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The prophecy for the end of history and the inevitable triumph of the democratic model is now facing a significant challenge, as the spectre of neo-authoritarianism now haunts regimes that political thinkers considered unshakeable. Not only the events on Capitol Hill have forcefully and dramatically confirmed the decline of a hegemon, but they also have above all demonstrated that the normative engine of democracy is no longer infallible and that the world certainly no longer needs American tutelage. The erosion of democracy affects all regional spaces. From India, the most populous democracy with the rise of Hindu nationalism, to the inexorable advance of populism in Eastern Europe (such as Poland and Hungary) or the authoritarian drift shown by President Erdogan in Turkey, this profound paradigm shift is tending to unravel the very foundations of the democratic brand.
The threats posed by the constitution of an illiberal common front or the multiplication of offensives by state actors who do not seem to respect the rules that govern the international order are legion. They should push liberal democracies to develop a global strategy to strengthen multilateral cooperation to cure the ills of democracy and thus recover from the announced fall.
Therefore, to avoid an interruption of history through erroneous predictions, the community of democracies must develop global means of resistance to enhance democratic resilience and proactive offensive strategies against those regimes that thrive on the soil of our own political contradictions and dissensions.
The Irrationality of the Free World and Democratic Regression
In this century, initially hailed as the century of unstoppable fervour for democratization, the evidence is clear: the least bad of all systems is beginning to show signs of weakness. With hindsight, only half of the world’s population lived in a democracy in 2021. While the global pandemic and the set of restrictions on individual freedoms, it underpins are sometimes instrumental in suppressing human rights, they are no less the catalysts of a long trend of regression. Coups and unconstitutional seizures of power have increased significantly, while some bastions of this model, such as the United States and France, have become failing democracies. A diagnosis of this democratic deficit is necessary, both internally and externally.
Disenchantment with democracy and the devaluation of politics seem to prevail. Confined to a minimal role, the citizen’s trust in the representative system is gradually eroding. Another component is that these liberal democracies now seem to be enslaved by an exacerbated capitalism. Democracy and capitalism, originally presented as a virtuous couple, have seemed to continuously foster the growth of global inequality in the past forty years. Yet at the same time, the welfare state model that policy-makers have erected as a bulwark seems incapable of curbing deepening disparities.
The scrutiny is then cast on technocratic elites perceived as ineffective since the system seems to change “leaders but not policies.” The lack of concrete impact of the vote on the daily life of voters gives rise to popular frustration and a stalling of electoral processes that are expressed through the ballot box. The ample abstention is not the only symptom. While the confrontation of ideas is becoming more and more complex, the breakdown of centrism induces a political polarization – accelerated by the sensationalist algorithms of information technologies – that is gangrenous in Western societies. The electorate seems condemned to choose between disconnected technocrats who helplessly observe their own decay and angry entrepreneurs who capitalize on empty slogans to resonate with the weariness of citizens.
On the international scene, Western arrogance, the genesis of its decline, has dealt a definite blow to the democracy brand. After having brought down the Soviet world without bearing arms, the West, in the grip of euphoria, has set itself the goal of exporting its democratic model. While the intention is laudable, promoting democracy through foreign interference and missiles seems inconceivable. Driven by a messianic destiny, Western leaders have lent themselves to the exercise. Between the use of force against Milosevic in Bosnia in 1995, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, the abuses committed by the United States at Abu Ghraib prison during the second Gulf War; the use of power to promote regime change is a bitter failure. Totally disconnected from the realities on the ground, the West has tried to impose democracy, but has fuelled war and thwarted peace.
If liberal interventionism is in decline, the hypocrisy of the free world seems to have replaced it. When France shows a certain complacency towards the new Chadian junta that emerged from an unconstitutional seizure of power, but disavows the new Malian authorities that emerged from a putsch, or when the United States takes the lead in guaranteeing Taiwan’s independence, but takes a backseat to Israel’s colonization process on Palestinian territory, the political message is blurred. On the ideological level, while the community of democracies must be irreproachable, Western compromise in the face of authoritarian regimes renders illegitimate the discourse on the universality of values. This strategy of irrationality dictated by divergent strategic interests offers additional levers to assert the narrative of Western imperialism and consecrate the appeal of authoritarian regimes.
The Irrepressible Appeal of Authoritarianism
Undermined from within, the democratic West is struggling to grasp the shift in the centrality of the world. This profound paradigm shift instills an authoritarian temptation. The conceptual vagueness around neo-authoritarianism and populism illustrates the hybridity of these illiberal variants. Nevertheless, they often use the same resources to assert themselves as radical but credible alternatives.
