The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule
Global freedom faces a dire threat. Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks.
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Global freedom faces a dire threat. Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same. In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. Those countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism, meanwhile, are increasingly tilting toward the latter. The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.
The present threat to democracy is the product of 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedom. A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.
During this period of democratic decline, checks on abuse of power and human rights violations have eroded. In the decades after World War II, the United Nations and other international institutions promoted the notion of fundamental rights, and democracies offered support—however unevenly—in their domestic and foreign policies as they strove to create an open international system built on shared resistance to totalitarianism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, leaders of countries in transition felt compelled to publicly embrace the same ideals in order to win acceptance in the international community, even if their commitment was only skin deep. Governments that relied on external economic or military support had to stage at least superficially credible elections and respect some institutional checks on their power, among other concessions, to maintain their good standing.
For much of the 21st century, however, democracy’s opponents have labored persistently to dismantle this international order and the restraints it imposed on their ambitions. The fruits of their exertions are now apparent. The leaders of China, Russia, and other dictatorships have succeeded in shifting global incentives, jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance.
Countries in every region of the world have been captured by authoritarian rulers in recent years. In 2021 alone, Nicaragua’s incumbent president won a new term in a tightly orchestrated election after his security forces arrested opposition candidates and deregistered civil society organizations. Sudan’s generals seized power once again, reversing democratic progress made after the 2019 ouster of former dictator Omar al-Bashir. And as the United States abruptly withdrew its military from Afghanistan, the elected government in Kabul collapsed and gave way to the Taliban, returning the country to a system that is diametrically opposed to democracy, pluralism, and equality.
At the same time, democracies are being harmed from within by illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power. This was arguably most visible last year in the United States, where rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6 as part of an organized attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. But freely elected leaders from Brazil to India have also taken or threatened a variety of antidemocratic actions, and the resulting breakdown in shared values among democracies has led to a weakening of these values on the international stage.
It is now impossible to ignore the damage to democracy’s foundations and reputation. The regimes of China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries have gained enormous power in the international system, and freer countries have seen their established norms challenged and fractured. The current state of global freedom should raise alarm among all who value their own rights and those of their fellow human beings. To reverse the decline, democratic governments need to strengthen domestic laws and institutions while taking bold, coordinated action to support the struggle for democracy around the world. In less free countries, democrats must unite to resist the encroachment of unchecked power and work toward expanding freedom for all individuals. Only global solidarity among democracy’s defenders can successfully counter the combined aggression of its adversaries.
Popular demand for democracy remains strong. From Sudan to Myanmar, people continue to risk their lives in the pursuit of freedom in their countries. Many others undertake dangerous journeys in order to live freely elsewhere. Democratic governments and societies must harness and support this common desire for fundamental rights and build a world in which it is ultimately fulfilled.
What is democracy?
Fundamental to the restoration of democracy is a correct understanding of what it is. The word democracy has been applied, rightly or wrongly, to states of all types, from the “Democratic People’s Republic” of North Korea to the freest polities in Scandinavia. A December 2021 joint op-ed by the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the United States called both of their dictatorships “democratic.” Misappropriation of the word is a testament to democracy's widespread appeal. Yet this unfortunate practice has generated confusion, allowing opponents to simultaneously claim democratic credentials and argue that actual democracies are ineffective or hypocritical.
Moreover, it has contributed to a misperception that all democracy requires is the regular performance of elections. Democracy means more than just majority rule, however. In its ideal form, it is a governing system based on the will and consent of the governed, institutions that are accountable to all citizens, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for human rights. It is a network of mutually reinforcing structures in which those exercising power are subject to checks both within and outside the state, for example, from independent courts, an independent press, and civil society. It requires an openness to alternations in power, with rival candidates or parties competing fairly to govern for the good of the public as a whole, not just themselves or those who voted for them. It creates a level playing field so that all people, no matter the circumstances of their birth or background, can enjoy the universal human rights to which they are entitled and participate in politics and governance.
