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Controlling the Pandemic of Global Authoritarianism

Only with a Biden victory can America hope to regain some of its moral credibility on the world stage. And even then, it won't be easy.

Larry Diamond

When either Joseph Biden or Donald Trump takes the oath of office on January 20 of next year, he will confront a world sliding steadily toward authoritarianism.

As I document extensively in a recent analysis, last year was the first year since the dawn of the post-Cold War era when the majority of states with populations over one million were not democracies. This proportion has been declining steadily (from 57 to 48 percent) since the global democratic recession began in 2006. Last year was also the thirteenth consecutive year when significantly more countries declined in freedom than gained—exactly reversing the pattern of the first 15 post-Cold War years. Even more troubling, the last five years (2015 to 2019) were the first such period since the early 1970s when more countries suffered breakdowns of democracy than made transitions to democracy. And this year will be no better.

It’s not that people don’t any longer aspire for freedom. There have been some twenty mass movements or political openings for freedom and democracy since the Green Movement in Iran in 2009. But only two of these (in Tunisia and Ukraine) have been successful.

The democratic recession did not begin with the ascension to the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump. Rather, it began in the final years of the George W. Bush Administration, in reaction to the disastrous U.S. intervention in Iraq, the insinuation of the idea of “democracy promotion” into that project, and the subsequent global financial crisis emanating from gross financial mismanagement in the United States.

Early in the presidency of Barack Obama—who continued to give rhetorical emphasis to human rights and freedom—it looked like a “fourth wave” of democratic expansion might be dawning with the 2010–11 “Arab Spring.” Obama did help push out the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. But (as we learned in Iraq) it was beyond the power of the United States to will democracy into being, and after courageously using air power to prevent the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddaffi, from slaughtering his own people, Obama failed to follow through with the political engagement and security assistance (all measures well short of putting American troops on the ground) that might have helped to stabilize a post-Qaddaffi Libya.

Then, when Obama opted in 2013 not to enforce his own “red line” after Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people, a different kind of line was crossed. American power and resolve waned, in the Middle East and globally, while those of the world’s two leading autocracies—Russia and China—inexorably expanded.

The decade preceding the American electoral shock of 2016 saw an acceleration of deep social and economic changes that were destabilizing democracies and making the world ripe for demagogues and dictators. Inequality, especially within advanced economies, steadily worsened as a result of several factors: the shift from manufacturing to finance, technology, and knowledge as the dominant sources of wealth generation; the rising pace of globalization, with its offshoring of manufacturing, its generous provision of tax havens, and its general downward pressure on wages and tax rates; the neoliberal revolution with its general disparagement of government regulation and redistributive policies; and (not unrelated to the above) the decline in power and membership of trade unions.

At the same time, as a result of immigration, most advanced industrial societies were becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and the rise of social media provided new emotive channels for prejudice, rumor, resentment, and rage. Then came the first postmodern autocracy—Putin’s Russia—skilled in manipulating and manufacturing resentment through these digital channels, and the first autocracy—Xi Jinping’s China—to surge to superpower status with sustained high economic growth and a communist dictatorship.

In his nearly four years as President of the United States, Donald J. Trump has been both symbol and accelerant of this authoritarian slide. He has shown sneering contempt for our democratic allies and alliances in Europe and Asia, and fawning admiration for dictators—from Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the worst of the worst, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. By eagerly opening his hotels and businesses to global power brokers, while hiding his tax returns and firing five inspectors-general of different government departments and agencies, Trump has undermined norms of global accountability.

Through his daily lies and distortions of the truth, his constant assaults on the independent media as “fake news”, his partisan denunciation of judges who rule against him, his calls to lock up his political opponents, his retweeting of dangerous and absurd conspiracy theories, his gestures of legitimacy to white supremacists, and his deliberate efforts to polarize the political system and embitter social divisions, Trump has served as a friend and role model for authoritarian populists worldwide. It is no wonder that—from Poland and Brazil to India and the Philippines—illiberal demagogues are thriving in countries that seemed stable democracies only a few years before.

