The Cost of Rogue Leaders By Evren Celik Wiltse
Imagine a political leader who claims political power through a military coup, rules his people with an iron fist for 40 years, and diligently tries to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The same leader also sponsors global terrorist networks. He finances the bombing of a US passenger plane over Scotland that kills 270 civilians.
Despite mounting cases of inhumane and criminal behavior, Italy’s then Prime Minister Berlusconi rolled out the red carpet for the said leader and hosted official visits. This was how Libya’s notorious Colonel Kaddafi was received in Europe. When he visited the US for the UN meetings, the authorities in New York scrambled to find a convenient spot for him to pitch his massive nomadic tent, because the gentleman refused to stay in hotels.
Imagine another leader whose region was devastated by a civil war, cities shelled with heavy artillery, and in desperate need of infrastructure. Just in a single incident, over 300 students in a school lost their lives after being besieged for days.
Yet, the regional warlord Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov stroked a deal with Russian President Putin, and now can rule Chechnya as his personal ranch. He invites celebrities like Jan Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank for his 35th birthday, gifts his family members an army of Bentleys and Mercedeses. News of his missing cat is widely publicized inside and outside Chechnya, but missing journalists, human rights activists, and lately the bullied members of the LGBT community in Chechnya do not get as much attention.
The Soviet Union crumbled in 1989. Since then, it had only two leaders: Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has been effectively ruling what was left of the Soviets since 2000s. He gained a reputation by his unique style of leadership. No other head of state has as many photos of his upper torso naked, as does Mr. Putin. Global press is very well served with his photos of riding wild horses, fishing, in Tae kwon do outfit with black belt, diving for amphoras, spear fishing, petting tigers, etc. During the Winter Olympics in Sochi, his photos adorned all the rooms the athletes stayed.
Unfortunately, the excesses of Mr. Putin are not always as benign as his self-promoting photos. In fact, right after hosting the Winter Olympics, Mr. Putin acquired a significant chunk of territory (Crimean peninsula) from neighboring Ukraine, as the rest of the world watched in disbelief. International human rights organizations point at systematic suppression of activists in Russia.
Journalists who try to shed light on shoddy economic relations of him or his closest associates tend to “disappear”. Dissident politicians get shot in broad daylight in downtown Moscow. Russian justice system is yet to prosecute any of these murders. Human rights advocates are considered fair game by state agencies. They are stigmatized as ‘foreign agents,” harassed by tax authorities, and retired activists even lose their government pensions and benefits. Needless to say, President Trump’s relationship with Putin, who he was “honored” to meet, and Russia, has generatedcontroversy and investigation.
Last but not the least, there is the President of Turkey. His ever tightening grip on power is leaving a massive trail of beaten up activists, jailed journalists, politicians and dissidents, confiscated assets worthy of billions of dollars, and a record number of cases piling up at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). His security entourage is notorious for its heavy handed ways.
The US public got a glimpse of Mr. Erdogan’s style, when his security details beat up and hospitalized nearly 10 protestors in Washington DC in May 2017. Mr. Erdogan deploys equally forceful rhetoric, when he disagrees with Western governments. He was quick to accuse them of “Nazism”, when they declined to provide venues for Mr. Erdogan’s ministers to hold political rallies in Germany and the Netherlands.
Rough leaders have significant costs for the international community. Libya after Kaddafi split into two, succumbed into a civil war, became the breeding ground of global terrorism, and cost thousands of lives, including that of a US Ambassador. Today, Chechnya is among of the top exporters of global terror, including the two brothers who plotted the Boston bombings.
Russia does not operate as a transparent free market economy. It is one of the top destinations of illicit gains and money laundering. Shoddy financial activities out of Russia corrode the rest of the world, as the oligarchs and other well-connected apparatchiks try to park their ill-gained wealth to safe heavens abroad. The US public is still trying to sort out the toxic Russian influence in its presidential elections.
Finally, Turkey not only gags its own dissident citizens, but also holds German journalists and US citizens hostage in its prisons. Its temperamental leadership is jeopardizing the NATO bases in Turkey, as well as the NATO operations in the Middle East.
When leaders like Theresa May, Donald Trump or Angela Merkel roll out red carpets, and receive these rouge leaders in a business as usual manner, they grant legitimacy to all these atrocities. Diplomatic summits like G20 increasingly look like world leaders having gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, and some are trying hard to ignore the battered wives and kids around the table. We can either sport our fake smiles and pretend all is good, until the dysfunction drowns us all. Or we can start denying those red carpets to such rogue leaders.
Evren Celik Wiltse is Assistant Professor of Political Science at South Dakota State University