Democracy is also more than just an ideal. It is a practical engine of self-correction and improvement that empowers people to constantly, peacefully struggle toward that ideal. When one part of the system falters, the others can be used as tools to repair and strengthen it. This unique and inherent capacity for self-correction is what makes democracy so successful at delivering long-term stability and prosperity. No democracy in the real world is perfect, and those demanding democracy in places like Cuba and Hong Kong are not demanding perfection. What they desire are the freedoms and the institutions that will allow them to create a better life and a more just society over time.
The promotion of autocratic norms
Autocrats have created a more favorable international environment for themselves over the past decade and a half, empowered by their own political and economic might as well as waning pressure from democracies. The alternative order is not based on a unifying ideology or personal affinity among leaders. It is not designed to serve the best interests of populations, or to enable people to improve their own lives. Instead it is grounded in autocrats’ shared interest in minimizing checks on their abuses and maintaining their grip on power. A world governed by this order would in reality be one of disorder, replete with armed conflict, lawless violence, corruption, and economic volatility. Such global instability and insecurity would have a significant cost in human lives.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plays a leading role in promoting autocratic norms. Citing its self-serving interpretation of state sovereignty, the party strives to carve out space for incumbent governments to act as they choose without oversight or consequences. It offers an alternative to democracies as a source of international support and investment, helping would-be autocrats to entrench themselves in office, adopt aspects of the CCP governance model, and enrich their regimes while ignoring principles like transparency and fair competition. At the same time, the CCP has used its vast economic clout and even military threats to suppress international criticism of its own violations of democratic principles and human rights, for instance by punishing governments and other foreign entities that criticize its demolition of civil liberties in Hong Kong or question its expansive territorial claims.
In 2021, the CCP further extended the scope of speech it would not tolerate, employing economic and technological leverage to pressure governments, international institutions, and the private sector to echo its preferred narratives. Although new evidence indicated that party leader Xi Jinping and other top officials had a hand in planning and implementing widespread crimes against humanity and acts of genocide against ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, many foreign actors, including some democracies, toed the CCP line. A Marriott hotel in the Czech Republic declined to host a November 2021 World Uyghur Congress gathering, arguing that it preferred to observe “political neutrality.” New Zealand’s Parliament refrained from identifying Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang as a genocide after the trade minister voiced concerns that such language would hinder economic relations with China. Such threats are credible given Beijing’s past reprisals against foreign companies and nations, including the imposition of tariffs on Australian exports after Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19.
Dropping the pretense of competitive elections
Elections, even when critically flawed, have long given authoritarian leaders a veneer of legitimacy, both at home and abroad. As international norms shift in the direction of autocracy, however, these exercises in democratic theater have become increasingly farcical.
In the run-up to Russia’s September 2021 parliamentary elections, the regime of President Vladimir Putin dispelled the illusion of competition by imprisoning opposition leader Aleksey Navalny and tarring his movement as “extremist,” which prevented any candidates who were even loosely associated with it from running for office. The balloting itself was marred by irregularities and restrictions on independent observers, and technology firms were forced to remove a Navalny-backed mobile app meant to inform opposition voters about the strongest candidates in their area. A law on “foreign agents” was also expanded ahead of the elections, restricting the activities of independent media as well as individuals who were critical of the regime.
The November 2021 presidential election in Nicaragua was similarly uncompetitive. President Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government refused to implement electoral reforms recommended by the Organization for American States, including measures that would have made the Supreme Electoral Council more independent, established more transparency in the voter-registration and vote-counting processes, and allowed independent and credible international electoral observers to monitor the polls. Instead, during the preceding year, the government passed laws designed to target the opposition, including a “foreign agents” law inspired by the Russian legislation. The regime also canceled the registration of nearly 50 organizations, effectively quashing independent civil society, and arrested at least seven potential opposition candidates on charges including treason.
