The world’s bad guys are winning. Is anyone going to stand up to them? | Simon Tisdall

From the coup in Myanmar to the autocratic regimes in China and Russia, western values are under increasing threat

Blame Joe Biden for not stepping in more quickly, or Donald Trump for encouraging authoritarian rulers. Blame Barack Obama for lifting sanctions. Easier still, blame China for propping up a military junta and putting profit before people.

The International Court of Justice warned of ongoing genocide, but nobody was saved. UN security council members argued endlessly about what to do. The finger of blame also points at Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel heroine turned sellout.

Yet while recriminations over last week’s coup in Myanmar may be inevitable, they are beside the point. The issue now is what is the international community going to do about it? The quick answer, based on recent precedents, is not a lot.

This dilemma not only applies to Myanmar. Across the world, to put it crudely, the bad guys are winning. The coup is another landmark in what David Miliband, a former UK foreign secretary, calls the “age of impunity”.

It’s true the US has set an unusually bad example. In November Aung San Suu Kyi won a clear election victory. Myanmar’s army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, alleged fraud. Peddling a lie and ignoring the constitution, he plotted to overturn the vote by force.

Sound familiar? In Washington on Monday, Trump faces trial for a similar, albeit failed, insurrection. Yet such a reckoning is a democratic rarity. Public protests are growing in Myanmar. So is repression. Who will bring Min Aung Hlaing to justice?

It’s also true China is playing a cynical game. It denies backing the coup, which is plausible. Its huge investments require stability, not a return to pre-2011 pro-democracy agitation. Yet China will be the winner if the west reverts to punitive sanctions. This outcome would render the generals triply damned: hated at home, ostracised abroad, and more dependent than ever on Xi Jinping.

The coup is seen by some as the first big test of Biden’s commitment to global democracy. Analyst Azeem Ibrahim claims a US-China deal is possible.

“The US could recognise Beijing’s commercial interests … in exchange for China’s support for forcing Myanmar into humanely resolving the Rohingya crisis and entrenching the power of the [pro-Beijing] democratic forces in the country,” he suggested.

This scenario was optimistic, Ibrahim conceded. China pays only lip service to democracy – witness its crackdown in Hong Kong. It obstructed efforts to punish the generals for genocidal attacks on Rohingya Muslims in 2016-17 which killed thousands and forced three-quarters of a million to flee to Bangladesh.

Xi, too, stands accused of genocide – in Xinjiang – yet appears untouchable. Who will bring China’s bullyboy president to justice?

The same question might be asked of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. The “underpants poisoner” is impunity personified. The sheer brazenness of the bungled bid to murder opposition activist Alexei Navalny was matched by his unjust incarceration last week.

Putin has ignored resulting international uproar. He ignores nationwide street demonstrations, which have brought mass arrests. He ignores Russia’s own laws. Yet his effrontery is no surprise.

After invading Georgia in 2008 Putin realised he could get away with almost anything. The lesson was reinforced when he annexed Crimea in 2014 and intervened in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. He even tried to subvert US elections – and got a free pass from Trump.

At home, even more so, he does what he likes, however corruptly. He and his billionaire cronies shrug off western sanctions as badges of honour. Ordinary Russians suffer, but Putin? He thinks he’s immune.

Can domestic opponents and western governments do anything to shake this sickening complacency in the Navalny case? As the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko showed last autumn, modern authoritarian regimes that control the streets, the courts, the media and the narrative can survive almost indefinitely.

The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia
‘If Germany were to cancel Gazprom’s lucrative Nord Stream 2 Baltic pipeline, it would hurt and embarrass Putin. Yet Angela Merkel just won’t do it.’ Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Putin and his ilk bank on the absence of collective international political willpower. If Germany were to cancel Gazprom’s lucrative Nord Stream 2 Baltic pipeline, it would hurt and embarrass Putin. Yet Angela Merkel just won’t do it – and the EU will not insist. Principles are all very well. But money and power talk louder.

