by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
There is a name, historically, for people like me, and if you know anything about the jargon of the Cold War, it has already occurred to you. The term is “useful idiot.” (Useful?? I’m just happy to be appreciated.) In the Soviet era, these were the Westerners who went overseas on Intourist packages and came back rhapsodizing about their night at the Bolshoi, the equality of the new Soviet man, and the Moscow subway’s chandeliers. What made these travelers idiots was their belief that they were seeing anything other than what their handlers wanted them to see, and that through that tiny window they had a vantage on the whole Soviet system. Useful idiocy survives in the accounts of the assorted weirdos who take state-sponsored tours of North Korea and Iran.
One difference between the cringy accounts of Soviet splendor and mine of contemporary Russia is that I believe these autocracies have achieved these gains not because of their tyrannical practices but in spite of them. And I find their success a source not of envy but of concern. To visit Moscow today is to be forced to contemplate whether America’s double advantage was real—and to perceive a new challenge. Would the Soviet Union have collapsed if its tyrannical system had somehow provided material well-being, and only our moral advantage remained? The experience provokes a question that the Cold War never raised but that looks increasingly like the central question of this century: What do we do if tyrants become competent? Fifty years ago, only a fanatical ideologue or an adventurer would choose to live in China or the Soviet Union. Now the choice is harder. … In Asia, the Chinese model is the more salient challenger to liberal democracy, and more and less menacing versions of it exist in Singapore (a technocratic dreamland where cost-benefit analysis has prioritized liberalism at the lowest level) and the Philippines, which is ruled by a Putinesque strongman.