If Joe Biden becomes the next president, he can and will do many things, literally on day one, to reverse the downward spiral of freedom in the world and begin to restore democratic hope and momentum. Where Trump heaped praise on dictators and scorn on our allies, Biden will once again embrace fellow democracies in Europe and Asia while speaking truth to the bullying power of global autocrats. He will restore some of America’s moral credibility in the world by reversing “the Trump administration’s cruel and senseless policies” on immigration, reinstating the ban on torture, strengthening government ethics, combatting global kleptocracy, and reaffirming core American values of press freedom, judicial independence, and respect for human rights—including the most precious democratic right, the right to vote. He has pledged to convene during his first year as president a “Summit for Democracy” to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” All of these steps will breathe fresh life and purpose into what is now a dispirited and leaderless global community of democracies.

However, if he is elected, Biden will also face formidable challenges in trying to reverse the authoritarian wave and renew democratic momentum. For, as noted, the democratic recession precedes Trump and has multiple causes. Standing up for democracy, transparency, and human rights will help, but symbols and summits will not suffice.


Reversing the global democratic recession will require a bipartisan, multilateral, and multi-pronged commitment to supporting democrats, pressuring autocrats, fighting kleptocracy, countering malign authoritarian (especially Chinese and Russian) sharp power projection, promoting democratic values and ideas, and reforming and strengthening our own democracy. And all of this must be done while working to contain the most severe challenge of policy performance that democracies have faced since World War II: the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is hard to overstate the damage that the pandemic has done to the prestige and credibility of democracies. Even allowing for the propensity of autocracies to under-report the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in their countries, the statistics are nevertheless grim. The countries hardest hit by the pandemic (in terms of death rate) are the democracies of Europe and the Americas. Spain ranks third in deaths per one million, Brazil fourth, the United States eighth. And a new wave of the pandemic is now beginning to sweep through the United States and other advanced democracies. It is not that democracies are incapable of controlling the pandemic; Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan have all done quite well, and most of them exceptionally well, in containing the virus. But many more democracies have bungled the response.

Democracies must show that they can muster the collective discipline, organization, and resourcefulness to control the pandemic. This does not require surrender to authoritarianism, much less to the virus itself. But it does necessitate a transcendent effort that puts science in the forefront, compels the wearing of masks in public, invests heavily in widespread testing and contact tracing, and widely distributes adequate protective equipment, and then a safe vaccine when it is available. If the world’s democracies cannot do a better job of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, they are unlikely to control the gathering pandemic of authoritarianism either.

The second imperative is democracy support. We must remind ourselves that democracy is not won not by abstract historical forces, but by democrats—people and organizations mobilizing, strategizing, advocating, and taking risks. Last year, Congress took an important step by substantially increasing the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, America’s flagship institution for supporting democratic civic organizations, media, think tanks, trade unions, business associations, and political party systems abroad. The U.S. Agency for International Development also delivers extensive assistance to strengthen democratic governance and the rule of law. But we must press our democratic allies to do more. And we must align our diplomacy more vigorously behind our assistance efforts.

To a degree not seen since the end of the Cold War, democrats are under siege now, and not just in China, Hong Kong, Russia, and Iran. One of the most acute and urgent problems for the future of global freedom is that the world’s populous democracy—India—is retreating from freedom under the grip of an illiberal populist ruler, Narendra Modi, and behind him, an intolerant, xenophobic, religious chauvinist party, the BJP. Like Erdogan in Turkey—a pivotal member state of NATO, with the largest standing army in the alliance—Modi thinks he has the world's most powerful democracies over a barrel. After all, now that the challenge of containing Communist Chinese aggression is framed as maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” how can that be done without the crucial South Asian piece of the geopolitical puzzle, India? Indeed, India is vital to the future of global freedom.

