Review: The Age of the Strongman

Over the past couple of decades, a dozen or so ruthless, socially conservative nationalists have risen to power across the globe. Their “archetype” is Vladimir Putin, said Owen Bennett-Jones in Literary Review – the “founding father of modern despotism”; others in his mould include Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Brazil’s farright leader Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India.

These men all come from different backgrounds, but in this absorbing book, Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times’s chief foreign affairs columnist, argues that all were “helped into power by a peculiar set of circumstances” that arose in the early part of this century. Following the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, there was a “crisis of confidence among the world’s liberals”. The strongman, he says, “filled the vacuum”, often rallying support by presenting their countries as the victims of a “hypocritical West”.

What is striking (and depressing) is how many of these strongmen were initially seen as “moderates and modernisers”, said Lawrence Freedman in The Sunday Times. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s recently re-elected prime minister, was a student activist during the dying days of communism. Turkey’s Recep Erdogan was hailed as the man to reform Islam; and it was widely thought that Putin would bring order to Russia “while staying close to Western states”.

All, however, slid into authoritarianism. Rachman offers a “sharp analysis” of the strategies they’ve used to hold onto power – typically a combination of media manipulation, rigged elections, and populist rhetoric that positions them on the side of “ordinary people” against sinister global elites.

Appearing as it does against the backdrop of Putin’s “war of extermination” in Ukraine, this book certainly feels timely, said Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail. Yet this same backdrop makes the chapter on Boris Johnson, whom Rachman claims has “elements of the strongman”, mainly because of his role in Brexit, seem rather odd. The PM is “far from a strong leader”, and he doesn’t belong in the same category as Putin.

The Ukraine conflict also casts doubt on Rachman’s assumption that we are very much still in the “age of the strongman”, said Roger Boyes in The Times. With each passing day of his botched “blitzkrieg”, Putin appears less the strongman, and more the “feeble commander” – and that could have knock-on effects. “If the Kremlin leader wobbles, so too could the mini-Putins flexing their muscles across the globe.”

Bodley Head 288pp; £20

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