Summer Reading: Diamond, Plattner and Walker, Authoritarianism Goes Global



Last year, I wrote about the problem of “democracy promotion in reverse” and spotlighted a website managed by the International Forum for Democratic Studies called Resurgent Dictatorship (link is external)The site provides resources on how major authoritarian regimes are cooperating and learning from each other, manipulating media and attempting to reshape democratic norms. In a short post for the blog (link is external), I argued that Beijing’s long-run strategy of deep engagement with North Korea was exemplary of the problem. While contributing to a deepening of economic reform, China has also clearly sustained the Kim family dynasty.

Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner and Christopher Walker have now edited an outstanding collection of essays on the broader problem entitled Authoritarianism Goes Global. With Crowdstrike’s surprisingly self-confident assessment that Russian intelligence was behind the DNC hack, the book could not be more timely. 

The volume is divided into two halves, the first of which consists of essays on the “big five”: China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. What is striking is how similar this incredibly heterogeneous set of authoritarian regimes appears with respect to their global political strategies. All have sought to control information from the rest of the world, most notably through the web; have developed their own global media strategies aimed at obfuscation; have undermined international NGOs and supported fake NGOs—so-called “government-organized NGOS” or GONGOs—that reproduce government propaganda; and have undermined efforts to increase political accountability, for example, through robust election monitoring and human rights work. To that can be added the use of cyber for purposes of political destabilization.

The second half of the book outlines “areas of soft power competition,” and is led by an outstanding essay by Alexander Cooley on “Countering Democratic Norms.” Cooley notes how these authoritarian regimes—and particularly the Russians—quickly jumped on the post-9/11 perception that “the tradeoff between individual liberty and security should be rebalanced in favor of the latter”; thus Putin’s rapid embrace of President Bush’s anti-terrorism agenda. In another excellent contribution, Douglas Rutzen outlines four particular justifications for the new anti-liberal counter-norms, including standard sovereignty claims, the idea that more restrictive rules on financial flows are enhancing the “transparency and accountability” of the NGO sector, and that restrictions are justified on the grounds of increasing aid effectiveness and ownership. Of particular interest is the abuse of security, counter-terrorism and money-laundering rationales, all of which have been invoked in the spate of new NGO laws across the semi-authoritarian world, including most recently in China.  

In his concluding essay, Christopher Walker notes the good news—such as it is: these regimes do not appear intent on exporting their brand of authoritarianism so much as they seek to block democratic pressures at home. In this one sense, the new authoritarian globalism is reflective of domestic fragility; the fear of color revolutions is a recurrent theme of the country studies.

But nothing that the volume presents looks fragile to me; rather, these are coldly calculated strategies to denigrate the advantages of democratic rule, confuse publics and weaken oppositions both at home and abroad (see my review of Martin Dimitrov's study of communist resilience here). As Walker notes, “in the face of this authoritarian mobilization, the democracies have been caught flat footed.” Walker argues that the first step is for the democracies to take a more insistent stance against the hollowing out of international and regional institutions that have previously advanced norms of accountability, most notably through election monitoring. The democracies also need to think about their own media strategies and public diplomacy in a smarter and more aggressive way. And it goes without saying that the last thing we need is a political leadership at home that is blasé about dictatorial rule abroad. 

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