The authoritarian hijacking of soft power


A renewed struggle between democracy and authoritarianism has emerged, argues Christopher Walker, executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. The decade-long democratic decline reported by Freedom House has been most dramatic within the ranks of already authoritarian regimes, which have become even more repressive.

At the same time, the most influential among them—China, Russia, and Iran—have become more internationalist. In doing so, they have found ways to exploit integration and to broaden their influence in the democratic world, he writes for the Journal of Democracy:

Through the development of the antidemocratic toolkit of simulated NGOs, think tanks, election monitors, and news media, the autocrats are actively seeking to undermine democracy from within. Increasingly, these regimes show solidarity and coordination with one another, at least when it comes to contesting and containing democracy and the ideas central to it. Through this more internationalist approach and authoritarian learning, China, Russia, Iran, and other illiberal regimes have developed instruments to counter the democratic West’s soft power. But the power that the authoritarians are exerting is not soft power as customarily understood. Indeed, the application of the term soft power—a benign concept generally applied to efforts made to bolster a country’s image, contribute to open debate, and win friends and allies—to the ideas-related efforts of the authoritarians is problematic. What the authoritarian regimes are practicing is instead a more malign mirror image of soft power.

Authoritarian regimes also are learning from each other how to choke off independent civil society, Walker adds:

In recent years, trendsetting authoritarian regimes have adopted a cascade of laws restricting the civil society sector, and other countries, including some democracies, have followed suit. Troublingly, the intensive learning that has taken place at the domestic level also has been crucial to the development of the authoritarians’ methods for obstructing democracy beyond their borders. In other words, the most influential authoritarian regimes, Russia and China foremost among them, have served as incubators for the innovation of antidemocratic techniques that are now applied internationally. By and large, observers in the democracies have failed to appreciate this.

“The democracies must pursue democratic learning—innovation by civil society but also renewal of commitment from democratic governments—with the same vigor that the authoritarians devote to their pursuit of authoritarian learning,” he suggests. “If the democracies instead opt to pursue a reactive, status-quo policy that allows the authoritarians to keep the initiative, we can expect the grim prospect of an even greater erosion of democratic space in the years to come.”


The article will serve as the concluding essay of a Journal of Democracy book Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (2016).

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