Even rarer than this is a book whose significance is enhanced by unpredictable events. But this is unquestionably the case with Gideon Rachman’s latest work, The Age of the Strongman, which goes some distance in explaining the bigger picture behind all this. Rachman is chief foreign policy commentator at the Financial Times. As such, not only has he studied many of the strongmen in this book, he knows most of them as well. This is one of the main reasons why the book hasn’t lost any relevance despite being finished before the Russian invasion ... provides a useful list of characteristics that strongmen share whether democratically elected or not ... To begin working out what we do about this, you could do worse than by reading this pithy and forceful book.
... a comprehensive survey, written with pace, clarity, and a superb, page-turning narrative fluency, of the gradual collapse of that fragile post-Cold War consensus into a new age of authoritarian dictatorship, mainly characterised by the historically familiar spectacle of ageing male leaders pumping up up a rhetoric of war, threat, national destiny and 'traditional values' to the point where actual armed conflict becomes difficult to avoid ... Rachman therefore takes us on an unforgettable global tour of resurgent authoritarianism ... Rachman’s book was completed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine; but his analysis is so powerful that it all but predicts Putin’s next move, made inevitable by his own retro-imperialist rhetoric.
... could not be more geopolitically relevant ... is essentially a polemic, warning that the difference between liberal democracy and authoritarianism is at risk of being eroded by the ego-driven antics of the strongman. It contains a who’s who of the modern autocrat, from Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping, Rodrigo Duterte to Jair Bolsonaro ... I began the book with a concern that lumping together such a broad spectrum of leaders was a real stretch — Britain’s current prime minister will no doubt be aggrieved to make the pick. The focus on democratic autocrats risks, ironically, making it easier for liberalism’s critics to claim the very moral equivalence between value systems that the author seeks to forestall. I have met the majority of the strongmen in this book and sparred directly or vicariously with a number of them, and so was alert to oversimplification ... My concerns were misplaced. Not only were the portraits solidly constructed, engaging and factually sound, but they built on each other as well. The result is a penetrating distillation of the essential ingredients of the strongman that effectively demonstrates a worrying commonality between wildly different personalities and circumstances. This lends weight to the author’s call for vigilance. We would be wise to heed it.
Rachman has been writing about autocratic rule for many years and his chapters sometimes read like expanded columns. But they always prompt deeper thought about how the West should be dealing with the challenge ... Perhaps Rachman should have paid more attention to these service industries. The reputation-washers and the palace architects, the libel and divorce lawyers. They’re doing more than making a fast buck, they are often helping crooked leaders to swindle their subjects ... Rachman wrote his lucid, well-argued book before Putin’s supposed blitzkrieg against Ukraine. The prospect that Putin could, if not lose, then at least be damaged by that war actually suggests an alternative, more upbeat conclusion than the one Rachman offers.
... accessible ... a series of fluent, well-informed essays about the global rise of authoritarian, nationalist-populist leaders and its corrosive impact on the liberal democratic tradition ... It will be frustrating for some that the book contains no analysis of the impact of the invasion that began on 24 February ... today’s age of the strongman feels all too terrifyingly real.
... timely and somewhat bleak ... Rachman has been well placed to observe their rise and has often interviewed them or their close associates. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling quote combined with a sharp analysis of the factors that enabled them to achieve power and hold on to it.
... these books’ personality-driven approach makes it difficult to examine the structures that elevated such leaders in the first place—including a sometimes naïve, sometimes willfully blind Western press. Do such leaders really have as much in common as these authors tend to suggest? And do their personalities tell us more than the political systems, economic structures, and distinct histories of their countries? Rachman’s book, with its clubby breakfasts and high-altitude interviews, is a particularly concentrated application of this method, and particularly revealing of its limitations ... Nothing in this account is controversial, but it’s not particularly illuminating either ... The book’s insider approach is wanting even on its own terms. Despite Rachman’s direct access to some of the most powerful people in the world, he garners few genuine insights from his encounters with them—only a handful of colorful anecdotes ... When it comes to sources, moving almost exclusively among elites has its limits ... Since Rachman has written about, and in many cases met, the leaders in this book, he could have examined his own analytical errors more closely, alongside those of his peers. The potential of that far more interesting book, focusing on media discourse about this century’s autocrats rather than the men themselves, haunts this one. When Rachman does reference his past work, his reflections are slight ... Absent real guiding questions or answers, this book ends in a hopeless place.
Though Rachman de-emphasizes the differences between authoritarian leaders and doesn’t fully reckon with why their criticisms of Western liberalism and globalism have struck a chord, the scope of his reporting impresses. This astute survey offers valuable perspective on a worrisome global trend.