But the problem is a broader one. As China blandishes, under its Belt and Road Initiative, economic aid and infrastructure investment in the hundreds of billions of dollars, lubricated with dizzying sums of under-the-table payments to government officials and other opinion leaders, autocrats gain resources and leverage. One of the central challenges for democracy in the next administration will be figuring out, country by country, the leverage we can bring to bear in balancing geostrategic interests against human rights imperatives in our various bilateral relationships. This is a formidable foreign policy challenge, and it can’t be met with a crude and simplistic global template. Autocracies and eroding democracies will threaten to walk away from us if we do not look the other way at their corruption and oppression.

In the face of these threats, we must remember that we have significant power assets (military and economic resources, intelligence, and the ability to impose targeted sanctions) we can deploy to impose costs on leaders for suppressing freedom. We often have more leverage than we give ourselves credit for, but we fail to exercise it fully out of fear of being the ambassador or assistant secretary (or the president) to “lose” country X. We need to make clear to our diplomats that they will be rewarded for speaking out against oppression and defending the defenders of free press freedom and human rights. Whatever else we do or concede, we can always express a commitment to freedom and the rule of law. We can always do something to defend these principles on the ground in embattled countries, and in international forums.

Beyond this, autocrats also have serious vulnerabilities. They are at constant risk of losing their fragile grip on legitimacy if their massive corruption is exposed. They are at risk because their people are souring on the bill of goods China has sold them—promising developmental transformation, but typically enriching the politicians and their business cronies far more than the country. This has left too many countries saddled with a generational burden of debt and a loss of sovereignty, as China leverages the debt it is owed to swallow up critical infrastructure and resources.

This raises the third priority. To wage a renewed campaign for freedom, we must launch a new and far-reaching global campaign against kleptocracy. Transnational corruption is the handmaiden of creeping authoritarianism. It throws countries open to Chinese and Russian (and other authoritarian) sharp power projection.  And it is often the vehicle by which China and Russia covertly penetrate democracies and subvert their institutions. We must ban anonymous shell corporations and anonymous real estate transactions—crucial means by which kleptocratic wealth seeps into and corrodes wealthy democracies like the United States (its number one destination) and the United Kingdom.

The United States and other democracies must also strengthen their laws on corrupt foreign influence. This includes banning campaign contributions by foreign governments, persons, corporations, or subsidiaries at all levels of politics, and firmly regulating lobbying so that all agents of foreign influence must register and report their activities. We also need more vigorous enforcement of existing laws against money laundering, corruption, and tax evasion, as well closer cooperation among democracies (including sharing of financial intelligence) toward these ends.

An elevated campaign against kleptocracy will provide important tools for pressuring autocrats, short of the blunt and often counterproductive instrument of national-level sanctions. The Global Magnitsky Act empowers the U.S. president to block visas and to impose property sanctions on individual and entities responsible for gross human rights violations or significant corruption. We should make more pointed use of it and encourage our democratic allies to join us.


Fighting global corruption and kleptocracy will make the world more resilient in the face of Russian and Chinese efforts to propagandize, penetrate, and sway democratic societies. But it won’t be enough.  The Trump Administration has taken important strides to expose and counter China’s malign projection of sharp power in the U.S. and around the world.  The next administration must build on these efforts by expanding efforts to make civil society organizations, mass media, universities, businesses and other democratic institutions more knowledgeable, resourceful and resilient in the face of Chinese and Russian efforts to penetrate, compromise, and corrupt them.

This will require far-reaching efforts to educate societal and political actors about how these autocracies wield malign influence, and the logic and organization of Chinese Communist Party United Front activities in particular.  Everything else we do to support independent investigative media, to fight bribery and malfeasance, to promote transparency and to strengthen the rule of law will help make emerging democracies more resilient. But we also face a huge challenge in countering China’s covert and illicit influence activities in advanced democracies like our own, and in doing so without stoking general hostility to Chinese people (or Chinese Americans). The goal must be to separate the Chinese Communist Party from the Chinese people—who are, after all, the captives (however increasingly affluent) of a neo-totalitarian state.

