A Discussion About Authoritarian Regimes Vs. Liberal Democratic Countries

The U.S. Secretary of State with with Chinese counterparts, and exchange below between the two made me think of this thread:

Why Promoting a Rules-based International System Valuing Human Rights is Important to Average Americans

Hearing Secretary Blinken speak about the importance of a rule-based order was great to hear. He mentions that without such a system, countries would interact on the principle that “might makes right” and that would lead to more violence and instability. Average Americans should care about this because a more violent world increases the chances of major military conflicts, even world wars. And if there are major military conflicts, America will likely be involved. That is, American sons, daughters, wives, husbands and other relatives will be put in harm’s way. Additionally, a more unstable world increases the chances of harmful economic effects on average Americans. For example, goods and services may be more expensive. Finally, a rules-based international system is just and fair. Might makes right is wrong. Similarly, a system respects basic human rights have greater moral standing than systems that do not.

Promoting Liberal Democratic Values is a Threat to Authoritarian Regimes–This is Not the Equivalent to Authoritarian Regimes Undermining Liberal Democracies

Because of this, the U.S. and other liberal democracies should do what they can to maintain and strengthen a rules-based international system that respects human rights. However, the U.S. doing this will almost automatically be a threat to authoritarian regimes. Would this justify actions by authoritarian regimes to undermine liberal democracies–e.g., exporting corruption, blackmailing prominent political and business leaders, or engaging in information warfare to increase existing tensions in a liberal democratic country? These actions are not morally equivalent to promoting and strengthening a rules-based international system or supporting citizens protesting against authoritarian regimes do pose a threat and can weaken an authoritarian regime. To put it crudely, liberal democracies are good–or the closest thing to it–and authoritarian regimes are bad.

Having said that, in the efforts to strengthen and promote an international system based on rules and human rights, not all actions to do this are equally acceptable. For example, I don’t believe liberal democracies should fabricate stories or utilize conspiracy theories to undermine an authoritarian regimes. Essentially, as much as possible, the methods used should be consistent with liberal democratic values.

We Must Constantly Work for an International System that Adheres to Rules and Respects Human Rights

In the last sentence, I include a qualifier–“as much as possible.” This acknowledges the reality that countries, particularly the most powerful, will not adhere to agreed upon rules or respect human rights–all the time. That is the reality. There is no perfect system, just as there is no perfect government–one that never violates liberal democratic procedures and values or human rights. As Secretary Blinken says, Americans work to form a more perfect union, which implies imperfection; America is flawed, like all countries. The international system will be flawed as well. But countries should constantly strive to adhere to rules and respect human rights to a greater degree. The alternatives are to not try hard or give up on a rules-based system entirely. This touches on a difference between liberal democracies and autocracies. The former not only implements liberal democratic values and respects human rights more consistently, but they have a genuine desire to be better at doing so.

2 thoughts on “A Discussion About Authoritarian Regimes Vs. Liberal Democratic Countries

  1. An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order. from the NYT

    China hopes to position itself as the main challenger to an international order, led by the United States, that is generally guided by principles of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to rule of law.

    Such a system “does not represent the will of the international community,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told Russia’s, Sergey V. Lavrov, when they met in the southern Chinese city of Guilin.

    Well, at least China and Russia are making it clear where they stand on principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

    As a result, the world is increasingly dividing into distinct, if not purely ideological, camps, with both China and the United States hoping to lure in supporters. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Mr. Wang secured an endorsement of its Xinjiang policies, as well as its quashing of dissent in Hong Kong, from Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, though a Saudi did not mention Xinjiang.

    Getting the guy who ordered the brutal murder of WaPo journalist, Jamal Khassogi, to endorse Chinese government’s quashing of dissent in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uighurs don’t seem like a good way to gain credibility as a world leader.

  2. The Bad Guys are Winning from Anne Applebaum in theAtlantic is a long article–but I recommend reading it. I think it does a solid job of laying one of the bigger challenges and threats the U.S. faces, globally and domestically.

    Applebaum identifies this threat as Autocracy Inc.–a group of autocratic regimes that Applebaum compares to a lose agglomeration of companies. Here’s more of what she has to say about this:

    Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America.