The crisis of identity in the Western world is a reality, but it is no less instrumentalized by the detractors of democracy in order to emphasize a new doxa. From nationalism to the rejection of multilateralism and progress, the large family of populists draws on a repertoire of values centered on the return to tradition to fight against what they denounce as Western decadence.
The foundations of this anti-system discourse come from this revanchist resistance against the ruling elites allegedly corrupt and at the service of the foreigner (immigration, vassalization towards foreign powers and globalized finance). The emergence of “Strongmen” who would be the standard-bearers of sovereignty and of the real people abandoned by globalization. The sacralization of the ballot box and the capacity to empty democracy of its substance through free elections (or simulacrum of free elections) are symptomatic of the permeability of our regimes. While this deleterious phenomenon seemed inconceivable, these hybrid regimes accommodate the absence of guarantees for fundamental rights. If the denaturation of the democratic ideal was a camouflaged strategy, it is now exercised in the eyes of all, following the example of Victor Orbàn, who claims to be an illiberal democracy.
The comparative performance of forms of governance shows that in the context of the health crisis, effective policies to contain the pandemic were neither populist, nor authoritarian, nor liberal. However, the ability to overcome legal impossibility by breaking the rules of law provides attractive policy opportunities for anti-democratic regimes. By silencing or eliminating bureaucratic rules, safeguards and institutions of checks and balances, illiberal democracies gain flexibility and unlock the paralysis of public action to promote competitive authoritarianism.
Populism then becomes a kind of launching pad for the authoritarian drift. With different degrees of alienation, an insidious shift takes place between liberal democracy, illiberal democracy and authoritarian regimes with a spectrum as wide as there are combinations. By playing with the limits of the democratic game, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Erdogan legitimize the neo-authoritarian powers exercised by fossilized dictatorships and in fact remove the simplifying dichotomy between democracy and authoritarianism.
It goes without saying that in the context of power competition, the threats to democracy are symptomatic of this trend reversal. Awareness of this new political order and the complex nature of the neo-authoritarianisms that have adapted to the times is imperative. Defining these regimes will allow us to correctly qualify the abuses/crimes that they commit to eventually deny them the establishment of an alternative repressive regime.
Asymmetric Competition: Working in an International Order Where the Rules are Breaking Down
The capitalization of efforts to deprive people of power allows the emergence of an aggressive foreign policy with the mobilization of the entire state apparatus. From then on, the development of a transnational repression against democracies is exercised with unparalleled capacities of nuisance. These hybrid forms of governance combine conventional channels to assert their interests as well as authoritarian tactics outside international law that escape the West.
Vilifying authoritarian regimes no longer seems sufficient to contain their incursion on the international scene. China’s offensive to obtain high-level positions in international institutions is a clear demonstration of this strategy of influence to orient the system towards its interests. Its growing international involvement should be seen in the context of its own initiatives (such as the Belt and Road project, as well as extensive international infrastructure financing). The de-Westernization of the world necessarily requires a rethinking of the international order, and these regimes seem to be fully aware of this. As a collateral victim of the U.S. withdrawal, the WHO has become the preferred forum for Russia, China and North Korea to express the superiority of their model during the health crisis.
Moreover, Beijing is using its economic weight, its growing soft power and its ability to manipulate information to export its model to fragile democracies. While this strategy has its limits, mainland China has managed to further isolate Taiwan on the international stage. Massive investments and dependency links in Africa have tipped the balance in Beijing’s favour, with only two African countries now recognizing Taipei, compared to thirteen in 1995. Africa is experiencing an authoritarian backlash and Beijing is selling its model of authoritarian governance to Africa as democracy recedes.
Beyond the diplomatic successes, the tricks of force are multiplying. Between the assassination of Jamal Kashoggi, the Skripal affair, the arrest of a political opponent with a false bomb threat in a plane fomented by Alexander Lukashenko; dissidents of authoritarian regimes have a hard time. Sanctuaries for their safety are crumbling in the face of this pattern of international repression aimed at undermining democracy and guarding against criticism. Since 2014, approximately 600 cross-border authoritarian attacks have been recorded. It is imperative for the West to end this strategy of international harassment. For this, a stronger commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is needed. Active support and protection of dissidents on the ground will sow the seeds of opposition with a destabilizing effect on these regimes as effective as the ongoing attacks on democracy.
This pattern of intimidation also passes through the new platform of information technology. Cyberattacks, foreign interference and digital disinformation are part of the practice of influence that is in Russia’s DNA, for example. Beyond marginalizing individuals, this destabilization strategy is part of the asymmetric military responses of hybrid warfare. The architecture of the international order limits the room for manoeuvre of democracies, which are therefore lagging in these new areas of unconventional conflict. While keeping its democratic nature, the community of democracies must develop an enhanced preventative measure with defensive and offensive means to fight in the framework of the informational war.
