Strongmen are destroying modern democracy from the inside out. Whether it be  Donald Trump in the United States, Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia or the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, every inhabitable continent but Australia has an iron-fisted “strongman” in power. One can observe the phenomenon sweeping international politics: Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Malta, the Philippines, and innumerable others. It is the year of the strongman, a year that holds none of the auspices of its Chinese counterparts. However, the year of the pig starts with the death sentence for a Canadian citizen held in China on charges of drug trafficking. Two Canadian businessmen are also being detained, but for reasons unpublicized. Ever since the arrest of Huawei’s corporate financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada, recent Chinese actions against Canadian citizens have been construed as suspicious. Robert Lloyd Schellenberg has been charged with smuggling methamphetamines to China. He is alleged to have orchestrated a trade of well over one kilo of illegal substances; in China, one kilo warrants the death penalty. However, it is not the legitimacy of the charge that should be put under scrutiny, but rather the timing. 

Chinese officials were quick to put Mr. Schellenberg to retrial, raising questions among Canadian officials and the international community alike. “In Mr. Schellenberg’s first trial, the court took over two and [a] half years to announce a 15-year prison sentence, but this time the court took less than a day to try, convict and sentence him to death,” says a related article in The New York Times from January of this year. There is compelling evidence to this degree, but it is difficult to say definitively whether or not the recent arrests show China to be using individuals as bargaining chips. Be that as it may, when looking at the political context of the actions, it becomes apparent that this is exactly the goal. World leaders are stymied by maverick or even illegal political actions because they play to the status quo or shroud themselves in enough ambiguity to dodge any warranted countermeasures. When dealing with authoritarian regimes, economic policy is very difficult to implement, as in the case of North Korea. On the inefficacy of sanctions, World Policy states that “[North Korea] will hardly abandon such a vital program [nuclear weapons], now so close to fruition, because of minor inconveniences in trade, which it does not value anyhow.” 

Any economic consequences we may back as U.S. citizens on reprehensible foreign actions are significantly hampered when the U.S. is dependent on the associated countries. Here, China presents one imbroglio. One may also observe second and third problematic scenarios in the killing of journalists Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. Evidence concerning the car bomb that killed a strong critic of Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is too diffuse to link to the administration. Even though her work has raised alarm in the EU about serious systematic corruption, members of parliament remain unable to oust Muscat. Even in a case with ample incriminating evidence such as that of Jamal Khashoggi, Donald Trump refuses to act against Saudi Arabia, which could easily send the U.S. into another oil crisis akin to the one in 1973. Knowingly or not, he buys into a growing culture.

The concept of the strongman is creating a culture in which agreements are becoming obsolete. In keeping with the times, these individuals have taken informal hostages in an ultimatum aimed at getting their way. This manifests in the individuals taken prisoner in China, in the gun to the head of U.S.-Saudi agreements, and lastly, in Trump’s government shutdown. I cannot inform the reader of anything new or surprising regarding the month-long hostage crisis involving a man, his wall and 420,000 federal workers. However, in this world of aspiring dictators, it is important to look ahead at 2020 and the election while considering the past carefully. One sees the strongman in FDR and Lincoln and waits with bated breath for a Democrat who might flush the toxic political environment from Washington and scrub the globe from the aforementioned men in power; the wish for Biden or Warren or any others to put American democracy and international relations on their shoulders is hopeful and noble. It is a given that America needs strong congresswomen and men. Nevertheless, the goal of 2020 is not to install a president to save America. The country is looking at 435 seats in the house, 34 seats in the senate and 13 governorships. But most of all, the local elections stand for contest. In this, vote for people who will play checkers, not chess — voting for those who will not use individuals as pawns — for people who will shake hands and stick it out. My new year’s resolutions include researching candidates, detaching from ravenous partisanship and mixing up my news intake, and it is never too late to start.