Lies, Liars, and Lawlessness

The age of Erdoğan, Trump, and Putin, with its representatives’ contempt for rules and norms, is generating serious challenges to global peace and prosperity with alarming frequency. Is there a way forward that doesn’t lead backward?


When it comes to contempt for democracy, the rule of law, and simple fidelity to truth in public life, examples have crowded in from around the world in recent weeks: a failed coup in Turkey; China’s rejection of an international tribunal’s decision invalidating its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea; the Chilcot Inquiry’s report on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War; Donald Trump’s formal nomination as the Republican Party’s US presidential candidate; and the terrorist massacre in Nice.

It is as though a generation’s worth of latent symptoms – the erosion of Turkish democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, China’s flouting of international law, Western leaders’ dishonesty in the run-up to the Iraq War, the US Republican Party’s flirtation with white supremacy; the rise of homegrown terrorists – manifested simultaneously. As a result, what were regarded until relatively recently as discrete events in specific contexts are increasingly viewed in the light of broader regional or global trends. This change in perspective may provide at least a glimmer of hope, for it is only by discerning these trends –and understanding what’s driving them – that we can begin to devise ways to counter them.

The Coup That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Long before the Turkish putschists hatched their plot, Erdoğan’s government had undermined the rule of law – arresting thousands of journalists, staging rigged trials of senior military officers, and even restarting a civil war with minority Kurds for partisan gain. As Erdoğan pursued his ultimate goal of strengthening the presidency, his administration began to interpret the law as merely the expression of the president’s will.

Of course, the putschists turned out to be the worst coup makers the world has seen since the bungled plot against Mikhail Gorbachev 25 years ago next month. And the plotters failed for many of the same reasons. The coup’s participants, says Harvard’s Dani Rodrik, “managed to capture the chief of the general staff” but failed “to detain Erdoğan or any senior politicians.” Moreover, “television channels were allowed to continue to operate for hours, and when soldiers showed up in the studios, their incompetence was almost comical.”