Creating Chaos

Ali Noorani
4 min readNov 26, 2021
(Photographer: Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA/AP Photo)

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Borders are meant to create order. But, around the world, authoritarians are using borders to create chaos.

In the November issue of The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum looks at how authoritarians are working together — across borders — to viciously stamp out protests and preserve, if not increase, their hold on power.

In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, after claiming to have won re-election with 80 percent of the vote last summer, has ruthlessly executed this strategy with the political and financial support of Vladimir Putin.

If that wasn’t enough, as Applebaum writes, “Lukashenko’s regime set out to destabilize its EU neighbors by forcing streams of refugees across their borders: Belarus lured Afghan and Iraqi refugees to Minsk with a proffer of tourist visas, then escorted them to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and forced them at gunpoint to cross, illegally.”

After visiting the Belarus-Poland border recently, Applebaum detailed for Fresh Air’s Terry Gross the trials and tribulations Iraqis, Syrians, and others endured reaching Belarus. From travel agents to charter flights to the Belarusian military which forced migrants to cross the border, “This is the weaponization of desperation,” Applebaum told Gross.

It is also the weaponization of migration.

Which is playing out in new, unexpected ways.

In an exhaustively reported article for The Guardian, Oliver Milman finds that as climate denials lose their political potency for the far-right, anti-immigrant rhetoric becomes the leading edge of their rhetoric.

He finds there is a “growing strain of environmental populism thathas attempted to dovetail public alarm over the climate crisis with disdain for ruling elites, longing for a more traditional embrace of nature and kin and calls tobanish immigrants behind strong borders.”

Which brings us to National Conservatism.

According to their website, “National Conservatism” understands “that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.”

The movement envisions a “tradition of national conservative thought” in “stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.”

In his reporting from the 2021 NatCon conference, David Brooks remarked on the size and energy of the young people who attended. “They grew up in the era of Facebook and MSNBC and identity politics,” he wrote. “They went to colleges smothered by progressive sermonizing. And they reacted by running in the other direction.”

As an aside, Pew Research recently found that majorities of Gen Z and Millennial Republicans (57% and 59%, respectively) say “large businesses and corporations are doing too little to help reduce the effects of climate change.” Only 43% of Baby Boomer and older Republicans (43%) agreed. Climate denial is not a winning message to young conservatives.

But railing against a changing America is fair game.

The conference agenda was a diatribe against the influence of cultural and economic elites. And in between keynote addresses from an array of populist and nativist voices were the country’s leading anti-immigrant voices.

The fight was not against environmentalists. To a large part, it was against immigrants and a changing culture.

In Brooks’ estimation, “The culture war merges with the economic-class war — and a new right emerges in which an intellectual cadre, the national conservatives, rallies the proletarian masses against the cultural/corporate elites.”

Their political role model? Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Orbán, in 2015, created chaos at the EU border as he sought to weaponize the Syrian refugee crisis for his political gain. That border chaos gave proponents of Brexit a winning message. That border chaos played an outsized role in Trump’s 2016 victory.

The ability to create chaos at borders continues today in Belarus.

And, in the future, as millions of people are displaced by droughts, flooding, hunger, authoritarians will weaponize climate migration to create yet more chaos at borders.

Applebaum believes that in order to strengthen democracies in the face of these and other attacks by authoritarians, “We need a common set of protocols, a way to respond together, a forum in which we meet regularly to discuss these things.”

In these discussions, the global management of migration has not been a priority.

Which is a strategic failure, to put it mildly. Without an intentional approach that secures borders and treats migrants humanely, autocrats will continue to weaponize desperation and the migration that comes from it.



Ali Noorani

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.