The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a new wave of familiar argument: that the democratic, free-market system that ushered in an era of unprecedented global prosperity and political freedom for decades was always destined to decline, with the global health crisis only hastening its departure as authoritarian rivals rise.
It is true that the malignity of the pandemic and the unevenness of Western democracies’ response have created a strategic window for authoritarians to accelerate their ambitions to deconstruct the free and open world the United States and its allies built after 1989. But the pandemic has also exposed the dangers great-power authoritarians pose not only to their citizens but to the rest of the world.
It was, after all, the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of media, medical, and official reporting on the virus in its inception stage in Wuhan that allowed it to metastasize into a global pandemic. The failures of authoritarian models of governance in both China and Russia are being exposed by the COVID-19 emergency in a way like nothing we’ve seen in a generation.
The autocratic system in which the virus emerged turned a potentially containable epidemic into a global emergency that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and disrupted billions of livelihoods. This creates an opportunity for the United States to bend the post-pandemic world’s democratic trajectory sharply upward—in order to protect open societies from the unaccountable authoritarian repression that has jeopardized global public health.
Now is the time for the U.S. and its global partners to implement a grand national strategy focused on winning the competition for political systems. We invest heavily in military and commercial muscle to confront and deter our rivals while shaping a world friendly to American interests. A similar investment must be made in the competition to determine how countries around the world are governed—because the United States is safer when free nations are ascendant, not when authoritarianism is on the march.
In 2018, the United States adopted a National Security Strategy that featured great power competition as a primary ordering principle, following nearly two decades in which counter-terrorism was the dominant strategic lens. Chinese and Russian revisionism—their efforts to deconstruct the world the United States and its allies built—is indeed the primary danger to American national security today. The Pentagon has pivoted to re-posturing U.S. military forces and weapons acquisitions to take on the challenge. The Trump administration (at least before coronavirus struck) also sought to build up U.S. economic strength, another pillar of running a smart competition policy.
Yet the National Security Strategy, and much of the ongoing elite debate over how to prevail in a strategic competition against great power rivals of the kind America has not faced in two generations, does not include an actionable strategy for the struggle’s political domain. This is a serious gap—not only because the political domain is winnable, but also because the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin each are pursuing their own political initiatives designed to advance their authoritarian vision at the expense of the United States’ democratic model.
They are doing this with a strategic goal: to weaken the West, divide America from allies, fill strategic vacuums in the wake of U.S. retreat, and make the world safe for autocracy, given the nature of their regimes. This presents a direct danger not only to American leadership in the world, but to our way of life at home.
As leaders from the U.S. Founding Fathers to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have understood, the quality of liberty in the United States hinges on the progress of freedom in the world. The American way of life is not secure when strongmen control the balance of power outside our own hemisphere. The Kremlin’s aggressive designs in Europe and the Middle East, and China’s ambitions to replace the United States as the dominant power in both ends of Eurasia while eroding America’s normative leadership, underscore the stakes. As the center of global economic weight shifts eastward towards Asia, this is even more true, since access to Pacific markets will be ever more central to American prosperity in coming decades.
A successful strategy to manage great-power competition in the political domain should begin with a goal and theory of success. Our aim should be to build a world where democracy is the predominant form of governance because it is the model with the best chance of delivering peace and prosperity for citizens. Democracies don’t make war against each other; they don’t export desperate refugees, narcotics, or weapons of mass destruction; they don’t produce the violent extremism that flourishes in ungoverned spaces. It’s no coincidence that America’s closest allies are democracies, or that every high-income nation not sitting on energy riches is a rule-of-law society governed by independent institutions. Accountable and responsive governance is not just something nice to have; it’s a core contributor to American national security and prosperity.
Developing democracies are more vulnerable to the malign political influence of external predators because they do not yet have strong institutional checks against sophisticated subversion campaigns. That’s one gap China has exploited to build out its strategic influence in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, deploying information operations and forms of political and economic corruption to leverage strategic influence (and often acquire strategic assets such as port facilities).
By contrast, democracies make stronger and more reliable allies, seek positive-sum economic relationships, resist the financial and political insinuations of great-power rivals, and deploy foreign assistance to help countries become self-reliant rather than dependent. A central reason the Kremlin continues its assault on Ukraine is because a free and independent Ukraine, bolstered by strong democratic institutions, safeguards against corruption, and vibrant free media will never be part of Russia’s sphere of influence but will instead be an ally of the West.
To prevail in any great power competition, the United States needs allies and partners. Our strategic purpose is served by helping friendly democracies build the capabilities to meet their people’s needs while also strengthening their resilience to protect themselves from Russian and Chinese predation. Our success will be measured by how effectively we are enabling global partners to better serve their citizens and repel opportunistic attempts by Russia and China from extending their illiberal influence.
