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Authoritarian rulers suffered new setbacks in 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to meet next week in Uzbekistan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization forum, a Russian official said on Wednesday.

Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

This year has been a tough one for the world’s worst authoritarians: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Each of them ends 2022 reeling from self-inflected wounds, the consequences of the sorts of bad decisions that hubris-blinded autocrats find far easier to make than to unwind.

Given that, the United States and its global partners should double down in 2023 to shape the contest unfolding between democrats and despots that will define the post-Cold War order. US President Joe Biden has consistently focused on this competition as a historic “Inflection Point.” His third year in office provides him his best opportunity yet to score lasting gains in that contest.

At the beginning of this year, autocracy seemed to be on the march. Presidents Putin and Xi in early February 2022, just ahead of the Beijing Olympics, entered a “no limits” strategic partnership. That was followed by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, however, in all three cases — Russia, China, and Iran — unelected leaders’ errors of commission have deepened and revealed their countries’ underlying weaknesses while breeding new difficulties that defy easy solutions.

That’s most dramatically the case with President Putin, whose reckless, unprovoked, and illegal war in Ukraine has resulted in 6,490 civilian deaths, per the UN’s most recent estimate, and has prompted more than a million Russians to flee his country. International courts have indisputable, voluminous proof of crimes against humanity.

Beyond that, President Putin has set back the Russian economy by more than a decade, and sanctions are only beginning to bite. He’ll never regain his international reputation, and his military has revealed itself – despite many years of investments – as poorly trained, badly disciplined, and lacking morale.

President Xi’s mistakes are less bloody in nature than this. The excesses of his zero-Covid policy set off large-scale, spontaneous protests that amounted to the most serious challenge of his decade in leadership. Just last month, the 20thth The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party anointed President Xi with a third term as China’s president, but the protests that followed shortly thereafter shattered that aura of invincibility and apparent public support.

“Mr. Xi is in a crisis of his own making, with no quick or painless route out,” wrote the Economist this week. “New Covid cases are near record levels. The disease has spread to more than 85% of China’s cities. Clamp down even harder to bring it back under control, and the economist costs will rise yet higher, further fueling public anger. Allow it to spread and hundreds of thousands of people will die… China’s leaders appear to be searching for a middle ground, but it is not clear there is any.”

Beyond Covid-19, what is in danger is the unwritten social contract between the Chinese Communist Party of just 90 million members and the total Chinese population of 1.4 billion. Namely, the Chinese people accept restricted freedoms and fealty to the party as long as the party provides economic rewards and social security. A series of policy mistakes have slowed Chinese growth to just 3% in 2022, yet President Xi continues to prioritize party control over economic freedoms.

Iranian women hold pictures of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, during the celebration of the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 10, 2021.

Majid Asgaripour | WANA | Reuters

Although the global stakes of Iran’s protests are less obvious, the Mideast and world would be far better off with a more moderate and pluralistic Iran that focuses on its public needs, retreats from its regional adventurism and steps back from the nuclear brink. Here, too, the regime’s problems have been self-created, the protests being a result of excessive regime brutality and endemic corruption.

So, what should be done in 2023 to transform these authoritarian setbacks into a more sustainable advance of the “free world,” helping to reverse a 16-year global decline of democracy, as measured by the Freedom House’s 2022 report.

First and most immediately, the United States and its partners should deepen and expand their military and financial support for Ukraine. The Biden administration’s top officials understand this is the defining battle of our post-Cold War era. Without American military and financial support, and without the US’s rallying of allies, all Kyiv’s remarkable courage and resilience might not have been enough.

That said, President Biden’s caution and his often-stated fears of setting off World War III have limited the types and amounts of armaments Ukraine receives – and the speed at which they reach the battlefield. Faster delivery of more and better air defense could have saved Ukrainian lives.

It remains difficult to understand the continued limits put on Ukraine’s ability to strike the targets from which they are being hit as President Putin murderously pummels more civilian targets and infrastructure.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has rightly accused President Putin of weaponizing winter, in the hope of freezing Ukraine’s citizens into submission. Perhaps the greater danger is that of Western fatigue in supporting Ukraine and growing external pressure on Kyiv to negotiate, when only further battlefield gains will prompt President Putin to withdraw his troops and provide concessions that would allow a secure, sovereign, and democratic Ukraine to emerge .

Even as Russia requires action now, managing the Chinese challenge requires a more patient course, one that will be made easier should President Putin be strategically defeated in Ukraine. President Biden was right to meet with President Xi in Bali, on the margins of the G-20, to build a floor under which the world’s most critical bilateral relationship should not sink.

Where the US should step up its efforts in 2023 is in coalescing allies in Europe and Asia around a sustainable, consensus-driven approach to China that recognizes Beijing’s underlying weaknesses and deters its efforts to absorb Taiwan and remake the global order.

There are three potential outcomes at this “inflection point:” a reinvigoration and reinvention of our existing international liberal order, the emergence of a Chinese-led illiberal order, or the breakdown of world order altogether on the model of President Putin’s “law of the jungle.”

As 2022 ends, the failures and costs of those alternative models are more clear than ever.

Therefore, what’s crucial in the year ahead is for democracies to unify in a common cause to shape the global future alongside moderate, modern non-democracies that seek a more secure, prosperous, and just world.

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

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