Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking virtually at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, June 2022
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking virtually at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, June 2022
Ritzau Scanpix / Philip Davali / Reuters

Witnessing Ukrainian fighters' valiant efforts to resist Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of their fledgling democracy, a growing cohort of analysts and policymakers have begun to argue that a Russian defeat would not simply remove a major threat to Western democracies. What it would also do, they argue, is revive liberal internationalism itself, breathing new life into an ailing and increasingly dysfunctional post–Cold War global order.

A win against the Kremlin would help upend the narrative that the West is too weak and divided to push back against authoritarianism, and it could prompt fence-sitting countries to reconsider their embrace of China or Russia. But the notion that defeating Putin could reverse 16 straight years of global democratic decline simply doesn't hold up. Although a decisive Ukrainian victory might momentarily slow the downward cascade, the pathologies underlying democratic decay are largely disconnected from Russian or Chinese actions. Instead, the greater threat to the world's democracies comes from within. A toxic combination of internal factors—including pernicious polarization, anti-elite attitudes, and the rise of unscrupulous politicians willing to exploit these sentiments—has led to a breakdown in shared values in the democratic world. Preventing further democratic decline, let alone reversing it, requires both a clear-eyed understanding of these factors and, more important, a renewed commitment to core democratic values.

DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE

One reason for democratic backsliding is that liberal democracies and electoral democracies are facing an ongoing crisis in governance. Heads of state such as former U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have brazenly subverted democratic institutions in their pursuit of power. These trends, which researchers have described as a "third wave of autocratization," are particularly pronounced in established democracies. The most recent report from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at Sweden's University of Gothenburg found that roughly one in five European Union member states are growing more autocratic, as are long-standing democracies such as Brazil, India, and the United States. As a result, the number of liberal democracies worldwide stands at a 26-year low.

Authoritarianism is also expanding rapidly in the weak democracies or competitive autocracies known as hybrid states. During Uganda's 2021 presidential elections, for example, President Yoweri Museveni authorized forceful measures to assure that he remained in power. He imposed a complete Internet blackout leading up to the vote and used state security forces to intimidate and arrest journalists, civil society actors, and opposition figures such as presidential candidate Bobi Wine, who was detained by the police after casting his ballot. In this regard, Uganda is far from alone. Similar rights violations have occurred in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines, illustrating the far-reaching nature of this trend.

Research shows that while authoritarianism is surging, democratic movements and institutions have failed to respond with sufficient force, allowing many repressive measures to go unchallenged. While pockets of resistance have emerged in countries including El Salvador, Myanmar, and Slovenia (where the electorate recently voted out the country's right-wing populist leader in favor of the liberal opposition), these examples are rare. In contrast, pro-autocracy protests have been on the rise in developing countries and in the postcommunist world. This development partly reflects the growth of "conservative civil society," in which right-leaning civic actors join forces with illiberal politicians to reject liberal democratic norms. Across the world, autocratic leaders are mobilizing citizens to help advance their antidemocratic agendas. In Brazil, thousands rallied in September 2021 to Bolsonaro's calls to remove all Supreme Court justices. In the United States, Trump encouraged an insurrection on January 6, 2021. In Thailand, royalists have assembled antidemocratic coalitions to deter opposition protesters. These popular mobilizations suggest that democracies are losing the normative argument about the desirability of liberal governance.

AUTOCRACY NOW

Indeed, autocrats have seized the initiative to erode the idea that all citizens possess inalienable rights and freedoms regardless of national origin. Illiberal leaders are arguing with increasing success that citizens' rights and liberties should face limitations, particularly when these freedoms challenge the incumbent's rule. Autocrats are using an array of justifications such as national security, public order, or cultural preservation to make a case for prioritizing sovereignty over universalism. Discarding universal principles isn't a new phenomenon. But it is gaining momentum, partly because autocrats feel decreasing pressure to follow the liberal democratic model.

The weakening of universal norms is happening in big and small ways worldwide. The "splintering" of the Internet is one such trend. Autocracies such as China, Iran, and Russia, may have led the way. Still, democracies such as Brazil, India, and Nigeria, have also devised rules governing what information their citizens can access and produce, in clear violation of freedom of expression. In India, for example, the government has decreed that social media platforms must take down content that threatens "the unity, integrity, defense, security or sovereignty of India." In turn, this has precipitated broad suppression of legitimate speech, such as the Indian government's order that Twitter ban hundreds of accounts linked to farmers' protests in 2021. These leaders are calculating that if they can undermine universal democratic principles that dilute their power, they can more easily consolidate their rule and remain in office.

