On Tuesday night, the President of the United States delivered a 5,330-word speech on the state of his nation and the world that was conspicuously missing the word "democracy" or any of its variants.
Plenty of other important words and ideas were missing – women were not mentioned at all – but "democracy" could only have been a calculated omission, since Donald Trump spent a big chunk of the speech talking about Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, and what he proposed the United States could bring them through force or inspiration.
What he exalted were not the messy compromises of democracy, or the difficult acts of international co-operation and negotiation that lead to peace deals, arms-reduction pacts and democratic transitions. What his speech extolled, in proposal and in example, was Strong Leadership – the direct bond between a country's people and its effective, ambitious, heroic executive.
Strongman mythology has effectively replaced democracy as the most potent and visible export of the United States – to an extent not seen since the Cold War. This isn't just because the executive branch has been seized by a reality-TV personality with nothing good to say about democratic institutions, but more importantly because there has been a quietly growing consensus, by the United States and its allies (including, often, Canada), that international relations are best served by having iron-handed leaders stay in power in vulnerable states.
The civil-war drama of Syria, which began as one of many popular uprisings against a terrible dictatorship, now appears headed toward a close in which a Russian-brokered constitution will prop up Bashar al-Assad or a chosen strongman successor; the Kurds who fought for a more complex, democratic future this week faced a brutal assault from NATO member Turkey, with little criticism from the West, and rebel Syrians are facing reprisal killings from Mr. Assad's triumphant Moscow-supported forces.
This strongman solution is the last in a sequence: We now openly support Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's one-man rule in Egypt, more brutal than its predecessors, after having done little to support, and later much to help oppose, a more democratic alternative. Across the region, from Libya to Afghanistan, Western governments and corporations are once again expressing support for the secure continuity of strongmen – as long as they do business with us.
This is by no means just a problem of faraway lands, though. The strongman myth has become popular among too many voters in established democracies. This week, the polling firm Innovative Research Group asked Ontario voters their opinion about this statement: "What this country needs is strong, determined leaders who will destroy the negative forces that have taken us from our true path and silence the trouble makers spreading bad ideas."
This chilling proposition received majority support – "strong agreement" from 23 per cent of Ontarians while 29 per cent "somewhat agreed" – which is to say that even in Canadian provincial legislatures, rarely known for despotism, there is a potential path to power for a dark knight in a high tower, or at least a red-faced TV screamer who will fix it all for us.
To state something that should be obvious, "strong leadership" is not a path to successful or effective government, in any political system.
It's worth revisiting Oxford University political historian Archie Brown's comprehensive 2014 book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age. He finds, after examining hundreds of governments in both democratic and authoritarian systems, that "leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making in many different areas of policy, and who attempt to exercise such a prerogative, do a disservice both to good governance and to democracy." Whether in Soviet or Chinese command states or in British or U.S. elected governments, it was the strongman leaders who helped their countries the least.
Indeed, he found that the U.S. presidents who'd been most successful at transforming their country for the better – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson – were all people who ruled through deference, delegation and magnanimity, giving major posts and real powers to political rivals and choosing to "work within a more collective leadership" rather than through a "demonstration of political virility."
Dazzled by images of self-styled heroes, we are in danger of forgetting this lesson, first articulated 2,500 years ago by the Chinese philosopher Laozi: "A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him. … Of a good leader, when his work is done, they will say, 'We did this ourselves.'"