The December 2021 Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong underscored Beijing’s success in dismantling the territory’s semidemocratic institutions. Like Putin and Ortega, the CCP and its allies in the Hong Kong government laid the groundwork for a tightly controlled process, enacting an electoral “reform” that sharply diminished direct suffrage and allowed authorities to exclude candidates based on political criteria, arresting and detaining opposition leaders under the draconian National Security Law, and forcing independent media outlets to shut down. It therefore surprised no one when pro-Beijing candidates dominated the new legislature, despite a long history of robust voter support for prodemocracy candidates.
A proliferation of coups and power grabs
In another sign that international deterrents against antidemocratic behavior are losing force, coups were more common in 2021 than in any of the previous 10 years. The first took place in February in Myanmar, just before a new parliament was due to be sworn in following flawed yet credible November 2020 elections in which the military’s preferred party was soundly defeated. The military, which had continued to play a significant role in politics under the 2008 constitution it drafted, declared that fraud had rendered the elections invalid, and installed commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing as acting president. An initial one-year state of emergency has since been extended by two additional years. Civilian political leaders have been arrested en masse, over a thousand people have been killed as security forces crack down on prodemocracy protests, and thousands of others have been thrown in jail and tortured. The military authorities imposed curfews, repeatedly shut down the internet, raided universities, and searched for human rights defenders and prodemocracy activists to arrest. As a result of these developments, Myanmar experienced the world’s largest contraction in freedom last year.
In Sudan, weeks before the transitional government was scheduled to come under full civilian control after a 2019 coup, the military seized power in October 2021 and declared a state of emergency. Though civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok was later reinstated, the military retained control over the government and suggested that elections would not be held until 2023. Massive protests against the coup and the terms of Hamdok’s reinstatement have continued, and a violent response by security forces has killed scores of people. Under pressure from political groups and ordinary citizens who saw his participation as a surrender to the military, Hamdok resigned in early January, leaving the government in the control of the armed forces.
West Africa, until recently a region characterized by democratic gains, suffered further setbacks in 2021. The leaders of a September coup in Guinea claimed to be upholding democratic principles, as they deposed President Alpha Condé after he amended the constitution to run for a third term the previous year. But with Guineans left under the rule of entirely unelected officials, political rights declined, and the country dropped from Partly Free to Not Free status. Mali experienced its second military coup in less than a year in May 2021, after the transitional president and prime minister attempted to form a new government that excluded key military officers. Meanwhile in Chad, already an authoritarian state, the military intervened after the April 2021 death of longtime president Idriss Déby Itno and installed his son as the new leader.
Some power grabs during the year were carried out by incumbent civilian leaders rather than the military. In 2014, Tunisia had become the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring with a Free designation, casting off its dictatorship and building a promising democracy. Yet it plunged to Partly Free status in 2021 after President Kaïs Saïed, spurred by protests against the faltering economy and surging coronavirus cases, unilaterally dismissed the prime minister and indefinitely suspended the parliament in July in order to rule by decree. Turning his back on democratic norms, Saïed further expanded his executive authority in September, including by disregarding certain parts of the constitution. Although greater international support might have bolstered the efforts of the Tunisian people to secure their freedoms in the years since 2014, the world’s democracies largely ignored the warning signs and failed to make the country a priority as it descended into crisis.
The rot within democracies
As authoritarians continue to extend their reach, often facing little more than rhetorical denunciations from governments that declare their support for human rights, there is increasing evidence of homegrown illiberal streaks within democracies. Undemocratic leaders and their supporters in democratic environments have worked to reshape or manipulate political systems, in part by playing on voters’ fears of change in their way of life and by highlighting the very real failures of their predecessors. They have promoted the idea that, once in power, their responsibility is only to their own demographic or partisan base, disregarding other interests and segments of society and warping the institutions in their care so as to prolong their rule. Along the way, the democratic principles of pluralism, equality, and accountability—as well as basic stewardship and public service—have been lost, endangering the rights and well-being of all residents.
