Putin Against History
How His War Has Erased Russia’s Past—And Endangered Its Future
For three decades beginning in the mid-1970s, the world experienced a remarkable expansion of democracy—the so-called third wave—with authoritarian regimes falling or reforming across the world. By 1993, a majority of states with populations over one million had become democracies. Levels of freedom, as measured by Freedom House, were steadily rising as well. In most years between 1991 and 2005, many more countries gained freedom than lost it.
But around 2006, the forward momentum of democracy came to a halt. In every year since 2007, many more countries have seen their freedom decrease than have seen it increase, reversing the post–Cold War trend. The rule of law has taken a severe and sustained beating, particularly in Africa and the postcommunist states; civil liberties and electoral rights have also been declining.
Adding to the problem, democracies have been expiring in big and strategically important countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has long been using the power granted to him through elections to destroy democracy in Russia. More recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone down a similar path. Elected executives have been the principal agents of democratic destruction in some countries; in others, the military has. The generals seized control of the government in Egypt in 2013 and in Thailand in 2014, and they continue to wield de facto power in Myanmar and Pakistan. Across Africa, the trend has been for elected autocrats, such as President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and President John Magufuli of Tanzania, to manipulate elections, subvert independent institutions, and harass critics and political opponents to ensure their continued grip on power.
More concerning still is the wave of illiberal populism that has been sweeping developed and developing countries alike, often in response to anxiety over immigration and growing cultural diversity. The harbinger of this trend was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has presided over the first death of a democracy in an EU member state. Similar trends are under way in Brazil, the Philippines, and Poland. Illiberal, xenophobic parties have been gaining political ground in such hallowed European liberal democracies as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden; one such party made a serious bid for the presidency of France; and another captured a share of national power in Italy. In the United States, an illiberal populist now occupies the White House.
There are flickers of hope in places such as Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Nigeria, and democracy is hanging on against the odds in Tunisia and Ukraine. But overall, the trend is undeniably worrisome. Twelve years into the democratic slump, not only does it show no signs of ending, but it is gathering steam.
A quarter century ago, the spread of democracy seemed assured, and a major goal of U.S. foreign policy was to hasten its advance—called “democratic enlargement” in the 1990s and “democracy promotion” in the first decade of this century. What went wrong? In short, democracy lost its leading proponent. Disastrous U.S. interventions in the Middle East soured Americans on the idea of democracy promotion, and a combination of fears about democratic decline in their own country and economic problems encouraged them to turn inward. Today, the United States is in the midst of a broader retreat from global leadership, one that is ceding space to authoritarian powers such as China, which is surging to superpower status, and Russia, which is reviving its military might and geopolitical ambitions.
Ultimately, the decline of democracy will be reversed only if the United States again takes up the mantle of democracy promotion. To do so, it will have to compete much more vigorously against China and Russia to spread democratic ideas and values and counter authoritarian ones. But before that can happen, it has to repair its own broken democracy.
A temporary dip in the remarkable pace of global democratization was inevitable. During the latter part of the third wave, democracy spread to many countries in Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe that lacked the classic favorable conditions for freedom: a developed economy, high levels of education, a large middle class, entrepreneurs in the private sector, a benign regional neighborhood, and prior experience with democracy. But the democratic recession has been much deeper and more protracted than a simple bend in the curve. Something is fundamentally different about the world today.
The Iraq war was the initial turning point. Once it turned out that Saddam Hussein did not, in fact, possess weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” became the only way to justify the war retrospectively. Whatever support for the intervention that had existed among the American public melted away as Iraq descended into violence and chaos. If this was democracy promotion, most Americans wanted no part of it.
A series of other high-profile shocks reinforced the American public’s wariness. Elsewhere in the Middle East, President George W. Bush’s vow to stand behind people who stood up for freedom rang hollow. In Egypt, for example, the administration did nothing as its ally, President Hosni Mubarak, intensified political repression during and after the contested 2005 elections. In January 2006, the Palestinian Authority held democratic elections, partially in response to pressure from the United States, that resulted in an unexpected victory for the militant group Hamas. And then, during Barack Obama’s presidency, the so-called Arab Spring came and went, leaving behind only one democracy, in Tunisia, and a slew of reversals, crackdowns, and state implosions in the rest of the Middle East.
As a result of these blunders and setbacks, Americans lost enthusiasm for democracy promotion. In September 2001, 29 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that democracy promotion should be a top foreign policy priority, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. That number fell to 18 percent in 2013 and 17 percent in 2018. According to a 2018 survey by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center, seven in ten Americans still favored U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights, but most Americans also expressed wariness of foreign interventions that might drain U.S. resources, as those in Vietnam and Iraq did.
