When you meet with the president of an important Arab country, even if you share a long and deep friendship, you expect the meeting to be short. Yet ours lasted for hours as we discussed everything from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the influence of an 18th-century German philosopher on today’s global politics.
Our conversation began, as so many do these days, with who will win the war in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, want to restore the glories of the once vast Soviet Union (and perhaps the even more vast territory of tsarist Russia) into a global power that rivals the United States, in power, wealth, and size.
There is no question, we agreed, that Putin’s invasion will reshape the world order. If Russia loses, it will become bipolar (China versus the United States). If Russia wins, it will be multipolar (China and Russia versus the United States).
Should Putin lose, history will hold him responsible for the collapse of Russia’s global power and perhaps even its disintegration, since many of the territories that comprise modern-day Russia desire independence and autonomy. The only thing that has stood in their way has been a strong and resolute central leadership in Moscow.
This was the direct topic of our conversation. Indirectly, however, the conversation revolved around deeper philosophical issues.
Is it reasonable for a leader to have absolute power? Who shapes the course of modern history: the charismatic leader with absolute power or the institutional states with collective goals?
Understandably, the president chose the charismatic leader over the institution. The character traits of a charismatic leader, he argued, enable him to influence and alter the course of history. The more a ruler displays the spirit of heroic leadership in himself and wields it to influence those around him, he continued, the more easily he is able to achieve victory and maintain it.
When I said his point of view is worth documenting and writing about it, he replied that he did not mind on condition that his name not be mentioned. Then he jokingly commented, “If you intend to write something, let our conversation take its independent intellectual aspect away from any political position.”
I realized from the ease of our conversation that the time available for us to talk would be considerable, so I chose to ask a complicated question and follow it up with what I thought was the correct answer: How did the United States and its Western allies defeat a powerful Soviet Union capable of dominating the world with the threat of its 35,000 nuclear weapons poised to fire across an Eurasian landmass so vast it encompassed 11 time zones?
I answered that the Soviet Union was not a true union of institutions or states but rather the totalitarian state of the tyrant, which is how Soviet dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s described the USSR. Indeed, its foundations were laid by a tyrant, Joseph Stalin, who, despite his strength and charisma, left behind a weak state that eventually collapsed when directly challenged in an international game of chess with President Ronald Reagan and Western institutional-led nations.
The Arab president then defended his position on the role of the charismatic leader in shaping history.
“Maybe,” he argued, “I should note that I do not attribute absolute power to the charismatic leader. Relativism cannot be removed from his ability since his actions will remain dependent on attempt and failure. Therefore, some strong leaders, but not all of them, succeed.
“And because there is no heroism without confronting a brute force and a clear enemy,” he continued, “the context of our talk about heroism in the field of politics today dictates confrontation with America as the dominant power in the world and the main cause of its problems and crises. Its long history of plotting against peoples and their leaders cannot be ignored.”
My friend admires the Russian president’s strong will and personality, as do I. But according to him, Putin’s war against the West falls “under the legitimacy of self-defense. I do not mean himself as an individual but as a leader of a country that does not wish to submit obligations of obedience to Washington and its allies.”
I noted that if Russia loses the war or leaves the battlefield empty-handed, Putin will not be regarded as a hero but just an adventurer who sacrificed his country and people on the altar of his own ego and ambitions.
The president strongly denounced this assumption of defeat. Western sanctions, he pointed out, are the easiest burden Russia will face, as the alignment of China and India on its side will render even the most severe sanctions a “paper tiger.” In fact, he added, the East stands on the cusp of ridding the world of the dollar’s stranglehold on the international economy.
The president was confident that this “eastern camp,” as he described it, will be victorious and that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s prediction of a multipolar world split between China and Russia versus America and the West was inevitable.
The president argued that the most violent armed conflicts of the past quarter-century took place in the Asian continent (more specifically, the Middle East) and Eastern Europe. Westerners, I noted, blame this on the region’s political systems, which are mostly authoritarian dictatorships or repressive governments or unstable in their institutional structure.
I had enough time to explain that the position of democratic peace harkens back to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who envisioned the creation of a region of peace between states formed as republics, without distinguishing whether they were democratic or non-democratic.
Major Western powers have adopted Kant’s theory. For example, President Woodrow Wilson, seeking a U.S. declaration of war against Germany, famously told Congress that America needed to enter World War I to make the world “safe for democracy.”
To this day, Western countries regard the defense of democracy as a law governing international relations between their so-called stable and democratic Western world and what they call a turbulent and dictatorial eastern world.
Even if we in the East accept that democracy leads to peace and peace leads to democracy, the West has robbed us of any opportunity to reach democracy on our own by imposing their models of it, sometimes through force, and thus depriving us of both democracy and peace.
I excluded ignorance as a reason for this because I suspect that many conflicts are carefully planned in the dark rooms of democracy for multiple reasons and goals, some declared and others hidden, but all involving ambitions to control valuable natural resources and expand the West’s power and influence.
Until we got to this point of the conversation, the president had been listening attentively and with enthusiasm. He agreed that certain events had taken place with advanced Western planning and management. And he agreed that the West adopts a policy of weakening others and then managing their ensuing struggles to ensure its own self-interests, even if it sometimes leads to losses incurred by their allies, which may prove true in the case of Ukraine.
We also agreed that the West was not at all surprised by Putin’s invasion. In fact, it pushed Putin to invade through provocative and escalatory statements about Ukraine and other Russian-bordering countries joining NATO. According to the United States and Europe, Vladimir Putin was a reckless, overly proud and fearless leader who would settle for nothing less than restoring Russia’s influence and power to its former glory.
