Resurgent authoritarians are putting to the test the old adage that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Autocrats recognize that they have been losing battles on governance for decades. Liberal countries like the United States have aggressively invested in pro-democracy programming, strengthening civil society, political parties and the rule of law in countries across the world in an attempt to erect barriers against authoritarianism. Moreover, democracies have hammered autocrats on issues ranging from human rights to corruption, lending legitimacy to domestic dissidents and, to a certain extent, discrediting them on the global stage.
But that paradigm is beginning to shift. As authoritarian powers—especially Russia and China—have become increasingly assertive in international affairs, they have aimed to legitimize their own governance models and bolster autocrats abroad. And as shown by recent data on the rise of so-called “autocratization,” their approach may be working.
The support for authoritarianism abroad embodies a new type of governance strategy: autocracy promotion. In an inversion of traditional democracy promotion, autocracy promotion entails both rhetorical and concrete support for other authoritarians. From Russia offering to send in soldiers to put down protesters in Belarus to China weakening global human rights frameworks, autocracy promoters are seeking to tip the governance landscape in autocrats’ favor. Their direct mechanism for doing so is by helping weaker autocrats by bolstering their legitimacy and expanding their capacity to coerce and coopt domestic actors. By shifting narratives and providing material support, autocracy promoters ultimately aim to “make the world safe for autocracy.”
On the narrative front, authoritarian regimes seek to expose deficiencies in democratic systems and show that their own models provide significant benefits. In certain cases, this entails anti-democratic operations to undermine democracies and reduce the appeal of democratic alternatives. Iranian and Russian actors have done this, for example, by interfering in electoral processes and spreading misinformation designed to exacerbate sociopolitical fissures in democracies. Authoritarians are also increasingly
marketing their own model of governance as more effective in meeting citizen needs. China, most notably, has highlighted its record in the COVID-19 pandemic as clear-cut evidence of its superior governance model, contrasting it with the massive destruction wrought by the virus in many liberal democracies. Further, autocracy promoters are providing diplomatic cover for other authoritarians and seeking to change global rights frameworks to legitimate their own models of governance. From Iran voting against human rights resolutions to China working against a free and open global Internet, autocrats are diplomatically protecting one another and banding together to blunt anti-authoritarian appeals.
Yet narratives are only half the battle: in countries with weak authoritarian regimes, leaders are increasingly looking to other powerful authoritarians for material support. This support takes two dimensions: generating cash flow, which can then be used to coopt domestic actors, and helping build coercive capacity to repress dissent.
In the first instance, direct monetary transfer, preferential trade deals and development projects can help regimes generate cash. The money can then be used to coopt officials and other political actors through old-fashioned corruption. Venezuela’s case provides an illustrative example: for years, despite international sanctions, Russia provided a vital lifeline to the thoroughly corrupt Nicolás Maduro regime by arranging for the state oil giant, Rosneft, to buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Venezuelan crude. This cash flowed directly into the hands of Maduro allies in control of the oil sector, enabling corruption, bolstering patronage networks and ensuring that at least some of Maduro’s underlings were satisfied. Corruption and cooptation worked hand-in-hand.
Secondly, as regimes look to coerce populations, they need massive amounts of manpower, equipment and know-how. Autocracy promoters have been very willing to provide each, exporting everything from expertise to guns in an effort to bolster recipients’ coercive capacities. In a more benign form, this support can be in the form of a private-sector deal, such as that of the Chinese company Cloudwalk selling facial recognition technology to the repressive Zimbabwean government. But in more extreme cases, it can entail the threat of military intervention, as evidenced by Russia’s deployment of troops to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria’s long-running civil war.
Although autocracy promotion is becoming increasingly prevalent on the international scene, its rise is not unstoppable. Autocracies’ use of external support stems from their own shortcomings and lays bare their core vulnerabilities: that they lack domestic and international legitimacy and that they must coopt and coerce to remain in power. If the United States is to strengthen its efforts to work against the expansion of authoritarianism abroad, it needs to target these weaknesses. These vulnerabilities should form the starting point of an anti-authoritarian policy. To that end, diplomats in the incoming Joseph Biden administration should take a few key steps to stem the tide of autocracy promotion.
