Asia Rising: The Increasing Relevance of East Asia in Foreign Policy

In late May, Putin and Xi Jinping signed a massive 400 billion dollar natural gas deal in Shanghai. For the next thirty years, new pipelines will pump trillions of cubic feet of natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas extractor, to the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC). While the agreement certainly comes at a critical time for Putin strategically as he counters US and EU sanctions, it is representative of a larger global trend: an economic, political and defensive shift toward the East.

Putin has been pushing for an energy deal with China for nearly ten years, and rightfully so. China, and Asia more broadly, has a vast market for oil and natural gas with its megacities and booming economy. The deal between Gazprom and CNPC gives Russia a foot in the door of this profitable energy market. Providing up to 20% of China’s natural gas needs, the deal finally solidifies the Sino-Russian alliance that Putin has been advertising. What’s more, the two countries will be paying with their own currencies, the ruble and yuan, completely bypassing the American dollar, which is traditionally used in energy transactions. Although the dollar has long been the international reserve currency of choice, Russia’s VTB and the Bank of China’s decision to trade in domestic currencies stresses the exclusivity of the Eurasian trade deal; the US is not welcome. Although this alone does not significantly destabilize the petrodollar, it certainly undermines American relevance in the deal and indicates Putin’s increasing focus on relations with Asia.

Putin’s meeting with Xi Jinping also comes on the heels of Obama’s four-country Asia tour in April. After a canceled trip to Asia during the October government shutdown, Obama’s tour demonstrates the president’s desire to make good on his foreign policy goal to “pivot to Asia.” In his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama focused on strengthening economic and military relationships. The trip resulted in increased numbers of American military personnel and equipment stationed in the region; yet, thus far, Obama’s plans for future economic partnerships have not been realized.

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President Obama is the first American president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. 2014. (Flickr Creative Commons/The White House)

Neither the Malaysian nor Japanese leadership approved Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to increase connectivity between the Asian and American economies. Despite domestic backlash from Democratic Senators and Congressmen, Obama has continually pushed for more economic cooperation across the Pacific. Obama, like Putin, hopes to benefit from the expanding Asian markets; the TPP would eliminate tariffs between the US and several Latin American and Asian states. According to Don Emmerson, a political scientist at Stanford, “Americans cannot afford to deny themselves…the opportunities for trade and investment” present in Asia, but Asian leaders, however, seem less enthusiastic. In Japan, Abe refused to join the partnership due to the protected five sacred areas of Japanese agriculture. In Malaysia, political “sensitivities” and economic concerns also halted progress. The TPP has major implications for American and Asian economies (Japan is America’s biggest trading partner in Asia aside from China). Thus, although no agreement was reached during the tour, the American, Japanese and Malaysian leaders promised to continue negotiations. These promises give President Obama a glimmer of hope that soon the Asian governments will be more receptive to the partnership. It should be Obama’s mission, then, to adjust the TPP to be more beneficial for all states involved, especially those with heavily protected domestic industries.

TPP negotiations were also designed to reestablish American’s military presence in East Asia. The US military will continue to maintain operational control of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. This agreement gives the US command of South Korean troops in the event of war with North Korea. In Japan, Obama reassured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Senkaku Islands (or the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China) would fall under American protection in the case of a threat. These uninhabited islands have long been disputed by Japan and China, who both claim ownership of them. Obama’s declaration of support for Japan’s sovereignty in the maritime dispute is a signal of disapproval to China, whose military actions in the East and South China Seas concern many Asian states. As expected, China was not pleased by Obama’s remarks.

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The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, located in between Japan and China. 2012. (Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America)

Obama’s actions in the Philippines were also bad news for China. The United States and the Philippines, which has experienced their own territorial disputes with China, responded with a 10-year defense treaty, the first since the 1990s. The treaty again serves as a counterweight to China. Yet, none of Obama’s military agreements should come as a surprise considering the staggering growth of China’s military budget. In 2014, China plans to spend $132 billion on defense, a 12.2% increase from 2013 – although most critics agree that the real number is significantly higher.

These figures make China impossible to ignore. Combine the country’s military expansion with its rapidly growing GNP and it becomes one of the greatest forces in the world today. China’s enormity and consequent impact on its neighbors, from Japan to the Philippines to Russia, have forced other world powers to readjust. Putin and Obama have played their hands, each trying to get ahead in the Asia-Pacific. Putin’s natural gas deal has created a buffer for conflicts in Europe and Obama’s efforts to increase economic cooperation and American military presence in Asia also indicate increased interest in Asia. It remains to be seen how other world leaders will react to the growing relevance of East Asia in global issues.

