The Myth of Authoritarian Competence

What trouble in Turkey reveals about the perils of strongman rule

An Erdoğan supporter carries a poster with his face in front of a Turkish flag.
An Erdoğan supporter carries a poster with his face in front of a Turkish flag. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)

For nearly six months, one of the world’s top economies has been gripped by crisis, sparking fears of wider financial contagion. Since the spring, the Turkish currency has cratered while inflation has soared, rattling other emerging markets from Argentina to Indonesia. Yet the most important warning to draw from Turkey’s recent convulsions is less economic than political: namely, the danger of betting on strongman rule.

In truth, worries about Turkey melting down the global economy are misplaced. Unlike during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, when the collapse of the Thai currency unleashed regional upheaval, Turkey’s problems are less an indicator of systemic weakness across developing economies than the outgrowth of factors that are specific to Ankara. These include a politicized monetary policy, the highest current account deficit among the G20 developing economies, the most foreign-denominated private-sector debt of any emerging market, and a gratuitous fight with Washington that has escalated into sanctions.

Yet while the risk of financial spillover from Turkey has generated a storm of headlines, it is the proliferation of the political model at the root of Ankara’s troubles that is the bigger danger. In fact, in its governance, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been at the leading edge of a global trend. Just as a wave of democratization swept the planet beginning in the mid-1970s—overturning dictatorships from Portugal to South Korea and, eventually, the Soviet empire—the past 15 years have witnessed a rising tide of strongman regimes worldwide.

In each of these countries, government power has become highly personalized—overwhelmingly concentrated around a single, larger-than-life ruler who attempts to assert direct control across almost every aspect of state and society. Such leaders and their supporters tend to justify the accumulation of such sweeping authority as the only way to catapult the country forward—the path to national strength and renewal.

The turn toward strongman politics has touched almost every corner of the globe in recent years, agnostic to geography or culture. The ostensibly Islamist Erdoğan was among its pioneers, starting in the mid-2000s alongside Vladimir Putin in Russia and the now-deceased Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. But today its influence extends much further—from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines.

The rise of strongman regimes is, of course, organically linked to the well-documented erosion of democracy that has taken place globally over the past 15 years. But the impact of the strongman model is actually broader than this, not only breathing life into sham democracies like in Russia and Egypt—where elections are held but blatantly rigged—but also reshaping unabashedly authoritarian governments like in China and Saudi Arabia. Whereas a decade ago Beijing and Riyadh were both characterized by a kind of collective, institutionalized leadership, they have since moved away from this in favor of a paramount decision maker with decisive say over the country’s direction.

There are numerous factors that have contributed to the spread of strongman rule. Most fundamental, though, is the perception that the model works. Human rights and civil liberties are all well and good, the reasoning goes, but when the world is on fire, it’s necessary for someone to take charge—someone tough. Strongmen may be prone to excesses, but they have the guts to do what needs to be done—and when the alternative seems to be gridlock and stagnation, it isn’t difficult to see why these arguments get traction.

The seductive draw of this logic, moreover, is not limited to nationalists and populists. Plenty of Western pundits and investors—including some of the same disciples of globalization who rage at the likes of Donald Trump or France’s Marine Le Pen—have a track record of going weak-kneed in the presence of modernizing autocrats, especially those who show up at Davos with PowerPoint decks promising painful structural reforms, crackdowns on corruption, and lucrative infrastructure projects. It turns out the case for enlightened despotism can be persuasive for self-styled liberals, too, especially when the despotism is in someone else’s country.

Turkey under Erdoğan for many years offered a particularly compelling strongman success story. Sure, some independent media outlets began to be shuttered as early as the mid-2000s, around the same time as the first mass arrests of retired military officers on dodgy charges took place. Yet as with the mysterious murders of Kremlin critics in Russia during this period, such incidents were easy to write off as unfortunate if creepy anomalies. The more important story in both cases was understood to be that these countries finally had capable, hard-driving leaders with the power to pull them out of the doldrums to which they had so long been consigned.

Indeed, during Erdoğan’s first decade in power, Turkish growth surged, inflation fell, and per capita income multiplied. The government attracted some of the country’s best and brightest minds to its ranks, while Western investors poured in. The U.S. and other democracies embraced Erdoğan as a rising power and promising partner on the international stage.

Yet the problem with concentrating power is that the appetite tends to grow with the eating. And the more concentrated power gets, the more unaccountable it becomes. Meanwhile, personalized rule almost always subverts the very institutions that provide the real long-term foundation for sound public policy and economic dynamism: an independent, professional judiciary; a free press; and apolitical, qualified civil servants, regulators, and security services.

The result, unsurprisingly, is that while strongman regimes can be successful for a while, sometimes dazzlingly so, they usually end up reproducing the problems they were supposed to solve.

This is tragically what seems to have happened under Erdoğan, whose decision making has grown capricious and reckless in almost direct proportion to his degree of control. With the narrowing of the inner circle around the Turkish president, moreover, capable technocrats have increasingly given way to inept cronies and yes-men, while the extraordinary methods used to stamp out corruption and criminality have created irresistible opportunities for new, even more spectacular manifestations of it.

Self-correction also becomes harder in strongman regimes over time, as the information that makes its way to the top is increasingly only what the top wants to hear, creating a vicious feedback loop that reinforces mistakes rather than reverses them.

This dynamic has been particularly evident in Turkey in recent months, as Erdoğan—who has long espoused unconventional ideas about monetary policy—repeatedly thwarted the central bank from enacting the interest-rate hikes that might have quelled the financial crisis before it reached critical proportions. The bank at last succeeded two weeks ago in sharply raising rates, but doubts about its independence remain—fanned not least by Erdoğan himself, who framed the rate increase as a grudging concession that he might withdraw at any time.

Fans of strongman regimes elsewhere will argue that Turkey’s upheaval reflects the peculiar personality of Erdoğan and therefore does not implicate their own preferred leaders, who are invariably described as more restrained, thoughtful, and disciplined.

Fair enough. Individuals do matter in history. Not every strongman is necessarily doomed to fail.

But the problems bedeviling Turkey aren’t random or accidental. On the contrary, just as the tyrannical regime and basket-case economy that arose in the Soviet Union were in fact direct consequences of communist ideology—not, as die-hard apologists would claim, the fault of its flawed implementation—personalized systems of government tend to produce the same recurring pathologies on display right now in Ankara.

It has become fashionable to describe Erdoğan as a kind of neo-Ottoman sultan, much as his Russian counterpart inspires czarist comparisons. For supporters of these leaders and even for many of their opponents, such historical allusions evoke power and authenticity, the implication being that they are resurrecting their respective nation’s glorious imperial past.

It’s worth extending the analogy, however, to recall the fate that befell the Turkish and Russian empires. Indeed, personal autocracy in both the Romanov Court in Petersburg and the Sublime Porte in Constantinople was a source of debilitating weakness, not strength, especially as these regimes entered into direct competition with the West. An idiot sultan or czar—and there were quite a few of them—could paralyze systems for decades. But even the good ones never quite figured out how to reconcile the strong, modern state they sought to build with the autocratic prerogatives they were determined to preserve for themselves.

The result, then as now, was that, while top-down reform could produce bursts of hopeful progress, these efforts sooner or later choked from within—sabotaged by the personalized nature of the regime that had generated them.

At a moment in history when a growing number of countries are investing their hopes in personalities over institutions as the secret to success, the present tumult in Ankara therefore offers a timely reminder of where this kind of rule usually leads. Strongmen imagine themselves as indispensable national saviors. But more often than not, they turn out to be time bombs—blowing up in the face of those unwise enough to wager their future on them.