Experts Debate Modern Authoritarians and the Threat to Democracy

Washington

On the 20th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown and on a day when U.S. President Barack Obama said he seeks a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim world, a group of distinguished experts debated the findings of a new report on authoritarianism on Capitol Hill. [read transcript]

Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians indicates that five influential authoritarian states—China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Pakistan—are actively working to undermine democracy within their borders and abroad. [read or download the report online] The report is the culmination of a two-year joint project by Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia.

“This study helps explain the causes behind the global political recession that has emerged in recent years and frames the serious challenges facing the Obama administration” said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director.

More than 120 people attended the report’s release, which included remarks from Senator Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and Representative Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., chairman and co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, respectively. The report explains how authoritarians subvert international development projects that promote good governance, as well as stunt the effectiveness of international bodies charged with upholding human rights standards. At home, they work to tarnish the public’s understanding of democracy and manipulate discourse on the internet.

Two panels of experts examined the report’s general findings and their relation to the day’s headlines from Cairo and Beijing. The first featured James Traub of the New York Times Magazine, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Peter Beinart of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This report is extremely important because, if there's one thing that wasn't supposed to be true after the end of the Cold War, it was the indefinite survival, if not flourishing, of autocratic regimes," said Kagan.

A second panel featured the authors of the report including: China scholar Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside, Daniel Kimmage of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute on Russia and Javier Corrales of Amherst College on Venezuela. Abbas Milani of Stanford University discussed Iran in a videotaped message.

Link told the crowd that China’s example provides evidence that economic modernization does not guarantee political liberalization. He called the Chinese system "resilient authoritarianism" and said the government is attuned to political dissent and committed to putting it down.

"One important method the government employs is to change language," he said. "For example, what used to be characterized as a tension between freedom and control is now reframed by authorities as a choice between chaos and order."

Beinart cautioned that an exclusively hard-line approach to authoritarians is unlikely to succeed.

"Our strongest weapon in promoting democracy and the single best tool we have against authoritarianism is the power of our own example,” he said. “We have to show that we can provide economic prosperity and economic justice better than authoritarian countries."

Traub said Obama's "downplaying" of the language of democracy is a potentially troubling aspect of the administration's foreign policy so far, but that he hopes Obama intends to “repair a lot that was broken in recent years” and create a foundation which will allow him to use language and policies to advance democracy." He said he believes the autocratic backlash described in Undermining Democracy “is not as unified and coordinated as the report suggests." But Kagan argued that autocratic regimes do not exist in isolation from each other.

"They are cooperating, they are spending money and the only thing happening is that we are not,” said Kagan. “Without challenging them, we will live in a world more and more populated by autocratic governments, a world that we thankfully escaped in the 20th century. But, out of ignorance, or lack of will or concern, it's a world we may be sliding back to."

Senator Cardin called the conference an important reminder of the millions of people around the world “yearning for a free tomorrow and struggling today in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”  He said the U.S. must support these individuals “morally and materially as they aspire to realize the shared ideals of democracy."

-Read the full report at www.underminingdemocracy.org.

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties worldwide since 1972.

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