A growing number of politicians and analysts, watching the valiant resistance of Ukrainian fighters in a military operation against their “fledgling” democracy, are opining that a Russian defeat cannot save the West from a more serious threat. Democracies, they argue, need to resurrect liberal internationalism as such and breathe new life into the crumbling and increasingly less functional world order that has replaced the Cold War.
Victory in the confrontation with the Kremlin can stop talk about the weakness and disunity of the West in the confrontation with authoritarianism. And for countries that are passively holed up – to become an incentive to reconsider their warm relations with China or Russia. But the notion that Putin’s defeat could reverse a 16-year uninterrupted global decline of democracies is simply untenable. And, while a decisive victory for Ukraine may slow down the steep fall for a while, the underlying pathologies leading to the destruction of the foundations of democracy have nothing to do with the actions of Moscow or Beijing. On the contrary, the main threats to this system are of internal origin. A destructive combination of factors led to the fall of values widely shared by the democratic world: destructive polarization, the rejection of elites by the population and the emergence of unscrupulous political leaders seeking to exploit these phenomena in their own interests. And stopping the process of decline, let alone reversing it, requires a clear understanding of the symptoms and, more importantly, a new resolve and commitment to basic democratic values.
Democracy in decline
One reason for the move away from democracy is that liberal and electoral systems are experiencing a governance crisis. Heads of state such as former President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have unceremoniously destroyed democratic institutions in pursuit of power interests. This trend, which researchers call the “third wave of autocratization,” is most pronounced in established democracies. The latest report from the V-Dem (the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg) shows that authoritarian tendencies are on the rise in about one in five EU member states. The same is happening in traditional democracies like India, Brazil, and the United States. As a consequence, the number of liberal democracies is now at its lowest level in 26 years.
On the other hand, authoritarianism is actively expanding at the expense of states with weak democracy or autocracy with a high level of competition, the so-called hybrid states. An example is the 2021 presidential election in Uganda, when President Yoweri Museveni resorted to military measures to stay in power. In the run-up to the elections, he completely blocked the Internet in the country and used state security forces to intimidate and arrest journalists, civil activists and opposition leaders, in particular presidential candidate Bobi Wine, who was arrested after being nominated.
In this regard, Uganda is far from the only case: the breadth of the authoritarian trend has been confirmed by events in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
The report also showed the failure of democratic movements to effectively fight back against growing authoritarianism, with many repressive acts remaining unpunished. And, despite the emergence of pockets of resistance in countries such as El Salvador, Myanmar, or Slovenia (in which voters preferred liberal opposition to right-wing populists in recent elections), there is no need to talk about mass character. On the contrary, in developing and post-communist countries, it is more about the rise of protest movements in support of autocrats. In part, they reflect the rise of so-called “conservative civil society,” with right-wing public figures joining forces with illiberal politicians in their general rejection of liberal political norms. Autocratic leaders around the world are mobilizing the population in support of their anti-democratic agendas. Last September, thousands of Brazilians responded to Bolsonaro’s call to remove all members of the Supreme Court. In the United States, Trump was the mastermind behind the January 6, 2021 uprising. In Thailand, the royalists formed an anti-democratic coalition to contain opposition protests.
Such popular mobilizations indicate that democracy is being stripped of its normative arguments in favor of liberal governance.
The truth is that autocrats have seized the initiative to destroy the idea of the inalienability of the rights and freedoms of citizens, regardless of nationality. Illiberal leaders are increasingly demanding restrictions, especially if freedoms pose a threat to their current rule. Leaders resort to a host of arguments in their activities – considerations of national security, public order or cultural safety – to justify the primacy of sovereignty in relation to universal norms. The rejection of universal principles is not a new phenomenon. However, it is gaining momentum now, partly because autocrats are under less pressure to adhere to the liberal democratic model.
The fall of universal norms is happening, to varying degrees, all over the world. One of the indicators is the trend of “fragmentation” of the Internet. The autocracies of China, Iran and Russia can be called pioneers in this matter. At the same time, even in democracies like Brazil, India or Nigeria, laws are passed to regulate citizens’ access to information and to its production – openly violating freedom of expression. For example, India passed a law that obliges social networks and media platforms to remove information that threatens the “unity, integrity, defense, security and sovereignty” of India. This, in turn, led to massive cases of suppression of free speech – when, for example, the Indian government ordered the blocking of hundreds of Twitter accounts associated with farmers’ protests in 2021. The leaders of such states hope that their destruction of the universal democratic principles that limit their actions will help consolidate their power and prolong their stay in power corridors.