Finally, the aggressive strategic revival of these alternative forms of governance is confirmed by the Chinese giant, which seems to have emerged from its period of hibernation, as the offensive of these warrior wolves attests. In the race for hegemony, it illustrates that adherence to democratic values is no longer necessary to compete for the position of world leader. As for Russia, it is now directly attacking democracy in its former homeland to neutralize the expansion of a model that weakens it. The ideological struggle is thus accompanied by much more concrete military incursions and the community of democracies is cornered in the face of this major strategic awakening.
In the UN forum, during the vote on the resolution against the war in Ukraine, India, China, as well as many African states, abstained. This neutrality and this moderate democratic impulse are linked to the desire not to offend Russia, with which these states maintain good relations that can go as far as friendship. If this phenomenon is the result, for example, of Russian levers of influence in Africa, lines of convergence are emerging between regimes that are struggling to deepen their democratization process.
Towards the Constitution of an Illiberal Common Front
Beijing is comfortably observing the outcome of the war on the old continent as a life-size test of the Western reaction to its own territorial ambitions. Nevertheless, China is developing an ambiguous position by taking up the Kremlin’s account of the special military operation deployed in Ukraine. If this illiberal quasi-alliance is less concrete, the new strategic impetus given by the Russian invasion will work in Joe Biden’s favour for the constitution of an alliance of democracies, even if his summit for democracy lacked ambition. The logic of blocs seems to be resurfacing and this strategic reversal could confirm the renewal of the bipolarization of the international arena.
Declarations of support for China’s anti-terrorist policy against the Uighur minorities foreshadowed the fault lines between the liberal West and an emerging illiberal common front. The West rose to denounce cultural genocide while Beijing, leader of an anti-democratic ideal, retorted by uniting 46 countries to support its repressive policies in Xianjang.
Beyond the war of influence, this rapprochement went even further during the war in Syria. When the transatlantic community was procrastinating on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, his survival was made possible thanks to Moscow and Tehran, the financial backers of a Syrian regime on life support. The Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis of resistance has dealt a decisive blow to Western influence and strategy in the Levant. Between the simple convergence of short-term interests and the formation of a permanent alliance, the rejection of the West is generating partnerships. However, if Bashar al-Assad expressed his support for the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the meeting between the two counterparts evokes more a rescue of the illusion of Syrian sovereignty. Dictator Assad’s dependence on Vladimir Putin embodies these asymmetrical power relations that are not limited to the Syrian case.
Strengthening the Alliance of Democracies to Undermine the Colossus with Feet of Illiberal Clay
Hand in hand during the Olympic truce, the solidity of the “unlimited” friendship between Moscow and Beijing is now being put to the test. The neutrality of China’s facade is beginning to show its limits. Beijing is wavering between saving the principle of non-interference, the pillar of its foreign policy, and strategically aligning itself with Russia in their common opposition to Western liberal democracies. In this context, the joint statement denouncing NATO’s enlargement policy could have led to more active support from Beijing towards Moscow. Sino-Russian relations are fed by the American hardening towards them and the “pariatization” of the Kremlin leads it to turn towards Beijing. The request for military assistance takes the form of a call for help rather than a simple rapprochement. Anxious to restore its status as a political heavyweight, Moscow is now struggling not to appear as Beijing’s vassal. Since China’s economic power is not in the same category as Russia’s, the formation of an alliance could lead Beijing to join Moscow in its banishment from the international scene. The axis of convenance further describes these fragile relations.
For fear of being marginalized, these unbreakable bonds of friendship between the illiberal powers are more like a cascade of subservience. Solidarity between these states is hampered by the fragility of its foundations, as the renewed tensions between Ankara and Moscow attest. The “new axis of evil” disintegrates when the strategic interests of its members diverge. On the other side of the prism, in addition to the lack of consultation and the strategic divergences of the Western clan, the new global conflict situation is pushing the community of democracies to strengthen its cohesion and deepen cooperation in the fight against the offensive of authoritarianism.
As anti-democratic regimes continue to dictate the international agenda, the formation of an alliance of democracies will unite the liberal West against powers that are struggling to do so. This will make it possible to overcome the paralysis of the Security Council, to curb the authoritarian contagion and to stem the incursion of these regimes into the international order that they distort. It will be a matter of not abandoning the states that fall into their lap by strengthening cooperation and always maintaining dialogue. This means not reproducing what French diplomacy did with the new Malian junta. Finally, the capacity building of such a partnership must necessarily take the form of a whole-of-government approach that does not necessarily involve direct confrontation with its adversaries.
