The 21st century has been marked by a resurgence of authoritarian rule that has proved resilient despite economic fragility and occasional popular resistance. Modern authoritarianism has succeeded, where previous totalitarian systems failed, due to refined and nuanced strategies of repression, the exploitation of open societies, and the spread of illiberal policies in democratic countries themselves. The leaders of today’s authoritarian systems devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.
Central to the modern authoritarian strategy is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the commanding heights of the economy, and the security forces. With these institutions under the effective if not absolute control of an incumbent leader, changes in government through fair and honest elections become all but impossible.
Unlike Soviet-style communism, modern authoritarianism is not animated by an overarching ideology or the messianic notion of an ideal future society. Nor do today’s autocrats seek totalitarian control over people’s everyday lives, movements, or thoughts. The media are more diverse and entertaining under modern authoritarianism, civil society can enjoy an independent existence (as long as it does not pursue political change), citizens can travel around the country or abroad with only occasional interference, and private enterprise can flourish (albeit with rampant corruption and cronyism).
This study explains how modern authoritarianism defends and propagates itself, as regimes from different regions and with diverse socioeconomic foundations copy and borrow techniques of political control. Among its major findings:
- Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has played an outsized role in the development of modern authoritarian systems. This is particularly true in the areas of media control, propaganda, the smothering of civil society, and the weakening of political pluralism. Russia has also moved aggressively against neighboring states where democratic institutions have emerged or where democratic movements have succeeded in ousting corrupt authoritarian leaders.
- The rewriting of history for political purposes is common among modern authoritarians. Again, Russia has taken the lead, with the state’s assertion of authority over history textbooks and the process, encouraged by Putin, of reassessing the historical role of Joseph Stalin.
- The hiring of political consultants and lobbyists from democratic countries to represent the interests of autocracies is a growing phenomenon. China is clearly in the vanguard, with multiple representatives working for the state and for large economic entities closely tied to the state. But there are also K Street representatives for Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and practically all of the authoritarian states in the Middle East.
- The toxic combination of unfair elections and crude majoritarianism is spreading from modern authoritarian regimes to illiberal leaders in what are still partly democratic countries. Increasingly, populist politicians—once in office—claim the right to suppress the media, civil society, and other democratic institutions by citing support from a majority of voters. The resulting changes make it more difficult for the opposition to compete in future elections and can pave the way for a new authoritarian regime.
- An expanding cadre of politicians in democracies are eager to emulate or cooperate with authoritarian rulers. European parties of the nationalistic right and anticapitalist left have expressed admiration for Putin and aligned their policy goals with his. Others have praised illiberal governments in countries like Hungary for their rejection of international democratic standards in favor of perceived national interests. Even when there is no direct collaboration, such behavior benefits authoritarian powers by breaking down the unity and solidarity of the democratic world.
- There has been a rise in authoritarian internationalism. Authoritarian powers form loose but effective alliances to block criticism at the United Nations and regional organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organization of American States, and to defend embattled allies like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. There is also growing replication of what might be called authoritarian best practices, vividly on display in the new Chinese law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and efforts by Russia and others to learn from China’s experience in internet censorship.
- Modern authoritarians are working to revalidate the concept of the leader-for-life. One of the seeming gains of the postcommunist era was the understanding that some form of term limits should be imposed to prevent incumbents from consolidating power into a dictatorship. In recent years, however, a number of countries have adjusted their constitutions to ease, eliminate, or circumvent executive term limits. The result has been a resurgence of potential leaders-for-life from Latin America to Eurasia.
- While more subtle and calibrated methods of repression are the defining feature of modern authoritarianism, the past few years have featured a reemergence of older tactics that undermine the illusions of pluralism and openness as well as integration with the global economy. Thus Moscow has pursued its military intervention in Ukraine despite economic sanctions and overseen the assassination of opposition figures; Beijing has revived the practice of coerced public “confessions” and escalated its surveillance of the Tibetan and Uighur minorities to totalitarian levels; and Azerbaijan has made the Aliyev family’s monopoly on political power painfully obvious with the appointment of the president’s wife as “first vice president.”
- Modern authoritarian systems are employing these blunter methods in a context of increased economic fragility. Venezuela is already in the process of political and economic disintegration. Other states that rely on energy exports have also experienced setbacks due to low oil and gas prices, and China faces rising debt and slower growth after years of misallocated investment and other structural problems. But these regimes also face less international pressure to observe democratic norms, raising their chances of either surviving the current crises or—if they break down—giving way to something even worse.
In subsequent sections, this report will examine the methods employed by authoritarian powers to neutralize precisely those institutions that were thought to be the most potent weapons against a revitalized authoritarianism. The success of the Russian and Chinese regimes in bringing to heel and even harnessing the forces produced by globalization—digital media, civil society, free markets—may be their most impressive and troubling achievement.
Modern authoritarianism is particularly insidious in its exploitation of open societies. Russia and China have both taken advantage of democracies’ commitment to freedom of expression and delivered infusions of propaganda and disinformation. Moscow has effectively prevented foreign broadcasting stations from reaching Russian audiences even as it steadily expands the reach of its own mouthpieces, the television channel RT and the news service Sputnik. China blocks the websites of mainstream foreign media while encouraging its corporations to purchase influence in popular culture abroad through control of Hollywood studios. Similar combinations of obstruction at home and interference abroad can be seen in sectors including civil society, academia, and party politics.
The report draws on examples from a broad group of authoritarian states and illiberal democracies, but the focus remains on the two leading authoritarian powers, China and Russia. Much of the report, in fact, deals with Russia, since that country, more than any other, has incubated and refined the ideas and institutions at the foundation of 21st-century authoritarianism.
Finally, a basic assumption behind the report is that modern authoritarianism will be a lasting feature of geopolitics. Since 2012, both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have doubled down on existing efforts to stamp out internal dissent, and both have grown more aggressive on the world stage. All despotic regimes have inherent weaknesses that leave them vulnerable to sudden shocks and individually prone to collapse. However, the past quarter-century has shown that dictatorship in general will not disappear on its own. Authoritarian systems will seek not just to survive, but to weaken and defeat democracy around the world.
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Authoritarianism Comes Calling
Until very recently, the spread of the methods and strategies described in this report has largely been greeted with complacency and indifference in the democratic world. Even as it became clear that the rejection of liberal values by Russia, China, and other authoritarian states was a permanent fixture of global politics, democracies convinced themselves that although modern authoritarianism posed a challenge to the spread of freedom beyond its current reach, their own freedoms were in no jeopardy.
In the aftermath of the stunning events of 2016, it is apparent that the post–Cold War democratic order is in fact facing an unprecedented threat. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU), the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the emergence of populist demagogues across Europe have all raised questions about the future of democracy in its traditional bastions.
It can no longer be assumed that Russia’s challenge to democracy is limited to its policies of internal repression and aggression toward neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia. The Kremlin’s development of parallel institutions—government-controlled civil society, a propaganda machine based on the latest media technologies, realistic but purely decorative elections—was once regarded as a project intended for Russia alone. When Angela Merkel, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, exclaimed that Vladimir Putin lives in a different world, she meant a specifically Russian universe where facts are irrelevant, international treaties are obsolete, and sovereignty is a matter of power rather than law.
Now, however, the Kremlin has attempted to project this version of reality onto the democratic world. In the United States, Russia brazenly interfered in the electoral process through hacking efforts sponsored by its intelligence agencies. Whether this interference actually affected the outcome of the election is subject to debate. But there is strong evidence, endorsed by the entirety of the U.S. intelligence establishment and numerous independent analyses, that the interference did occur.
Just as worrying is the suggestion that the United States, much like Russia itself, has entered a “post-truth era,” in which lies and distortions carry as much weight as facts. Clearly, at least some of this hand-wringing was a partisan reaction to Trump’s victory. But it followed an election in which the winning candidate falsely claimed, among other things, that the balloting was rigged against him, that violent crime had reached record levels, and that undocumented immigrants were responsible for a large share of the violence.
Meanwhile, as of early 2017, populist parties with Russian-friendly platforms and histories of nativism and other forms of bigotry were expected to gain ground in upcoming elections in countries like the Netherlands, France, and Germany.
As it became more obvious that the democracies were poorly equipped to contend with resurgent authoritarianism, the leading autocracies were experimenting with more frightening methods of assuring domestic political control.
China in particular seemed to take an Orwellian turn with the planned introduction of a social credit system. This form of digital totalitarianism would allow the state to gather information on Chinese citizens from a variety of sources and use it to maintain scores or rankings based on an individual’s perceived trustworthiness, including on political matters. Chinese officials have claimed that by 2020, the system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”. A citizen could receive bad marks for petitioning the government, participating in protests, or circulating banned ideas on social media.
As for Russia, the Kremlin complemented its covert interference overseas with open and ugly acts of repression at home. In one brief period in early 2017, Russian opposition politician Aleksey Navalny was blocked from competing in the 2018 presidential contest through a trumped-up criminal conviction, dissident journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza nearly died from his second suspected poisoning, and the Russian parliament passed a law to decriminalize domestic violence that results in “minor harm” such as small lacerations and bruising. Proponents of the domestic abuse law hailed it as a win for traditional family values.
The confluence of authoritarian gains and setbacks for democracy suggest a number of conclusions:
- Modern authoritarianism is a permanent and increasingly powerful rival to liberal democracy as the dominant governing system of the 21st century. Variations on the systems that have proved effective in suppressing political dissent and pluralism in Russia and China are less likely to collapse than traditional authoritarian states, given their relative flexibility and pragmatism.
- The most serious threat to authoritarian systems lies in economic breakdown. However, Russia, China, and other major autocracies have shown themselves capable of surviving economic setbacks that, while affecting the standard of living, did not push citizens to the limits of endurance. The catastrophic case of Venezuela is a notable exception. Of the main countries examined in this study, only in Venezuela did the political leadership attempt to impose a socialist economic system and wage war on the private sector.
- Illiberalism in democratic environments is more than a temporary problem that can be fixed through an inevitable rotation of power. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has instituted policies that make it difficult for opposition parties to raise funds or present their political message, creating a structurally uneven political playing field. Other elected leaders with authoritarian mindsets will take notice and follow suit.
- Authoritarian states are likely to intensify efforts to influence the political choices and government polices of democracies. The pressure will vary from country to country, but it will become increasingly difficult to control due to global economic integration, new developments in the delivery of propaganda, and sympathetic leaders and political movements within the democracies. Putin and his cohorts have learned well how to use democratic openness against democracy itself.
- Authoritarian leaders can count on an increasingly vocal group of admirers in democratic states. For several years now, European parties of the nationalistic right and anticapitalist left have forged ties with Moscow and aligned their goals with Putin’s. The 2016 U.S. presidential election revealed a new constituency, albeit small, that harbors respect for Putin despite his hostility to American interests and his interference in the country’s democratic process. A disturbing number of advisers to the Trump campaign, including Trump himself, expressed admiration for Putin and his system. In addition, various political figures and commentators have praised or come to the defense of despotic rulers including Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Bashar al-Assad.
- Modern authoritarians can be expected to double down on their drive to neuter civil society as an incubator of reformist ideas and political initiatives. Civil society can serve as a vibrant alternative to mainstream democratic parties as those parties fall prey to corruption, elitism, and ossification. After the Kremlin effectively defanged the collection of human rights organizations, conservation projects, election monitors, and anticorruption committees in Russia, other autocrats and illiberal leaders began to act in similar fashion. Both Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the leaders of the Law and Justice party in Poland have spoken of “bringing order” to the nongovernmental sector, though serious restrictions on freedom of association have yet to be adopted by an EU state. That could change in 2017.
- The rewriting of history will become more widespread and will greatly complicate societal efforts to confront both past and present political abuses. The rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin and the airbrushing of Mao Zedong’s destructive reign serve to facilitate an authoritarian form of nationalism in which strength and unity supersede justice and freedom, and the state is exalted at the expense of individual human beings.
- Authoritarian or illiberal forces are more likely to gain supremacy in countries where the parties that represent liberal democracy do not simply lose elections, but experience a full-blown political collapse, whether through corruption, ineptitude, or failure to build lasting bonds with the public. In the end, elections do matter, and real change still requires victory at the polls. This is why robust, self-confident, and uncorrupted opposition parties are essential to democracy’s survival.
In studies of this kind, recommendations are primarily addressed to policymakers, particularly in the administration and Congress of the United States. Given the election of Donald Trump, however, a different approach is called for.
Trump has made clear again and again his admiration for Vladimir Putin, to the point of asserting a kind of moral equivalency between the Russian and American governments. Since he assumed office, Trump and certain aides have encouraged in America the kind of “post-truth” environment that has prevailed in Russia under Putin. The new president has shown no interest in an American role in promoting human rights and democracy around the world; indeed, he seemed to dismiss this core element of U.S. foreign policy in his initial address to Congress, instead emphasizing “harmony and stability” and “the sovereign rights of all nations.” Under these circumstances, to rely first and foremost on the U.S. government to meet the challenge posed by Russia, China, and other authoritarian states would amount to an exercise in futility.
The role of governments, both in the United States and Europe, will remain crucial. But the threat posed by modern authoritarianism has spread well beyond its original proving grounds. To some extent, the problems discussed in this report have already infected the United States and a number of European countries. They represent a menace to the media, academic freedom, civil society, electoral systems, and the rule of law. They even put in jeopardy the integrity of the facts and figures that an accountable government and a successful economy require. When the values of the political leadership are seen to waver, independent, nongovernmental voices and institutions will be called upon to do their part—not just to defend democracy at home, but to convince skeptical politicians and citizens that supporting the same struggle abroad serves the public interest.
To the U.S. government: We urge the Trump administration to appoint a director of global communications who is experienced in journalism and allow that person to build a program to counter hostile authoritarian messaging through up-to-date delivery techniques, honest reporting, and forthright commentary. Near the end of 2016, Congress passed legislation that placed the country’s government-supported international media outlets—Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and their sister services focused on Asia and other regions—under more direct presidential control, on the theory that a commander-in-chief who was committed to countering aggressive Russian influence would be better able to develop and implement new strategies. President Trump has yet to indicate how he intends to use this authority.
In the contest against Soviet communism, America’s international broadcasting entities were the crown jewels of U.S. soft power. Indeed, in some countries, such as Poland or Romania, Radio Free Europe functioned as the opposition press, and clearly had a greater audience and more influence than the censored government press. In the post–Cold War period, what were initially shortwave radio services have evolved into modern media outlets, with video content, podcasts, blogs, social media engagement, and other forms of information delivery. Nevertheless, the United States today needs to update the strategy and operations of its publicly supported broadcasters and—most importantly—provide them with the resources to compete with a Russian propaganda machine that is nimble, attuned to popular discontent, and generously funded.
To the independent media: The mainstream press in the United States has recently shown increased interest in reporting on Russian methods of information warfare, some of which have been embraced by far-right media outlets that seek to undermine popular support for the core institutions of American democracy. We urge more responsible media to continue their investigation of these techniques and experiment with ways to combat them.
We also urge more intense coverage of Beijing’s efforts to undermine democratic norms in neighboring states or territories, as in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and its largely successful attempts to pressure other governments into repatriating citizens who had fled persecution in China.
Lastly, the media are not doing their job if they neglect to give aggressive coverage to the lobbyists and public-relations specialists who make money by representing dictators and kleptocrats. Those who flack for the leaders of China, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and their ilk should be made to answer for each political prisoner, murdered opposition figure, shuttered newspaper, and offshore account full of stolen funds that can be tied to their authoritarian clients.
To the academic community: We urge academic associations, individual scholars, and university administrations to stand up for freedom of thought and open inquiry at a time when those values are under relentless pressure from dictatorships. We urge statements of protest against the persecution of fellow scholars or the politicized rewriting of history, especially in countries, like Russia and China, that are integrated into the international university system. We urge universities to reject the establishment of projects and study departments—whether at home or overseas—that do not adhere to the highest standards of intellectual freedom or that restrict discussion of certain subjects.
To the business community: We urge private businesses to avoid commercial relationships with authoritarian governments that force them to violate fundamental democratic principles. Private companies and investors have a clear interest in democratic public goods like the rule of law, which guarantees their property rights, and the transparency provided by free media and corruption watchdogs, which ensures the accuracy of economic data and the fair allocation of state contracts. They should therefore do what they can to prevent any further deterioration in the condition of global democracy.
Some sectors are especially vulnerable to authoritarian pressure, and have a special role to play in combating it. We urge the film industry to reject involvement in joint ventures with companies that have close ties to authoritarian regimes and reputations for demanding politicized censorship of artistic content. We also urge the technology industry to refuse business arrangements that require active complicity in or passive acceptance of political censorship or information control.
