Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin could be the very kind of tyrants that Lincoln warned us about.
In 1838, the 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln gave his first famous speech, an “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum.” Lincoln’s topic was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” and his remarks refer to the growing struggle over slavery and the forces undermining both American unity and our institutions of justice.
Lincoln also raises a special threat that he believes even the American constitutional order cannot eliminate. He describes a class of individuals who belong to “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” These unusual individuals — Lincoln names Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon — have rare ability and supreme ambition. They are not like us. Their inner life, their soul, according to Lincoln, “thirsts and burns for distinction, and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” Their highest ambition lies in the destruction of the existing order to reform it around themselves.
Of course, it is natural in hindsight to wonder whether Lincoln is describing himself in his reference to “emancipating slaves.” However, he presents such individuals as dangerous — a threat that is particularly difficult for those who believe “all men are created equal” to see and accept. Lincoln seems to draw upon the understanding of a less democratic time when it was easier to speak of the threat of great tyrants.
By and large, we do not believe that there are individuals with great ruling talent who “thirst and burn” to shatter the existing order for the sake of dominating others — individuals who have desires that make them a fundamentally different type of human being: animals of prey, a profoundly different human type from the rest of us. Is all this a product of a young man’s overheated imagination, or was Lincoln’s warning grounded in a timeless truth? Is it a truth alive today?
Indeed, Lincoln’s warning here should not apply only to this country. The world has faced such a threat several times in the past 100 years but misunderstood it, underestimated it, and let it grow horribly out of control. We need only think of Stalin, Mao, and, of course, Hitler. Can we learn from this terrible history?
Specifically, are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping just such individuals? They sit atop oligarchies. However, they now largely control the levers of power and use that power in a brutal and unified manner. Most of all, in word and deed, they seek to shatter the existing order and bring the world around them under their domination. In that pursuit, they have shown no reservations about ruthlessly executing and unjustly imprisoning their opponents, especially their own citizens, in vast numbers. They steal wealth on a historic scale and use it to bind together an oligarchy around them. Indeed, they expressly seek to violate international norms of law and warfare, as established by our principles of human equality. They have no qualms about murdering civilians and launching genocide. In their ambition, they are the heirs to history’s most deadly tyrant-revolutionaries, looking beyond the examples of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon to Stalin and Mao.
Both Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have grown wealthier and more secure under the existing order. They face no external threat of invasion. Yet both men break international agreements in acts of aggression. They are not forced to do awful things by circumstances or by America and its allies. Their aggression is not caused by NATO enlargement or Taiwanese autonomy. What if they want to do awful things to display power by shattering the limits that others hoped were real? What if they are like Lincoln’s ambitious predators and cannot be appeased?
What does such a threat mean for our national-security policy? In 1838, Lincoln was right that some “transatlantic military giant” could never invade the U.S., but today, such a power could threaten America and the world that America has made. Perhaps we should begin by calling these ruthless tyrants what they are and understanding that they may be the most critical element of the threat. This should lead to developing a response that mobilizes and focuses the political, diplomatic, economic, financial, and other powers of America on these individuals.
Certainly, hard-power attacks and the threat of such attacks require an effective hard-power response — the ability to deter, and to fight and win if deterrence fails.
But little national-security analysis focuses on deterring an adversary’s most important power — its leader and leadership. Why not focus on the tyrant and the immediate circle around him? Isolate him and use some of the unique information and cyber power of our time to create suspicion, division, and contempt (the great acid that dissolves authority). In short, analyze the tyrant’s sources of power narrowly — money, respect, fear, key subordinates — and systematically strip them away.
None of this is a substitute for all the robust national-security capabilities needed to protect America and its allies. The question is whether those capabilities and their current limitations get at the most important cause of the most dangerous threats.
Lincoln warns us that extraordinary predators — those who seek to enslave — present only one choice: defeat them and take their power, or be dominated by them. Failing to see this stark reality — failing to overcome the blind spot of democracy — will make the ultimate cost much, much greater. Is Lincoln speaking to us today?
JOHN WALTERS is president and CEO of Hudson Institute.
Copyright@ 2022 National Review
Copyright @ 2022 Hudson Institute