Sovereignty belongs to the people of a given country, not only to their political leaders. At a time when China and Russia seek to co-opt political elites through subtle forms of corruption as well as through influence and information operations, ensuring that citizens can hold their leaders accountable is a valuable safeguard of national independence. Where people and their elected leaders are free to choose, they are more likely to choose to be part of the free world than either a new Russian empire or an authoritarian-friendly Sinosphere.
Fortunately, the American people understand the link between American support for democracy in the world and the ideals we strive for at home: According to a 2018 survey, 71 percent of Americans favor the U.S. “taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries.” Two-thirds understand that the success of democracy abroad is directly linked to Americans’ security at home.
An actionable strategy in the political domain to manage and prevail in great-power competition against authoritarian rivals could rest on the following four pillars:
Counter malign authoritarian influence. The United States should establish a global initiative to thwart Chinese and Russian attempts to shape the world order to their benefit. This should actively promote the principles of openness, transparency, free competition, and democracy on everything from international trade to internet architecture. Our response must marshal diplomacy, foreign assistance, media and information, technology, trade, and commerce in the service of this goal.
The CCP and Kremlin playbooks abroad involve employing financial and economic incentives to co-opt or corrupt friendly elites, circumventing institutions through personalized approaches, quashing free media, and using information operations to occlude the truth in favor of friendly public narratives about Chinese and Russian power designed to subvert the independent foreign policies of countries that contest it.
To counter these efforts to suborn countries’ independent decision-making, the United States can support investigative journalists’ reporting to uncover the truth about foreign-sponsored corruption; it can help strengthen independent national institutions as a hedge against foreign co-option of individual political elites; it can support free and fair elections to ensure governments are accountable to their own citizens rather than to any foreign power; and it can reinforce market-based principles for trade and investment, including through high-quality economic agreements, to ensure free and open competition rather than a commercial playing field tilted toward authoritarian state capitalism.
Bolster democracy where it is most vulnerable. This strategy should strengthen democracy in countries that are most vulnerable to authoritarian coercion. We can accomplish this by marshalling and strategically deploying U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance resources.
U.S. diplomats can vocally champion local democracy advocates pushing for change, and forcefully call out malign actors’ attempts to undermine progress through shady deals or information operations. Such diplomatic messaging must be proactive, consistent, and never waver from differentiating those in the right (freedom fighters) from those in the wrong (repressive regimes and malign actors who seek to thwart progress).
In countries where partners want democracy as their system of governance, U.S. foreign assistance can serve two complementary roles. First, support to civil society, political parties, and government institutions can help strengthen democracy so that it delivers for citizens and, as a byproduct, makes these polities more resilient to CCP and Kremlin interference. A robust media sector, vibrant civil society, and transparent institutions are good for governance, holding leaders accountable, and shining a spotlight on outside attempts to meddle in domestic politics.
Second, U.S. foreign assistance can build the capacity of local champions to uncover, expose, and counter malign actors’ attempts to exert influence. Whether it’s uncovering China’s attempts to push for corrupt deals or co-opt local politicians or the Kremlin’s attempts to leverage influence with European political parties, American assistance can enable our partners to go on the offensive against these adversarial states. Countries most ripe for great-power predation are not strong and institutionalized democracies—where citizens have voice and can hold governments accountable, they will not countenance for long leaders who sell their countries to the highest foreign bidder.
China and Russia are more able to penetrate countries where checks and balances are weak; where parliaments can’t hold executives accountable; where rule of law is corrupted by politicization or government attacks on the judiciary; where media is not free to report on abuses of power, including in transactions with foreign governments. U.S. support for democratic institutions—including competitive political parties, vibrant civil societies, independent judiciaries, and vigorous free media—can help harden partner nations against the efforts of foreign authoritarians to insinuate themselves into their political life.
Many countries’ political resiliency is being tested by the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. support will be critical to help leaders affected by the pandemic manage the political fallout of the crisis by delivering effective responses. These include conducting effective crisis communications with citizens, shoring up trust in institutions capable of supporting citizen welfare in a time of acute stress, devolving power and resources down to provincial and municipal leaders who can be more responsive to constituents than politicians in distant capitals, and enacting a policy framework that will lead to the fastest recovery from massive economic displacements that risk radicalizing politics.
Win the War of Ideas. Our Chinese and Russian adversaries use a range of sophisticated methods to promote the superiority of their respective governance models and subtly, or directly, discredit the benefits of democracy. With China and Russia investing billions of dollars in global state-run media outfits like CCTV and Russia Today, winning the information space is no small feat.