In early May, European Union (EU) leaders met with Shinzo Abe to reaffirm their positive relationship. At the meeting, the leaders discussed further economic and political ties, although no specific agreements were signed. The leaders of the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will also hold a summit in October. Will Europe, like Russia, turn to China, Asia’s largest power, or invest in ties with other East Asian nations alongside President Obama? Regardless, it is clear that the “turn to Asia” is a legitimate and global phenomenon.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The Correspondents Weigh in: Crisis in Crimea

The Crimea Region is highlighted in Red on this map of the Ukraine (via Wikimedia Commons)

This piece will be the first of a special “Weigh In” series that is going to be started on Glimpse, which will focus on momentous current events.

Thomas D. Armstrong:

Recent op-eds have labeled Putin as a mastermind or a megalomaniac fool. I am of the opinion that Putin is a megalomaniac mastermind exploiting a disempowered US. However, debating Putin’s psychological profile is less constructive than analyzing the economic foundation of his regime. Putin and his Russia survive on energy revenues, and war is only making him richer. Unlike 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, oil prices have held steady. In fact, the threat of sanctions on Russia have only driven oil prices marginally higher, up $2 dollars to $110.8/bbl as of writing. Putin is financing expansionist dreams (and his own savings account) thanks to his near-monopoly on Russia’s energy industry. Therefore, the best way to rein him in is to drive global energy prices down. The US can accomplish this quite easily with a reformed national energy policy. Currently, the US is sitting on an unused 727-million-barrel underground cache of crude oil, and is producing more and more natural gas by the day. If the US were to supplant Russia as Europe’s primary natural gas provider, and flood the global market with American oil exports, energy prices would plummet. A decrease from $110/bbl to $80/bbl would cost the Russian oil industry alone an estimated $120 billion, plus billions more in foreign exchange earnings. Putin is a deft leader, but even he could not survive such a sustained economic collapse.

Nick Kosturos:

Russia’s move to deploy soldiers in Ukraine is indicative of feelings of insecurity rather than confidence. Putin knows that such a large loss of influence in Ukraine, a critically important country in economic, cultural, and geopolitical terms, would be devastating to Russia’s ultimate goal of increasing its regional sphere of influence and international prestige. Putin’s domestic considerations and tensions can also shed light on these aggressive actions. If a small country like Ukraine can successfully stand up to the Kremlin by ousting its man from Kiev, what will Russians think of a leadership unable to control their “Small Russia?” Russia is acting out of desperation, not strength. Putin’s clownish justifications for Russia’s military actions do not hold up to scrutiny and are made under a façade by what I recently labeled an “imitation democracy.”

While the West has multilaterally condemned this act of aggression, which is a positive first step, it should now increase pressure on Russia to relent. In order to force Russia to withdraw and accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and a chance at a peaceful political transition, the West must maintain a multilateral and wide-ranging coalition of rejection, isolating Putin via sanctions on both his allies and competing oligarchs (including their overseas funds and visas), and by supporting Ukraine’s new government through assistance and advisement. At this point, conventional military power projection against Russia is not a viable option – no matter how tempting – as it could spark an unintended military provocation leading to conflict. The current situation is very difficult to manage, although the international community should know that the West ultimately has the upper hand. Russia’s desperate authoritarian strategy based on oppression is doomed to fail in the long-run.

Luke Phillips:

The situation in Crimea is nothing more than the Russians managing their own geopolitical periphery, and so far as it has to do anything at all with expansion, it is only due to the fact that Russian power is presently contracted to levels far below what Moscow would like. America would do and has done the same thing in the event of revolutionary unrest in our neighbor states, as is evidenced by our interventions in Mexico a century ago and in Cuba a half-century ago.

The question here, I think, is what the United States is going to do about it. Part of our grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been to keep the Russians from establishing formal or informal dominion over the former U.S.S.R. Another part has been supporting the thin veil of liberal international order that girds the power politics flowing subtly underneath in an effort to at least grant a semblance of order and harmony in international affairs. These imperatives have come under increasing pressure in recent years, but in 2013 and 2014 more than ever before. I don’t know what the proper policy response should be, but I hope it isn’t more of the lectures, gestures, and silences with which President Obama responded to the Russians in the Snowden and Syria affairs.

