Time for ‘Democracy Inc’ to stand against authoritarian aggression
22 Dec 2022|

Dictators stay in power with one another’s help. As a Venezuelan pro-democracy activist told Lithuania’s recent Future of Democracy forum when asked how dictator Nicolás Maduro holds on to power, the answer is always the same: because he’s propped up by all the world’s other autocrats.

It’s an argument that The Atlantic writer and historian Anne Applebaum has often made: global authoritarianism is a network, a kind of ‘Autocracy Inc’.

When our sanctions bite, autocrats pick up the slack for each other, as China is doing for Russia now. When we try to hold them to account through censures in international forums, they block, veto, distract and pump out the whataboutery. They amplify one another’s disinformation, share propaganda narratives and look away from the others’ human rights abuses and international aggression.

One of the themes to emerge at the Future of Democracy forum, hosted by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and steered by Vice Minister Mantas Adomėnas, was that we need to draw more counter-strength from a network of democracies—a ‘Democracy Inc’. It was an idea this author advocated during a panel discussion with Applebaum and others at the forum.

Liberal democracies have values around which to coalesce—openness, fairness, equality and accountability on agreed rules—and which translate well from national political cultures to external behaviour towards other nations. While countries pursuing their interests don’t always practise perfectly what they preach, democracies are pretty good at valuing all countries equally, irrespective of size and economic clout, underpinning a respect for sovereignty.

These values have proven themselves able to sustain peace, stability and prosperity better than an environment in which countries simply exercise their raw power. However, given authoritarians such as those in China and Russia are choosing power over rules and are resisting the influence of the rest of the world, we need to accept that we are in a period of long-term, full-spectrum competition. Our goal must be to constrain and deter these regimes for the foreseeable future.

The finish line will be the establishment of a new, evolved set of rules and norms. We will have succeeded if those rules and norms reflect our values and have widespread buy-in, as opposed to a more arbitrary environment permanently shaped by the coercive and exploitative objectives of autocrats.

There are immediate priorities for a confederation of democracies. We can work together to counter economic coercion. This might involve a NATO Article-5-style arrangement whereby coercion against one member provokes a response from all, but there are other, less contentious proposals. We might agree to discourage our own businesses from taking advantage of trade opportunities created by coercion against others, or simply agree to build capacity in vulnerable states to improve their resilience to coercion attempts.

We can accelerate and deepen efforts to build supply and value chains for critical materials and technology, whether through coordinated export controls on authoritarian strategic rivals, by bolstering ‘friendshoring’, or, as it has been nicely described, ‘reglobalising among friends’.

We can share innovation clout—which we are already doing with AUKUS and to some extent the Quad—but this can be taken much further. Hints of Japan’s involvement in the non-submarine aspects of AUKUS are encouraging, as is Defence Minister Richard Marles’s effusiveness for cooperation among like-minded nations in industries that used to be reigned by implacable competition.

As NATO has a notional defence spending target of 2% of GDP for each member, a confederation of democracies could have a similar target for research and development spending in areas of technology that are critical for national and economic security.

We also need better strategic communications to persuade countries—especially in the Indo-Pacific—that are nervous about the prospect of major-power competition that the democratic agenda is positive and seeks to improve the circumstances of all nations, not just an elite club of the wealthy and self-governed. Strengthening smaller countries’ abilities to combat the bombardment of disinformation is crucial.

Above all, we’ve got to actively support each other. That includes backing pro-democracy movements in places like Hong Kong, Iran, Russia and Myanmar.

Lithuania is a role model. With fewer than 3 million people and an economy ranked in the 80s globally, the small Baltic nation has nevertheless become a big champion of democracy. It has stood its ground against bullying from both Russia and China, which took coercive trade measures after Lithuania allowed the opening of a Taiwan representative office in its capital Vilnius. Lithuania has actively promoted democratic causes, including through events like Future of Democracy.

These events give governments, diplomatic services, think tanks, democracy advocates and exiled freedom fighters the chance to build connections with one another.

Ukrainian flags are draped all over Vilnius. Landsbergis is among the most voluble international voices calling for support to Ukraine, and Lithuania’s distinction is reflected in NATO’s decision to hold its 2023 summit in Vilnius.

None of this suggests the world is going to bifurcate neatly into competing democratic and non-democratic spheres. Indeed, the advantage democracies like Australia have is that we can partner with countries acting in good faith even when they have different political systems. The reality will be messy and complex, and the finish line is unlikely to be as obvious as, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall was in marking the end of the Cold War.

It will be a lengthy and difficult period, but it is possible for democratic values to prevail over time. Rivals such as China have plenty of challenges: slowing growth, demographic decline, rising internal repression and overt public dismay over Covid-19 restrictions.

The encouraging response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine demonstrates an appetite across countries to work together to compete and deter, driven as it was more by an instinctive revulsion to brazen aggression than by any formal international architecture. The willingness of so many countries to sanction and ostracise Moscow puts to shame the superannuated UN system within which Autocracy Inc has never been more adept at orchestrating failure.

In turn, this shows the opportunity now before us to strengthen and expand our cooperation towards a renewed global system that has democratic values at its heart and serves the needs of all.