In Beijing sits Xi Jinping, the Red Emperor. His project is to make totalitarianism work. Already in complete control at home, his global influence increases by the day. Other nations are falling over each other to pay tribute to the People's Republic.
Beijing does not impose its political model on others, but demands something else: silence. If you want to collaborate with China you are not allowed to say anything unfriendly. Crossing the regime risks retribution or expulsion.
After the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, China cut ties with Norway for six years. To normalize relations again, Norway last year had to promise, in writing, to undertake no action that could disturb the new harmony. Since then, Norway's government — whose identity in the world rests on its championship of democracy and human rights — has had not a word to say about human rights abuses in China. Likewise, activist groups like Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Conservation International stay silent on China's environmental destructions in the South China Sea.
In Moscow sits Vladimir Putin, a would-be modern-day Czar. He has less power to play with than his friends in Beijing. He can, however, make himself admired for promoting Russia's greatness up against a Western world that Russians are told is hostile to them.
Unlike Xi, Putin cannot aspire to domination, but he can be a spoiler and sow discord in democratic countries. This is done by using social media to whip up enmity between population groups and undermine trust and democracy. After the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, it took only an hour for a flurry of posts from Russia-linked Twitter accounts to set Americans against each other on the issue of gun control.
In Washington sits Donald Trump, absentee leader of the free world. Himself a man of authoritarian instinct, he seems to admire leaders like Xi and Putin for their virility of power. Rather than stand up to their assaults on the foundations of liberty, he directs his anger against those same foundations. His attacks on the news media have become normal. He uses lies as a political instrument. He chips away at respect for the rule of law.
In Brussels sits an uneasy coalition of European democracies, distracted by Brexit, populism and internal EU tensions. It is in stand-off with Russia, on which it depends for energy. Trade and capital top other interests on China. On separate occasions in 2017, Hungary withheld its signature from an EU letter denouncing torture of human rights lawyers, and Greece vetoed an EU statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council criticizing China's human rights record.
In the squeeze between dictatorship and democracy sit leaders of smaller countries, in bewilderment. Australia and New Zealand are on the forefront of China's campaign of influence in media, politics and universities. Their governments are struggling to respond, but are getting more indifference than support from friends.
In Central Europe, countries with as yet weak democratic cultures take inspiration more from authoritarianism than liberty. Poland has passed a law forbidding free discourse, even in scholarly history, of the Holocaust. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is forging a one-party soft autocracy where people are fearful of speaking their minds. The Czech Republic, mired in political cheating, is being described as “a democracy without democrats.”
It is not surprising that liberty has enemies. The tragedy now is that the defense of liberty is absent where it should be vibrant. We are being let down by America, by the likes of Hungary and Poland, even by the European Union, even by Norway.
There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?
Stein Ringen is a visiting professor of political economy at King's College London and the author, most recently, of "The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century." He writes at ThatsDemocracy.com.