Last week, the International Criminal Court indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, alleging that he is responsible for the forceful removal of Ukrainian children to Russia. This means that the ICC’s 123 member states now have an obligation to arrest Putin if given the chance. It is a groundbreaking development. Although diplomatic engagement with Putin has always been difficult, he has now evolved fully into a ruthless and unbridled tyrant.
Worse, Putin’s conduct is symptomatic of a broader trend. Around the world, democracy is increasingly under siege. The latest report on “The Global State of Democracy,” issued by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, documents an alarming erosion of democratic institutions worldwide. Over half of the 173 countries investigated in 2022 registered significant assaults on democracy. From Afghanistan to Nicaragua, “almost half of all authoritarian regimes have worsened,” the authors conclude. In the Asia Pacific region, only 54 per cent of people live in a democracy, and almost 85 per cent of those live in countries where democracy is weak or sliding toward authoritarianism.
This is a worrisome trend. In a globalised world, the task of containing rising authoritarianism cannot be left to individual countries. As we can see from recent global supply-chain disruptions – with Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbating food shortages and inflation in Africa – the fallout from authoritarianism can be felt far and wide. The question, then, is what international organisations like the ICC can do about it.
So-called strongmen who are actually full of insecurities have a natural propensity to morph into tyrants. From Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, recent history features many leaders who may have come to power with good intentions, but turned worse over time, often ending up with blood on their hands.
I was alerted to this danger firsthand following a meeting with Nicaragua’s dictator, Daniel Ortega, in Managua in September 2013. Having admired his overthrow of Anastasio Somoza’s corrupt regime during my student years, I had long wanted to meet him. When given the chance, I enjoyed a long discussion about the Sandinista revolution and the challenges facing Nicaragua. Since then, however, sordid revelations about Ortega’s tyranny have emerged. I did not realise it at the time, but the man I met was no longer the man who had overthrown Somoza. He had become the very thing he had once opposed.
How did this happen? We know from political science and economics that answers to big macro questions are often embedded in micro factors, and Ortega’s case is no exception. If you are a political leader, there comes a time when you must decide whether to try to prolong your time in office. And since politics is a nasty game no matter who you are, there is always a temptation to cross an ethical line – whether by raising money from cronies with the promise of favours, using official agencies to target opponents, or other nefarious means.
The decision depends on the gap between the utility that the leader gets from remaining in office and the utility the leader gets from being out of office. The wider the gap, the greater the leader’s effort to stay in office.
As I argue in a recent paper, however, this calculation involves a serious, but common, mistake, which behavioural economists often refer to as “dynamic inconsistency.” The problem lies in omitting a longer-term perspective. The more political leaders indulge in intrigue and evil to remain in office, the worse their exit option becomes. Prolonged abuse and intrigue increase the likelihood of law-enforcement investigations of the leader’s behaviour (or violent retribution from political opponents) when the leader is out of office. That brings us back to the ICC’s arrest warrant. Putin tested the limits of international justice for many years, and now there is an official effort to hold him to account. For that reason, he will now be even more desperate to hold on to power.
In today’s interconnected world, such behaviour has global fallout and thus needs to be addressed by the United Nations and organisations like the ICC. Determining precisely what to do will require much deliberation, but the need to expand the scope of international law – or even enshrine it in a global constitution – is obvious, as is the need for a UN that can uphold minimal principles. While there is much to discuss in the future, one immediate imperative is term limits. Whether to institute them should no longer be considered a question to be decided by the country concerned. Given the global dynamics of unchecked power within any given country, we all have an interest in using international law to change the incentives that lead politicians down the road to authoritarianism. There is significant variation in term limits. It is time now to create a uniform standard with which to hold countries accountable.
The writer, a former Chief Economist of the World Bank and Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University. ©Project Syndicate
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