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The Great Populists

WARSAW – The first challenge to the Western hegemony that followed the collapse of Communism in Europe was the emergence of the so-called BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – in the 2000s. Rapidly growing and collectively accounting for nearly half of the world’s population, the rise of the BRICS seemed set to tip the balance of power away from the United States and Western Europe.

Today, the BRICS look like less of a geopolitical threat to the West. Russia, Brazil, and South Africa are in severe economic straits, and China is wobbling. Only India maintains its luster. And yet the West is coming under pressure again, including in its own backyard. This time, the challenge is political, not economic: the rise of politicians who relish conflict and disdain national and international law and democratic norms.

I call such leaders “PEKOs,” after the four most prominent examples of their kind: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan, the Polish politician Jarosław Kaczyński, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

PEKOs do not view politics as the management of collective emotions in order to achieve broad policy goals: faster economic growth, a more equitable distribution of income, or greater national security, power, and prestige. Instead, they regard politics as an endless series of intrigues and purges aimed at preserving personal power and privilege.