The Huddle

The Huddle 2020 | Rise of strongmen changing conduct of foreign policy across nations, says Nirupama Rao

Former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, N. Ravi, Publisher, The Hindu Group of Newspapers, and others in conversation with Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu during the fourth edition of The Huddle 2020, in Bengaluru on February 23, 2020.

Former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, N. Ravi, Publisher, The Hindu Group of Newspapers, and others in conversation with Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu during the fourth edition of The Huddle 2020, in Bengaluru on February 23, 2020.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

The discussion looked at the specific challenges that the institutions in democratic countries faced in dealing with the rise of strongmen leaders.

The rise of strongmen leaders in democracies not only challenges their domestic institutions but is also changing the way nations conduct foreign policy, former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, said.

Speaking on Sunday at The Huddle, the annual thought conclave of The Hindu in Bengaluru, Ms. Rao said: “In foreign policy, muscularity has a certain premium today. What is happening is you are creating this ‘other’ that you somehow need to consolidate public sentiment against, and you see this happening in the foreign policy of many countries ruled today by so-called strongmen.”

The former Ambassador to the U.S. and China cited the example of American politics and the “othering” of Mexicans, for instance, by President Donald Trump, who, as a presidential candidate in June 2015, famously referred to some Mexican immigrants as “rapists”.

“What strongmen try to do is create ‘otherisation’ and create fear among the majority,” she said, noting it was creating “a whole [new] concept of how threat is being defined and how you deal with that threat”.

The session discussing the “Age of the Strongman” also included the South Asia correspondent of New York Times, Maria Abi-Habib, South Asia bureau chief of The Economist Max Rodenbeck, and Publisher of The Hindu Group of newspapers N. Ravi.

The discussion looked at the specific challenges that the institutions in democratic countries faced in dealing with the rise of strongmen leaders. Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu, who moderated the session, noted that it is a phenomenon seen in several populous democracies today including India, the U.S., Brazil and the Philippines.

That institutions even in the U.S., the world’s oldest democracy, were coming under strain despite some of the most robust checks and balances, underlined the challenge other countries faced in protecting their institutions when they come under stress, noted Ms. Rao.

Other trends that democracies with strongmen rulers were seeing included majoritarianism and pushing affirmative action for the majority which was “somehow being portrayed as being shortchanged by history”, a ‘mythification’ of history, and an accompanying vilification of a country’s past leadership, even those who played key roles in founding it, the former diplomat said.

The simultaneous rise of strongmen across the world did not have a singular explanation and was in some ways a coincidence, said Mr. Rodenbeck. “Sometimes we look too much on personalities and less on the specific conditions that made [their rise] possible, whether it was a vacuum, public anger, or technological change,” he said. The best balance, he suggested, was maintaining strong institutions.

Constitutional checks, however, work only to a limited degree, argued Mr. Ravi.

“Beyond that, you also need democratic norms to be followed, recognition of the opposition as equally legitimate, and restraint in using instruments of power. The best balance is to follow these unwritten rules and safeguards, as well as to have a diversity of States and political parties so that the writ of no one party runs across the country.”

An independent media and citizen journalists were an important check on strongmen leaders who seek to restrain opposing voices, according to Ms. Abi-Habib. “That is why one of the first things you see is [strongmen rulers] going after the media,” she said.

“Ultimately,” Ms. Rao said, “we have to create checks and balances in a democracy. Ultimately, you cannot appeal to the angels in us, because we are not angels.”

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 7:33:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/the-huddle/the-huddle-2020-rise-of-strongmen-changing-conduct-of-foreign-policy-across-nations-says-nirupama-rao/article30895926.ece

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