Jacob W. Roberts:

America is in no position to intervene nor should it.  To the western world, Putin’s actions appear nefarious, but from the perspective of many Russians he is acting well within the parameters of international law.  Professor Tatiana Akishina of USC argues that, since the prime minister of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous Crimea region has called upon Putin for military support, his intervention is in accordance with international law.  Moreover, America has intervened with greater frequency and intensity over the past century, thus it is highly hypocritical of US authorities to castigate Russia for meddling within its region.  That being said, it is somewhat disturbing to witness Russia fail to respect the sovereign rights of an independent nation.  One can only hope that Putin’s intervention into the region will be short lived.

Alessandro M. Sassoon:

There is a risk of ethnic cleansing. It starts with classification. Weeks before this conflict made the front pages of the New York Times, reports emerged that Russian-Ukrainians in Crimea were being given Russian Passports. Russians have lived in Crimea for some 200 years, and Ukraine has held the territory for half a century. Then there are the Tatars, the people for whom Crimea is an ancestral home dating back to the Mongol Khan Empire. The Tatar population, which accounts for 13% of Crimea’s inhabitants, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Under Stalin’s Russia, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported en masse to other parts of Russia (read: Siberia). It should come as no surprise then that they are more keen on being governed by Ukraine than by Russia. As things stand, there are three populations with strong ethno-nationalist tendencies who inhabit a geographic area they all feel they have a historical, political, or legal claim to. Of the eight stages of Genocide, we’ve passed #5: polarization. That means preparation, extermination, and denial are next.

Sabrina Mateen:

Before this conflict, my knowledge of Ukraine consisted solely of “ex-USSR”. I assumed the region consisted of Russian natives, and that they were considered to be allies with their ex-country. However, with the news of an outbreak of civil war, it has become apparent that there are opposing nationalities, languages, and mindsets that are all helping to tear Ukraine into pieces. The conflict seems to be reaching increasingly dangerous heights as Russia begins to put pressure on Ukraine in the form of planned military drills and in one case, an unspecified military presence that looked to be Russians supporting Crimeans. Although the conflict is being called a civil war, it is beginning to seem like one of the many moves Putin has been making to restore Russia to its USSR-era square footage. It is important to see what the United States plans to do, as the Obama Administration is already under scrutiny after the ill-advised response to the crisis in Syria.  Any move from the newly war-shy United States will be seen as an escalation in a conflict that has all the makings of a new Cold War.

Kerry Collins:

Recent developments in the volatile Ukraine situation show the autonomous Crimea region voting to join the Russian Federation. Crimea has a Russian ethnic majority and is predominantly Russian speaking, so it might not come as a surprise that the region is in support of the secession. If it is what the people want, then perhaps the region should have never been a part of Ukraine to begin with. These recent moves that Crimea has made are violations of international law, which puts the United States in a tough response position. The President has been making frantic calls to Putin urging a diplomatic end to this crisis, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with US warnings. What the EU and the US bring to the table are economic sanctions, and it will be interesting to see if those “sticks” are enough to make Putin falter.

Stepping out of Russia’s Shadow? Ukraine’s Next Moves.

A protester at Euromaidan. (Ivan Bandura via flickr)

This past week, Ukraine experienced the worst period of violence in its post-Soviet history and a stunning political development as President Yanukovych was forced out of power by the Ukrainian parliament. The cost of this political victory for the opposition has been great; aggressive clashes between government security forces and protesters resulted in at least 77 deaths and 577 injuries. Although a potential breakthrough peace deal emerged Friday calling for early elections this December, a lessening of the powers of President Yanukovych, and the establishment of a “national unity government,” the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday to remove President Yanukovych from office and to hold elections on May 25th in a stunning rebuke of his regime. This political whirlwind places Ukraine in a vulnerable position. Although the opposition movement achieved a great victory in eliminating Yanukovych from power, its efforts may prove futile if a fair political transition is not undertaken in the coming months, especially if Russia continues to bully Ukraine into submission. If Ukraine is to move towards a freer and more just society, then the West must work with Ukraine to ensure fair and free elections while offering strong guidance and support during the upcoming political transition.

