Dealing with Authoritarian Regimes: Challenges for a Value-based Foreign Policy

25 years ago, an article on the “end of history” stirred controversy across the globe, thrusting its author Francis Fukuyama into the international spotlight. In short, his thesis suggested that the war between ideologies was over. Fascism and communism had seen their last days, and liberal capitalism emerged unchallenged in combination with democracy and free market economies. The future development of the international community was said to remain within the boundaries of this grand paradigm.

The “end of history”’ suggested an end of systemic ideological competition. This thesis did not come out of thin air. The Berlin Wall had collapsed, and the Soviet Empire and the socialist block had vanished. The American President at the time, George Bush Senior, famously proclaimed: “The day of the dictator is over... We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right.”

It is safe to assume that no Western statesmen would dare utter such optimistic words today. History has returned. Liberal democracies are challenged on two parallel fronts: by a new, self-confident form of authoritarianism; and by Islamic fundamentalism- a religiously charged ideology which proclaims that our values are not theirs, and our modernity is their enemy.

What is a liberal democracy? This is a fascinating subject of endless debate. Ultimately, we know fairly well what marks the difference between liberal democracies and authoritarianism: fair and free elections, political pluralism, rule of law, separation of powers, independent media, and a free and vibrant civil society. It is a combination of institutional order and a freedom-loving political culture that distinguishes our liberal democracies.

A new Form of Authoritarianism

The “Arab Spring” first appeared to many of us like a new edition of the democratic wave that had swept through Europe in 1989/1990: a great new era of dignity and self-determination. Meanwhile we are confronted with the ruins of this hope across the Arab world. For President Putin, re-installing a system of absolute power in Russia is not enough. His intervention in Ukraine is also a preventative counter-revolution against the spread of the “democracy-virus” to Russia itself. East of the European Union, a belt of more or less authoritarian states has formed: Russia, Belarus, the central Asian republics, Azerbaijan, Armenia. They do not consider themselves in transition between authoritarianism and democracy. On the contrary, they see themselves as a counter model to democracy. The Kremlin in particular is not satiated with securing its own regimes’ survival through the installation of an orchestrated pseudo-democracy. Instead, it consistently supports anti-liberal forces all over Europe, ranging from the French Front National to fascist groups in Greece and Bulgaria.

But the most important adversary of liberal democracy remains China, whose ruling elite openly champions its model of authoritarian modernization. Flirting with free enterprise, the market economy and proactive citizens’ engagement ends whenever the Communist Party’s ruling monopoly is affected. Whoever questions the political power or financial perks of the ruling elites can expect to face brutal repression. Any critique of the system is brushed off with a reference to the unquestionable economic and social success of the “Chinese way”; any demands for democratization are dismissed as a danger to the country’s stability. Either us or chaos: this formula is utilized by the ruling elites in Beijing, Moscow and Cairo alike. And like it or not- it resonates with wide parts of their societies.  

Most anti-democratic regimes do not merely rely on fear and repression to govern. They also secure the loyalty of a more or less substantial part of their population. Increasing wealth, upward social mobility, functioning services, public order and patriotism are all sources of legitimacy compensating for a lack of civil liberties. As long as standards of living are rising and public life functions relatively well, many people are willing to accept certain limits to their personal freedom and political rights. This bargain can be described as an “authoritarian social contract” between the ruling elites and the population: You guarantee increased wealth and stability, and we come to terms with your rule.

Authoritarian regimes are not simply transient phenomena on the way towards democracy. They constitute a form of government in and of itself, and they are unapologetic about it. This also means that we cannot pretend they will disappear tomorrow. At the same time- and this is part and parcel of any sober assessment- the appeal and allure of our democracies has suffered, even within our own societies. Decreasing voter turnout and the rise of populist movements in Europe and the US are significant indications of this trend.

Democracies in Crisis

There are many reasons for the increasing lack of confidence in our democracies: The policy of military regime change deployed by the US under G.W. Bush has failed dramatically. American neo conservatives- in addition to some liberal hawks amongst American Democrats- did not merely plan to exchange anti-American with pro-Western regimes. They counted on a scenario in which military intervention against the reign of terror employed by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein would pave the way for democratic modernization. In the case of Afghanistan, many German Greens had shared these hopes. Their approval of the deployment of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan was contingent on the hope of rebuilding a democratic country. Today we have reached a much more sober assessment of the possibility to install democracy from the outside. The US-led intervention in Iraq proved a foreign policy blunder with dramatic implications. Those who breach international law in the absence of absolute necessity cannot convincingly call on others to comply. The detention facility in Guantánamo Bay and the excessive surveillance practices deployed by the National Security Agency (NSA) symbolize the crisis of America’s credibility as the champion of democracy.

At the same time, those voices questioning the universality of liberal democracies grow louder. Asserting that Chinese, Russian and Iranian societies are simply not compatible with democracy has become a legitimate form of policy advice for Western decision-makers.

