For two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy enjoyed unprecedented global preeminence. In Europe and Asia, the most successful web of alliances in history, led by the United States, bonded the world’s liberal democracies, not only through common interests, but through deeply shared values as well. As a result, when the Soviet Union collapsed, democracies thrived across most of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of the former Soviet Union and Africa. By then, most of Latin America was already democratic, and about two in five Asian states were as well.
The post-Cold War era, lasting from 1991 to—I argue here—2016, presented the most benign security environment for the United States since the immediate aftermath of World War II. And like that earlier period, it was not unrelated to the positive momentum for freedom and democracy in the world. When democracy is dominant in the world, the United States is safer. We may face economic competition from other liberal democracies, but no established democracy has ever been a threat to our national security.
The September 11 attacks on the United States seemed to herald a new era of threat and vulnerability. But without minimizing the shocking scope of that assault, it has so far proved a manageable threat. It required an invasion of Afghanistan to dislodge Al Qaeda and constant military, intelligence, and policing vigilance since then, but it has not posed an existential challenge to America, or to American leadership in the world.
Indeed, 9/11 failed in its design to cripple the United States as a global leader. In its wake, the world rallied behind America as it led an assault on global networks of radical Islamist terrorism. After a brief shock, the American economy recovered. And freedom and democracy continued to expand in the world. Between 2001 and 2006, the world witnessed the net number of democracies increase by seven, with the number of democracies one might characterize as reasonably liberal (with good protections for civil liberties) increasing by ten. This trend peaked in 2006, with about 60 percent of the world’s states being democracies and about two-thirds of those qualifying as “liberal” democracies.
What followed was a decade of democratic recession. According to Freedom House, more countries have become less free than not every single year since 2006. Following a trend that began with the destruction of democratic pluralism in Russia and Venezuela, a growing number of countries have seen their formally democratic constitutions gradually hollowed out by authoritarian rulers and parties. The reality or promise of democracy was squelched in strategically important emerging-market countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Nigeria—and in many smaller ones as well.
There were several reasons why the thirty year trend ran out of steam around 2006. Economic growth was already slowing in many democracies when the financial crisis hit hard in 2008. Globalization, with its social disruptions and increasing inequality within nations, was accelerating. The financial crisis severely damaged the luster of the world’s most powerful liberal democracy, the United States, where greed in the financial industry and wholly inadequate regulation nearly caused a global economic depression. But perhaps the biggest cause of the change was the deepening military quagmire in Iraq and the growing backlash against what was seen as a failed policy of “democracy promotion.” While historically high levels of funding continued to flow for some time into democracy assistance programs, and the United States did occasionally push for freedom (in several high-profile Obama speeches, and during the early days of the Arab Spring), freedom and democracy gradually receded as priorities in American diplomacy.
Over the past decade, the structure of global power has been changing in other important ways. China accelerated its rise toward superpower status, and toward becoming the world’s largest economy (a goal it may well achieve later this decade). Many world leaders who chafed at facing accountability before their own people began talking about “the China model”. The implication was that authoritarianism was necessary for growth so querulous publics should just shut up and accept it. (Never mind that many of the fastest-growing economies during the last twenty years have been democracies, and that virtually all of the worst performing economies have been dictatorships.) At the same time, Vladimir Putin was reconstructing Russian military power—and using it in Georgia and then Ukraine—while also developing a sophisticated and far-flung apparatus for information warfare. And dictatorships of the world were uniting in networks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to share worst practices for Internet censorship and coordinate their respective assaults on freedom.
Until very recently, it was unthinkable that the democratic recession could spread to the liberal West. But by 2015 illiberal ruling parties had erased the basic safeguards of democratic competition and the rule of law in Hungary, and were eagerly seeking to construct a similar authoritarian hegemony in Poland. As the Syrian civil war intensified immigration pressure within the European Union, illiberal parties gained momentum in major West European democracies like France and Germany, while anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiment helped tip the 2016 British referendum toward Brexit. The right-wing populist Marine LePen was soundly defeated in the second round of the French presidential election in May, and the far-right populist Freedom Party was narrowly defeated in the Austrian presidential election last year. Nevertheless, all across Europe, illiberal populist parties have been gaining electoral ground at alarming speed. In parliamentary elections last month, one out of eight Germans cast their votes for an anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, which, according to Deutsche Welle, contains a substantial far-right faction that “shades over into ethnic and even racist nationalism.”