Americans have been losing confidence in their own futures, their country’s future, and the ability of their political leaders to do anything about it.
More important, Americans expressed preoccupation with the sorry state of their own democracy, which two-thirds agreed was “getting weaker.” Those surveyed conveyed worry about problems in their society—with big money in politics, racism, and gridlock topping the list. In fact, half of those surveyed said they believed that the United States was in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country.”
Pessimism about the state of American democracy has been compounded by economic malaise. Americans were shaken by the 2008 financial crisis, which nearly plunged the world into a depression. Economic inequality, already worse in the United States than in other advanced democracies, is rising. And the American dream has taken a huge hit: only half the children born in the 1980s are earning more than their parents did at their age, whereas when those born in 1940 were around age 30, 92 percent of them earned more than their parents did at their age. Americans have been losing confidence in their own futures, their country’s future, and the ability of their political leaders to do anything about it.
A sense that the United States is in decline pervades—and not just among Americans. The United States’ global standing took a nosedive following President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Among 37 countries surveyed in 2017, the median percentage of those expressing favorable views of the United States fell to 49 percent, from 64 percent at the end of Obama’s presidency. It will be hard for the United States to promote democracy abroad while other countries—and its own citizens—are losing faith in the American model. The United States’ retreat from global leadership is feeding this skepticism in a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
Promoting democracy has never been easy work. U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Obama struggled to find the right balance between the lofty aims of promoting democracy and human rights and the harder imperatives of global statecraft. They all, on occasion, chose to pursue not just pragmatic but even warm relations with autocrats for the sake of securing markets, protecting allies, fighting terrorism, and controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Often, presidents have backed the forces of freedom opportunistically.
Obama did not set out to topple Mubarak, but when the Egyptian people rose up, he chose to back them. Reagan did not foresee needing to abandon loyal U.S. allies in the Philippines and South Korea, but events on the ground left him no other good option. George H. W. Bush probably did not imagine that Reagan’s prediction of the demise of Soviet communism would come true so quickly, but when it did, he expanded democracy and governance assistance programs to support and lock in the sweeping changes.
As the White House’s rhetorical and symbolic emphasis on freedom and democracy has waxed and waned over the past four decades, nonprofits and government agencies, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, have taken over the detailed work of democracy assistance. The United States has devoted around $2 billion per year over the last decade to programs promoting democracy abroad—a lot of money, but less than one-tenth of one percent of the total federal budget.
Although the U.S. government should spend more on these efforts, the fundamental problem is not a question of resources. Instead, it is the disconnect between the United States’ admirable efforts to assist democracy, on the one hand, and its diplomatic statements, state visits, and aid flows that often send the opposite message, on the other. Barely a year after he vowed in his second inaugural address to “end tyranny,” George W. Bush welcomed to the White House Azerbaijan’s corrupt, autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev, and uttered not a word of public disapproval about the nature of his rule. On a visit to Ethiopia in 2015, Obama twice called its government “democratically elected,” even though the ruling coalition had held sham elections earlier that same year.
Trump’s disregard for democratic norms is contributing to a growing and dangerous sense of license among dictators worldwide.
The trap of heaping praise on friendly autocrats while ignoring their abuses is hard to avoid, and all previous presidents have occasionally fallen into it. But most of them at least sought to find a balance, applying pressure when they felt they could and articulating a general principle of support for freedom. That is what has changed since the election of Trump, who doesn’t even pretend to support freedom. Instead, Trump has lovingly embraced such dictators as Putin, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, known as MBS, while treating European and other democratic allies with derision and contempt.
Trump’s disregard for democratic norms is contributing to a growing and dangerous sense of license among dictators worldwide. Consider the case of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In early October 2017, I received a distressing e-mail from Nicholas Opiyo, one of Uganda’s leading human rights lawyers. In late September of that year, soldiers had entered Parliament and beaten up members resisting a deeply unpopular constitutional amendment that would allow Museveni, who had then been in power for over 30 years, to rule for life. “It appears to me the whole region is in a steep democratic recession partly because of the loud silence from their western allies,” Opiyo wrote. “In the past, the state was a little reluctant to be this [brutal] and violent and had some measure of shame. It is all gone.”
