The bad guys are winning: Autocracy Inc. and 'democratic regression'

The bad guys are winning: Autocracy Inc. and 'democratic regression'
Maxim Shemetov/Pool Photo via AP

Anne Applebaum has written a piece for the Atlantic titled “The Bad Guys Are Winning” which makes the case at length that the historic and ongoing battle between western democracy and autocracy is not going very well for democracy. Applebaum opens by talking about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the housewife from Belarus who arguably won the Belarus presidential election last year only to find herself arrested and forced out of the country by strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko. How exactly did Lukashenko survive? He got help from his fellow autocrats in Russia:

On August 18, a plane belonging to the FSB, the Russian security services, flew from Moscow to Minsk. Soon after that, Lukashenko’s tactics underwent a dramatic change. Stephen Biegun, who was the U.S. deputy secretary of state at the time, describes the change as a shift to “more sophisticated, more controlled ways to repress the population.” Belarus became a textbook example of what the journalist William J. Dobson has called “the dictator’s learning curve”: Techniques that had been used successfully in the past to repress crowds in Russia were seamlessly transferred to Belarus, along with personnel who understood how to deploy them. Russian television journalists arrived to replace the Belarusian journalists who had gone on strike, and immediately stepped up the campaign to portray the demonstrations as the work of Americans and other foreign “enemies.” Russian police appear to have supplemented their Belarusian colleagues, or at least given them advice, and a policy of selective arrests began. As Vladimir Putin figured out a long time ago, mass arrests are unnecessary if you can jail, torture, or possibly murder just a few key people. The rest will be frightened into staying home. Eventually they will become apathetic, because they believe nothing can change…

Lukashenko gladly accepted Russian help, turned against his people, and transformed himself from an autocratic, patriarchal grandfather—a kind of national collective-farm boss—into a tyrant who revels in cruelty. Reassured by Putin’s support, he began breaking new ground. Not just selective arrests—a year later, human-rights activists say that more than 800 political prisoners remain in jail—but torture. Not just torture but rape. Not just torture and rape but kidnapping and, quite possibly, murder.

Applebaum’s point is that what happened in Belarus is emblematic of what often happens now when an autocrat is in trouble. The other autocrats rush to help, aware that if one of them falls, it provides oxygen for freedom everywhere else. She calls the new approach Autocracy Inc.

Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America.

This is not to say that there is some supersecret room where bad guys meet, as in a James Bond movie. Nor does the new autocratic alliance have a unifying ideology. Among modern autocrats are people who call themselves communists, nationalists, and theocrats. No one country leads this group. Washington likes to talk about Chinese influence, but what really bonds the members of this club is a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth. Unlike military or political alliances from other times and places, the members of this group don’t operate like a bloc, but rather like an agglomeration of companies—call it Autocracy Inc. Their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals—deals designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich—which is why they can operate across geographical and historical lines.

And the really bad news is that this new approach, a network of autocrats all working against the encroach of democracy, is working. Belarus might have become another failed autocracy if not for the help of Russia. Similarly, Venezuela might have collapsed and returned to democracy if not for the help they have received from Cuba, Russia and China.

Like the Belarusian opposition, the Venezuelan opposition has charismatic leaders and dedicated grassroots activists who have persuaded millions of people to go out into the streets and protest. If their only enemy was the corrupt, bankrupt Venezuelan regime, they might win. But Lopez and his fellow dissidents are in fact fighting multiple autocrats, in multiple countries. Like so many other ordinary people propelled into politics by the experience of injustice—like Sviatlana and Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Belarus, like the leaders of the extraordinary Hong Kong protest movement, like the Cubans and the Iranians and the Burmese pushing for democracy in their countries—they are fighting against people who control state companies and can make investment decisions worth billions of dollars for purely political reasons. They are fighting against people who can buy sophisticated surveillance technology from China or bots from St. Petersburg. Above all, they are fighting against people who have inured themselves to the feelings and opinions of their countrymen, as well as the feelings and opinions of everybody else. Because Autocracy Inc. grants its members not only money and security, but also something less tangible and yet just as important: impunity.

There’s an entire section of the piece devoted to how China uses its economic power more subtly to compel everyone who does business there to remain silent about human rights. And the result of all of this is that Autocracy is making progress and democracy is being held at bay.

If the 20th century was the story of a slow, uneven struggle, ending with the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse. Freedom House, which has published an annual “Freedom in the World” report for nearly 50 years, called its 2021 edition “Democracy Under Siege.” The Stanford scholar Larry Diamond calls this an era of “democratic regression.”

What’s needed, Applebaum argues, is an American commitment to democracy abroad that is just as serious as the commitment the autocrats have to supporting one another. But she argues that kind of commitment seems to be cutting against the grain of current domestic politics. She blames Trump for not being supportive enough of our allies for four years but also says the modern left seems to have lost faith in democracy.

A part of the American left has abandoned the idea that “democracy” belongs at the heart of U.S. foreign policy—not out of greed and cynicism but out of a loss of faith in democracy at home. Convinced that the history of America is the history of genocide, slavery, exploitation, and not much else, they don’t see the value of making common cause with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Nursiman Abdureshid, or any of the other ordinary people around the world forced into politics by their experience of profound injustice. Focused on America’s own bitter problems, they no longer believe America has anything to offer the rest of the world…

The whole piece is worth reading but the bottom line, as the headline suggests, is that the free world is struggling against a real threat from a network of autocrats. Their confidence in their system is growing just as our confidence in ours seems to be weakening. In short, the bad guys are winning and they won’t stop unless we organize and fight back where necessary. Freedom in Hong Kong is gone. China has promised Taiwan will be next. Anyone who assumes it stops there really hasn’t been paying attention.

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