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Book Review: After the Fall: The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve Made by Ben Rhode

Book Review: After the Fall: The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve Made by Ben Rhode

Reviewed by Canon Mike D Williams

Liberal democracy in retreat and authoritarianism on the rise. A familiar theme over the last few years. What is it about the world that has created the conditions for this shift? Ben Rhodes, a former security advisor to President Obama struggles to understand why the liberal legacy built by Obama was being taken apart by the Trump presidency. Rhodes looks outwards to the authoritarian regimes in Hungry, Russia, Hong Kong and China to find some concerning facts about the world that America had helped to create.

The book is in four parts. The first charts the high point of freedom, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of neoliberal economics that plunged many former soviet countries into debt. Rhodes skilfully uses the stories of those he interviews to illustrate his points. In Hungry he meets Sandor who was six when the Wall came down. Now in 2017 Sandor is part of the opposition to the increasing authoritarian regime of Victor Orban. Orban used the populist playbook of winning the election through playing on fears, then hollowing out state institutions and media, thereby eroding the checks and balances to power.

Part two focuses on the counterrevolution against the liberal order from within Russia. Rhodes connects with Alexey Navalny to hear his story of becoming involved in opposition politics as Putin rigs the system in his favour. The book covers the period in which Navalny is poisoned, and the Russian invasion of Crimea. What is clear is the anti-western culture in the Kremlin and the willingness to engage in destabilising western democracies.

Part three takes Rhodes to Hong Kong to listen to those against the imposition of new oppressive laws by China. He hears about the high levels of surveillance and internment of the Uighar people, with cameras everywhere and communications monitored. The ability of the Chinese President Xi to change the constitution in a similar way to Putin to ensure that he retains his position. As Obama used to say, “power does not give up without a fight”.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is the final part where Rhodes applies what he has learnt from his travels to the situation in America. How had America created the conditions in which populist authoritarianism could flourish at home and abroad? The rise of the radical right with the Tea Party, then Trump, the forever war against terrorism that radicalised US foreign policy, the greed of the banks that caused the 2008 financial crash, the rise of the super-rich and a shambolic response to Covid-19. Add to that the invention of social media which drives misinformation and conspiracy theories that undermine democratic elections, and you create a world in which authoritarian leaders thrive.

A fascinating insight from someone who has been at the heart of American foreign and security policy.