The unprecedented violence in Ukraine was appalling and indicative of a deteriorating security situation on the ground, suggesting significant gains in the opposition movement and feelings of insecurity on part of the Yanukovych regime. To combat demonstrators, Ukrainian security forces were issued combat-grade weapons and fired upon protesters . Opposition members attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails and possibly firearms . Although both sides have committed acts of violence, there should be no doubt that the preponderance of force came from government-sponsored security forces; reports indicate that government-sponsored snipers killed at least 20 protesters this past week. This suppression is unacceptable and revealed the true authoritarian nature of the Yanukovych government. Although the main perpetrator of the violence has been effectively removed from power, the West must continue to isolate those responsible and should take an active role in shaping the next phase of the political transition.

Even though the U.S. and EU are becoming more active in Ukraine’s political crisis, the most influential external actor in Ukraine is undoubtedly Russia. President Putin and his allies are taking bold steps to keep their Ukrainian puppets in power thereby preserving the status quo. Indeed, Russia’s provocative moves instigated the political unrest when it bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU in favor of $15 billion dollars in aid and a tantalizing 33 percent discount on Russian natural gas. Naturally, Russia has many reasons to prevent Ukraine from developing relations with the EU. In his quest to restore the idea of a “Great Russia” and a sphere of influence similar to the former Soviet Bloc, Putin knows that Ukraine is the most important country in pursuit of this goal.

Historically, Ukraine has been known as “Small Russia.” The concept of a “Modern Russia” is said to have started in Ukraine, and Ukraine is seen as the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. Linguistically, the two countries are also very similar as many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. The economic ties between Ukraine and Russia are also vital in gauging Russia’s interest. If Ukraine does not join Russia’s Eurasian customs union (which recently recruited Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), then the whole concept could disintegrate. Russian companies have a large investment presence in Ukraine accounting for about 7 percent of Ukraine’s total foreign investment in 2013. In addition, many Ukrainians have migrated to Russia providing a substantial labor force for Russian companies. Ukraine also has geostrategic importance for Russia hosting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet naval headquarters. If the naval base’s lease were threatened by a more independent Ukraine, Russia would suffer a significant loss in a critical region. Clearly, Russia has a substantial interest in keeping a pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. Although Russia has indicated perhaps a softer stance by sending in a more reasonable diplomat to conduct negotiations during this tipping point, this gesture should not be considered a serious change of intention or attitude. Russia knows that losing Ukraine to the West will be a momentous blow to its aspirations of restoring the idea of a “Great Russia.”

When evaluating the West’s efforts to support the Ukrainian opposition and influence the Ukrainian regime, it is important to understand that the U.S. and its Western allies are at an inherent disadvantage. Unlike the Russian state which has few reservations in actively supporting authoritarian regimes that suppress their own people, such as the Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the West generally does not support corrupt autocrats in such a brash manner. It also is difficult to provide assistance to an opposition that is not well defined. Nevertheless, the EU’s decision to place individual sanctions on Ukrainian officials , and the U.S.’s move to revoke 20 Ukrainian visas were positive efforts to punish President Yanukovych’s regime. These individuals must be held responsible for their actions, especially if they continue to receive guidance from Russia urging the state to resist tectonic reforms in the coming months. However, more must be done beyond sanctions to ensure a meaningful political transition and reform process.

More often than not, the West views elections as the end game of democratic reform, even when the elections in question are severely flawed. The West must actively monitor and offer guidance to the Ukrainian political transition team via diplomatic channels and civil society groups to ensure free and fair elections. Yanukovych and/or his allies may attempt to retain power in the upcoming months resulting in a Russian-backed political machine winning the elections. According to international observers, Ukraine’s 2012 election cycle was plagued with fraud, so it is likely that history could repeat itself if the election process is not regulated and monitored. Western countries should also keep an eye on rising leaders within the opposition movement that could be potential puppets for President Putin. Wealthy oligarchs such as Henadiy Boholyubov and Ihor Kolomoyskyy, who both have billion dollar plus holdings in the financial, media, and energy industries, have recently switched allegiances to the opposition movement even though they have traditionally supported the Yanukovych regime. These powerful actors could potentially hijack the opposition movement and resist any meaningful change that threatens their interests, which could include greater independence from Russia. Ukraine’s proposed political transition and reform could easily become a sham if the U.S. and the EU lose focus and decrease pressure.

