How the forward march of democracy was halted


Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, and of the apparent triumph of American values and power, U.S. policymakers now confront the very basic question of which values to uphold and for what purpose, both at home and abroad, argues Alexander A. Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Liberal democracy used to compete with Communism as a global ideology. But there is now no single universal alternative to liberal democracy, he writes for RealClearWorld:

Skeptics and autocrats now use a mix of different counter-norms and justifications for their democratic transgressions: they raise alarms over state sovereignty and national security to justify targeting social groups as extremists and champion a return to “traditional values,” mixing nationalism with a more public role of officially sanctioned religious institutions, while decrying Western moral decay. Still others invoke the idea of “civilization diversity” — often invoked by Chinese policymakers — which emphasizes noninterference in the affairs of other states on the basis of cultural relativism and the rejection of universal values and standards.

The great powers are increasingly competing for regional dominance and global influence, argues Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

Ideology has reentered the arena, with liberal democracy, populist autocracy, and radical Islamism among the available alternatives,” he writes for National Review. “At the same time, longstanding features of the international landscape are fragmenting, from the European Union to Middle Eastern borders, from global trade liberalization even to American alliances with countries such as the Philippines.”

The Illiberal Toolkit

Illiberal counter-norms have been supported by new political techniques and anti-democratic practices, adds Cooley, whose essay on illiberal counter-norms can be read in the book Authoritarianism Goes Global:

  • First, governments have increasingly cracked down on the political activities of non-governmental organizations and civil society. Methods of doing so range from adopting cumbersome registration laws to, in the Russian case, declaring NGOs that receive external funds to be “foreign agents” and banning others as “undesired organizations.” …
  • A second strategy has been to pioneer new forms of state-run media and propaganda. In Russia, Vladimir Putin quickly brought under control TV channels and developed new forms of social media monitoring and regulation. New-style propaganda is an explosive mix of news, disinformation, and conspiracy theorizing, designed to entertain and to reinforce political apathy. ..
  • A third strategy was to mimic the form of democratic institutions and actors, but not their actual substance or values — creating so-called “zombie institutions.” The post-Communist states created government-organized non-governmental organizations (known as GONGOs), anti-corruption agencies, and human rights committees, but these bodies seemed to target the activities of political opponents. ….   
  • Fifth, autocrats have invested in their own branding and self-promotion across the West, courting think tanks and high-profile advisors in an effort to improve their international image and whitewash their authoritarianism. …
  • Further, illiberal regimes started to openly court and support one another’s efforts to defeat mainstream parties. The Kremlin itself began to support both leftist and right-wing parties in Europe whose foreign policy goals included exiting the Euro-Atlantic order and/or supporting Russia. …
  • Finally, the rejection of liberal norms in the international realm has been accompanied by the adoption of “multipolar populism,” where rulers publicly reject certain norms and rules, such as commitments to longstanding allies or to institutions. They present themselves instead as decisive pragmatists who will partner with a range of external players — Western and non-Western — to promote their national interests….



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