The world is in turmoil. Only thirty years after the fall of the USSR and the collapse of its proxy network in Eastern Europe, a land war is being fought in Europe between a democracy and a dictatorship.
When the Cold War ended, we could have scarcely imagined that in just three decades we would be where we are now. We know now that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 did not bring about “the end of history” as prophesied. Instead, it bred complacency among the leaders of the Western democracies, great complacency which has sowed the seeds for the current global anti-democratic reckoning.
Across much of the world, the ideas of a democratic liberal political order, of multilateral international collaboration, and of liberal free-market capitalism are now in retreat. Challenged not by a socialism as an alternative global, and universalist vision, but by an atavistic retreat to nativist, nationalist, and populist politics. This has been affecting both mature democracies and those states that made tentative steps toward a liberal political order in the aftermath of the Cold War. The result has been both a rise of authoritarian regimes, often through the degeneration of what were previously more functional democracies, and the decline of multinational coordination among countries now more likely to stress the primacy of the nation-state as the focus for the formulation of practical policies.
It is thus that in India, Narendra Modi is taking his country closer to Hindu chauvinism. In China, the Chinese Communist Party is ruling with an iron fist and perpetuating a high-technological genocide against the Uyghur religious and ethnic minority. In Europe and its surrounds, Turkey is sliding into autocracy under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Poland removes guardrails to keep its Law and Justice rulers in constitutional check, and Hungary under Viktor Orbán becomes a backchannel for other dictatorships as they shape the continent, before the backdrop of media consolidation, executive corruption, and the destruction of ordinary civil society.
The perplexing development with this anti-liberal backlash, however, is that nation-first chauvinist autocrats are now working together remarkably effectively in order to sidestep or undermine international liberal norms and institutions. In my book, Authoritarian Century, I call this key concept “Multilateral Autocratisation.” The emergent dictatorial systems are more alike than they are different, and they are remarkably good at working together for mutual advantage. Tyrannies of a feather flock together.
But this development is no accident. This propensity among the autocrats and aspiring autocrats to cooperate with each other has not emerged purely organically. This has been a development that has been cultivated, coordinated, and even often sponsored (in direct cash terms) by powers that have decided that the post-Cold War liberal international order is a strategic threat to their own interests—above all by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow, and the Communist regime in Beijing.
Now, the two powers are distinct, both in their mode of operation and in the nature of the threat they pose. Moscow’s methods are mostly subversion and destruction—and the most they can produce is chaos. They are no less dangerous for it, but Putin does not have a positive vision of the world to offer anyone else.
Beijing, on the other hand, does offer a path to an alternative, relatively well-ordered international settlement. It wishes to create a “multipolar world” in which the democracies of the Western alliance are overmatched by the world’s tyrannies. Beijing’s plans to reorientate the global economy along the Belt and Road Initiative are part of this process of building up the economies of the tyrannies and deepening their interconnection.
Beijing also puts special effort into wresting control of already existing international institutions, which give it authority over global rules and norms, as it seeks to mold these to fit its immediate interests and its vision of the future. It was thus that the World Trade Organization was not able to curb China’s unfair trade practices, that the World Health Organization could not censor China over false COVID data, and thus how the United Nations Law of the Sea could not stop China from expanding in the South China Sea.
The problem with the future offered by China is what it implies for the well-being of billions of people later this century: Beijing supports every kind of political repression that aligns with its interests and has no qualms about carrying out a genocide of its own in its western province in Xinjiang, at the same time as it has utterly crushed the democratic culture of Hong Kong, and it is planning the annexation of the democratic country of Taiwan. As the pressures of climate change will continue to mount as we proceed through this century, Beijing will be responding purely in terms of political advantage, with no regard for human rights or international justice—and this will have life or death repercussions for untold millions of people around the world.
But the fight over our future this century is not yet settled. Moscow has stumbled in its appalling invasion of Ukraine, and is already greatly diminished internationally. Putin himself may fall, if the circumstances align just right. And Xi has made a number of missteps both in domestic management and in international diplomacy which have set China’s rise back by at least a decade, giving liberal democrats around the world time to regroup.
This then is the challenge that those of us who care about democracy and human rights have before us most acutely in the coming two decades, but really for the rest of this century: either we allow the international system to once again lapse into a state of complete anarchy, a state in which nations engage in a continuous “war of all against all” between empires and spheres of influence, with the notions of universal human rights and international law falling by the wayside; or we regroup and rebuild the postwar liberal international order which has enabled the most dramatic advancements in the human condition in our history as a species. As the threats of climate change and ecological collapse hang over us, the stakes could not be higher.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute U.S. Army War College.
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