It has become, at this point, almost a trope to conclude that global democracy is increasingly imperiled, but there is considerable evidence backing this theory. In groundbreaking new research based on V-Dem, an exhaustive dataset tracking democracies, Anna Luhrmann and Staffan Lindberg of the University of Gothenburg concluded that democracy’s slide, previously thought to begin in the mid-2000s, actually dates to as early as the mid-1990s. In an article for The Washington Post last year, I too noted how democracy was failing – and that in many cases that regression would be hard to reverse.
In response to the global threats to democracy, some foreign policy analysts and government officials have begun to suggest that the United States and other democracies are entering a Cold War-style competition against autocracy, in its many modern forms. Like Washington Post contributing columnist Robert Kagan, leading thinkers have suggested there is not that much difference between the various forms of autocracy today, and that the new struggle must be a broad and almost civilizational one, between liberal and illiberal regimes. The U.S. Department of State’s director of policy planning, Kiron Skinner, recently echoed some of these ideas, telling participants at a security event in Washington that growing U.S.-China tensions are “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.”
While autocracy – illiberal populism of both the right and the left, military dictatorship, and major autocratic powers like China – is clearly on the rise globally and in Asia, a Cold War-style, grand ideological campaign against authoritarianism in general is unlikely to halt democracy’s global regression. It is true that many illiberal regimes share attributes, and that democratic leaders have been slow to recognize the growing power of autocrats. But a Cold War-style frame probably will not work. For one, it is unclear whether, at this time of political gridlock and declining interest in foreign policy among citizens in established democracies, including the United States and leading Asian democracies, such an ideological battle is even politically possible. But even if the United States and other democracies could convince their citizens to launch a global, Cold War-style campaign against autocracy, a broad and sweeping effort might actually backfire. Many authoritarian regimes now bolster their legitimacy by defining themselves as opposed to liberal democracy, with its increasingly tarnished brand – like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, autocrats relish an enemy to rail against.
Most important, however, the lessons of the past decade suggest that, in some cases democratic declines can potentially be reversed, and democratic freedoms gained, by focusing on a more microscopic approach, one that has proven somewhat effective at promoting political reform. This will not be easy – especially when populist strongmen take over, they can do lasting damage. But a microscopic and targeted approach, backed by the United States, can be tailored to individual countries, can respond to local politics, and can be based on evidence, rather than on broad ideas of supposedly civilizational conflict.
A Local Approach
Such a strategy would rest on three general pillars, with the leaders of this strategy local democrats in individual countries, supported by the United States and other powerful actors. And, to be fair, these ideas could only be applied in two sets of countries: Democracies where norms and institutions are crumbling, like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and autocratic or hybrid regimes with some degree of openness, like Thailand or Cambodia, where real change is possible, albeit hard. In the most centralized and closed countries, like Laos or North Korea, it is hard to envision any strategy that would foster major political change these days. But in these weak democracies or more open autocracies, there is the potential for political change – enough openness that civil society and opposition politicians possibly can gain traction.
First, in countries where illiberal populists already have gained power, opposition politicians and civil society should battle back by focusing on what Matthew Yglesias of Vox has called normal politics – bedrock political issues rather than the abuses of the rule of law. Publics in these countries become inured to the scandals and abuses, or believe that such investigations are just designed to take down the one leader, the populist demagogue, who is purportedly on their side. Few opposition parties have defeated illiberal populists by hammering on scandal talk. On the contrary, Duterte’s allies just won a massive victory in the Philippines’ midterm elections, which the opposition presented as a referendum on the president’s abuses.
Of course, fostering oversight and transparency is important, but illiberal populist governments have been defeated by politicians who ran on bread and butter issues. In the recent Indonesian presidential elections, incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, facing a populist, potentially illiberal challenger in Prabowo Subianto, did co-opt some of Prabowo’s populist messages. But Jokowi centered his campaign on the Indonesian economy, the ultimate bread and butter topic.
Politicians facing autocrats in an election also need to win a large enough victory to overcome illiberal populists’, or other autocrats’, unwillingness to leave office if they lose a vote. No politician likes to lose, but autocrats often take extraordinary measures not to leave. In 2013, then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition narrowly lost the popular vote, but used gerrymandering and alleged fraud to keep Najib in power. But in 2018, the coalition facing Najib won such a resounding victory on election day that Najib was delegitimized and, after a brief period of uncertainty, ceded control. Conversely, the fact that Thailand’s opposition coalition did not get a sweeping victory in March’s parliamentary elections (albeit with the playing field tilted against them) made it easier for the military and its allies to stay in power.
