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U.S.' existential battle is with internal political parties, not autocracies abroad

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
U.S.' existential battle is with internal political parties, not autocracies abroad
A dog looks around as destroyed Russian military machinery clutters a street in the recaptured city of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on Monday. Photo by Vladyslav Musienko/UPI | License Photo

President Joe Biden has monopolized the international megaphone to rally the "world" and the "free world" in an existential struggle against autocracy, as well as to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin's reprehensible, unprovoked attack on Ukraine. But is the "world" fully united on anything or unified around any single issue?

Similarly, what constitutes the "free world?" Or is this an anachronism reflecting an earlier, idealistic perception of a world that largely existed only in Washington minds? And is the fight against autocracy the correct one?

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On March 2, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Putin's invasion of Ukraine. The "world" was not unanimous: 141 voted to condemn; 35 abstained; five opposed; and 12 did not vote. The abstentions, including China and India, amounted for about half the global population. And the "world" is even more divided on Russian sanctions.

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Brazil, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, among others, oppose sanctions. Brazil is unsurprising. Israel has an unholy alliance with Russia so that it is free to strike Hezbollah forces in Syria. Yet, one needs to be careful in relying on the world to act or using it for consensus.

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"Free world" has been used almost promiscuously since World War II. It became universal during the Cold War against monolithic communism. But "free world" did not apply to recruiting America's allies.

States opposing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People's Republic of China became honorary members of the Free World club. In NATO, that Portugal and, for a time, Greece were ruled by an autocrat or junta, was not disqualifying: ditto for Hungary and Turkey today. In the Vietnam War, the South was also an adopted member of the "free world," along with South Korean and Filipino allies. And in the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars, despite the size of the coalitions that were arrayed against Saddam Hussein, neither consisted of only "free world" states.

About the existential battle today, as Biden puts it, between democracy and autocracy, what is different from World War II and the Cold War? Autocracy means rule by one. While Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong fit that category, successive Soviet regimes were collective leaderships and did not. And Mao's dominance was bypassed for a time.

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Russia under Putin and China under Xi Jinping seem to be autocracies. But, and this is critical, the flaws and weaknesses in Russian and Chinese political systems have been discounted or ignored. While the failings of democracy are real, their cause is the inability of many governments to provide credible governance and not of democracy. As the credibility of democratic governments to govern declined, possibly in some cases precipitously, the viability of democracy has been wrongly brought into greater question.

But autocracies have profound contradictions and inherent problems that limit their reach and scope with possibly existential consequences. In autocracies, one-man rule leads to elemental questions of succession and control. No one leader is always infallible and correct. Mistakes and errors will lead to dissent no matter how latent. A long rule deprives others from leadership. And who replaces the leader?

Russia has a few but only a few advantages. It is a nuclear and energy superpower. It has a highly technically educated cadre. And it has a rich history and culture. However, Russia lacks a diverse economy that will only deteriorate as sanctions bite. And it is still politically corrupt and brittle. Both imploded the Soviet Union.

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China faces huge challenges, as well: a huge debt; a shadow banking system that exacerbates debt; a real estate bubble on which its economy depends; and massive corruption. The aging population created a demographic crisis with fewer younger Chinese to fill working force numbers. And unless China's economy grows at a rapid pace above inflation, the needs of the enormous underclass of 400 million-500 million will not be met.

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What to do? Simple: Relegate the terms "world" and "free world" to emeritus status and take more seriously the possible fatal flaws and limitations of China, Russia and other autocracies such as North Korea. Iran is different. No one, not even the grand ayatollah, is entirely in charge as are Xi, Putin and Kim Jong Un.

America is NOT in an existential battle with autocracy. America is in an existential battle with two political parties that seem equally incapable of fulfilling the preamble of the Constitution "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." This is the greater danger confronting democracy, not a few autocracies.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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