What should the police of a democratic country do if the security forces of a visiting despot threaten a local politician because he has publicly criticized their boss?
I can think of a few possible responses: They could expel the security forces from the country, for example. They could charge them with threatening bodily harm. Or they could, at the very least, give the politician the protection he needs to go about his day in the way he had planned.
This is the choice German police faced over the weekend, when the Munich Security Conference put up Binali Yildirim, the Turkish prime minister, in the same hotel as Cem Özdemir, a leading German politician.
Özdemir is a celebrity in Germany: The first German of Turkish descent to be elected to the Bundestag, he was the leader of the Greens until the last election and remains a regular presence on radio and television. And as a staunch defender of liberal democracy—the German Greens thankfully have little in common with their sorry American counterparts—he has unambiguously criticized autocratic regimes from Russia to, yes, Turkey.
Evidently, the Turkish security forces know him as well. When they spotted him checking in, they complained about the presence of a “terrorist” so vehemently that the German police concluded he might be in danger and promptly put Özdemir under protection.
The assessment of the underlying threat seems reasonable: If Turkish security forces were willing to beat up peaceful protestors in downtown Washington last year, they might just be willing to beat up a leading German politician in his own country this year. And yet, the resulting situation was totally absurd. As Özdemir—who has long needed protection at public events because of his public recognition of the Armenian genocide—put it, “that I should need security at a security conference is a novelty even for me.”
But what is even more absurd is that, instead of putting the visiting thugs in their place, German authorities restricted Özdemir’s freedom of movement: When he wished to have breakfast in his hotel, the police insisted that he skip the meal to avoid provoking the Turkish security guards. In other words, the henchmen of a foreign dictatorship now got to determine what a leading German politician could or couldn’t do in his own country.
In the immediate sense, none of this seems especially significant. Özdemir was not beaten up by the security guards. His inability to have breakfast at his hotel is hardly the greatest injustice known to man. But when we look not at what damage was done in the moment, but rather at what the melodrama of the missed breakfast shows about larger political developments, it starts to take on a much greater significance—for it is only the latest in a series of incidents that showcase the ease with which both individuals and countries are selling out their democratic principles to extremist and autocratic leaders.
Examples range from small to big and from thoughtless to deliberate.
There is the fact that the deputies of Fidesz, the party of the increasingly autocratic leader of Hungary, still remain a part of the mainstream European People’s Party in the European Parliament. There is the fact that Germany is pushing ahead with Nord Stream 2, an oil pipeline that would allow Russia to deliver gas directly to Western Europe, making it much easier for Putin to apply military pressure on Ukraine. And there is the fact that, in return for assurance that they will do what they can to stop refugees from setting out across the Mediterranean Sea, European nations are propping up dictatorships in Turkey, Libya, and beyond.
Nor is the bad behavior limited to national governments. When I was in New York City for a big international conference a few months ago, I stared in horror as the assembled crowd of politicians and businessmen politely applauded Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, when he called the journalists he has jailed for criticizing his regime by the same moniker that his security guards later applied to Özdemir: “terrorists.” And at the Munich Security Conference itself, the audience was mostly impassive as Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, dismissed a critical question about his country’s recent restrictions on talking about ways in which Poles had been complicit in the Holocaust by saying that there had been Jewish as well as Polish perpetrators.
There is something to be said for being civil in the face of deep disagreement. The nature of international politics requires some amount of cooperation even with despotic regimes. If we are to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or deal with climate change, to weaken jihadi terrorism, or broker an end to the world’s bloodiest wars, we will at times need to be able to sit across the table from people whose values—and behavior—we find abhorrent. When an important cause demands it, there is no shame in shaking a dictator’s hand.
But while it would be foolish for top politicians to denounce members of the illiberal international each time they encounter them, there is a clear line between negotiating with an adversary in a distantly respectful manner and treating him like a friend. Though we must at times engage with people like Yildirim, that is, we should never go so far as to hide or to subvert our own principles. And if that means anything, it must, at the very least, require us to make it absolutely clear that we will not accept any limitations on the freedom of speech or movement of democratic politicians, especially in their own countries.
In the United States, Donald Trump has focused the mind on what is lost when our political leaders seem to have a preference for autocrats over democratically elected allies. For good reason, the extent of his complicity with the Russian regime has been headline news nearly every day for the past year: A president who at best admires a dictator for his repressive tendencies and at worst is actually in his pocket—or at his mercy—is clearly a present threat to the survival of democratic institutions.
But the cartoonish nature of Trump’s penchant for authoritarianism also conceals a much broader threat. For as the recent behavior of perfectly moderate European leaders and institutions shows, our freedoms aren’t just imperilled when politicians openly side with the enemies of democracy; they can also be lost when we are willing to sell out our principles to make a quick buck, to keep immigrants off our shores—or to avoid an embarrassing scene.