The rise of weak authoritarian powers

Except for the United States, there are few strong democratic powers.

AUTHORITARIANISM IS back in the home of St. Basil’s Cathedral. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AUTHORITARIANISM IS back in the home of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 For hundreds of years, great powers often dominated key regions of the world.
The Roman Empire endured for more than 600 years. We think more recently of Spain and Portugal dominating most of South America, the Caribbean and the American Southwest for over 300 years, until the early 19th century. We remember the British Empire which for centuries until the middle of the 20th century controlled as much as a stunning 12 million square miles. We think of France, a great power for centuries, until losses to Germany in 1871 and 1940 left it a mid-level power.
Yet now, except for the United States, there are few strong democratic powers. We see ever-authoritarian Russia, after losing the Cold War, now a mere shadow of its former self. It once controlled 400 million people (including 100 million Eastern Europeans), but now has shrunk to 143 million. Its efforts since 2008 to expand its empire have taken only snippets of Georgia, Ukraine and the small Crimea.
China has barely expanded but claims 700,000 square miles of the Russian Far East and much of the South China Sea. Iran has expanded through surrogates in the Middle East. Turkey has grown not at all and is fighting not to lose territory to the Kurds.
All, save for Turkey, have worked hard on nuclear weapons projects. China, which exploded its first nuclear weapon in the early 1960s, is expanding its nuclear capabilities. Russia retains 4,300 nuclear weapons.
Iran has worked on nuclear weapons since the mid-1980s.
Turkey has American nuclear weapons on its territory as a part of being in NATO.
Yet the rising authoritarian powers have major weaknesses.
The United States has nearly $60,000 GDP per capita and the former European great powers have GDP per capita ranging from $40,000 (France and Great Britain) to $44,000 (Germany).
By contrast, the rising authoritarian powers have poor GDP per capita. Russia is at $10,600 and China even weaker at $8,600. Turkey is at a comparable $10,500, while Iran is at a mere $5,300, or 91st in the world.
Russia’s GDP is a mere 1.3 trillion dollars compared to 19 trillion dollars for the United States. The rising powers cannot even compete with the $2.4 trillion to $3.5 trillion for the three leading European countries and cannot match Italy ($1.9 trillion). Turkey has a GDP of $900b. and Iran at only $400b., barely bigger than the GDP of Israel with a mere 10% of Iran’s population. China’s $11 trillion is based largely on its huge population of 1.4 billion people.
Fully three million to five million largely talented people have fled Iran, the highest brain drain of 91 countries according to the IMF. Russia emigration (200,000-300,000 per year) has done equally poorly with 25% of the population wanting to emigrate. China, despite its huge population, has won few Nobel Prizes. Iran – with a weak economy, excess dependency on declining water reserves, high unemployment, increasing poverty, poor infrastructure and limited education – has serious domestic problems. The majority of Russians, Iranians and Turks are under 30, with increased alienation from the harsh regimes.
Their armies are relatively small but growing. Only China, with its huge population, spends over $200b. a year followed by Russia at a modest $52b., Iran at $25b. and Turkey at $15b.
Three of the five BRICA countries – Brazil, India and South Africa – don’t even get as far as Russia and China.
With once powerful European countries in retreat and the United States looking inward rather than outward, the immediate future is bright for the leading weak authoritarian powers.
They live in a space where even North Korea can come to the fore with a GDP per capita of less than $1,000. Such is the amazing world of the early 21st century.
The author is a Professor at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver.