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Authoritarianism Goes Global: the rise of the despots and their apologists

August 13, 2015
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The World Bank’s Sina Odugbemi is a stylish and impassioned writer. He also set up a deal to repost the occasional FP2P piece on the Bank’s governance blog, so I thought I’d return the compliment on his latest pieceSina Odugbemi. Wish he’d write more often.

Norms, especially global norms, are exceedingly fragile things…like morning dew confronting the sun. As more players conform to a norm, it gets stronger. In the same way, as more players flout it, disregard it or loudly attack it, it begins to lose that ever so subtle effect on the mind that is the basis of its power.  When a norm is flouted and consequences do not follow the norm begins to die.

Looking back now, we clearly had a magical moment in global affairs a while back. Post 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, communism ended in most places, apartheid South Africa magically turned into democratic South Africa, and so on; it seemed like an especially blessed moment. The bells of freedom tolled so vigorously mountains echoed the joyous sound. It seemed as though anything was possible, that the form of governance known as liberal constitutional democracy would sweep imperiously into every cranny of the globe.

Just as important, there were precious few defenders of autocracy in those days. Almost every regime on earth claimed to be democratic, even if the evidence was discrepant. They could at least claim to be ‘democratic’ in some utterly singular if implausible way. Now, all that has changed. Despots and sundry autocrats strut the earth. They are not ashamed. They are not afraid. They are brazen. They are in your face. They say to anyone who asks: “Hey, I am a despot. I have my own League of Despots. Deal with it”.  And what is confronting the brazenness? The apparently exhausted ideals of liberal constitutionalism suddenly bereft of defenders.

Sina pic 1The specific occasion for these reflections is the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy (Volume 26, Number 3). It is a special issue focused on these matters, and I took my title from the lead essay: “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms”, written by Alexander Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. His basic claim is as follows:

“Over the past decade, authoritarians have experimented with and refined a number of tools, practices, and institutions that are meant to shield their regimes from external criticism and to erode the norms that inform and underlie the liberal international political order.” (Page 49)

He makes the case that the following ‘counternorms’ have been challenging “liberal democracy’s universalism – its claim to be the sole legitimate form of human governance” (page 50). I sum up his views:

  1. Almost everywhere since 9/11 the delicate balance between individual liberty and security has tilted dangerously towards the latter.
  2. More and more regimes are pushing the norm of civilizational diversity and non-interference in domestic affairs of sovereign states. In other words, it is nobody’s business how abysmally we treat our own citizens.
  3. Some regimes claim to be defending the traditional values of their societies against the apparently indulgent, decadent values of liberal constitutional democracies (who, horror of horrors, now allow men to marry men and women to marry women!)

Quite apart from the counter-norms, according to Cooley the following practices and tools have been powering the ongoing authoritarian revival:

  1. The spread of color revolutions in the 2000s has led to the emergence of an authoritarian playbook: crack down hard on independent civil society organizations and independent media.
  2. There is also the growing practice of using as many regional organizations as possible to spread the new counter-norms, not liberal democratic values.
  3. Giving money to awful regimes without conditionalities. Don’t worry about social and environmental safeguards or how badly they treat their citizens.
  4. Build huge global media megaphones to spread the counter-norms.

Cooley’s essay, as well as the entire edition of the journal, are worth reading. If I have a criticism of the effort it is this: while claiming to defend liberal democracy’s universalism there is the tendency of some Western scholars to write about the defense of these values in terms of the protection of the Western world and its influence. That habit is both irritating and self-defeating. Democrats and liberal constitutionalists exist everywhere today, even in the territories controlled by sundry despotisms. These people are embracing the universalism of liberalism, its privileging of individual autonomy, human liberty, rule by consent, checks and balances in governance…the entire cathedral of foundational commitments and beliefs.  Exclusionary language, and the resulting provincialism, are, in my view, deeply, deeply unwise.

Finally, there is something else at work in the world these days that the essays do not, to my knowledge, mention: the growing number of academic tomes written by Western scholars exhibiting infantile admiration for authoritarian regimes, how efficient these regimes supposedly are, how good they are at capitalism, and so on. You read reviews of these texts and you wonder if these scholars understand the true underpinnings of the social-political systems they live in and have come to so recklessly take for granted. Sometimes you think they need a spell under the jackboot of a despot before they come to their senses.

4 comments

  1. Really good post – it has taken a long time for academics and other observers to assume that authoritarianism is not a backward mode of governance that will naturally ebb away in the face of globalisation. The article referred to here is really important – I would also point to a very good international project (AuthoritarianGlobal) being run by Marlies Glasius at the University of Amsterdam. Glasisus has recently edited a series of short contributions on this theme which are freely available in the APSA Comparative Democratization Newsletter: http://live-apsa-cd.pantheon.io/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/APSA-CD-June-2015.pdf

  2. “Finally, there is something else at work in the world these days that the essays do not, to my knowledge, mention: the growing number of academic tomes written by Western scholars exhibiting infantile admiration for authoritarian regimes, how efficient these regimes supposedly are, how good they are at capitalism, and so on. ”

    I’m usually far less energized about this but in the spirit of the excellent essay,let’s not forget the number of westerners and leftists who apologize on behalf of the “anti-imperialist” credentials of these despots and see “rebellion, freedom, and resistance” in the actions of decrepit old men who desperately try to hold on to their illegitimate power.

    I think I had my breaking point when that video about what North Korean children learn in school was shared around on Facebook and I noticed I had otherwise intelligent and “class-conscious” colleagues sing praises about how it exposed the evils of American Capitalism…

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