Over the past decade, authoritarian populists have won one unexpected victory after another across the world. They came to power in India and Brazil, the Philippines and the United States.
And while Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte were initially ridiculed as incompetent rulers who would soon lose power, they were surprisingly adept at maintaining their popularity or concentrating power in their own hands.
In the past decade, few examples of populist politicians dismissed from their posts following free and fair elections. This is what made Donald Trump’s loss to Joe Biden such a strong reason for optimism. For the first time in a decade, the citizens of a powerful democracy took a close look at populist politics and decided they had seen enough. It looked like the tide could finally turn. The democratic counterattack was about to begin.
Now, four months later, it becomes clear that the mighty enemy remains strong in the face of a hesitant counterattack. American democracy remains fragile. Trump was able to convince tens of millions of Americans that the election was fraudulent and helped inspire an unprecedented attack on Capitol Hill. It is still very possible that in 2024, Trump or a handpicked successor will become a renewed populist threat to the country’s institutions.
Authoritarian rulers continue to strengthen in other countries. According to a recent Freedom House report, the world has entered the 15th year of a “democratic recession.” With India, the world’s most populous democracy, having been demoted to “partially free” status, today less than one in five people in the world live in a free country.
Perhaps the most worrying fact of all is that it is still unclear whether those who will lead the counterattack will have the courage to put their convictions into practice. Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, was ultimately excluded from the center-right European People’s Party. But the European Union still does not have a solid plan to end the serious democratic setback that has taken place within it.
And countries like Germany are moving forward with the Nordstream 2 pipeline, exposing vulnerable democracies like Ukraine to even greater pressure from autocrats in the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Biden is doing what he can to live up to his supposed role as leader of the free world. At the Munich Security Conference, he delivered an excellent speech reaffirming his commitment to democratic values and transatlantic relations, and his administration is moving forward with plans for a world summit on democracy.
But the administration also faces serious political and strategic limitations. Politically, many Democrats today view anything that smacks of “promoting democracy” with deep suspicion. And, strategically speaking, the administration must figure out how to weaken populist governments in Poland and India while seeking their cooperation in their efforts to weaken the influence of dictatorships like Russia and China.
All of this suggests that the next few years will turn into a huge missed opportunity.
In what may prove to be the last time that the leaders of major countries in Europe and North America seek to preserve democratic institutions, they will stick to the traditional democratic manual – and unfortunately do not accomplish much. -thing.
It is not inevitable that it will be so. If the leaders from Paris to Washington are serious about resisting the autocratic resurgence, they will need to change their approach in three key ways.
First, they must face the autocratic dilemma head-on. The need to cooperate with less than perfect democracies to contain total autocracies is real. But Europe and the United States must make a clear and public distinction between tactical alliances, which can include countries like Poland and India, and close strategic partnerships, which should be reserved for countries that preserve and defend liberal democracy and the rule of law.
Second, they must recognize that dictatorships are on the rise. The main objective should not be to export democracy to countries which are now autocratic, an uncertain and difficult prospect – it is to preserve democratic institutions in countries like India and Brazil, where these institutions are now threatened. The agenda is the protection of democracy, not the promotion of democracy.
Thus, Rádio Europa Livre should start broadcasting in Polish and Voice of America in Hindi.
Democracies in Europe and America must avoid censoring social media platforms that can easily be emulated by dictatorial candidates around the world. And they must pass legislation to prevent national companies from punishing their employees for criticizing autocratic regimes that try to stifle free speech in democratic countries.
Finally, they must reform the fundamental institutions of the Western alliance. The European Union is supposed to be founded on an attachment to democratic values such as the rule of law. NATO would be based on engagement with the transatlantic alliance.
But both now include countries that cannot be sanctioned or expelled, although they have openly opposed these goals. This must change – even if it requires a radical reform of these important institutions, or even their complete re-creation.
The window of opportunity to resist autocracy and defend democracy remains open, for now. But it will close again very quickly, unless our leaders start to act with courage and vision.
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