The dramatic social consequences of the 2008/9 financial crisis- many of which affect our societies to this day- further damaged the West’s credibility in the world. Policy makers and journalists in Asia and Latin America have not forgotten where this crisis was incubated. For many of them, the crisis serves as yet another example of the lack of responsibility deployed by Western democracies vis-à-vis the broader international community.

In addition, the weak economic performance of many Western democracies, particularly in Europe and Japan, stands in stark contrast to the spirit of optimism present in many other parts of the world. Economic growth still counts when comparing competing systems- in particular in countries where most people still live in poverty and hope for upward social mobility. This is why authoritarian regimes quickly descend into crisis mode when economic growth stagnates and the state fails to meet the socio-economic expectations of its population.

In Europe, citizens fear that our democracies’ ability to shape reality is increasingly hindered by a globalized economy which has taken on a life of its own. The growing centrifugal forces within the EU reflect its inability to successfully tackle the financial crisis, or to design a refugee policy based on solidarity, and paralyze Europe’s ability to act both internally and externally. That, too, has a negative effect on our self-confidence and image in the world.

How confidently can and should we stand up for our values of democracy and freedom in the world? And which instruments do we have at our disposal to do so?

Spaces for civil society in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states are shrinking at an alarming rate across the world- the German political foundations can tell you a thing or two about it. In many countries, our partners are faced with increasing pressure. They are accused of being unpatriotic; their legal room to maneuver and their financial resources are strained. Support for democratic civil society by international donors is increasingly brushed off as unwelcome meddling in internal affairs. Authoritarian rulers are quick to learn from each other how to best control NGOs and limit remaining spaces for civil society.

At the same time there are justified doubts as to whether the formula of “change through rapprochement” really works: at least in Russia and China, increasing economic integration and political cooperation failed to have a positive effect on domestic governance. Sometimes it seems as if growing exchange between nations even strengthens such regimes from within.

Value-based Realpolitik

This leads me to the next controversy: Should support for democracy abroad even be a central objective of our foreign policy? Or should we revert back to a foreign policy that is uninterested in the internal governance of states as long as our national interest is served, as the hyperrealist school of thought suggests?

I would like to respond that democracy support is not only an idealistic or native endeavor. It is in our own interest to broaden the circle of democracies. This is especially true with regard to global peace and stability in the long-term. Government’s foreign policy choices are strongly influenced by the nature of their political system. Domestic politics are therefore of utmost importance for the predictability and stability of international politics.

In the end, there is something to be said about democracies not going to war against each other. In turn, authoritarian states lack substantial checks and balances to prevent the militarization of their foreign policy. While military expenditure, saber-rattling and foreign interventions normally stir public protests in democratic societies, authoritarian states lack this internal barrier. In most dictatorships or semi-authoritarian states, decisions are made in small circles behind closed doors, and state-run propaganda is employed to heavily distort public opinion. Those who protest are shut down or even fear for their lives- as evidenced by the violent death of Anna Politkowskaja and other dissenting journalists in Russia. In Turkey, a growing number of critical journalists are persecuted. In China, bloggers who oppose the government live in constant fear of imprisonment.  

In addition, authoritarian states tend to compensate for domestic crises with hyper-nationalistic adventures abroad. Whenever they fail to legitimize their regimes through economic success or social amenities, temptations are high to engage in armed interventions abroad to prevent a rift between the ruling class and the people.

When dealing with authoritarian regimes, striking compromise is unavoidable. Strict non-cooperation is not an option, if only for the many common problems and interests we face: Climate change, international trade, a stable financial system, the refugee crisis, non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), fighting international terrorism - on all of these questions we need to find common ground with authoritarian regimes. We therefore need to find a way to enable cooperation while refusing to simply accept arbitrary rule and repression. That starts by calling a spade a spade, rather than branding authoritarian rulers as spotless democrats (“lupenreiner Demokrat“ refers to a term former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once called Vladimir Putin). We need to openly criticize rigged elections, arbitrary rule and grave human rights violations. The extent to which we offer support to critical intellectuals, independent media and civil society in authoritarian states serves as an important yardstick. This includes defending the work of international foundations and NGOs in those countries. Political and economic sanctions designed to inflict costs for grave violations of international law are foreign policy tools of last resort.

Liberal democracies, by the way, do not have to be imposed on anyone. When people have the choice, they very rarely choose authoritarian rulers who deploy violence and exploit the country’s resources for personal gains. The wish to be governed decently is universal.

Universal Values instead of Cultural Relativism

It is true that we can only be credible abroad if we put our own house in order. But despite the crises and concerning developments we face within our own societies, the West should confidently stand up for its democratic values instead of rendering homage to cultural relativism. Even if these values developed in the West, they are universal in nature. Around the globe, human rights defenders refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the last common utopia of humankind.

We should not accept the false dichotomy between cold Realpolitik and naive idealism. Readiness to engage in dialog and the search for constructive solutions are just as necessary as a firm dedication to the universal norms of international politics. The great challenge lies in developing a value-based Realpolitik that combines pragmatism with a strong commitment to the universality of our values.