The decline is evidenced by the state of a range of indicators of democracy: V-Dem researchers conclude that “six key indicators of ‘liberal democracy’ are in decline across the board, from judicial independence to executive oversight. organizations, conduct “aggressive smear campaigns” to discredit independent organizations and deliberately sow discord among civil society actors.Leaders in power justify such toughening by saying that independent organizations pose a threat to national security, or are a tool in the hands of shadowy foreign organizers who aim to undermine In particular, in 2018, Orbán secured the passage of what would become known as the Stop Soros Act, which targeted philanthropist George Soros, a long-time opponent of the Hungarian premier and a longtime target. he banned assistance to illegal migrants and became a convenient tool for Orban to pressure his political opponents. Autocrats around the world are increasingly resorting to such toughening, justifying their actions in defense of national sovereignty.
In some countries, Beijing and Moscow have played a key role in strengthening authoritarianism by providing economic and military support to local regimes. In the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique and Sudan, the Russian Wagner Group, a private military company close to the Russian military, organized disinformation campaigns against regime opponents, secured payments in mining concessions, and conducted joint military operations. . China has pursued a similar policy in helping Cambodia’s longtime powerful leader, Hun Sen, maintain power. In gratitude, Hong issued permission to build secret naval installations for the exclusive use of China.
The practice of a secretive and tough manner of communication has allowed China to establish the same relationship of self-interest with Algeria, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Serbia and Zambia.
Western politicians, in their desire to resist authoritarianism around the world, should not get too carried away by competing with China and Russia. The world is already strong and suspicions about the intentions of the United States. A string of gross foreign policy miscalculations have damaged Washington’s credibility: prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, Edward Snowden’s revelations, and countless human casualties from drone attacks. US efforts to isolate Russia and limit China’s influence have drawn a muted response from many countries. For example, during my “field” research in Ethiopia in 2020, my sources repeatedly expressed the opinion that the rivalry between Washington and Beijing was inappropriate, and, in their opinion, the presence of the United States in the country was not caused by the desire to bring democracy and prosperity, but primarily by the tasks own security. For this reason, as historian Peter Slezkine writes, it is not surprising that outside of official US (mostly Western) alliances, anti-Russian sanctions have been highly ambiguous.
This brings us to a breaking point: President Joe Biden’s focus on democracy versus authoritarianism is misleading for a few. The world sees the agenda of the United States for what it really is: bombastic rhetoric about the ideals of democracy, undermined by their own geopolitical calculations. Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East – during which he exchanged “fisticuffed” greetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (whom U.S. intelligence agencies accuse of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi) and had a warm “one-on-one” meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- The Sissi (whose government jailed tens of thousands of political prisoners) were a stark reminder of US political priorities.
This does not mean that the United States is unable to restore the legitimacy of the global democratic agenda, but such a task does not look like a cakewalk. One step along this path could be a clearer expression of support for value-based approaches. After every meeting Biden has with autocrats like the Saudi crown prince or the Egyptian president, he should call an equally public meeting with civil society and human rights activists in those countries to discuss the horrific history of human rights in those countries. Democratic rhetoric should also be matched with resources appropriate to its level: at the 2023 summit of democracies, the United States and its allies should announce the establishment of an independent foundation to support democracy and justice in the world. The purpose of the fund will be simple: to provide resources and funds to local activists, civil society organizations, independent journalists and ordinary citizens in their fight against injustice; protection of human rights; promotion of democratic reforms, especially in the repressive social environment of states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.
The Fund in its activities must be independent of any government. Moreover, oversight of the fund’s financial operations should be entrusted to a small steering committee of Democratic activists (although the United States itself can kick things off with $100 million in seed funding). And now, at a time when populists and autocrats are so raising their voices and gaining political influence, the foundation will be able to counterbalance this trend by allowing liberal voices to again find solid political ground in their communities.
Democracy is not inevitable. It needs to be nurtured, supported, it needs to be fought for. If democracies fail to make a solid case for political freedom, or if citizens become frustrated and cynical about how they are governed, a new generation of autocrats will emerge and take the reins of government with even greater zeal. And, if they succeed, we will have to live in a world much more cruel, corrupt and dangerous.