Lately I've spent a lot of time attacking the idea that the world is divided between two forces best described as "freedom" and "tyranny," as well as the corollary notion that international relations are a zero-sum contest between these forces, with "free" nations obliged to support each other while "unfree" nations naturally gang together on their unoffending opposite numbers. Probably the easiest part of this proposition to refute is the idea that "unfree" or "authoritarian" countries naturally band together out of the mutual self-interest of their rulers. Russia's support for Syria during that country's civil war is often taken as proof of the solidarity of tyrants, as if Putin has no reason to support Assad other than that Assad is a dictator. A closer look at Syria's part of the world complicates things.
One of Syria's neighbors is Turkey, where some would have you believe that Prime Minister Erdogan is taking the country down the authoritarian path. His move to suppress Twitter in Turkey, citing its refusal to take down links to wiretap recordings allegedly implicating Erdogan in corruption, is seen by the opposition in Turkey and many observers outside as proof of the premier's tyrannical tendency. Since Erdogan plays to his base by boasting of his defiance of the west, theorists of a bipolar world might assume that he would support Assad against the Syrian rebels -- so long as the rebels are seen as proper freedom-fighters. But over the weekend the Turks shot down a Syrian plane, and after the opposition criticized the provocative action Erdogan accused them of supporting Assad. Erdogan actually has been quite critical of Assad down the line. In addition, he remains very critical of the interim government in Egypt following the coup d'etat against Mohammed Morsi. On the campaign trail, Erdogan has scoffed at opposition and foreign descriptions of himself as a dictator, pointing at both Egypt and Syria to show what dictatorship, to him at least, actually looks like. Morsi himself was toppled after mobs formed in Cairo to denounce the elected leader's alleged authoritarian tendencies, but while in power he was one of Assad's most strident critics. Now his successors are being criticized as authoritarians for their heavyhanded measures against Morsi's organization, including the mass death-sentences announced this week, while their supporters reject the label, claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood represents the true authoritarian threat in Egypt.
A sweeping generalization, of course, would label all these players as authoritarians, but what would that prove? It definitely would disprove any notion of a natural affinity among authoritarians. Egypt, Syria and Turkey, not to mention their respective leaders, have plenty of reasons not to get along with each other, though religious sectarianism isn't really a good one. While all three governments might be described as authoritarian to different extents -- Syria the most, Turkey the least -- "authoritarian" should always be understood as an external label. The myth of monolithic authoritarianism is that all governments so described actively espouse an authoritarian ideology that itself automatically puts them at odds with non-authoritarian nations. Instead, an assumption that authoritarians are more likely natural rivals than natural friends, and still more likely so the nearer they are to each other, should inspire diplomats to pursue their countries' (legitimate) interests by playing authoritarians against each other, unless some country refuses dogmatically to deal with any authoritarian entity. To take the authoritarian label too seriously, to the point of limiting your own options, is to sacrifice pragmatism to fanaticism. We may be talking about self-styled liberal democrats here, but it looks a little like the difference between authoritarians and totalitarians to me.