Russia is bold to accuse the West of “puppeteering” in Ukraine via diplomatic support since the Kremlin has actively supported a bloody regime that has massacred civilians. While the current situation is not a proxy war, it is hard to ignore the emerging political divide and international political implications of Ukraine’s transformation. Western Ukraine supports further integration with the EU, and Eastern Ukraine is supportive of a strong Russian presence. Moving forward, it will be very difficult to reconcile these two viewpoints in a political transition that seeks a “national unity government.” However, the West and EU can continue to punish Ukrainian officials guilty of oppression and help support and shape meaningful political reform that keeps President Yanukovych and his cronies out of power. The ouster of Yanukovych by parliament, while a positive development, should be watched closely. The inevitable scramble and disorganization that follows such a momentous event could lead to the rise of another corrupt regime that seeks to ally itself to the highest bidder. Regardless of this possibility, those Ukrainians who desire a freer and more just society have won a substantial victory. Let us hope this victory is the first of many to come culminating in a Ukraine that aspires to be more than just a “Small Russia.”

An Autocrat’s Guide for Dummies: How to Build Your Own Cult of Personality

As an autocrat, one of the smartest choices you can make for long-term political domination is to build a strong cult of personality. This is no easy task. Building your brand requires much dedication and effort, which will surely take away from many scotch tastings at your summer palace. Indeed, rumor has it Stalin only slept four hours per night due to his constant cultivation of his exceptional personality cult. However, the rewards of this strategy are bountiful. A personality cult attracts blind devotion in the minds of your subjects and instills fear in the souls of your opponents – the ever-rare opportunity to murder two birds with one stone! Indeed, history has shown that some of the most powerful autocrats, such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, enjoyed a long period of rule and a lasting legacy because of the success of their personality campaigns. The mass-appeal of the cult of personality syndrome is irrefutable, as even the humblest man would enjoy the constant ego stroking. By heeding the following recommendations, you too can develop your own brand that will stand the test of time.

1. Nail Down Your Style

Right: Graffiti of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi in Knoxville, Tennessee. June 19, 2013. (Joel Kramer) Left: Muammar Gaddafi at the 12th AU summit in Addis Abeba. February 2, 2009. (U.S. Navy/Jesse B. Awalt)

Right: Graffiti of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi in Knoxville, Tennessee. June 19, 2013. (Joel Kramer)
Left: Muammar Gaddafi at the 12th AU summit in Addis Abeba. February 2, 2009. (U.S. Navy/Jesse B. Awalt)

The communist-style grey suit is so 1950s. Kim Jong-un: please take note. While those drab American leaders all dress similarly and wear the same American flag pins, which are of course made in China, you should focus on dressing to impress. We recommend obtaining a military uniform and cramming as many shiny badges on your outfit as possible. People want a strong leader, and old-school military power projection will impress your subjects while making them more accepting of your militaristic police state over time. Muammar Gaddafi mastered the dressing game, switching between flashy traditional garb and his ornate military uniform to trumpet both his cultural and military credentials. A consistent, yet unique style will leave the newly minted members of your personality cult craving for more.

2. Plaster Your Face on Everything

Bundesarchiv Bild 137-075664, Polen, Betreuung von Umsiedlern

Child holds portrait of Hitler in Poland. 1940 (Wilhelm Holtfreter)

If there is one thing you should do, it would be to post your portrait everywhere possible, including private buildings, buses, churches, government buildings (give-in), postage stamps, flags, and children’s toys. This author would advise against toilet seats, although that is a potential option. Not only will everyone learn to recognize you, they may even develop an emotional attachment to your face. Let’s take a lesson from Comrade Stalin. His portrait was diffused so broadly throughout society that some Soviet families felt the need to turn his portrait against their walls if they criticized the Soviet regime. This is power you cannot buy. Hire a good photographer, take as many portraits as possible, and send them off everywhere. Additionally, a good skin regimen can help with regime perpetuation. You’ll thank me for this bit of advice when you’re before The Hague and the judges compliment your radiant glow of self-confidence.

3. Product Placement

Right: Portrait of Vladimir Putin. Unspecified date. (Russian Federation) Left: Putinka Vodka. February 5, 2011. (Reuben Yau)

Right: Portrait of Vladimir Putin. Unspecified date. (Russian Federation)
Left: Putinka Vodka. February 5, 2011. (Reuben Yau)

Extend your brand to everyday, consumable goods. You should connect yourself to the minds and souls of your subjects at as visceral a level as possible. Vladimir Putin has been able to link himself to the everyday pleasure of alcohol consumption by making a state-sponsored Vodka manufacturer label a popular brand of vodka, “Putinka,” after himself. It’s all about the subliminal advertising.  So the next time your subjects drink themselves to sleep, they will have raised many a glass to you along the way. Za Zdorovie!

