A new global competition in “soft power” is underway between democracy and autocracy, but only one side seems to be competing seriously. 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.
The leading authoritarian regimes have invested heavily in building vast and sophisticated soft-power arsenals that now operate in every corner of the world. This has occurred in the context of a decade-long global democratic decline, according to Freedom House, during which already authoritarian regimes have become even more repressive. At the same time, the most influential authoritarians—China, Russia, and Iran—have become more internationalist. Authoritarianism has gone global.
Today dictators are cooperating with and learning from one another, sharing know-how and technology across borders. This is visible, for instance, in the strategies that China and Russia have adopted to stifle independent online voices. Within months of each other, the authorities in both countries enacted similar regulations to target online users with significant followings, with the aim of silencing the most influential commentators on popular social media platforms.
The authoritarians not only repress reform-minded voices at home but are seeking to reshape international values and norms in order to limit the global ambit of democracy. A key feature of today’s authoritarian surge is the creation of lavishly funded international media enterprises. China’s CCTV and Russia’s RT are the television outlets with the highest profile, but these are only one part of a more extensive, multidimensional global effort to shape the media environment.
The Washington headquarters of CCTV America employs some thirty journalists producing Mandarin-language content and more than a hundred producing English-language content. CCTV also has broadcasting facilities in New York and Los Angeles. In November 2015, it came to light that China Radio International (CRI), Beijing’s state-run radio network, operates as a hidden hand behind a global web of stations over which the Chinese government controls much of the content. According to a 2015 Reuters investigation, 33 stations in 14 countries “primarily broadcast content created or supplied by CRI or by media companies it controls in the United States, Australia, and Europe.” Like CCTV, Russia’s RT has built up its media infrastructure in the United States, with headquarters in Washington and broadcast facilities in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.
The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) has gone global, too. IRIB runs a host of international networks that include HispanTV in Spanish and Press TV in English. IRIB’s Sahar network offers programming in English, French, Arabic, Urdu, Azeri, Kurdish, and Bosnian. IRIB also manages a half dozen radio stations that broadcast programs in 25 different languages.
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. Russia is rapidly scaling up its influence in the new EU member states of Central Europe as well as in the Balkans, both regions where the future of democracy is in question. In 2015, for example, the Russian state-backed news portal “Sputnik” opened a Serbian language service at a time when independent news sources in Serbia are rapidly shrinking.
China, meanwhile, has been building up its influence in Latin America and Africa, coordinating its large economic investments there with wide-ranging initiatives in media, culture, and education. In a growing number of African countries, popular English-language newspapers draw on content offered for free or at bargain rates from Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. Television viewers can get their international news from either CCTV or China Radio International. These outlets systematically disseminate Chinese narratives throughout the region at a time when Western international news outlets have dramatically scaled back their presence in Africa. As of 2013, Xinhua had 18 offices in Latin America and CCTV had five. China’s activity in the spheres of culture and academia is likewise growing in Latin America, where there are 42 Confucius Institutes or Classrooms.
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. These bodies reinforce domestic repression by helping autocrats share techniques of political control, exchange “watchlists” of dissidents, and promote agreements for the forcible refoulement of exiles and refugees who are branded as terrorists. The apparent cross-border abductions by the Chinese authorities of Chinese dissidents in Thailand and of several Hong Kong booksellers are striking examples of the internationalization of China’s repression.
Now that authoritarianism has “gone global,” we must confront the disconcerting prospect that the most influential antidemocratic regimes are no longer content simply to contain democracy. Instead, they want to roll it back by reversing the advances dating from the democratic surge of the late 20th century. The challenge presented by regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran is being taken to an entirely new level by virtue of their projection of illiberal values and standards beyond their own national borders. Just a decade ago, few political observers could even have imagined such a development.
This growth in authoritarian influence comes at a time when the United States and the European Union have scaled back their own ambitions with regard to supporting democracy abroad and the values underlying it. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that an authoritarian surge is taking place at a time when malaise seems to grip the world’s leading democracies. Some of this malaise no doubt stems from massive global economic disruption that few Western political elites seem to firmly understand, and the fact that inherited state institutions seem to be unable to manage the crisis well. This has led by now to a protracted loss of confidence in the West. Destabilized and pessimistic nations tend to lose confidence in the virtues of their own political orders. That loss of confidence, in turn, undermines the energy needed to defend and propagate those virtues.
The world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes are thus operating today in an unusually permissive environment. Therefore, while it is true that the autocrats themselves possess inherent political and economic weaknesses, including massive unchecked corruption, it would be folly to underestimate the threat that they pose. If the democratic progress of recent decades is to be preserved, the world’s democracies must respond to the challenge of resurgent authoritarianism.
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. This requires new and invigorated efforts at international broadcasting and public diplomacy, making intensive and innovative use of social media. It should also entail greatly enlarged efforts to translate and distribute democratic knowledge and ideas into other languages.
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. Democracies have shown a consistent capacity for self-correction and renewal in the wake of challenging circumstances, and they can do so again. Pragmatic actors and thinkers from across the political spectrum in the United States have been proposing a number of possible reforms in institutional rules and procedures that could reduce gridlock and encourage compromise. These deserve a serious hearing.
Third, they need to take steps to prevent the authoritarians from hollowing out the key regional and global rules-based organizations. In particular, democratic governments and civil society actors must band together to block the dogged efforts of China, Russia, and their allies in key internet governance bodies to impose an online “code of conduct” that would set in place an authoritarian norm directly at odds with internet freedom.
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. Given the authoritarians’ mounting ambitions, the stakes are far too high for the democracies to sit this competition out.