have to cope with economic sanctions, the loss of freedom and the threat of conscription — all of which have combined to send hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing their own country. Democracies such as Britain and the United States have their problems, but they are struggling with too many people trying to enter, not exit, their countries.

Democratic countries make their own mistakes in going to war — as President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair did in Iraq — but, at least since the expansion of the franchise roughly a century ago, they have stopped waging wars of territorial conquest. And when they do launch misbegotten conflicts, the usual result is antiwar protests in the streets and political accountability at the ballot box.

In Putin’s case, he seems to have consulted with no one outside of a small inner circle before launching an ill-advised war of aggression against Ukraine. His attempt at conquest is going from bad to worse, but, rather than pull back, he keeps doubling down. This evil war holds no conceivable benefit for the Russian people. They are simply paying the price for their dictator’s mad dreams of imperial glory. The price could escalate exponentially if Putin uses nuclear weapons and NATO responds.

The people of China are also, in different ways, paying a heavy price for one-man rule. Xi Jinping, already in power for a decade, has just secured  five more years at the top in spite of blunders that would surely have shortened the tenure of any freely elected leader.

The handling of covid-19 is a case in point. The pandemic broke out in China and spread around the world in part because of the poor quality of China’s public health system and the dishonesty of so many of its officials. Yet China has little accountability, because the Communist Party does not want to expose its failures to the world.

In the past year, Western countries have returned more or less to normal through the use of highly effective mRNA vaccines. But, for nationalistic reasons, China has employed less effective, domestically produced vaccines. Xi has relied on a heavy-handed “zero covid” policy that has led to mass quarantines and draconian lockdowns with many people complaining of shortages of  food and medicine.

Not only have these measures hurt China’s economy (growth this year is projected to be  3.2 percent, well below the 5.5 percent target), but, as my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Yanzhong Huang  notes, they have also “contributed to a major mental health crisis” and to many “excess deaths” from diseases such as diabetes, heart attacks and cancer.

The covid policy is only one example of how Xi pursues an agenda that is antithetical to the interests of ordinary people — whether they’re Uyghurs who are victims of  crimes against humanity or Hong Kongers who have lost all their freedoms. And, just as the price of Putin’s misrule could escalate drastically, so, too, with Xi if he launches a war against Taiwan. Such a conflict would be unthinkable if China were a democracy — any more than one could imagine a war between the United States and Canada.

Putin and Xi’s misrule serves to confirm Winston  Churchill’s dictum “that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. Democracies certainly screw up — as Britain has done repeatedly since passing Brexit — but their mistakes don’t last nearly as long or cause nearly as much damage as do those of dictators.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.

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