4. Crush Challenges to Your Image

Left: Stalin and Nickolai Yezhov (chairman of the Soviet secret police) at the shore of the Moskwa-Wolga-Channel. After Yezhov was tried and executed, he was purged out of from this photograph. April 22, 1937. (Unknown Author) Right: Nickolai Yezhov has vanished from this doctored photograph. 1937. (Author Unknown)

Left: Stalin and Nickolai Yezhov (chairman of the Soviet secret police) at the shore of the Moskwa-Wolga-Channel. After Yezhov was tried and executed, he was purged out of from this photograph. April 22, 1937. (Unknown Author)
Right: Nickolai Yezhov has vanished from this doctored photograph. 1937. (Author Unknown)

 

If an individual or a group tries to rain on your cult parades, you must remove them from the scene. The last thing a true leader wants is a competing figure or group stealing your thunder. You and you alone are the star – channel your inner Hollywood diva. Remove all opponents swiftly and by any and all means necessary through any force necessary, and most importantly, be sure to erase them from the annals of history. A few photo touch-ups should do the trick for well-known figures. Job prerequisite: a least two years experience with Adobe Creative Suite© and, preferably, previous experience in product marketing and re-branding.

5. Micro-managing is a Must

Lenin reading Pravda

Lenin reads Pravda newspaper at his study desk at his flat in the Kremlin. October 16, 1918.

You must maintain an active presence in the direct management of your cult or else it could be hijacked by the opposition, or worse, a not-so-loyal lieutenant. Stalin was a master of this management style and developed a habit of personally monitoring and directly approving or disapproving cult products that were to be distributed to the masses. So next time one your lieutenants offers to “take care” of management, politely refuse. Reply that you will “take care” of him and send him to Siberia to break rocks.

6. Conceal any and all Physical Faults

Kim-Jong-il

Kim Jong-il. October 7, 2010. (maxdavinci)

We know you’re perfect, but on the off chance that you have a physical or mental ailment, it must be concealed. You need to portray yourself as god-like, and to do this requires careful image manipulation. Kim Jong-il had a major speech impediment that prevented him from giving speeches or distributing recordings, but he was able to hide this impediment and keep his people in the dark. Rather, Kim was known to have Herculean sporting abilities where he would bowl and golf perfect games, and he was incapable of passing gas. Focus on your strengths and do not be afraid to highlight only your finest qualities, such as your ability to show off that priceless grin.

7. Bad Press is BAD Press

Edmund S. Valtman, What you need is a revolution like mine ppmsca.02969

This cartoon of Fidel Castro is critical of Cuba’s revolution in 1959. August 31, 1961. (Edmund S. Valtman)

The saying “any press is good press” should NOT apply to you. As supreme autocrat, you can afford to restrict any and all bad press. Any negative material could dampen your image and threaten your grip on power. It may be wise to invest in subtle social media filters, shut down freelance journalistic outlets (perhaps by accusing them of being “foreign agents”) and employ youth bloggers friendly to your regime to capture the minds and hearts of a more skeptical generation. Now there’s an image that makes every autocrat want to click the “like” button.

8. Keep it Funky

Vladimir Putin in Japan 3-5 September 2000-23

Vladimir Putin judo wrestling at the Kodokan Martial Arts Palace. September 5, 2000. (Russian Federation)

Unpredictability is a good thing. By dazzling your people and the international community, you will earn a reputation of being spontaneous and larger-than-life. Many autocrats have employed this technique. Chairman Mao accomplished this task by allegedly swimming the length of the Yangtze River. Putin constantly publicizes his wild activities, such as wrestling fellow Russians to the ground (that includes bears) or guiding endangered migratory cranes on a hang glider. Stability is a necessary ingredient to ironclad rule, but in order to build a good brand, a little funk is necessary now and then.

*Disclaimer: The aforementioned recommendations will only get you so far in an increasingly democratic world. In these volatile times, where a globalized press and social media apparatus seem to be exposing the ugly aspects of your brotherhood of autocrats left and right, the days of autocracy are increasingly numbered. Instead of building a cult of personality, consider democratizing your state’s society and liberalizing its economy. Until next time, Do Svidaniya.

Updated 2 November, 2013: formatting changes for better image-text integration.