In a curious contrast to authoritarian regimes’ attempts to impose a façade of electoral credibility, leaders who fear losing power in a democratic system have taken to sowing distrust in elections. The assault on the US Capitol was the culmination of a months-long campaign by outgoing president Donald Trump to cast Joe Biden’s victory as illegitimate and fraudulent. Although Trump allies have spread false and conflicting theories that the attackers were acting spontaneously or were deliberately provoked by Trump’s enemies, investigators have revealed a well-organized effort to block the certification of election results that involved dozens of state and local officials from the Republican Party and was promoted by the then president himself. Though the insurrection was ultimately unsuccessful and a peaceful transfer of power took place, the same forces continue to exert significant influence on the US political system. Many of the prominent Republicans who had initially condemned the events of January 6 went silent or aligned their remarks with Trump’s over the subsequent weeks, while those who refused to display loyalty to the former leader faced political marginalization, severe intraparty pressure, and outright threats of violence.
Trump and his supporters have continued to push the message that fraud tipped the balance toward Biden in the 2020 election, despite multiple recounts and consistent court rulings against all claims of widespread fraud. Far from a good-faith effort to uncover abuse, the stolen-election lie is undermining public confidence in the US electoral system ahead of the 2022 midterm and 2024 general elections, which are expected to be close contests for control of the legislative and executive branches. The trend is especially dangerous in the US context, where state legislatures, particularly those dominated by Republican leaders, have considerable leeway to declare that irregularities took place in the voting process.
In fact, by December 2021, 17 states had passed legislation that threatened the integrity of elections and election administration, and hundreds of additional such bills were introduced across 24 states. Intimidation or violence by nonstate actors, including Trump supporters, poses another risk to the forthcoming elections. Already, election administrators have resigned in unprecedented numbers amid a rise in threats and harassment.
As Brazil prepares for its October 2022 general elections, President Jair Bolsonaro has echoed Trump by preemptively claiming that the vote will be fraudulent. Having pinned his allegations on a groundless assertion that the electronic voting system is unreliable, Bolsonaro pushed for a constitutional amendment, ultimately rejected, that would have provided printed ballot receipts. Experts noted that the measure would have given credence to unsubstantiated claims of fraud and could actually increase the potential for voter intimidation and vote buying. Bolsonaro also alleged electoral fraud years ago, while still on the margins of Brazilian politics. Today such claims have become normalized.
Elsewhere in the Americas, El Salvador’s decline has accelerated since President Nayib Bukele took office in 2019. After his allies won a legislative supermajority in 2021, Bukele’s government has systematically undermined democratic institutions intended to check executive power. Authorities have abused anticorruption mechanisms to arrest former officials without credible evidence, and the government has attempted to dismantle public oversight systems. Bukele used his control over the legislature to replace magistrates from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and nearly 200 other judges across the country. The altered court then overturned a constitutional ban on presidential reelection, allowing Bukele to run in future contests. The government’s proposed foreign agents law, which could severely constrain civil society, is similar to the new law in increasingly autocratic Nicaragua.
Democracies in other parts of the world also continue to decline under the influence of freely elected leaders who have embraced illiberal politics. India, which has suffered a series of setbacks to political rights and civil liberties since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reelection in 2019, showed no signs of reversing course, as notable opposition figures faced arrest and surveillance. Since taking power in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party has undermined the rule of law by packing the country’s top courts with loyalists who reliably uphold its policies and decisions. In October and November 2021, the Polish constitutional court threatened to further subvert international and regional legal standards by ruling that it can ignore European Union (EU) legislation and judgments.
Authoritarian powers have taken careful note of fractures in and among democracies and moved to widen them whenever possible. During 2021, the regime in Belarus facilitated the passage of thousands of migrants—the vast majority of them from Iraq—into Minsk and then to the borders of EU countries that had given shelter to exiled Belarusian opposition figures. The mass arrivals led to militarized responses, illegal pushbacks, and violations of asylum procedures by the governments of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Thousands of migrants became stranded in the border area in harsh weather conditions, contributing to a number of deaths. The Polish government took measures to legalize its pushbacks, in violation of both EU and international law. At the end of the year, the European Commission proposed new rules that would allow longer processing times for asylum applications, which could lead to prolonged detention and other rights violations. In short, the pressure applied by Minsk encouraged democracies to act in contradiction with their values, opening them to charges of hypocrisy and driving a wedge between critics and defenders of the response. Other regimes on Europe’s periphery, including those of Morocco and Turkey, have used similar tactics to extract concessions and break democratic solidarity in the EU. But their efforts would have been futile if not for existing weaknesses in the democracies themselves.
