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During the Cold War era, it was useful to distinguish between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The issue arose in ritual dualistic fashion, with debates on which form was the greater threat to U.S. security. In that debate, the “right” tended to support authoritarian regimes for their opposition to the Marxist-Leninism of the USSR and China, while the “left” mocked fear of Communism and opposed U.S. resistance to “wars of national liberation” with strong Communist influence (Cuba, Vietnam). (The quotation marks around “left” and “right” are necessary because there is far more conflict within both the left and the right than is recognized in the public debate.)
In that debate, authoritarian regimes featured dictators who used repression only to stay in power, while totalitarian regimes had much more ambitious agendas: to pursue quasi-religious, “totalist” visions, following totalist myths. Over a long period both Democratic and Republican administrations have tended to favor authoritarian regimes, whose limited, inward-looking projects rarely aim at exporting their visions, destabilizing other states. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, are almost always driven by evangelistic passion to export their visions (Marxist-Leninists during the Cold War and fundamentalist Islam in today’s, destabilized Arab and Muslim world).
The right myth is “exclusive” and looks inward to core values (the Aryan Man in Nazi Germany), while the left myth is “inclusive” and looks outward (the world proletariat). The quotation marks are necessary because both are myths, excluding (often by eradicating) everyone who fails to buy into the vision. Both lead into realms of brutality and repression, controlling even elements of private life. Such ambitions are unthinkable for mere dictators, trying to stay in power.
The debate is back. The terms of debate and the false dualism are the same—with no real vision of what U.S. policy should be. The choice is false and leads nowhere because both positions reflect failed efforts to unify tribal societies. These will remain the principal, public alternatives—seeking to unify from the top-down—until serious efforts are made, partnering with civil society organizations (CSOs), to combine reform at the top with sustained efforts to bring people together organically from the ground-up.
This perspective holds that the impulse to unification, creating strong nation-states, creates the powerful attraction of centralization in either form. This impulse holds greater appeal for middle class elements in a society than it does for more traditional sectors—a fact that explains much of the reason why all of the hijackers on 9/11 came from relatively privileged sectors of society.
The challenge presented by these competing forms of centralization may have become clearer in the wake of the Arab Spring, especially in comparing events in Egypt and Libya. U.S. policymakers should have been working in both countries and across the region for at least two decades to avoid the unhappy choices that now face us. The challenge then, two decades ago, and now—like the challenge during Cold War days—is how to promote social and political development that is essential for the transition of these societies to modern economic and political systems. Unfortunately, almost no social and political development has occurred—in substantial part because Western aid agencies do not know how to promote it. This explains the widespread judgment that most of the $19 billion the U.S. has invested in nation-building in Afghanistan has been wasted.