Vladimir Putin: Master of the World’s Greatest Imitation Democracy

Vladimir Putin - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009

Vladimir Putin – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009 (flickr, World Economic Forum)

Vladimir Putin is the most tactful political leader of our time. While some may gawk at his strange leadership style, including a growing string of “Putin Action Man” photos as representative of a clownish leader, Putin’s ability to project a strong foreign policy and maintain control over a great power should be taken very seriously. Most recently, Putin has been able to uphold Russia’s interest in Syria while projecting himself as a world peacemaker as the U.S. recovers from a massive political fumble. This is no easy task, even for a former KGB man. On the home front, he has consistently bent the rules to empower himself – and his regime – at great cost to his own citizenry. Over the past decade, he has purged political opponents, denigrated Russian civil society, and allegedly siphoned off billions of dollars for his own gain, perhaps making him one of the richest men in the world. He accomplished all of these actions while maintaining popular support from Russians. Indeed, reports indicate Putin would have won the previous 2012 election even if the vote had not been rigged. He has also just announced the possibility of running for another 6-year term in 2018, which, if he wins, would make him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin. Even though history has shown that Russians tend to be pre-disposed to accepting authoritarian leaders, Putin’s rise to power in an increasingly democratic world is the mark of a master autocrat.

Unlike many other world leaders who have come to power through familial connections, personal wealth, or coup d’état, Putin’s ascension is unique. As a trained intelligence officer who operated overseas under the KGB, and as the former head of the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB), Putin is arguably better prepared to maintain political dominance more than most other world leaders. Putin’s foreign policy machine was able to manipulate world leaders and the UN Security Council into stalling on Syria for over 2 years while continuing to sell advanced weapons to the murderous regime. Russia then proposed a peace deal that overshadowed a flustered and disjointed U.S. Additionally, Putin’s craftiness in foreign policy is alarmingly evident in Russia’s expanding sphere of influence. Putin shunned Western Europe when he forced Armenia and other nations away from the EU and into an exclusive Eurasian economic union that is growing in size and prominence. To accomplish such objectives, Putin is known to use coy power tactics in his diplomatic dealings; one such example is his taking advantage of Angela Merkel’s fear of dogs by bringing his trusted companion to diplomatic negotiations with Germany. Putin truly puts the bite in foreign policy leaving his counterparts flabbergasted at his aggressive wielding of power and influence. This bold leadership style has certainly contributed to the rise of Russia’s global power projection when compared to its status at the beginning of the 21st century.

On the domestic stage, Putin is gradually bringing back a Stalinist-like society, feeding off of growing xenophobic and conservative attitudes held by many Russians. However, Putin dominates political life in a stealthier manner than Stalin. Putin has removed competitors from power under the guise of well-timed, government sponsored anti-corruption campaigns as opposed to mass killings. The removal of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, along with activist Alexei Navalny’s conviction and subsequent temporary release from his prison sentence to compete in a mayoral election, both stand as illustrative examples of Putin’s tactful political purges. Although these men were not taken to a house and shot in the back of the head, both were convicted in blatantly manufactured court rulings, affording the Putin regime solid political victories under the façade of judicial legitimacy.

Proponents of democratic reform in Russia should be particularly alarmed by Putin’s heavy regulation and interference in Russia’s civil society. Indeed, the Russian leader has thoroughly stomped on democratic principles by heavily regulating and restricting budding civil society groups, most notably by branding all NGOs that receive foreign funding as “foreign agents,” which evokes immense suspicion from Russian citizens because of the negative connotation of this label. The jailing of political dissidents such as the “Pussy Riot” band also discourages an atmosphere of protest and certainly prevents a healthy civil society from taking root. Putin’s grip on Russia’s domestic affairs has tightened and appears to be strong-as-ever for the foreseeable future.

Putin’s contradictions are too many to count. He holds elections only to rig them. He praises the impartiality of the Russian judicial system, and then uses it to jail political opponents. He projects himself as a world peacemaker and continues to support murderous regimes. He expresses a desire for public diplomacy but constantly stimulates anti-foreigner sentiments among his people. He worships state sovereignty and then uses obstructionist tactics to bully other nations into economic and military cooperation. Russia, a place former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov referred to as an “imitative democracy,” will never be able to transform itself into a true democracy as long as a Vladimir Putin is at the helm. So next time you see Putin projecting his dominance while riding a horse in Siberia, avoid labeling his antics as foolish and instead recall his ever-tightening grip as master of the world’s greatest imitation democracy.