it Authoritarianism 2.0. Today's authoritarian regimes are
undermining democracy in updated, sophisticated, and lavishly funded
ways. This new class of autocrats poses the most serious challenge to
the emergence of an international system based on the rule of law,
human rights, and open expression.
With the benefit of
hindsight, it's clear that the 1990s were heady days. The Soviet Union
had collapsed and democracy appeared to be on the march. Then, earlier
this decade, popular color revolutions stunned rulers in a number of
countries and continue to inspire democrats from Central Asia to the
Middle East. But, partially in response to these developments,
authoritarians have regrouped and are adapting and modernizing their
Our organizations convened experts to
analyze the ways in which five influential countries --China, Iran,
Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela -- impede democratic development both
within and beyond their borders. Our research resulted in the new report, Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians, which
explores the common traits of these regimes and how they are largely
responsible for the recent overall decline in political freedom
throughout the world.
These countries resemble traditional
authoritarian regimes in their subversion of democracy using a
combination of tools, including manipulation of the legal system, media
control, and outright fear. The ruling group in each country protects
its power by rewarding loyalists and punishing opponents without regard
to due process. Nothing new for dictators.
What makes these
cases unique and a genuinely new phenomenon, though, is the innovation
and sophistication they are using to subvert online discourse. When not
controlling Internet access, these regimes have deployed armies of
commentators and provocateurs to distract and disrupt legitimate
These regimes have also adapted to modern
global capitalism by using the market to solidify their control. China,
for instance, has commercialized censorship for old and new media
alike. For traditional media, the authorities encourage journalists and
editors to produce reports that have popular -- and
commercial -- appeal, but are politically anodyne. China has been at the forefront of the growing trend of
outsourcing censorship and monitoring to private companies. These activities cast doubt on the widely held assumption that the Internet is a force for democracy.
new authoritarians also shape international values and views through
sophisticated and well-funded global media enterprises. The Kremlin has
launched Russia Today, a multimillion-dollar television venture that
broadcasts to North America, Europe, and Asia. In 2007, Iran created
Press TV, an English-language satellite station with an international
staff several hundred strong. And China is poised to spend enormous
sums on expanding overseas media operations in a bid to improve the
country's image. Beijing has reportedly set aside at least $6 billion
for these media expansion efforts.
Meanwhile, these governments
have not limited their checkbooks to media investments. By doling out
billions of dollars in no-strings-attached foreign aid, they are
hobbling international efforts to improve governance and reduce
corruption through conditional aid. Chinese leaders put forward a
doctrine of win-win foreign relationships, encouraging Latin
American, African, Asian, and Arab states to form mutually beneficial
arrangements with Beijing based on the principle of noninterference.
The Chinese aid program appears to attract willing recipients; the
World Bank estimates that China is now the largest lender to Africa.
Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have similarly used their oil wealth to
build foreign alliances and bankroll clients abroad, particularly in
their home regions.
As part of the broader effort to export
authoritarian influence, these regimes are also working hard to disrupt
key international rules-based bodies that support democracy and human
rights, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, the Organization of American States, and the Council of Europe.
At the United Nations, they have formed ad hoc coalitions to blunt
criticism, obstruct proposed sanctions, and advance antidemocratic
But also new is what these regimes are not doing.
authoritarians recognize that absolute control over information and
economic activity is neither possible nor necessary. Instead, they have
adapted their traditional coercive mechanisms with more subtle methods.
Political discourse is managed, rather than blatantly dictated,
through the selective suppression or reshaping of news and information.
And while the most important business entities are either co-opted or
swallowed up by the state, the days of the command economy are over.
Citizens are allowed to enjoy personal freedoms -- including foreign
travel and access to consumer goods -- that would have been unthinkable
in the era of Mao and Brezhnev.
During the Cold War, the
nature and goals of the dominant authoritarian states were clearer. In
contrast, modern autocrats, integrated into the global economy and
participating in many of the world's established financial and
political institutions, present a murkier challenge.
policymakers in democracies have struggled to identify an effective
approach to these threats. This is all the more worrying because the
lack of a clear response is happening alongside a deeper debate in the
United States over the inclusion of the fourth D -- democracy, as an
integral part of U.S. foreign policy, along with defense, diplomacy,
and development. And nothing would please the new authoritarians more
than to see D No. 4 drop from the lexicon.