Autocrats around the world are hearing the same message as Museveni: U.S. scrutiny is over, and they can do what they please, so long as they do not directly cross the United States. Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, had surely taken this message to heart as he purged his country’s chief justice, arrested his leading foe in the Senate, and intimidated journalists and other critics of his ostensible war on drugs, a murderous campaign that has caught both political rivals and innocent people in its net. Freed from American pressure, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has launched a thorough, brutal crackdown on all forms of opposition and dissent in Egypt, leaving the country more repressive than it was at any time during Mubarak’s 29 years of rule. And MBS has literally gotten away with murder: he faced almost no repercussions after evidence emerged that he had ordered the brutal assassination and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
The growing assertiveness of two major authoritarian states is also setting back democracy. In the past decade, Russia has rescued the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, conquered and annexed Crimea, and destabilized eastern Ukraine. China, meanwhile, has been investing extraordinary sums of money and diplomatic energy to project its power and influence around the world, both on land and at sea. A new era of global competition has dawned—not just between rival powers but also between rival ways of thinking about power.
To add to the threat, the competition between democratic governments and authoritarian ones is not symmetrical. China and Russia are seeking to penetrate the institutions of vulnerable countries and compromise them, not through the legitimate use of “soft power” (transparent methods to persuade, attract, and inspire actors abroad) but through “sharp power,” a term introduced by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment for Democracy. Sharp power involves the use of information warfare and political penetration to limit free expression, distort the political environment, and erode the integrity of civic and political institutions in democratic societies. In the words of Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia, it is “covert, coercive, or corrupting.” In Australia and New Zealand, the Western democracies that have been most affected by these tactics, there is almost no Chinese-language media source that is independent of Beijing, and former officeholders earn lucrative benefits by promoting Chinese interests. Australia has had some success pushing back with legislation. But China’s efforts to penetrate media, civic organizations, and politics meet less resistance in more vulnerable emerging-market democracies, such as Argentina, Ghana, Peru, and South Africa. And China’s influence efforts are now extending to Canada and the United States, threatening the independence and pluralism of Chinese-language media and community associations there, as well as freedom of speech and inquiry within Canadian and American think tanks and universities.
There is no technical fix for what ails democracy promotion. The problem is big and deep and has been long in the making. So must be the response. To begin with, American leaders must recognize that they are once again in a global contest of values and ideas. Both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin are fighting cynically and vigorously. The Kremlin’s central tactic is to destroy the very premise that there can be objective truth, not to mention universal values. If there is no objective truth, and no deeper moral value than power itself, then the biggest liar wins—and that is certainly Putin. China’s leadership is playing a longer game of penetrating democratic societies and slowly undermining them from within. It has at its disposal a broader range of methods and a far more lavish base of resources than Russia does—not least of which is a vast, interconnected bureaucracy of party, state, and formally nonstate actors.
Countering these malign authoritarian campaigns of disinformation, societal penetration, and ideological warfare will be critical for the defense of democracy. Democratic governments must begin by educating their own citizens, as well as mass media, universities, think tanks, corporations, local governments, and diaspora communities, about the danger posed by these authoritarian influence operations and the need for “constructive vigilance,” according to “China’s Influence and American Interests,” a 2018 report by a group of China experts convened by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society, which I co-edited with Orville Schell. The response must be constructive in that it must avoid over-reaction or ethnocentrism and seek to put forward democratic values as much as possible. But it must be vigilant in its awareness and scrutiny of China’s and Russia’s far-flung efforts to project their influence. Thus, democratic societies must insist on rigorous transparency in all institutional exchanges, grants, contracts, and other interactions with China and Russia. And democracies must demand greater reciprocity in their relations with these countries: for example, they cannot allow supposedly independent journalists and broadcast media from these authoritarian juggernauts unlimited access to their countries while their own journalists are severely restricted or denied visas and their cable news networks are completely shut out of China’s and Russia’s broadcast markets. Democracies, and democratic institutions such as universities and think tanks, must also coordinate more closely with one another to share information and protect against divide-and-rule tactics.
Beyond this, the United States must go back to being present in, and knowledgeable of, the countries on the frontlines of authoritarian states’ battles for hearts and minds. This means a dramatic ramping up of programs such as the Fulbright scholarships (which the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed cutting); the Boren Fellowships, which support U.S. students studying critical languages abroad; and other State Department programs that send Americans to live, work, lecture, perform, and study abroad. It must also go back to welcoming people from those countries to the United States—for example, by bringing many more journalists, policy specialists, civil society leaders, elected representatives, and government officials to the United States for partnerships and training programs. This is precisely the wrong moment for the United States to turn inward and close its doors to foreigners, claiming that it needs to focus on its own problems.
American leaders must recognize that they are once again in a global contest of values and ideas.