Authoritarian leaders are no longer isolated holdouts in a democratizing world. Instead they are actively collaborating with one another to spread new forms of repression and rebuff democratic pressure. While many democracies have continued to respond to sham elections and coups with measures like sanctions and the withholding of aid, the impact has been diluted by autocratic alliances.
In some cases the authoritarian assistance is largely economic. For example, the governments of Russia, China, and Turkey have provided trade and investment to the Venezuelan regime, offsetting sanctions imposed by democracies for its rigged elections and crackdowns on the opposition. But in other instances the support is much more direct: During the 2020 protests against fraudulent elections in Belarus, the Kremlin dispatched Russian propagandists to take the place of striking Belarusian journalists, and offered its security forces to bolster the Belarusian authorities’ violent dispersal of demonstrations. Election observers from Russia had already deemed the vote credible, despite the jailing of opposition candidates and severe censorship campaigns against independent media. Meanwhile, allies like the Cuban government defended the Belarusian regime at the UN Human Rights Council, where 68 percent of current members are Partly Free or Not Free countries.
Similarly, despite the egregious violence associated with the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, Beijing prevented the UN Security Council from issuing a stronger condemnation of the power grab, and Moscow has sought to strengthen economic ties with the junta. The coup leaders in Sudan have also been able to rely on their autocratic friends for diplomatic and other support, with Chinese and Russian envoys working to water down the response at the United Nations.
In addition to pushing back against international pressure, authoritarian governments have cooperated when using transnational repression to silence their own exiled dissidents through tools like detention, rendition, Interpol abuse, coercion by proxy, and digital surveillance. While threats or physical attacks against dissidents living in the United States and Europe have received the most attention, the majority of transnational repression cases involve collaboration between the host and origin states. Security agencies often work together to detain and render targeted activists, and courts and migration agencies fulfill requests to extradite or expel them. For instance, there is evidence that the Kyrgyzstani government assisted Turkish intelligence services in the May 2021 kidnapping of Orhan İnandı, which delivered him to Turkey to face terrorism charges. İnandı had founded a school network in Kyrgyzstan that was aligned with the Gülen movement, which Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames for a 2016 coup attempt.
Other types of collaboration between authoritarians can put entire ethnic groups at risk. Turkey was once a haven for China’s persecuted Uyghur population, whose language and culture are akin to those of the Turkish people. But Erdoğan, faced with an ailing economy and estrangement from Turkey’s traditional democratic allies, has increasingly shifted his stance to meet Beijing’s demands. Turkish authorities have made it harder for Uyghurs to obtain and keep permanent residence permits, and several hundred of them have been detained in deportation centers.
Antidemocratic figures within more democratic countries have begun to engage in international cooperation as well. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazil’s president, is a member of a far-right nationalist group founded by Steve Bannon, an adviser to former US president Trump. Far-right US television personality Tucker Carlson spent a week in Hungary in 2021, warmly introducing his millions of American viewers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s xenophobic propaganda, contempt for democratic principles, and rejection of international human rights standards. Meanwhile, Orbán has lent support to multiple European counterparts who share his views, shielding them from possible EU sanctions. The beneficiaries include Milorad Dodik, a Serb nationalist leader in Bosnia and Herzegovina who has suppressed domestic dissent and pushed for the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska to secede from the multiethnic Bosnian state.
Reversing the Decline of Democracy in the United States
As foreign autocrats resort to increasingly brazen forms of repression to entrench themselves in office and support authoritarian influences around the world, undemocratic forces in the United States have engaged in their own efforts to undermine institutions that are designed to check their power and protect the rights of all Americans.