The weakening of universal norms is happening in big and small ways worldwide.

Similar deterioration has been witnessed across a range of democracy indicators: V-Dem researchers find that "six critical indicators of "liberal democracy," from judicial independence to executive oversight, are declining worldwide. In scores of countries, states have instituted restrictive legal measures to constrain nongovernmental organizations, carried out "aggressive smear campaigns" to discredit independent organizations, and intentionally sowed discord among civil society actors. Leaders justify these crackdowns by claiming that civil society groups are damaging national interests or allowing shadowy foreign brokers to undermine political systems. In 2018, for example, Orban secured passage of what became known as the "Stop Soros" law, a reference to the philanthropist George Soros, a longstanding Orban target. The law made it illegal to assist undocumented migrants and provided a convenient pretext for the Orban government to crack down on its political opponents. Autocrats worldwide are increasingly using similar restrictions to justify repression in the name of national sovereignty.

In some countries, Beijing and Moscow have played significant roles in reinforcing authoritarianism, mainly by providing military assistance and economic support. In the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, and Sudan, Russia's Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization with close ties to the Russian armed forces, has spearheaded disinformation campaigns to undermine regime opponents, secured payment for services through extractive industry concessions, and carried out joint military operations that have led to civilian killings. China has pursued similar policies to help Cambodia's longtime strongman, Hun Sen, stay in power. In return, Hun Sen has granted China permission to build a clandestine naval facility for its exclusive use. China's surveillance and censorship exports have helped it to pursue similarly advantageous relationships with Algeria, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Serbia, and Zambia.

COUNTERING AUTHORITARIANISM

As Western policymakers struggle to counter growing authoritarianism worldwide, they should take care not to overemphasize competition with Russia and China. Already, there is widespread suspicion about U.S. motives. A string of foreign policy blunders has damaged the United States' reputation: prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, Edward Snowden's disclosures, and unaccountable civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes. U.S. efforts to box in Russia and curtail China's influence have drawn tepid responses in many countries. When I conducted field research in Ethiopia in 2020, for instance, my sources repeatedly mentioned that the U.S. rivalry with China felt irrelevant and that they believed that the United States' involvement in their country was motivated by its own security priorities rather than a genuine interest in advancing democracy or prosperity in the country. It comes as little surprise that, as the historian Peter Slezkine writes, "outside of the United States' (mostly Western) formal allies, attitudes toward anti-Russian sanctions have been largely ambivalent."

This sentiment touches on a crucial point: few of the world's citizens are fooled by U.S. President Joe Biden's focus on the contest between authoritarianism and democracy. They see the U.S. agenda for what it is: lofty rhetoric about democracy undercut by geopolitical calculations. Biden's recent trip to the Middle East—during which he greeted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (whom U.S. intelligence agencies hold responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) with a fist bump, and had a warm tête-à-tête with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (whose government has detained tens of thousands of political prisoners)—offered a pointed reminder about U.S. policy priorities.

That does not mean that it is not possible for the United States to restore legitimacy to the global democracy agenda, but the task will not come easily. One step the Biden administration can take is to signal clearer support for values-based approaches. For every meeting Biden holds with an authoritarian like the Saudi crown prince or the Egyptian president, he should convene an equally well-publicized gathering with Saudi or Egyptian activists to discuss their countries' abysmal records on human rights. The Biden administration should also match resources to rhetoric. At the Summit for Democracy slated to take place in 2023, the United States and its allies should announce the creation of an independent fund for global justice and democracy. The goal of such a fund would be simple: to provide the resources and means for local activists, civil society organizations, independent journalists, and ordinary citizens to stand up against injustice, defend human rights, and advance democratic freedoms, particularly in repressive environments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela.

The fund should operate independently from any government. Instead, a small steering committee of democracy activists and experts would oversee its operations (although the United States could kick things off by pledging $100 million in seed financing). At a time when populists and autocrats possess such large megaphones and are gaining political momentum, the fund could help counterbalance those trends by enabling liberal voices to reclaim political terrain in their communities.

Democracy is not inevitable: it must be nurtured, sustained, and fought for. If democracies fail to make a compelling argument for why political freedoms matter, or if citizens become too disillusioned or cynical to care about how they are governed, a new generation of autocrats will be all too willing to step in and seize the reins of power. If they succeed, the world will become a significantly more violent, corrupt, and dangerous place in which to live.

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  • STEVEN FELDSTEIN is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2014 to 2017, he served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

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