What makes leaders like Putin threaten to invade a country in the heart of Europe and push the world dangerously close to armed conflict? Or what makes a leader intern up to 2 million of his own citizens in “re-education” camps, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, subjecting them to brutal forms of psychological and physical torture? These are questions that are on the mind of free peoples worldwide, and they are the right questions to ask. However, the conclusion most people reach regarding leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is often misunderstood. This begs the question, who are these leaders? How are these leaders characterized? In answer, leaders like Putin, Xi, and Erdoğan are all part of a new generation of old types of leaders, known as personalist leaders.
The Characteristics of Personalism
The defining feature of personalist leaders is that their political power and fortunes rest, in truth or in feeling, upon their ability to address the needs of their people. Personalist leaders often gather power to themselves by telling their citizens that they will be better able to address their needs under a system of government ruled by them. This is how Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia.
In the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a brief move towards democratization in what is now Russia. However, the Russian democratic effort was plagued by corruption, inefficiency and ineptitude. This led to a period of near chaos within the Russian Federation. Enter Vladimir Putin, a strong and charismatic leader who promised to return Russia to her glorious past. It is no wonder the people welcomed him into power.
Another characteristic of personalist leaders is that they are often ruthless opportunists. Willing to do whatever they need to do to forward their ambitions, they will lie, cheat and betray whoever or whatever to get their way.
As a result, we cannot treat them like we treated the Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, as a great ideological evil to be defeated. Personalist leaders are not committed to any belief or ideology, just to results. This means that they will happily use whatever methods they find useful to accomplish their ends, whether that be through pogroms and re-education camps or international climate summits and the International Court of Justice.
Nevertheless, it need not be said that personalist leaders are not always what we would call rational actors on the world stage. Rational actors are countries that are predictable because they generally act in a manner beneficial to the best interests of their country. Personalist leaders, however, do not follow this trend.
Instead, Dr. Robert Person, in The Journal of Eurasian Studies, found that most personalist leaders act with an eye to extending their regime. This is because, as mentioned earlier, personalist leaders understand that their political fortunes rest on their success, and their success is inextricably bound to the regime they crafted. Furthermore, they know that regime change will mean the end of their power and could mean the end of their life. Therefore, they extend the most significance to courses of action that will keep them in control the longest. Putin’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula is a good example.
According to Statista, in November of 2013, Putin faced the lowest approval ratings of his many years ruling Russia, with 61% approving and 37% disapproving. Then Putin successfully annexed Crimea in February 2014, and his numbers skyrocketed to an all-time high of his presidency by November 2014, with 85% approving and 15% disapproving.
Despite the possibility of bringing disaster down on Russia, professor of political science Daniel Treisman, in Forign Affairs, noted that it appears that Putin gambled correctly that such an action would bolster his approval rating domestically and keep the Russian people content with his rule.
How Democratic Nations Deal with Personalist Leaders
With all this in mind, how then should countries like the United States and its allies deal with nations like Russia, China and Turkey? The first step is to reorient our strategic thinking away from what is best for their country and instead ask what is best for Putin or Xi.
If we ask that question, it becomes clear why Putin would threaten Ukraine and why Xi would so brutally suppress millions of people. For Putin, if annexing Crimea so positively impacted his citizen’s opinion of him, imagine what reclaiming Ukraine could do. It would essentially guarantee his unchallenged rule for the rest of his life and place him among the great leaders of Russian history.
For Xi, suppressing the Uyghurs means one fewer people group that challenges his and the Chinese Communist Party’s hope for a homogenous Chinese citizenry, utterly devoted to the CCP’s vision of the future.
Therefore, the next step is to contest their narrative. Personalist leaders operate most successfully when they can obfuscate their true intentions and sow uncertainty among their opponents on the world stage.