Fully aware of Putin’s ambitions and Russia’s nuclear capabilities, Western powers adopted a long-term policy. They turned a blind eye to his policies as he invaded, attacked, and annexed neighboring countries. In doing so, they encouraged his arrogance until Putin moved forward into the trap they had set for him: defeat by Ukrainian military forces trained by U.S. Special Operations Forces and equipped with Western weaponry far superior than they had in 2014 when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula without a fight.
The same Western playbook had been applied to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was allowed to imagine that he could wage battles that would make him the foremost hero among Arab leaders. It ended in 2003 with the fall of the Iraqi state, which didn’t fully recover for almost two decades.
History, I argued, is repeating itself today with Putin.
In sum, the West’s lack of the charismatic leader model of governance is the most important feature that allows the plans of America and Europe to become a reality. The secret of their victory lies in the continuity of these plans, primarily from institutionalization.
For instance, the president dismissively called President Joe Biden “an old sleepy president.” I argued that it is not important for presidents of democratic countries to be viewed as viral and vital; their only role is to protect and strengthen their nations’ institutions. A change of leaders in democracies does not change their national interests, which are carefully implemented through integrated institutional instruments: political, economic, intellectual, scientific, cultural, and technological—with hard and soft powers exercised directly or by proxy.
The power of long-term planning and vision, knowledge, science, and the democracy of institutions—not the lone autocrat’s assumptions, illusions, and dreams or the authoritarian factional and sectarian systems—will prevail in the 21st century. And they will declare their coordinated achievements a victory for democracy over dictatorship, progress over backwardness, and freedom over tyranny.
While still an authoritarian state, China, for example, only became a global economic force once it started thinking outside the box and supported research, scientific advancement, and a system of strong institutions.
Exasperated, the president exclaimed, “I do not understand your position! You agree with me on the details, but we differ in the results. You accuse the West of having won only through plans and conspiracies. Are you with the West or hostile to it?”
I hold no enmity toward the West, I replied. I have always admired its civilization, progress, modernity, and liberalism. I do not want my criticism to suggest that I prefer dictatorial regimes over democracy, which, I added, may not be the most effective form of government in the East. I simply evaluate a system of government by how well it protects the security of the state and achieves the best interests of its citizens.
Therefore, I believe in a large margin of relativity and contrast between a group of dissimilar systems of government, but they are all valid. I also believe that some forms of government are no longer appropriate today, though they once were. The philosophy of governance and authority is neither an abstract mathematical equation nor a fixed scientific law, but a vital idea linked to the viability of a government that is created, develops, strengthens, weakens, and either flourishes or dies.
What I am presenting here is not only a theoretical opinion, but it is also my practical choice in my relationship with the political issue. For example, despite everything I said regarding the opposition between the institution and the heroic individual, I have a completely different opinion of our Arab reality that is outside the administration of the independent institution or the absolute rule of the individual.
I believe that we Arabs have developed, with the advent of Islam and throughout our history, a system of government that combines leadership and individual responsibility with public institutions that are linked to the Islamic principles of Shura that include conflict resolution through consultation, the twin freedoms of opinion and expression, and the right to disagree.
This system of government is best understood according to what I think is based on the link between the political and the devotional (as opposed to the link between the political and the religious) by making obedience to the ruler secondary to obedience to God and His Messenger. It is these political-devotional considerations that formulated an Arab-Islamic system of government that was capable of development in many stages while also afflicted with delay at other times.
What is always required is the modernization of this system, the development of its institutions, the consolidation of its legal rulings and the encouragement of diligence in them, thus ensuring that it does not drift towards individual authoritarianism or towards loss of responsibility. History usually does not show mercy to those who do not modernize their regimes and methods of managing public affairs during every wave of social modernization or political contemporaneity.
At the end of this heated conversation, my visibly agitated friend asked me, “Who is victorious in your opinion? The states of democracies, liberties, and pluralities? Or the states ruled by leaders who hold all the levers of power?”
I argued once again that the institutions of advanced societies are ultimately more powerful in contemporary politics than any charismatic leader or tyrannical ruler. I do not deny that Arab countries have been persecuted for centuries, first by the Ottoman empire and then by British and French institutions. Yet with all the heroic and charismatic leaders our region has produced, we cannot blame foreign governments for our own mistakes.
We were, at that time, just fragile entities that chose to rely on a weak approach that held leaders above institutions. We continued for decades with that same approach, assuming, like Putin, that what worked in the days of conquering leaders would remain valid forever. And we did not pay attention to the renewed world around us nor to the new sources of strength based on freedom, science, philosophical advancement, and technology.
As for the West, the assured continuity of its institutions is the strongest indicator of successful governance; presidents and rulers are discarded rather than established institutions. Due to this, I argued, Western nations have been able to develop and thrive despite harsh difficulties and sharp internal disagreements.
In contrast, despite their natural wealth and rich culture, most of the countries in our region remain relatively fragile in their sovereignty. We blame the West as the villain who ruined our region and made us weaker. And, out of a centuries-old habit, we cry out in desperation for a charismatic leader to save us.
Caught up in passionate speech, I rhetorically asked the president, “Save us from what?”
“From ourselves!” I declared.
Perhaps because I had said too much that this president did not want to hear, our meeting came to a swift close with little of the warm hospitality with which it had begun.