However, outside of normal politics, there is one type of abuse that can stir enough popular resentment to undermine autocracies or do battle against weak, autocratic-leaning democratic governments: Corruption. So civil society and opposition politicians should highlight top leaders’ graft as well. In fact, disgust with graft has been a central driver behind many of the protests in recent years against governments in democracies and autocracies alike, including Malaysia, Cambodia, South Korea, and Kyrgyzstan, among others. Anger with graft also has helped opposition politicians and civil society make major gains in some of those states. Graft in particular sparks public anger because it highlights the impunity and arrogance of rulers, and is easily understandable, in a way that attacks on norms or even institutions are not. And while populists may take advantage of anti-graft sentiments, vowing to clean up corruption and fight decadent elites, public anger about graft can also be turned against illiberal populists who do not keep these promises.
And even when elections are designed not to be fully free and fair, democrats in weak democracies or fragile autocracies should participate. Participating in elections with some degree of freedom and fairness allows opposition parties to make their points to the public, to build coalitions, and to help citizens develop a kind of muscle memory about the importance of voting and of democracy in general. (To be sure, in complete sham elections, like those that occur in states like Laos, there is little opportunity to take advantage of the vote and build for the future.) And even elections that are not fully fair can lead to surprising results that shock complacent autocrats.
When election time comes around, democratic forces absolutely must form the broadest possible coalitions, no matter how unwieldy. This might seem like an obvious idea, but in country after country splits have allowed illiberal populists to win victories and dominate politics. In the Philippines in 2016, a four-way presidential race helped Duterte become president – and since then he has only become more powerful, undermining civil liberties and cracking down on the opposition. By contrast, in Malaysia last year, an awkward opposition coalition together defeated Najib.
The U.S. Role
The United States and other established democracies, including in Asia, can play a role in supporting these efforts to preserve or gain democracy — but it must be a supporting effort, not one in which Washington or other democratic capitals star in the leading role. Most of these changes must be pushed by democrats in embattled states themselves. Still, a supportive strategy could be enacted even at a time of rising nationalism in the United States and other leading democracies, and implemented largely through appropriations of a Congress that still generally supports democracy promotion, even if the White House is lukewarm, at best, to the idea of advocating for rights and freedoms. (Some surveys show that Americans generally support the idea of democracy promotion abroad, but others suggest increasingly nationalistic views among Americans, and low interest in democracy promotion.)
What would that support look like? The United States and other donors still do not make battling corruption enough of a priority in foreign aid and foreign policy generally. Over the past decade, Washington has theoretically tried to place a greater focus on combating graft and kleptocracy, but the Trump administration has often ignored graft in important partner countries, and undermined multilateral efforts to promote transparency among corporations doing business globally. A more effective anti-corruption policy would include the White House highlighting issues of graft even in countries where the United States has security and economic interests, refraining from undermining global institutions that battle corruption, and making backing countries’ anti-corruption commissions and other bodies a higher U.S. priority.
Washington also could devote a higher overall percentage of foreign aid to areas related to politics, including support for governance, elections, and institutions. Right now, political aid is by far the smallest category of the big four areas of foreign aid. And Washington could actually reward countries that make real progress toward democracy – a point Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim made on an extended recent trip to the United States. He repeatedly emphasized that countries like Malaysia do not need big rhetorical gestures but rather greater support for governance, increasing trade opportunities, and closer security cooperation, among other areas.
These efforts will never be a panacea. Even when protests topple autocrats, other authoritarians can step into the void; even when populists lose power, they may have done so much damage to the political system that democracy is hard to restore, and other illiberal populists take over in the future. Groups that mobilize and battle for change often face high hurdles to implementing real, structural reforms. Still, despite all its flaws today, democracy is still linked not only to improved civil and political liberties but also to other positive changes like better health outcomes. The United States, meanwhile, still works more effectively with other democratic states. With a more effective democracy promotion policy, Washington could help ensure it still has many of those partners.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is the author, most recently, of A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.