First, the United States and its allies must undertake a global, multilateral effort to sustain universal global rights frameworks and combat relativist authoritarian approaches. Authoritarian powers, none more so than Russia and China, have leveraged their power to weaken rights frameworks, shoot down resolutions condemning authoritarians and push a model of state sovereignty that delegitimizes universal norms. Beyond weakening U.S. appeals to values, such moves give cover to autocrats who otherwise might have faced criticism. Take, for example, China’s and Russia’s defense of the Syrian regime at the UN: time and time again, they have vetoed resolutions condemning the al-Assad government on normative issues, saving it from a potentially destabilizing reproach. Their no-votes are framed in a way that purports to promote state sovereignty and non-interventionist approaches, but in reality Russia and, to a greater extent, China are pushing relativist human rights frameworks that deprive universalism of all meaning. If authoritarian states are able to define how rights are “respected” in their own countries, they fall into a relativism that views certain freedoms not as universal, but rather, based on “national conditions.” This opens the door for all kinds of restrictions, thereby eroding U.S. legitimacy on rights and governance issues—and removing a key philosophical underpinning of U.S. policy. The U.S. must counter this in all relevant forums, including the UN Human Rights Council, and work to preserve universal rights frameworks in partnership with other rights-respecting countries.
Second, American diplomats should redouble their efforts to fight corruption globally. Corruption is central to authoritarian governance: Autocrats blur the lines between public and personal finances in order to establish patronage networks, ensure loyalty and enrich themselves. Though most corruption is domestic, autocracy promoters—as evidenced in China’s Belt and Road Initiative—are willing to engage in corrupt practices to achieve in-country objectives. To help stop these illicit flows, the United States should expand enforcement capacities under the Global Magnitsky Act. While the Global Magnitsky Act and Executive Order 13818 provide for a robust anti-corruption sanctions program, enforcement has been spotty: They have only been invoked a handful of times in the past two years. This is due both to interagency disputes and a lack of resourcing. To help bolster these programs, cooperation between the U.S. Treasury, Justice and State departments should be strengthened through formally structured sanctions coordination mechanisms. Moreover, relevant offices—especially the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department—should be expanded to adequately respond to intense demand.
Finally, channels should be established for diplomatic posts to suggest anti-corruption sanctions targets to the relevant interagency group in Washington. Through strengthening sanctions capacity and building an institutional architecture to support it, American diplomats will be able to more effectively threaten—and execute—sanctions, which will send a strong message on corruption and weaken autocracy promoters’ ability to externally fund corrupt regimes.
Third, diplomats should take a more active role in pointing out the deleterious consequences of security-sector collaboration with autocracy promoters. Since most authoritarians do not have enough domestic industry to furnish a substantial coercive apparatus, they rely on technology transfer, imports and personnel assistance to build up that capacity. However, these partnerships frequently evolve into highly imbalanced relationships, if not full-blown dependence. Take, for example, Russia’s recent involvement in Belarus. Facing a massive anti-government movement, President Alexander Lukashenka has pinned his survival hopes on aid from Moscow, using cash from the Kremlin to pay his security services and intimidating protesters with the threat of Russian military intervention. While this help has kept Lukashenka afloat for a few months, if he survives in the long term, Moscow will expect the favor to be repaid in a form and at a time of its choosing. This dependency will constrain Belarus’ options going forward, sucking it further into the Russian orbit and potentially sinking its hopes for more integration with Europe. While security-sector collaboration need not be on this scale, the underlying relationship imbalance and expectations of returned favors invariably follow. American diplomats should make this clear to interlocutors and, where possible, provide disincentives to pursuing such partnerships. This could be done directly through bilateral contacts and indirectly through aggressive sanctions on autocracy-promoting entities, whether companies, governmental entities or others that have facilitated rights abuses and crackdowns.
Despite China’s rise, an increasingly belligerent Russia and a difficult landscape for democracies worldwide, American diplomacy remains one of the most powerful tools in the emerging conflict over governance. If the spread of authoritarianism is to be countered, the U.S. and its partners must aggressively leverage diplomacy against those promoting autocracy. Just as autocrats have targeted the weak points of democracy and democracy promotion, so too must liberal countries target the weak points of authoritarian regimes and, especially, their points of external dependency. The spread of authoritarianism—and efforts to bolster and legitimize it—are not foreordained to succeed. America and its democratic allies should make that clear by fighting back.
BENJAMIN PRESS is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A summa cum laude graduate of Princeton University, he was a 2019 Annenberg Fellow with the Council of American Ambassadors while serving as an intern in the Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.