Failure in Afghanistan
The rapid US military withdrawal from Afghanistan—negotiated between the Taliban and the Trump administration without the involvement of the Afghan government, and completed by the Biden administration in 2021—dealt a powerful blow to international confidence in the ability of democracies to protect their partners and help foster free societies in difficult terrain.
The 20-year US engagement in Afghanistan started as a joint effort by the United States and its allies to destroy the safe haven that the Taliban had provided for the organizers of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Over the years, Washington both pursued its narrowly defined security interests in the country and committed billions of dollars and significant effort to supporting local civil society and the development of a democratic Afghan state. While many Afghans experienced real change and felt hope for a better future, the Afghan government and the United States consistently failed to address worsening corruption and governance problems. Finally, the ill-planned withdrawal triggered a rapid collapse of the institutions that had been built and a complete takeover by the Taliban.
The debacle has renewed false impressions within existing democracies that supporting democracy abroad is a doomed enterprise, that it involves imposing “Western” ideals on unwilling populations, that it requires the open-ended use of military force, or that it is a disingenuous pretext for the use of military force. For those still struggling for freedom in repressive environments, the US withdrawal may be seen as a warning that their democratic partners could abandon them at any moment.
Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan people have rushed to flee the country since the Taliban eliminated representative rule and nullified the constitutional rights of women and ethnic and religious minority groups. Many ethnic Hazara communities have been evicted from their land, and Taliban forces have hunted down, abducted, or executed scores of police and intelligence officers from the former government. Human rights defenders and independent journalists have faced persecution as their hard-won achievements are rapidly reversed. The United States and most other established democracies have compounded their earlier failures by being slow or reluctant to assist those seeking refuge, many of whom remain stuck in Afghanistan or in nearby countries where they lack basic rights protections.
Cause for hope
Even in a year dominated by disturbing setbacks to democracy, people around the world demonstrated its continued appeal and capacity for renewal.
Ecuador’s democracy was trampled for a decade by former president Rafael Correa, who stepped aside for handpicked successor Lenín Moreno in 2017 on the assumption that he would retain control through the ruling party. But Moreno struck out on his own and reformed parts of the system, supporting a new judicial appointment process that helped weed out partisan judges, reducing state control over the media, and pardoning human rights activists so that they could continue their work. Ecuador has consequently seen a steady expansion of freedom over the past five years, moving from Partly Free to Free this year after credible general elections resulted in a peaceful transfer of power to an opposition presidential candidate. These improvements have persisted despite Correa’s continued efforts to exert influence from outside government.
In Chile, already one of the better-performing democracies in the Americas, the political system responded to massive protests in 2019 by authorizing the election of an inclusive constitutional convention that will now work to replace the 1980 constitution—originally inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet—and address deep socioeconomic disparities. In Montenegro, an opposition coalition came to power in late 2020, ending three decades of rule by the Democratic Party of Socialists. The new government imposed fewer obstacles to political competition and gave the public broadcaster more independence, and its narrow parliamentary majority allowed the legislature to provide greater oversight of the executive branch..
People in Côte d’Ivoire have proven their desire to steer their nation toward full democracy since the end of an armed conflict in 2011. While the country experienced a vast expansion of freedom over the past 10 years, its democratic momentum faltered in 2020, as President Alassane Ouattara circumvented constitutional term limits and secured a third term in voting that was marred by candidate disqualifications, an opposition boycott, and widespread political violence. But parliamentary elections in March 2021 featured significant improvements, with several opposition candidates freely registering and participating. The elections were less affected by violence, and Ivorians had more freedom to express themselves and participate in public assemblies.
In Myanmar, despite the military’s well-earned reputation for brutal violence, the February 2021 coup immediately sparked widespread resistance across the country. By the end of the year, protests were continuing even in the face of live ammunition and systematic reprisals, and a civil disobedience movement—including a general strike—had brought the economy and public services almost to a standstill, with participation by health workers, civil servants, educators, bank workers, and many more. Civilians have also boycotted military-affiliated products and services, from the national lottery to the electrical power utility. In December, people across the country engaged in a silent strike against military rule, closing down shops and staying off the streets. The resistance to the military regime has denied it legitimacy and crippled its ability to function as a government, reflecting both the people’s commitment to democracy and the power it gives them to shape events.