To the European Union: We urge the EU to undertake a comprehensive review of member states’ democratic institutions to determine whether recent changes have weakened checks and balances or unduly protected incumbent parties from fair electoral competition. The EU should adopt measures to publicize departures from democratic standards and develop a new set of sanctions that could be imposed on noncompliant governments—whether inside, outside, or hoping to join the bloc—even in the absence of unanimity among member states. In the meantime, the EU should use the sanctions already in place, even if it means freezing a member state’s participation, and be prepared to actually impose any new sanctions that might be introduced.
To private foundations: We urge private foundations to recognize and oppose the current assault on democracy. With a few exceptions, the great institutions of American philanthropy have studiously—and shamefully—ignored the steady erosion of global freedom and the rise of authoritarian powers. The recent developments in Europe and the United States will hopefully shake their complacency. There is a strong need for analysis, support for individual dissidents, and aid for societies under authoritarian threat, and as many democratic governments waver in their commitment to such priorities, it is essential for private funders to step into the breach.
To mainstream political candidates: We urge responsible political figures to call out colleagues or rivals when they show contempt for basic democratic ideas. Until now, politicians in the democracies have been unimpressive in their responses to opponents who embrace authoritarian figures like Putin. This is despite the overwhelming evidence of egregious crimes under Putin’s rule: murdered journalists and political opposition leaders, the invasion of neighboring states, brutish counterinsurgency campaigns in the North Caucasus, the emasculation of a once-vibrant media sector, rigged elections, and much more. If they choose to shower him with praise, political leaders like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Donald Trump should be forced to account for the realities of Putin’s appalling record. The same is true for any politician who praises dictators in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa.
To human rights organizations: Human rights groups operating from the safety of democracies should be more aggressive in publicizing the plight of political prisoners. The defense of jailed dissidents was a major factor behind the rise of the modern human rights movement. Political prisoners became a lower priority as their numbers declined after the Cold War, but today there are more than a thousand in China alone, and many others in Venezuela, Iran, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere. It is past time for the phrase “prisoner of conscience” to again become an important part of our regular political vocabulary.
Furthermore, human rights organizations need to develop strategies that address the varied and sophisticated methods of repression used by modern authoritarians. There should be better efforts to identify individual perpetrators of abuse, document their culpability, and expose their actions. Among other benefits, such work would feed into governmental mechanisms for imposing sanctions, like the United States’ Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows visa bans and asset freezes for foreign officials who are personally involved in egregious human rights violations.
To the free world: All democratic governments should make support for civil society in authoritarian and illiberal environments a bigger priority. This is especially urgent given that laws and regulations designed to neutralize nongovernmental organizations, which were first adopted by Russia, are now being taken up in countries like Hungary and Poland.
Democracies will also have to push back against Chinese censorship. The sheer size of China’s economy gives Beijing the clout to insist on unreasonable, nonreciprocal, and often antidemocratic concessions from trading partners, the most prominent of which is the state’s right to determine what its people can read, watch, or circulate via social media. The Chinese leadership expects the rest of the world to accept its brand of censorship as the normal state of affairs in China, and it is increasingly extending its demands beyond its borders, affecting the information available to global audiences.
Chinese censorship practices should be challenged at international forums and in bilateral meetings. Democratic governments should speak out when their own academics, artists, media companies, and corporations are subjected to censorship or blocking by the Chinese authorities. As long as Beijing maintains its current policies, democracies should take measures to prevent their own media, entertainment, and other information-related corporations from falling under the control of Chinese companies that support or benefit from censorship.
Finally, the free world must keep faith with states whose democratic goals are under threat from large and aggressive authoritarian powers. A prime example is Ukraine. That country represents the absolute front line in the global struggle for freedom. Building democracy in an inhospitable neighborhood is always difficult, particularly when your most powerful neighbor is determined to steal your land and wreck your home. Kyiv has made impressive strides; indeed, it has gone much further along the democratic path than it did after the Orange Revolution in 2005. But it still has hard work ahead, and it remains in serious danger. A positive outcome in Ukraine would not by itself erase the broader gains secured by the world’s autocrats over the past decade, but it would be a pivotal defeat for their campaign to sow chaos and disunity among those who still live or aspire to live in freedom.
About the Author
Arch Puddington is Distinguished Scholar for Democracy Studies at Freedom House and a co-editor of Freedom in the World.