Authoritarianism Goes Global


A new global competition in “soft power” is underway between democracy and autocracy, but only one side seems to be competing seriously, according to Christopher Walker, Marc F. Plattner and Larry Diamond, coeditors of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (John Hopkins University Press, 2016). Many had assumed that the era of globalization would give democracies a huge advantage in this sphere, the basic argument being that a more open global political economy and the relentless flow of information across borders would boost open societies over repressive ones. But it is the undemocratic states that have been the nimblest at enhancing their influence, they write for The American Interest:

As part of this new global competition, the authoritarian trendsetters are focused on regions and countries where democratic standards and values are being actively contested within. …The new authoritarian challenge to democracy is not limited to the manipulation of the information environment; it is also apparent in efforts to weaken the democracy and human-rights mechanisms of key rules-based institutions, including the Organization of American States, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And they have in their sights the bodies concerned with governance of the internet. 

Autocrats are also creating new international institutions that seek to propel authoritarian norms beyond their borders. They use their own “clubs,” such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Eurasian Economic Union, to institutionalize norms of unbridled sovereignty and non-interference beyond the generally accepted limits of these concepts.

If the democratic progress of recent decades is to be preserved, the world’s democracies must respond to the challenge of resurgent authoritarianism, they contend:

  • To begin with, the democracies must mount a far more determined effort to compete in the realm of ideas. Resurgent autocrats take seriously the shaping of public opinion and beliefs in other countries; so must democrats. ….
  • Second, the democracies must recover their self-confidence and improve the functioning of their own deficient institutions. Democracy may be performing poorly at the moment, but this was also the case forty years ago, when the United States and Europe were wracked by economic stagnation and political malaise. ….
  • Third, they need to take steps to prevent the authoritarians from hollowing out the key regional and global rules-based organizations. ….
  • Finally, the established democracies must demonstrate stronger solidarity with nascent democracies, such as those in Tunisia and Ukraine that are seeking to consolidate representative institutions against great odds.


Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. Marc F. Plattner and Larry Diamond are founding coeditors of the Journal of Democracy and co-chairs of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies. The three are coeditors of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (John Hopkins University Press, 2016).

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