What all these parties share is contempt for elites, for institutions, and for the liberal values of pluralism and inclusion. It’s one thing to question how much immigration a democracy can rapidly absorb. But these parties don’t stop there. They portray themselves as the sole authentic defenders of the “true” people, against all the other corrupt elites who have betrayed the people. They favor unvarnished majority rule, depicting checks and balances as suppression of the popular will. (After all, who are these judges and bureaucrats but more corrupt elites?) Even when these populists claim to support democracy, it is with authoritarian overtones. Forget about the overwrought comparisons to fascism and think of Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1950s, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in the 2000s, and more recently Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary. It doesn’t end well for democracy.
The most profound shock to democracy, however, occurred not in Europe but in the United States, with the Russian hacking of the 2016 American presidential election. For the first time, a hostile foreign power not only deeply intervened in the American electoral process but tipped it toward its preferred candidate. Russia’s authoritarian regime hacked into the emails of the Democratic Party and some of its key campaign leaders. It then “weaponized” this information, leaking it with exquisite timing and tweeting and posting it with surgical precision, socially and geographically, to inflict the maximum damage on the party and its presidential candidate. The effort employed a vast social media army of machines (“bots”) and paid agents (“trolls”) to pretend to be real Americans venting their political cynicism, disgust, and provocative extreme views.
None of this would have worked if the American public had not already become deeply polarized and distrustful. But Vladimir Putin found a deep vulnerability in his adversary, and—as with all forms of asymmetrical warfare—used a limited expenditure of resources to deal a devastating blow. We still don’t know what the Russians did or learned when they hacked into the voter registration databases of more than twenty American states. What we do know about the overall attack, as former FBI Director James Comey testified in June, is: “They did it with purpose, they did it with sophistication, they did it with overwhelming technical efforts.” And: “They will be back…. They’re coming after America.”
China’s ruling Communist Party has been taking a very different, more incremental and subtle approach. Analysts are only now beginning to piece together the full scope of this strategy, but it involves:
- The relentless global expansion of Chinese state media enterprises, such as Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily, and CGTV, which—unlike the BBC, CNN, or Deutsche Welle—offer a uniformly rosy view of China, its government, and its intentions.
- The aggressive expansion of Confucius Institutes and other initiatives to promote the study of Chinese language and culture while conveying the Chinese state’s political line.
- Growing efforts to penetrate U.S. movie, media and information companies, as with the recent purchase of the second largest chain of movie theaters in the U.S., AMC.
- The rapid expansion of Chinese ownership of vast tracts of farmland and critical industries and infrastructure worldwide.
- Opaque flows of support to American institutions and individuals to fund sympathetic studies of China.
Perhaps most ominous is the current effort of one of China’s largest and most opaque business conglomerates, HNA to establish in New York a charitable foundation to directly fund a variety of “philanthropic” activities in the United States. With $18 billion in assets, this foundation—whose resources come from what many observers presume to be a front company for the Chinese state or Communist Party—would be the second largest foundation in the United States, positioned to distribute nearly a billion dollars a year to promote a vast network of friendly societal ties with the world’s most powerful dictatorship.
It is time for Americans to wake up. The post-Cold War era is now truly over. We have entered a new era in which two great-power adversaries are, with formidable subtlety, resourcefulness, and technical sophistication, threatening our democratic way of life. That may sound a lot like the 20th century; in fact, it is quite different. But it will require the same kind of resolve, and the same kind of patient and comprehensive strategy that enabled us to prevail in what we thought, just a brief quarter-century ago, would be the last great rivalry we would need to wage against an authoritarian adversary. The strategy we need will be the subject of my next column in this space.