To confront the Chinese and Russian global propaganda machines, the United States will need to reboot and greatly expand its own public diplomacy efforts. China is audaciously seeking to control the global narrative about itself, its intentions, and its model of governance. Russia is spreading its own line—promoting Russia and Putin as the defenders of traditional Christian values in an era of gay rights, feminism, and cultural pluralism—along with general contempt for democracy and blatant lies about the United States. Washington must push back with information campaigns that reflect its values but are tailored to local contexts and can reach people quickly. At the same time, it must wage a longer struggle to spread the values, ideas, knowledge, and experiences of people living in free societies. It will need to use innovative methods to bypass Internet firewalls and infiltrate authoritarian settings—for example, distributing texts and videos that promote democracy in local languages on thumb drives. It must also create new tools to help people in autocracies safely and discreetly circumvent Internet censorship and control.
The United States once had a good instrument to wage such a battle of information and ideas: the U.S. Information Agency. In 1999, however, it was shut down in a deal between the Clinton administration and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a conservative Republican who sought to cut back on American engagement abroad. To spare cuts to other budgets for U.S. global engagement, the Clinton administration reluctantly agreed to shut down the USIA. Its budget and operations were moved—never very effectively—into the State Department, and a critical tool for promoting democracy was severely damaged. In 2016, the Obama administration created the Global Engagement Center, a group within the State Department charged with countering foreign propaganda and disinformation. But Rex Tillerson, Trump’s hapless first secretary of state, failed to spend the allocated resources; the initiative is only now gaining momentum under a new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who understands its importance.
What the United States needs now is not just a single program but an information agency staffed by a permanent, nimble, technologically innovative corps of information professionals—or, in the words of James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, “a USIA on steroids.” The purpose of a revived USIA would not be to one-up China and Russia in the game of disinformation. Rather, it—along with the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees such independent U.S. foreign broadcasting as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—would observe the dictum of the famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was director of the USIA under President John F. Kennedy: “Truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst.” And the truth is that people would prefer to live in freedom. The most effective way to counter Chinese and Russian propaganda is to report the truth about how the two gigantic countries are really governed. These facts and analyses must then be broadly and innovatively conveyed, within China, Russia, and other closed societies, and also within more open societies that, as targets of Chinese and Russian propaganda efforts, are no longer receiving a full and true picture of the nature of those regimes.
Transparency can also play a role in the fight for democracy. The soft underbelly of all malign autocracies, including China and Russia, is their deep and incurable corruption. No state can truly control corruption without instituting the rule of law. But that would be unthinkable for both countries—because in China, it would mean subordinating the party to an independent judiciary, and because in Russia, the regime is an organized crime ring masquerading as a state. Yet leading democracies have some leverage, because much of the staggering personal wealth generated by corruption pours into the banks, corporate structures, and real estate markets of the United States and Europe through legal loopholes that benefit only a privileged few. These loopholes allow dictators and their cronies to stash and launder dirty money in and through anonymous shell companies and anonymous real estate purchases. The United States, for its part, can legislate an end to these practices by simply requiring that all company and trust registrations and all real estate purchases in the United States report the true beneficial owners involved. It can also ban former U.S. officials and members of Congress from lobbying for foreign governments and enhance the legal authority and resources of agencies such as the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to detect and prosecute money laundering.
Finally, if the United States is going to win the global battle for democracy, it has to start at home. People around the world must once again come to see the United States as a democracy worthy of emulation. That will not happen if Congress remains gridlocked, if American society is divided into warring political camps, if election campaigns continue to drown in “dark money,” if the two parties brazenly gerrymander electoral districts to maximum partisan advantage, and if one political party comes to be associated with unrelenting efforts to suppress the vote of racial and ethnic minorities.
This is not the first time that global freedom has been under threat. Back in 1946, as the Cold War was coming into view, the diplomat George Kennan sent his famous “Long Telegram” from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Kennan urged the United States to grasp with clarity the diffuse nature of the authoritarian threat, strengthen the collective military resolve and capacity of democracies to confront and deter authoritarian ambition, and do whatever it could to separate the corrupt authoritarian rulers from their people.
But Kennan also understood something else: that the greatest asset of the United States was its democracy and that it must find the “courage and self-confidence” to adhere to its convictions and avoid becoming “like those with whom [it is] coping.” Kennan advised: “Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society . . . is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.”
Today, as the United States confronts not a single determined authoritarian rival but two, Kennan’s counsel deserves remembering. The United States stands at a precipice, facing a time when freedom and democracy will be tested. It remains, within the world’s vast web of alliances and organizations, the indispensable democracy. Now, as much as ever, the fate of American democracy is bound up with the global struggle for freedom. And the outcome of that struggle depends on Americans renewing the quality of their own democracy and their faith in its worth and promise.