A Cold War-style, grand ideological campaign against authoritarianism is unlikely to halt democracy’s global regression.
has become, at this point, almost a trope to conclude that global
democracy is increasingly imperiled, but there is considerable evidence
backing this theory. In groundbreaking new research
based on V-Dem, an exhaustive dataset tracking democracies, Anna
Luhrmann and Staffan Lindberg of the University of Gothenburg concluded
that democracy’s slide, previously thought to begin in the mid-2000s,
actually dates to as early as the mid-1990s. In an article
for TheWashington Post
last year, I too noted how democracy was failing – and that in many cases that regression would be hard to reverse.
In response to the global threats to democracy, some foreign policy
analysts and government officials have begun to suggest that the United
States and other democracies are entering a Cold War-style competition
against autocracy, in its many modern forms. Like Washington Post contributing columnist Robert Kagan, leading thinkers have suggested there
is not that much difference between the various forms of autocracy
today, and that the new struggle must be a broad and almost
civilizational one, between liberal and illiberal regimes. The U.S. Department of State’s director of policy planning, Kiron Skinner, recently echoed some of these ideas, telling
participants at a security event in Washington that growing U.S.-China
tensions are “a fight with a really different civilization and a
While autocracy – illiberal populism of both the right and the left,
military dictatorship, and major autocratic powers like China – is
clearly on the rise globally and in Asia, a Cold War-style, grand
ideological campaign against authoritarianism in general is unlikely to
halt democracy’s global regression. It is true that many illiberal
regimes share attributes, and that democratic leaders have been slow to
recognize the growing power of autocrats. But a Cold War-style frame
probably will not work. For one, it is unclear whether, at this time of
political gridlock and declining interest in foreign policy among
citizens in established democracies, including the United States and
leading Asian democracies, such an ideological battle is even
politically possible. But even if the United States and other
democracies could convince their citizens to launch a global, Cold
War-style campaign against autocracy, a broad and sweeping effort might
actually backfire. Many authoritarian regimes now bolster their
legitimacy by defining themselves as opposed to liberal democracy, with
its increasingly tarnished brand – like the Philippines’ Rodrigo
Duterte, autocrats relish an enemy to rail against.
Most important, however, the lessons of the past decade suggest that,
in some cases democratic declines can potentially be reversed, and
democratic freedoms gained, by focusing on a more microscopic approach,
one that has proven somewhat effective at promoting political reform.
This will not be easy – especially when populist strongmen take over,
they can do lasting damage.
But a microscopic and targeted approach, backed by the United States,
can be tailored to individual countries, can respond to local politics,
and can be based on evidence, rather than on broad ideas of supposedly
A Local Approach
Such a strategy would rest on three general pillars, with the leaders
of this strategy local democrats in individual countries, supported by
the United States and other powerful actors. And, to be fair, these
ideas could only be applied in two sets of countries: Democracies where
norms and institutions are crumbling, like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka,
and autocratic or hybrid regimes with some degree of openness, like
Thailand or Cambodia, where real change is possible, albeit hard. In the
most centralized and closed countries, like Laos or North Korea, it is
hard to envision any strategy that would foster major political change
these days. But in these weak democracies or more open autocracies,
there is the potential for political change – enough openness that civil
society and opposition politicians possibly can gain traction.
First, in countries where illiberal populists already have gained
power, opposition politicians and civil society should battle back by
focusing on what Matthew Yglesias of Vox has called normal politics
– bedrock political issues rather than the abuses of the rule of law.
Publics in these countries become inured to the scandals and abuses, or
believe that such investigations are just designed to take down the one
leader, the populist demagogue, who is purportedly on their side.
Few opposition parties have defeated illiberal populists by hammering
on scandal talk. On the contrary, Duterte’s allies just won a massive victory in the Philippines’ midterm elections, which the opposition presented as a referendum on the president’s abuses.
Of course, fostering oversight and transparency is important, but
illiberal populist governments have been defeated by politicians who ran
on bread and butter issues. In the recent Indonesian presidential
elections, incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, facing a populist,
potentially illiberal challenger in Prabowo Subianto, did co-opt some of
Prabowo’s populist messages. But Jokowi centered his campaign on the Indonesian economy, the ultimate bread and butter topic.
Politicians facing autocrats in an election also need to win a large
enough victory to overcome illiberal populists’, or other autocrats’,
unwillingness to leave office if they lose a vote. No politician likes
to lose, but autocrats often take extraordinary measures not to leave.