Pushback against CCP influence is gaining traction. During 2021, democratic governments and private actors devoted greater attention to the moral, human rights, and national security implications of integration with a regime in China that has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad over the past decade. Lithuania was the first country to announce a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, setting the stage for other countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia to take a stand against CCP abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Separately, sacrificing significant revenue to defend human rights principles, the Women’s Tennis Association suspended all tournaments in China after player Peng Shuai was forced to recant her allegations of sexual assault by a high-ranking CCP official. And in a variety of open societies, media outlets have been cutting ties with Chinese state media services, regulators have scrutinized rule violations by such services, and scholars have spoken out against pressure to self-censor on China-related topics.
The migration and refugee crisis that has so preoccupied many democracies is an outgrowth of the authoritarian expansion of the past 16 years. But in another sense it is an emphatic endorsement of democracy as the preferred system of government, as millions of people flee repressive regimes or antidemocratic militants and seek to live in free societies. The rate of migration out of Hong Kong spiked following the Beijing-backed authorities’ crackdown on prodemocracy protests. Tens of thousands of people have fled Nicaragua since 2018 demonstrations were brutally suppressed, as have millions of Venezuelans suffering under the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Rather than attempting to deter migrants and refugees with daunting border infrastructure and harsh asylum systems, governments in democratic destination countries should recognize their shared interest in the struggle for freedom.
Building a more democratic world
The displacement of global democratic norms by authoritarian powers and other antidemocratic actors can still be reversed. But success will require a bold, sustained response that establishes support for democracy and countering authoritarianism at the heart of each democracy’s foreign policy, national security strategy, and domestic reform agenda. It must also entail the participation of both governments and an engaged and active citizenry. Rather than longing for a bygone era of expanding freedom, democratic leaders need to confront the problems caused by their past mistakes and address weaknesses in the international system that authoritarians have been able to exploit.
Effective democracy support should not be subordinated to a free country’s short-term economic, military, or geopolitical interests, all of which would actually be best served by a long-term rollback of authoritarian practices. Nor can democracy be imposed by forces outside a given country. International assistance and solidarity are crucial to countering the tactical advantages and many forms of collaboration enjoyed by autocrats. At the same time, it is local and diasporic human rights defenders, grassroots civil society organizations, and empowered electorates that must chart the course and ultimately determine their own country’s future.
In the drive to restore democratic values and human rights standards to their proper place in the international system, President Biden’s Summit for Democracy—held in December 2021 with 110 invited governments, to be followed by a year of action—represents a promising first step. Those governments must now go beyond rhetorical commitments and seek civil society input on implementation.
Developing a set of coordinated international policies grounded in democratic principles, while strengthening their own domestic governance systems, will ultimately make all participating countries safer, more prosperous, and more just. Democratic nations share interests in fair trade and security, and since they are more likely to adhere to agreements and norms, they make more reliable partners in both fields. Their institutional and popular support for accountability and the rule of law also make them more predictable and rewarding environments for public and private investment. No democracy is perfect, but they all benefit from the basic ability to adapt to changing circumstances, make policy corrections, and bring in fresh leadership—with minimal disruption to the system as a whole.
Despite the clear arguments in favor of democracy, the past 16 years have shown in stark terms that neither the prevalence of democratic ideas around the world nor the certainty of global progress toward democratic governance can be taken for granted. Autocrats remain determined to keep and expand their power, and they will continue to make gains so long as democracy’s proponents let them. It is time for everyone who understands the stakes to rebuild and improve upon the international norms that democracies long championed, and push the reprehensible practices of authoritarians back to the margins of human experience where they belong.
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About Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World is Freedom House’s flagship annual report, assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world. It is composed of numerical ratings and supporting descriptive texts for 195 countries and 15 territories. Freedom in the World has been published since 1973, allowing Freedom House to track global trends in freedom for almost 50 years.