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Democracy vs Autocracy - are these terms helpful or harmful in tackling global challenges

In this Voices article, three students discuss the terms, democracy, and autocracy, and if these terms are helpful or harmful in explaining and tackling global challenges. It was edited by Sumru Nur Elden (Co-Editor).


1. Doug Klain is a postgraduate student in International Relations at LSE. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center in Washington, DC.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed the idea of a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. The framing of global challenges has quickly become a centerpiece of rhetoric from the leaders of Western democracies and incorporated into their strategic concepts. The concept is useful as a rallying point for mostly Western democracies and their key democratic allies, drawing much-needed attention to the risks they face of democratic backsliding at home and attempts by malign actors to undermine their democracies. In rising to meet direct threats to European security and the rules-based international order, a struggle against autocracy and for democracy is a framing that can help motivate liberal democracies to maintain a united front against Russian aggression.

But to ensure this goes beyond empty rhetoric, they’ll need to simultaneously work to strengthen democratic institutions and norms such as the rule of law and ensure that extremist domestic forces at home find little electoral success. This in turn will help maintain the health of global democratic institutions and norms. If the United States had continued to backslide on its democracy and Trump-era policies of weakening the Alliance had continued, Russia may have found far more success in overthrowing Ukraine’s democratically elected government and once again enacting its colonial policies of “Russification” last seen in the 20th century.

Some risks presented by a democracy versus autocracy framing include possibly alienating non-Western states or states that don’t strongly identify as democracies, as they may not see themselves as part of this “community of democracies.” It also opens democracies up to critiques of hypocrisy for strategic partnerships with autocracies such as Saudi Arabia. These are fair critiques arising from the inevitable contradictions of a tightly connected global system. Democracies can counter these risks by making clear that “democracy versus autocracy” isn’t about regime change or forcibly promoting democracy as states like the US have done in the past, but about preventing hostile states from undermining democratic systems of governance or threatening European security as in the war on Ukraine. Democracies can cooperate with autocracies, but it is strategically unwise to be reliant on them on issues such as energy security, nor should they compromise their professed values by aiding autocracies in certain policies, (e.g. continued US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has seen what international monitors describe as indiscriminate civilian targeting and war crimes by Saudi forces, through arms sales).

With an understanding of how to navigate the risks presented by continuing with a framing of global challenges as a contest between “democracy versus autocracy,” these states have the opportunity to strengthen the health of their own democracies while rallying each other against direct security threats.

2. Devina Singh is a postgraduate student in International Relations at LSE

The predominant culture of populism has blurred the lines between democratic and autocratic regimes. When facing the recent rise of populism in domestic spheres and the threats of war, it is difficult to place faith in a particular type of regime, be it democratic or autocratic. Democracies and autocracies, both go to war and can showcase the rise of populist tendencies. It is not unknown that less credit is afforded to democracies since welfare-oriented policies are increasingly being employed as a tool to gain traction yet a state’s domestic and foreign policies are formulated to serve the whims of the leader.

China’s Xi Jinping has proven to be a stalwart of autocratic rule and one of the best examples that demonstrate his rule is the zero COVID-19 policy, paving the way for new ways of limiting individual freedom by threatening to forcefully quarantine and then detaining if not enforced. Such events indicate the politicization of different sectors such as health. The only way this regime type could be seen in a favourable way is if the policy would have shown positive results, however, it was widely criticized as being a disaster, creating more problems than solving.

Nevertheless, even autocrats have to establish some sort of populace, or else a coup is not a myth in history. The question then is are regime types still defining the efficacy of policies and consequently the welfare of citizens and the strength of a state? It is arguable as Justice Holmes said that the world is not crystal clear and [states] vary greatly in color and content that changes according o the circumstances and the time in which it is used (Towne v. Eisner, 245 US372, 376 (1918)). It is a necessity to allow fluidity in the concepts so that new discourses about the world order and simultaneously the psychological values and beliefs of the leader can aid in addressing the latest challenges of times.

3. Laura Autio is a Second Year Bsc International Relations student at LSE

Recent global discourse has seemed to increasingly pit global challenges as a battle between democracy against autocracy. Especially in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been a sharp growth in discourse surrounding the dangers of autocracy. But, given the growth in political polarisation, and the changes in how geopolitics is conducted, are such viewpoints becoming increasingly reductive in discussions tackling global challenges?

There are a few significant downsides to viewing global challenges as a battle between democracy and autocracy. To begin, the labelling of each issue as belonging to strictly one of two sides can purport the impression that in global challenges one side is right and the other is wrong, which only serves to increase political polarisation and is reductive in understanding how global challenges materialised. There are no criteria that can only serve to fit one of the two categories, with notions such as a desire for nominal security, and geopolitical ambitions not being limited to either democracy or autocracy.

Furthermore, the growth in democratic backsliding, and the emergence of ‘quasi-states’ and competitive authoritarianism within states such as Brazil and Kenya points to rigid terminologies such as ‘democracy’ becoming increasingly outdated in the modern, globalised world. Whilst having a rigid measuring metric was more appropriate during the time of global bipolarity associated with the Cold War, the increasing multipolarity and growth in varying forms of governance causes this metric to appear increasingly archaic in discussions around global challenges. To add, can democracy be used as a metric to define global challenges, when the fundamentals of democracy are being so severely challenged in the very countries from which it propagated, such as the United States?

To conclude, whilst structuring discussions about global challenges can give more order to debate, it is generally harmful to adopt such a lens. Bipolar metrics obscure middle ground pathways within global discussions, inhibiting discourse, and serving to exacerbate political polarisation. Furthermore, the viewing of global challenges as manifestations of a power struggle between democracy and autocracy is becoming increasingly outdated in the globalised and multipolar modern world.

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