The U.S. should orchestrate an aggressive, sustained information campaign that champions the superiority of liberal democracy and exposes the false promises of the authoritarian variant on offer from the CCP and Kremlin. In practice, this means U.S. officials at the highest levels continuing to champion democracy and its advocates, and not shying away from calling out the failures of dictatorship. Winning this war of ideas matters because it emboldens advocates fighting for democracy in places that matter for the United States and checks malign attempts to erode U.S. leadership.
Coupled with this outward facing information effort led by the Department of State, the United States should target foreign assistance to push back on disinformation by supporting free and reliable media around the world. It’s time to dust off—and update—the playbook we used during the Cold War to help populations get their news from independent sources so that they are less vulnerable to propaganda.
Such an approach does not mean countering their propaganda with ours. It means empowering objective reporting and analysis—and deploying resources available only to governments to ensure such free information reaches citizens inside China’s Great Firewall and the what the Kremlin calls Russia’s “sovereign internet.” Regrettably, the West’s open societies have enabled Kremlin and CCP information operations to go on the offensive over the past decade; Western democracies have focused their primary energies defensively, on combatting foreign-sponsored disinformation at home.
It’s time to play offense: through public-private partnerships and U.S. government support for non-governmental organizations deploying technologies that reach ordinary Chinese and Russian citizens as well as their political masters with independent, objective reporting and analysis not freely available due to their governments’ strict censorship. Such initiatives should not echo any U.S. government line but should tell the truth about gross political corruption and abuses of power by Chinese and Russian leaders, as well as taking on educational curricula and state media that socialize Russian and Chinese citizens to believe the United States is hostile to their national values and rich histories.
In short, the United States should fight the lies propounded by authoritarian regimes with objective truth. Political control by unaccountable leaders-for-life in China and Russia is premised on information control. The digital technologies exist today to pierce those information bubbles and help Russian and Chinese citizens make up their own minds about what kind of country they want to live in and what kind of leaders they want to serve them.
Reform multilateral institutions coopted by authoritarian states. Finally, the U.S. should urgently press to reform multilateral organizations that are being manipulated by authoritarian states. Beijing’s influence over the World Health Organization (WHO) has done enormous damage to the organization’s credibility and capacity to contain COVID-19. Beijing blocked Taiwan’s membership in the WHO, which contributed to the spread of coronavirus outside mainland China.
China, the world’s greatest violator of intellectual property protections, attempted to take over the World Intellectual Property Organization before a counter-coalition of free nations pushed back and propelled an alternative leadership candidate to victory. China, one of the world’s greatest violators of human rights, recently won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, where its diplomats will work assiduously to weaken international human rights norms and block efforts to hold China and its allies to account for crimes against their citizens. China’s influence within a variety of United Nations institutions has also undermined trust in the UN’s ability to exercise its mandate in any meaningful way.
Even as the United States seeks to reform multilateral fora like the United Nations, it must continue to assert its influence (and associated democratic values) within the structures as they stand today. The flaws of these institutions notwithstanding, now is not the time to step back; U.S. leadership and agency are essential to ensure the UN and its various bodies respect and promote the principles of openness, transparency, and deliberation. Just as we must thwart malign attempts to push other countries’ domestic politics toward dictatorship, so too do we need to ensure those same adversaries do not refashion the inter-state cooperative architecture in their own repressive image.
When it comes to Chinese leadership of international institutions, all nations must ask themselves: Are we prepared to risk another global crisis? If the answer is no, one place to start is June’s G7 meeting. The United States can leverage our G7 chairmanship to organize an international summit on governance solutions to resuscitate societies and economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative could generate new solutions rooted in accountability and transparency and draw a stark contrast for the world between the community of democracies focused on solving global problems and the autocracies seeking to profit from them.
This should be paired with a coordinated and well-publicized campaign across U.S. and allied aid agencies to help developing countries implement those solutions. Overall, this would demonstrate the leading role of the United States and its democratic allies in responding to the crisis, including our commitment to our international partners in the recovery phase.
There was another time when American leadership and global democracy appeared in decline and the authoritarian competition appeared ascendant. In 1982, Ronald Reagan rose to the challenge and declared at London’s Westminster palace that “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism–Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” Less than a decade later, the Soviet Union was gone. It wasn’t Reagan’s words, of course, that ended the Cold War. But his administration’s leadership on democracy and human rights helped empower citizens behind the Iron Curtain to free themselves from Russian imperialism.
Today, we’re at a similar inflection point as the coronavirus is testing political systems and the foundations of governance around the world. As the virus disrupts comfortable illusions and accelerates historical trends, the United States must assume its historic responsibility to lead the free world in shaping a more democratic post-COVID global order.