Biden’s criticisms have been brusquely rejected by Moscow. So what should he do? Speaking on Friday, he again demanded Navalny’s release and threatened to impose “costs” on Russia – but did not say how or what.

Some in the US believe Navalny, by shaming Putin, has already won a moral victory. But commentator Garry Kasparov insists there must be “real consequences”.

Biden should “rally the free world to finally stand up to Putin’s dictatorship”, starting with asset seizures of eight close associates identified by Navalny. This, Kasparov wrote, would mark the dawn of “a new order for democracy”.

Unlikely. It’s clear that, overall, Biden and the west increasingly lack leverage when faced, not by foreign governments responsive to normal pressures, but by gangster regimes protecting their selfish interests. Mobsters such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad come to mind. Who will bring them to justice?

Even where mis-governance is not endemic, there are signs of a broader deterioration. Just look at the mass killings now taking place in northern Ethiopia. They are barely reported, let alone curbed. It’s as though the world’s democracies lack sufficient bandwidth.

Impunity is spreading, non-accountability goes viral. Authoritarianism is the new normal. According to the latest Economist survey, only 8.4% of the world’s population live in a fully functioning democracy, while more than a third live under authoritarian rule – and it’s getting worse.

Even when western politicians try hard to induce dictators and coup-leaders to mend their ways, they usually end up fighting a losing battle. Today’s question is not “who lost Myanmar?” It’s “has the west lost?”

Contributor

Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Justice and the Rohingya people are the losers in Asia's new cold war
Attacks against the Muslim minority in Myanmar have gone unchecked as regional players focus on their own interests

Simon Tisdall

20, Sep, 2020 @6:29 AM

Article image
Myanmar’s top general Min Aung Hlaing is strangling a democracy. What will the west do about it?
Joe Biden’s ‘waffle-fest’ summit shows the international community is toothless when faced with a murderous junta boss

Simon Tisdall

05, Dec, 2021 @9:15 AM

Article image
Dictators take a winning lead as Newcastle bend the knee to Saudi princes | Simon Tisdall
The Tyneside Premier League takeover, Putin’s gas pipeline and Xi’s disdain for US talks make an alarming hat-trick against the west

Simon Tisdall

10, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Britain will be America’s pet. But it’s Europe’s future that’s at stake | Simon Tisdall
The EU risks irrelevance if it doesn’t seek new purpose – and it won’t find it in the fantasy of power projected by the G7

Simon Tisdall

13, Jun, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Joe Biden talks tough on putting the world to rights. But can he deliver?
The new US president faces a series of intractable foreign policy problems that won’t be solved by signing executive orders

Simon Tisdall

31, Jan, 2021 @6:15 AM

Article image
Joe Biden’s bid to rally the ‘free world’ could spawn another axis of evil
It’s laudable that the US president-elect wants to push back against oppressive regimes … but it’s a path fraught with danger

Simon Tisdall

13, Dec, 2020 @6:15 AM

Article image
A child screams in Myanmar … and China pretends not to hear
The country’s global standing is plunging as Xi Jinping attempts to whitewash atrocities in the name of empire-building

Simon Tisdall

14, Mar, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro have been complacent. Now the pandemic has made them all vulnerable | Simon Tisdall
The world’s strongmen may well end up paying a political price for their cynicism and incompetence

Simon Tisdall

17, May, 2020 @7:35 AM

Article image
Stay, go, delay: Joe Biden is trapped and has no good choices in Afghanistan
The president has inherited an unpopular war, and whatever he decides to do about it will be fraught with danger

Simon Tisdall

28, Feb, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Afghanistan will be seen as Joe Biden’s defeat. And it may come back to haunt him
The American public will not be in a forgiving mood if al-Qaida rises again following US withdrawal and the Taliban advance

Simon Tisdall

15, Aug, 2021 @5:15 AM