BERLIN — World politics is currently dominated by "strongmen," those leaders who see themselves anointed to negotiate "deals' among themselves to chart the world's destiny.
Vladimir Putin's Russia, in alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, has stifled the Syrian people's rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, allowing his Damascus regime to regain almost complete control of the country. Large parts of Syria were laid in ruins, hundreds of thousands were killed, and nearly half the inhabitants were forced to flee.
Now the West appears prepared to accept that these facts are the result of the most serious violations of international law — including the use of chemical weapons. But for U.S. President Donald Trump, who openly expresses his contempt for the institutions of American democracy as well as for America's Western allies, human rights and the spread of democracy do not set guidelines for U.S. foreign policy. Clearly, he feels most comfortable in the company of autocrats like Putin or North Korea's Kim Jong-un, with whom he has a complicit relationship.
The neo-authoritarian paradigm is also becoming more attractive in Europe. In Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, liberal democracy based on the rule of law has already suffered serious damage. Even in Italy, the recently formed left and right-wing populist government is preparing to dismantle it.
But despite such a massive return of authoritarianism, the spirit of democratic awakening remains alive and well worldwide. In Romania, the government's attempts to undermine the fight against corruption by restructuring the judicial system have triggered mass protests. These protests send a strong signal against the threatening rollback of democratic achievements since 1989. In Ukraine, too, the forces of civil society continue to resist all efforts to undermine the newly achieved anti-corruption legislation.
The neo-authoritarian paradigm is also becoming more attractive in Europe.
The democratic counter-movement to the wave of neo-authoritarianism is by no means limited to Europe. More and more people in Iran are demonstrating against their miserable living conditions under the totalitarian Islamist regime and will not let themselves be dissuaded from their protest even by intensified repression.
Across the border, in Iraq, mass demonstrations against the rulers' mismanagement of the country have increased in recent months. If the country has been torn apart in recent years by the bloody conflict between Sunnis and Shia Muslims, this division no longer plays a decisive role in the current protest movement. Instead, Sunni and Shia Iraqis are fighting together as citizens for a decent life and against the arbitrariness and incompetence of the authorities.
Thousands of Nicaraguans gather to demand "a real democracy." May 9, 2018 — Photo: Carlos Herrera/DPA/ZUMA
In view of the mostly catastrophic developments that followed the "Arab Spring," the view has spread in the West that democratic values of freedom cannot be applied to this region of the world for "cultural" reasons.
A Western policy aimed at the dissemination of these values is now often denounced as unworldly. But recent surveys of civil societies show that peace and stability in the Middle East are only conceivable in the long term through the development of democratic conditions.
In Syria, the civil protests against the currently triumphant Assad regime will flare up again after the end of the war. We shouldn't forget that the Syrian rebellion began as a peaceful resistance before it got caught between the pro-Assad forces on the one hand and ISIS on the other.
Meanwhile, two countries in Latin America are also the site of pro-democracy movements. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro is driving the country to ruin in the name of "21st century Socialism" and turning his rule into one of kleptocratic despotism. With extreme brutality, the military and the judiciary he corrupted are suppressing the opposition, which by now encompasses the overwhelming majority of society. And he's using a recent alleged assassination attempt against him, which he may well have staged himself, as an excuse to further intensify the repression.
They say he is more evil than Somoza ever was.
Numerous supporters of the late left-wing populist Hugo Chavez, whose legacy the current ruler claims to continue, have now turned away from Maduro and joined the an ever broader-based opposition. In the long run, Maduro won't succeed in breaking the determination of this civil movement eager to bring about democratic change.
The situation is quite similar in Nicaragua, where another former idol of leftist "anti-imperialism" is causing autocratic trouble. President Daniel Ortega, who systematically plundered the country in favor of his family clan, was an acclaimed hero of the "Sandinista" uprising against the dictator Somoza in the late 1970s. Today, however, even Ortega's former close companions demand his removal and say he is more evil than Somoza ever was. In Nicaragua, too, the regime's brutal, repressive measures can't deter the democratic forces from continuing their fight.
The "Sandinista revolution" in Nicaragua had once been euphorically welcomed by the Western left. However, the turn taken by events there and by the "Chavist" experiment in Venezuela once again demonstrates the bankruptcy of Socialist utopias.
Whether dictatorships today appear behind a "left-wing," "right-wing," or religious mask, they are, at the core, very much alike: Under the guise of ideology, kleptocratic cliques conquer the state apparatus and merge it with organized crime. Putin's ruling system offers the model for such an authoritarian mafia state. It is, therefore, no coincidence that — like Communist Cuba, the former Soviet satellite — it's one of the fiercest supporters of Maduro and Ortega.
That is why Kremlin-owned forces in Europe, including large parts of the German Left Party, are loyal to them. If it doesn't want the future to belong to them, the West cannot do without the active promotion of democracy around the globe.