This man has no fear
This week we continue our saga of good lessons we can learn from bad guys. The subject is Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman of Belarus, also known as “Europe’s Last Dictator”. He has been oppressing his own people and antagonizing neighboring democracies for 27 years, but there is much we can take away. Lukashenko has no fear, or shame, which has served him very well in his career as a dictator.
Let us recap the latest: Lukashenko’s regime this week used a MiG-39 fighter jet and a bogus bomb threat to force a commercial airliner to land in Minsk. The intent was to arrest one of the passengers, Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old, journalist and activist living in exile, who has been giving the regime hell. Love him or hate him, you have to give Lukashenko credit – that was pretty imaginative, and brazen.
But the first question that comes to mind is, how does he dare? He dares because he does not fear anyone. He doesn’t fear the international community of democratic nations. And he doesn’t fear what could happen to him and his cronies at home, because he controls every lever of the machinery of power. He has no fear because he has killed, jailed, tortured, or kidnapped enemies with no real consequences.
Many in the West were apoplexic. The Washington Post editorial page blared: “Belarus’s dictator must be stopped”. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken demanded an “international investigation” in a tweet, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, vowed: “There will be a strong answer…” But what kind of strong answer exactly? Will it be sanctions, which dictatorships can survive for years, and which end up hurting regular people more than those in power? When the smoke clears, very little will have been done, and Lukashenko is already counting on it. He knows the West is (mostly) all bark and no bite.
As Robert D. Kaplan points out in his book Warrior Politics, our values in the West require “muscle and self-interest to enforce”. Otherwise, they are useless. The need for credibility, even fear, is something that generations of kindergarten teachers have long known: If kids can smell your weakness (and they can), they will disrespect you and your rules. The same lesson applies when democracies deal with autocrats.
Do not misunderstand me. I am far too imbued in liberal values to advocate the use of forceful means – someone else has to do the job. But that is precisely the point. People like me are part of the problem. The lesson here is that we can’t expect bad actors to respect universal rights if they do not fear the consequences of violating them. That’s why dictators still win.
Lukashenko also has no shame. On Wednesday he said with a straight face that he acted “lawfully” and that he was “protecting the people”. He did not vacillate in making his argument – regardless of how outrageous it came across to others. Having no shame is an undervalued skill sometimes. We should all be equipped and prepared to argue our points and sell our services and goods with the same level of assertiveness. You have to believe in your own argument in order to make it forcefully.
At some level, Lukashenko and those like him, actually believe their own schtick. The anthropologist, Robert Trivers, teaches us in his book The Folly of Fools that self-deceit is an evolved trait that helps us better convince others. I am not a fan of self-delusion, but I do recognize its usefulness sometimes, especially for athletes, soldiers, and salespeople who need to psyche themselves up that they are right and that they will win. We may still be wrong, and lose, but more often than not we succeed and retain the ability to persuade others for a long time. Of course, the difference between us and Lukashenko is what we are selling.
What I am (Re) Reading
In my last post, I wrote about why I consider Francis Fukuyama’s work a source of reference. “Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos” (Vintage, 2002) by Robert D. Kaplan, is another book I consider earth shaking, and that I find myself turning to again and again. Warrior Politics first came out back in 2001, after 9/11, and its message is probably more controversial now than it was back then.
Kaplan draws on the lessons of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Sun-Tzu and Thucydides, among others, and argues that morality in foreign policy should be guided by the end result, not its original good intent. This type of thinking is unthinkable in our time, but it is needed because history teaches us that extremist religion, nationalism, or ideology constantly threaten, and will continue to threaten liberal values, whether we like it or not.
Kaplan also calls for us to embrace a “tragic sense of history” or Machiavelli’s “anxious foresight” when looking at world affairs. We should never expect good intentions and logic to always prevail. Or as Kaplan puts it: “Anyone who assumes that rational economic incentives determine the future of world politics should read Mein Kampf”.
The trouble is that our institutions, including the press, are decidedly idealist, which is challenging for leaders. The media and cosmopolitan elites in liberal democracies tend to “emphasize universal moral principles” but leaders are tasked with the job of focusing on national self-interest, and these are often at odds.