Pushing back against the authoritarian power surge requires robust technological and military components as well. A major factor driving the third wave of democratization was the military and technological power of the United States—not in imposing democracy, but in protecting it against authoritarian adversaries and in staring down dictators contemplating the use of force against their own people. As the global balance of power shifts, autocrats grow emboldened, and democracies—none more so now than Taiwan—face a lengthening shadow of danger.

As Michael Brown, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, and his colleagues have recently written, the United States now faces a “superpower marathon” with China in which we cannot rely on containment to prevail. We must outcompete the PRC in the race to master the technologies that will determine future global economic and military leadership, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 5G (and then 6G) mobile communications, high-resolution satellite observation of the planet, and genetic engineering. It is not enough to slow the pace of China’s theft and misappropriation of American and European technological innovation, or to persuade countries (as the Trump Administration has rightly been doing) that allowing Chinese companies like Huawei to build their telecommunications infrastructure will compromise their freedom and security. We need to win the race to develop these technologies of the future. We need to ensure that the People’s Liberation Army does not become the world’s most powerful military, and that China’s digital surveillance state does not eclipse human freedom and privacy on a global scale.

As Brown and his colleagues have urged, this will require massive new American investments in research and development, bringing federal government support for R&D back from the current level of 0.7 percent of GDP toward the 2 percent level that prevailed at the peak of the Cold War. And it will require us to not only to breed more homegrown scientists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, but to attract and retain the best talent from abroad—including from China itself. The technology race is an existential one not only for American national security, but for the future of freedom globally.

Finally, we must play once again to our greatest natural asset, our soft power: the values and ideas of pluralism, freedom, and democracy. Authoritarianism may appeal to a host of political leaders around the world who wish to be relieved of the constraints of law, transparency, and accountability, but this mode of governance is not intrinsically appealing to people around the world. Although authoritarian values have gained some ground in the last decade, most people—even in Africa and the Middle East—want to be able to choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections, to hold them to account through a rule of law, and to have the rights to think and speak and assemble and worship as they please.

However, these principles are under relentless assault by the Chinese and Russian propaganda machines, which disparage democracy as feeble and inefficient, and which are becoming increasingly skillful at inventing and manipulating information to demoralize democracies and tear them apart. We must not only do a better job of defending our information spaces by rapidly identifying and degrading these rumors, lies, and distortions. We have to also counter the meta-narrative, being propagated by the Chinese Communist leadership, that their system of hierarchical control works better and is the wave of the future.

All these strands are connected. To win the normative contest, we must win the technological race. We must control the pandemic through democratic means. We must reform our democratic systems so that they are able to govern effectively and inclusively. We must stand up for democrats on the ground in tough places, and stand up for democratic principles in the international forums that are deciding the future rules and infrastructures of global commerce, computing, and communication. And in the most positive sense of the word, we must go on the offensive, by broadcasting truthful news and information about the behavior of authoritarian regimes, and by promoting knowledge and appreciation of the diverse philosophical roots of democracy, the different ways of structuring it, and the civic norms of tolerance and restraint that sustain it. This knowledge and information must be conveyed through multiple means—through the rapid action and viral reach of digital media, and through the slower, deeper work of exchange programs, massive online courses, and flash drives containing virtual libraries of classic and modern works on freedom and democracy, translated into many different languages.

There is no time to lose. The COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened authoritarian China’s relative power. Even if Trump is defeated for reelection next week, the world will remain shaken by what his four years in power reflect about America and have done to American global leadership. Even if a Biden Administration is able to move quickly to rally democracies around an initial shared agenda, it will also have to craft a strategy and mobilize the resources for a prolonged struggle against freedom’s formidable foes.

Larry Diamond is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He coordinates the democracy program of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) within the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and is a contributing editor at American Purpose.