The Foundations of a Community of Democracies to Fight Against Systemic Rivals
The United States assumed the role of leader of the free world until the Trump parenthesis. However, far from being confined to a single term, Trumpism could outlast him and become a permanent fixture in the American political spectrum. By reviving the idea of “power by example,” Biden, the new tenant of the White House could well restore the democratic image of the world’s leading power. Nevertheless, this new inconsistency in leadership raises the question of who will take on the role of champion of democracy when authoritarian movements are becoming more entrenched in the political arena. The salutary civic awakening in France and the United States to block the extremes and the populists has been salutary, but the democratic barrier is thin and a pernicious slide towards authoritarianism is fast approaching.
Democratic leaders at the regional level should be valued for providing democratic shelter in the event of a state’s shift to more authoritarian forms of governance. Since “democracy is best promoted collectively,” with this new decentralized democratic leadership that will emerge, the transnational circulation of democratic arrangements and political regulation will be more diffused and secure. The spearheads of the European Union, France, and Germany could take on this role despite their differences on the future of Europe. As for Canada, it could be the solution to a North American continent fractured by a worrying state of American democracy. Finally, islands of democracy such as Ghana, Costa Rica or South Korea could constitute more inspiring references of political stability for their respective regional areas. The West will find itself relieved of its self-inflicted and unfulfilled burden of exporting democracy.
This hot take strives to deconstruct the antagonism between democracy and authoritarianism. The new community of democracies will also need to be flexible in applying an open-door policy. By being inclusive, this initiative will welcome efforts to continue ongoing democratization processes without offering a veneer of democratic legitimacy to those who do not deserve it. In some alliances, such as NATO, this entry policy has shown its limits, particularly regarding the relevance of the Ukrainian candidacy. To avoid such political dissensions among its members, discipline will be necessary to avoid altering the democratic foundation of this community and to overcome the first inconclusive experience carried out by Madeleine Albright in 2000. Equally disappointing, the Democracy Summit initiated by President Biden for defending against authoritarianism partially hollowed out. According to Freedom House rankings, a third of the regimes invited to the summit left something to be desired, which rekindled the spirit of clannish cowering on the part of American power.
A new initiative must be carried by a group of democratic states to avoid a questionable selection of invited nations and to increase the legitimacy of such an alliance. It must also be the source of a set of incentives or support/pressure measures to move from rhetoric to action. Second, its informal nature will allow it to banish all states that make a political shift towards these alternative forms of governance that are incompatible with its ideals. The establishment of early warning mechanisms will make it possible to detect external threats and to deal with them rapidly. Second, developing unwavering support for democratic allies under threat with a credible posture of deterrence is a necessity. Through its unprecedented character, the scale of the Western response to the Russian invasion could deter many from revising borders by force. Nevertheless, this arsenal of sanctions could also have been deployed by non-Western democracies, which would have led to an even more effective embargo, thus curbing the Russian economy and its ability to absorb the sanctions. It goes without saying that Moscow is suffering. However, the fact that the sanctions are almost exclusively Western is symptomatic of this inability to widen the circle of those working against the rise of authoritarianism. With this very weak international support, the transatlantic community is strong, but effectively isolated within a Western bubble. The latent wait-and-see attitude of the global South complicates Russia’s isolation.
Building a collective response to the onslaught of authoritarianism is therefore the key to a resilient community of democracies in the face of a disunited illiberal common front. Fragmenting the collaboration between authoritarian leaders is a necessity to reduce their capacity to cause harm. Without necessarily encouraging a Cold War spirit or sinking into an ideological crusade, a rearrangement and strengthening of partnership networks among liberal democracies is necessary.
A Democratic Course of Action as a Prerequisite for Strategic Engagement
Within the member states of this alliance, both internally and externally, strategic coherence and citizen dialogue must drive policymaking to improve democratic resilience. Therefore, the fight against corruption, dirty money and influence networks is a priority. The sanctions regime developed against Russia helped to stop the German government’s obstinacy in implementing the Nord Stream 2 project. If this project was abandoned by force of events, it sent a strong signal and should serve as an example to develop a democratic line of conduct whose respect must be in the DNA of our leaders and a condition for any international partnership.
Since the model of democratic governance is still attractive, political leaders must capitalize on this trend to announce specific actions and commitments to promote absolute respect for the rule of law over the strategic interests of each individual. Only through this refusal of relativism can liberal democracies strengthen the authority of democracy and develop levers of discussion to counteract the illiberal temptations of many nations. Democratic attributes will be strengthened, and autocratic regimes or those that come dangerously close to them will no longer be able to co-opt the label of democracy, undermining its ideals and common values, in order to strengthen their own credibility.