Consumers and businesses have been more than willing to take advantage of rock-bottom prices offered by various dictatorships around the world. We’re beginning to understand the true cost is much greater.

Twenty years ago I visited Iran, as a journalist. When no one else was listening and under the promise of anonymity, several Iranians told the same thing: “You in the West think that Iran is an Islamist dictatorship. But the mullahs are like any autocrats. They take bribes and build palaces, they make sure their relatives get good jobs and housing, and they maintain their power by force.”

For decades, both politicians and business in the West have said that international trade is the best way to democracy and freer societies. And didn’t it seem as though that were indeed the case for a long time?

In hindsight – at least from today’s standpoint – this ideology was naive (or a willful self-delusion). Some recent examples: In autumn 2019, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement took to the streets when the “one country, two systems” system was brutally consigned to history by the Chinese Communist Party. The Belarusian protests in 2020 were forced to a halt the year after. In February 2021, the military junta took over in Myanmar. In February 2022, Putin’s Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine. And as this is being written, the mullahs’ henchmen are crushing the protests in Iran with the same ruthless violence as so many times before.

But one thing is new: For the first time, there’s a strong collective response, at least to one of the world’s many authoritarian regimes.

In September 2022, the annual inflation rate in the Euro Area reached the record high of 10 percent. The main driver, as we all know, being the rising energy prices for gas. Have these price increases been inevitable? No. If European countries, especially Germany, had continued to buy Russian natural gas, the market would probably have remained quite stable. Inflation is one price we pay to stop doing business with a dictator.

How high would the price have been if we, in the rich countries, hadn’t jumped from one dictator to the next, and asked to buy more of them instead? Since our economies are so seamlessly integrated with each other, it’s hard to even imagine such a scenario.

But maybe we can also turn this around? If there was an international certification for products entirely made in democracies, maybe the consumer would think it was worth the price? In the outdoor industry, people often talk about premium products. Perhaps “Made in a democracy” would be the noblest definition of premium?

And even if we are many companies that suffer financially from the consequences of the sanctions against Russia, doesn’t it feel good to prove that Putin’s calculation was wrong? That we in the West would never dare to sacrifice our prosperity for a higher cause. Maybe we dare to opt out of other such partnerships, sooner rather than too late?

Because there is no doubt about it: You can never do business in a dictatorship without further enriching and empowering its rulers. Iranians, Chinese, Russians and others who live there know this. And deep down, I think we do too.

 

Lead Photo: Velery Tenevoy/Unsplash

 

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Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com
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