Behold The Age Of Anocracy, When Democracies Slide Into Despotism
Western states are taking democratic governance for granted and responding feebly to threats in their midst. With the crisis at the Ukraine-Russia border coming to a head, the 1930s offer lessons on the dangers of complacency in the face of a kind of semi-democracy.
BUENOS AIRES — The standoff between Russia and Ukraine relates to a bigger conflict, provoked by the rising influence of authoritarian regimes that vigorously challenge the West's liberal order.
To clarify the word liberal here to prevent any abuse of the word, liberal refers to the "republic" or commonwealth, personal freedoms, a free press, democracy, separation of powers and defense of human rights. The crisis in Eastern Europe has once more given Russia a centrality it has not enjoyed to this degree since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. This has been compounded by the ambiguous positions of many states, including not a few in Latin America, toward Moscow in its hostility with the United States and the scope and risks of Russia's security demands.
But it is China rather than Russia that has become the focus of Western concerns, because of the influence of its economy and its ability to project its trade and, consequently, political power.
The Winter Olympics have offered an even clearer window on the leading global position to which China aspires, even in the United States' former backyard. Today, China is South America's main trading partner. In 2019, Chinese firms increased their investments in Latin America by 17%, mainly in infrastructures like ports, motorways, dams and railways.
Brazil, the continent's biggest economy, is a telling case. Its trade (with China) jumped from $2 billion to $100 billion from 2000 to 2019. China's purchases of minerals and primary farming products have furthermore been a key factor helping Latin America mitigate the costs of the 2008 financial crash.
The back entrance for authoritarianism
In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, formulated around the idea of America for the Americans, made strict delineations to prevent the expansion of European powers into the region. There is no such doctrine with Russia and less so with China. Nor do their clashes with the West constitute a new Cold War, with defined poles and areas of influence as it happened with the Soviet Union.
The United States has lost a good deal of its influence and soft-power capabilities
Today there is enormous economic interdependence between East and West, which prevents a total break. Limitations mean, for example, that when China is subjected to aggressive sanctions, the imposing parties are also harmed without changing the scenario much. Since the election of President Biden, the U.S. government has sought to build a coalition in defense of democracy. This is meant to act as a barrier against growing authoritarianism, beyond China and Russia.
For the problem is not just in two states. It is also in the sharp divisions and contradictions seen in Western states, including their leading power. Thus, the ideal model of liberalism with its humanist attributes has deteriorated considerably among its traditional proponents. And that opens a back entrance for authoritarian ideas, which enter and spread in proportion to the gravity of divisions.
The post-American future
In their Foreign Affairsarticle The Real Crisis of Global Order, U.S. academics Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon highlight the importance of domestic polarization, and consider the state of the liberal values that allowed the United States to play a leading role in the world.
With some of the red lines crossed in recent decades — from a return to protectionism, allowing torture of suspected terrorists or the brazen nationalism of the last U.S. president — the authors observe that the United States has lost a good deal of its influence and soft-power capabilities. To recover its global profile, they believe, it must resolve itself, or become coherent at home.
That is not easily done, they add, as the two main parties have very different views of what the "restoration" project for America involves. Now, just the idea that this polarization is here to stay and is indicative of definitive U.S. decline has encouraged China to become assertive and arrogant. It believes it is stepping into the post-American future, just as Russia sees this as the moment to throw out the pacts it had to swallow after the Soviet Union's demise.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a joint press conference
The "cancel" model
The "cancel" model, where competition gives way to terminal contempt for the other side, is affecting the electoral institution in an increasing number of democracies. In the United States, the Republicans have proposed laws that would restrict the voting rights of Hispanics and Blacks, who tend to vote Democrat.
Latin America is rife with anocratic regimes
Aides and publicists close to the former president Trump have likewise openly approved authoritarian outfits like the government of Hungary's Viktor Orban. Today, there is book censorship in the United States again and authors are banned over issues like gender, as in Hungary. Illiberalism in the United States, say the authors, is in line with trends worldwide.
Lessons from the 1930s
This halfway house between democracy and despotism — anocracy — is typical of countries where divisions have become dominant in the political battle. Anocracy is characterized by political instability, inefficiency and a mix of democratic norms and authoritarian attitudes that can destroy any state's leadership.
Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, is rife with anocratic regimes, polluted to differing degrees by the authoritarian stain. Across Europe and the United States, very little has been done to stop the spread of illiberal radicalism. As with fascism in the 1930s, its rise is coming to seem natural.
As Cooley and Nexon point out, democracies also faced multiple challenges in the 1930s. As anti-liberal forces used innovations like mass propaganda to their advantage, democracies seemed unable to step up and face them down.
Similarity does not inevitably mean repetition nor is history a flawless guide. But it sets examples. The lesson of the 20th century was that liberties must be won, and their worst enemy is murkiness and opportunism, as they are today.
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