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Story Publication logo February 28, 2019

Autocrats Rising, Democracies Flailing

Pulitzer Center Executive Editor Indira Lakshman speaks President Trump's use of the term "Fake News." Screenshot from a Washington Post video stream. United States, 2018.

"Indira Lakshmanan Reports" highlights Lakshmanan's reporting, commentary, and public event...

Monument of Lenin stretching his hand in Narva, Estonia. Image by valeriiaarnaud / Estonia, 2014.
Monument of Lenin stretching his hand in Narva, Estonia. Image by valeriiaarnaud / Estonia, 2014.

Remember back in 2012 when Mitt Romney was widely mocked for calling Russia our greatest geopolitical foe? President Obama ridiculed him in a debate: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War's been over for 20 years." The prevailing view was that liberal democracy had triumphed. It was the end of history — we won.

Seven years later, the world looks different, and Romney got a belated apology on Tuesday from President Clinton's former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. "I personally owe an apology to now-Senator Romney, because I think that we underestimated what was going on in Russia," Albright testified to the House Intelligence Committee. "I think we forget that we're dealing with a KGB agent" who's "played a weak hand very well," Albright said of Vladimir Putin.

Dire predictions that falling oil prices, paltry domestic investment, anemic growth, shrinking household income, and sanctions would push Russia's oil-dependent economy to collapse and spark opposition never materialized. Putin tightened his grip at home while audaciously invading a neighbor, menacing NATO members, and launching asymmetrical warfare through our Achilles heel, the Internet. Russia seized Crimea, still wages war in Ukraine, and launched disinformation campaigns to meddle in our 2016 and 2018 campaigns and other Western elections.

Then there's China, which consolidated power in Xi Jinping, who rules without term limits and is spreading China's influence globally, challenging Western free trade regimes, asserting new military zones, and propagating a "Belt and Road" initiative that builds infrastructure and telecommunications in developing countries in exchange for crippling debt.

Ask your neighbor to name the biggest threats to national security and, depending on which politicians and newscast they listen to, they'll likely say terrorists, Iran, North Korean nukes, or criminals and drugs crossing the Mexican border. They're all perils of different orders of magnitude, but the most profound existential dangers are harder to perceive: Along with climate change, they include the rise of authoritarian regimes putting democracy at risk, even in Washington.

Representative Adam Schiff, the new chairman of the House Intelligence committee, devoted his first open hearing Tuesday not to investigating collusion with Russia by President Trump's campaign — tempting for Democrats — but rather to what Western intelligence and military professionals, including former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, describe as democracy in retreat, under pressure from despots.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior Russia analyst for the National Intelligence Council and CIA, testified that while the average autocracy lasted 14 years during the Cold War, the average duration now is 20 years. They're also more centralized. "In 1988, personalist regimes comprised 23 percent of all dictatorships. Today, 40 percent of all autocracies are ruled by strongmen," Kendall-Taylor said.

Over dinner Tuesday to launch a Brookings Institution study of authoritarianism worldwide, Schiff noted three US military allies — Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines — are now run by autocrats who control all levers of power.

Freedom House's 2019 annual report documents 13 years of global decline in democracy, including challenges to the United States that "are testing the stability of its constitutional system and threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide." From the collapse of the Soviet Union, how did we get here?

Social and economic changes brought on by globalization, trade, and automation — shifts in employment, shrinking safety nets, growing income inequality — along with fear of immigrants, cultural shifts, and perceived corruption among elites, have fed dissatisfaction. Strongmen with simple solutions prevailed at polls and chipped away at checks and balances, squeezing the judiciary, legislature, and press. Elected leaders who've amassed greater powers and cracked down on opponents include not only our adversaries like Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, but also our allies: Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary's Viktor Orbán, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, and Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose democracies were supposed to be beacons for their less-free neighbors. Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and our own President Trump praise US-friendly authoritarians, as well as decidedly unfriendly ones in Russia and China, while whipping up racial and cultural divides, demonizing the press, and casting themselves as sole saviors.

Brookings president John Allen, a former commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, asked Schiff over dinner if the United States is still a reliable partner to lead the free world. Schiff replied, "There's a prayer in Europe that what we're dealing with is a bout of temporary insanity and that America will be back." The bigger concern, he said, is that autocracy's growing appeal proves there's "nothing inevitable or inexorable" about democracy.

That is the true emergency we're facing. In our country and other bastions of liberal democracy, elected leaders need to put aside politics and fight to preserve it.


a pink halftone illustration of a woman speaking a microphone while raising a fist


Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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