A new era of competition: democrats vs. autocrats – and illiberals


With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that democracies long failed to realize that a new era of competition was underway between autocratic and democratic states, notes Christopher Walker, Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Such competition is visible in a number of spheres, including geopolitics. But it is massive investments in their own autocratic forms of “soft power” that have enabled regimes in Russia and China to make dramatic inroads in challenging the integrity and prestige of the democratic systems of the West, he writes for a special edition the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation’s “International Reports.”

Liberal democracy is not only assault from without by resurgent authoritarian states, but also from within by illiberal forces.

In a recent article on “The Problem with ‘Illiberal Democracy,” Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Muller argues that “to call what is being constructed in Poland ‘illiberal democracy’ is deeply misleading and undermines efforts to rein in would-be autocrats, because it is not just liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the binary world of Western and Soviet countries with their spheres of influence dissolved, it seemed for a time that democracy—characterized by competitive elections, a balance of powers, and rule of law—had triumphed over autocracy across a large geographic zone, even if non-democratic regimes were still in power in China, the Middle East, and elsewhere, notes Ellen Hinsey, author of Mastering the Past: Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe and the Rise of Illiberalism:

Or this is what is considered the standard narrative. What has been far less discussed is that alongside these outward signs of governance and apparent prosperity, there were parallel developments that both Europe and the United States preferred not to observe, particularly as concerned the failure of certain post-Soviet countries to create strong institutions and fight endemic corruption, which persisted along with the rise of anti-democratic tendencies.

Those who believe that liberal democracy is the only form of democracy consistent with civil freedom in the modern world have no choice but to understand both the strengths but also the practical and normative limits of liberal democracy, notes Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy Professor at Indiana University: to engage, incorporate, and agonistically compete with those social movements and political forces who challenge these limits in ways that are consistent with civil freedom and pluralism; and to oppose and hopefully defeat those forces that challenge these limits in ways that are hostile to civil freedom, political pluralism, and liberalism itself.

Given the potent forces now challenging democracy, a status quo approach will not suffice, adds Walker, who oversees the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. A determined effort is urgently needed to reclaim the initiative by defending democratic institutions and norms, safeguarding the media space, and supporting moderate, reform-minded voices. Such a response should include:

  • Affirming democratic ideals and standards as part of a dedicated effort to effectively compete with authoritarian power projection in the sphere of ideas. The leading democracies must explain their ideals and put down clear markers regarding their standards – or else others will continue to do this instead of the democracies. …
  • Reinvigorating the democracy and human rights functions of key organizations, including the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Over the past decade, autocratic regimes have made a concerted effort to hollow out such institutions. …..
  • Cultivating counterweights to address the regional impact of Russia, China, and Iran, which are projecting power in neighboring countries (as well as farther afield). In addition to supporting the reform efforts of those who seek to help themselves within the authoritarian trendsetter countries of Russia, China, and Iran, work in places such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan to provide help to actors and institutions that offer an alternative to groups that Iran uses to project its influence in the region. ….
  • Inoculating democratic societies from the malign influence of increasingly sophisticated foreign forces. The democracies have grossly underestimated the national security threat posed by the authoritarians’ export of manipulated media, cyber subversion, and various forms of corruption, including transnational networked kleptocracy. ….


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