    This is not to say that there is some supersecret room where bad guys meet, as in a James Bond movie. Nor does the new autocratic alliance have a unifying ideology. Among modern autocrats are people who call themselves communists, nationalists, and theocrats. No one country leads this group. Washington likes to talk about Chinese influence, but what really bonds the members of this club is a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth.

    (emphasis added)

    What I found interesting in this article is the way Autocracy Inc. creates immunity to traditional threats to autocrats. For example, the opinion of the community would matter to political leaders. However,

    Today, the most brutal members of Autocracy Inc. don’t much care if their countries are criticized, or by whom….Whether it was “deep concern,” “sincere concern,” or “profound concern,” whether it was expressed on behalf of Europe or the Holy See, none of it mattered: Statements like that mean nothing to the Taliban, the Cuban security services, or the Russian FSB. Their goals are money and personal power. They are not concerned—deeply, sincerely, profoundly, or otherwise—about the happiness or well-being of their fellow citizens, let alone the views of anyone else.

    And they don’t care because the as long these autocratic regimes assist each other in the way Applebaum described, the rulers can maintain their wealth and power. Here’s an example, relating to getting aid from China:

    For autocrats and would-be autocrats around the world, the Chinese offer a package that looks something like this: Agree to follow China’s lead on Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghurs, and human rights more broadly. Buy Chinese surveillance equipment. Accept massive Chinese investment (preferably into companies you personally control, or that at least pay you kickbacks). Then sit back and relax, knowing that however bad your image becomes in the eyes of the international human-rights community, you and your friends will remain in power.

    On a related note, Applebaum makes the really important point that the tools liberal democratic countries use to combat autocrats are not so effective. In some cases, this is because of novel challenges:

    We don’t yet have a real answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which offers infrastructure deals to countries around the globe, often enabling local leaders to skim kickbacks and garnering positive China-subsidized media coverage in return. We don’t have the equivalent of a United Front, or any other strategy for shaping debate within and about China. We don’t run online influence campaigns inside Russia. We don’t have an answer to the disinformation, injected by troll farms abroad, that circulates on Facebook inside the U.S., let alone a plan for countering the disinformation that circulates inside autocracies.

    Here’s Applebaum talking about how corruption. To me, if she’s right, the type of corruption she’s talking about is a national security issue.

    “Fighting corruption” is not just a foreign-policy issue, after all. If we in the democratic world are serious about it, then we can no longer allow Kazakhs and Venezuelans to purchase property anonymously in London or Miami, or the rulers of Angola and Myanmar to hide money in Delaware or Nevada. We need, in other words, to make changes to our own system, and that may require overcoming fierce domestic resistance from the business groups that benefit from it. We need to shut down tax havens, enforce money-laundering laws, stop selling security and surveillance technology to autocracies, and divest from the most vicious regimes altogether. “We” here will need to include Europe, especially the U.K., as well as partners elsewhere—and that will require a lot of vigorous diplomacy.

    Other challenges and recommendations:

    The same is true of the fight for human rights. Statements made at a diplomatic summit won’t achieve much if politicians, citizens, and businesses don’t act as if they matter. To effect real change, the Biden administration will have to ask hard questions and make big decisions. How can we force Apple and Google to respect the rights of Russian democrats? How can we ensure that Western manufacturers have excluded from their supply chains anything produced in a Uyghur concentration camp? We need a major investment in independent media around the world, a strategy for reaching people inside autocracies, new international institutions to replace the defunct human-rights bodies at the UN. We need a way to coordinate democratic nations’ response when autocracies commit crimes outside their borders—whether that’s the Russian state murdering people in Berlin or Salisbury, England; the Belarusian dictator hijacking a commercial flight; or Chinese operatives harassing exiles in Washington, D.C. As of now, we have no transnational strategy designed to confront this transnational problem.

    Finally,

    If America removes the promotion of democracy from its foreign policy, if America ceases to interest itself in the fate of other democracies and democratic movements, then autocracies will quickly take our place as sources of influence, funding, and ideas. If Americans, together with our allies, fail to fight the habits and practices of autocracy abroad, we will encounter them at home; indeed, they are already here. If Americans don’t help to hold murderous regimes to account, those regimes will retain their sense of impunity. They will continue to steal, blackmail, torture, and intimidate, inside their countries—and inside ours.

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