In 2013, then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition narrowly
lost the popular vote, but used gerrymandering and alleged fraud to keep Najib in power. But in 2018, the coalition facing Najib won such a resounding victory
on election day that Najib was delegitimized and, after a brief period
of uncertainty, ceded control. Conversely, the fact that Thailand’s
opposition coalition did not get a sweeping victory in March’s
parliamentary elections (albeit with the playing field tilted against them) made it easier for the military and its allies to stay in power.
However, outside of normal politics, there is one type of abuse that
can stir enough popular resentment to undermine autocracies or do battle
against weak, autocratic-leaning democratic governments: Corruption. So
civil society and opposition politicians should highlight top leaders’
graft as well. In fact, disgust with graft has been a central driver
behind many of the protests in recent years against governments in
democracies and autocracies alike, including Malaysia, Cambodia, South
Korea, and Kyrgyzstan, among others. Anger with graft also has helped
opposition politicians and civil society make major gains in some of
those states. Graft in particular sparks public anger because it
highlights the impunity and arrogance of rulers, and is easily
understandable, in a way that attacks on norms or even institutions are
not. And while populists may take advantage of anti-graft sentiments,
vowing to clean up corruption and fight decadent elites, public anger
about graft can also be turned against illiberal populists who do not
keep these promises.
And even when elections are designed not to be fully free and fair,
democrats in weak democracies or fragile autocracies should participate.
Participating in elections with some degree of freedom and fairness
allows opposition parties to make their points to the public, to build
coalitions, and to help citizens develop a kind of muscle memory about
the importance of voting and of democracy in general.
(To be sure, in complete sham elections, like those that occur in
states like Laos, there is little opportunity to take advantage of the
vote and build for the future.) And even elections that are not fully
fair can lead to surprising results that shock complacent autocrats.
When election time comes around, democratic forces absolutely must
form the broadest possible coalitions, no matter how unwieldy. This
might seem like an obvious idea, but in country after country splits
have allowed illiberal populists to win victories and dominate politics.
In the Philippines in 2016, a four-way presidential race helped Duterte
become president – and since then he has only become more powerful,
undermining civil liberties and cracking down on the opposition. By
contrast, in Malaysia last year, an awkward opposition coalition
together defeated Najib.
The U.S. Role
The United States and other established democracies, including in
Asia, can play a role in supporting these efforts to preserve or gain
democracy — but it must be a supporting effort, not one in which
Washington or other democratic capitals star in the leading role. Most
of these changes must be pushed by democrats in embattled states
themselves. Still, a supportive strategy could be enacted even at a time
of rising nationalism in the United States and other leading
democracies, and implemented largely through appropriations of a
Congress that still generally supports democracy promotion, even if the White House is lukewarm, at best, to the idea of advocating for rights and freedoms. (Some surveys show that Americans generally support the idea of democracy promotion abroad, but others suggest increasingly nationalistic views among Americans, and low interest in democracy promotion.)
What would that support look like? The United States and other donors
still do not make battling corruption enough of a priority in foreign
aid and foreign policy generally. Over the past decade, Washington has
theoretically tried to place a greater focus on combating graft and kleptocracy, but the Trump administration has often ignored graft
in important partner countries, and undermined multilateral efforts to
promote transparency among corporations doing business globally. A more
effective anti-corruption policy would include the White House
highlighting issues of graft even in countries where the United States
has security and economic interests, refraining from undermining
global institutions that battle corruption, and making backing
countries’ anti-corruption commissions and other bodies a higher U.S.
Washington also could devote a higher overall percentage of foreign
aid to areas related to politics, including support for governance,
elections, and institutions. Right now, political aid is by far the smallest
category of the big four areas of foreign aid. And Washington could
actually reward countries that make real progress toward democracy – a
point Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim made on an extended recent trip to the United States. He repeatedly emphasized
that countries like Malaysia do not need big rhetorical gestures but
rather greater support for governance, increasing trade opportunities,
and closer security cooperation, among other areas.
These efforts will never be a panacea. Even when protests topple
autocrats, other authoritarians can step into the void; even when
populists lose power, they may have done so much damage to the political
system that democracy is hard to restore, and other illiberal populists
take over in the future. Groups that mobilize and battle for change
often face high hurdles to implementing real, structural reforms. Still,
despite all its flaws today, democracy is still linked not only to
improved civil and political liberties but also to other positive
changes like better health outcomes.
The United States, meanwhile, still works more effectively with other
democratic states. With a more effective democracy promotion policy,
Washington could help ensure it still has many of those partners.
***Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is the author, most recently, of A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.