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Countering authoritarianism

Article by James Rogers

October 19, 2021

Countering authoritarianism

Since the Financial Crisis in 2007-8, democratisation has stalled and even gone into reverse. Authoritarianism is proliferating worldwide, including even at the heart of Europe. According to Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation that measures the health of democracy around the world, the number of democracies peaked in 2007 and has not recovered.[1] Indeed, almost 75 per cent of the world’s population has experienced democratic backsliding over the past year.[2]


For most of human history, authoritarian governments have been the norm. It was only in 1984 that the number of full democracies began to outnumber those of authoritarian regimes for the first time, and even then, the majority of the world’s countries were still governed by ‘partially free’ political systems.[3] From that point on to 2008, democratisation spread around the world, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union.[4]


Autocracies are particularly afraid of liberal democracy, to say nothing of the universalistic ethos (albeit within the particularity of the nation) behind it. If democracies ought to make the world safe for themselves, autocrats have to do the same. This results in a perpetual struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes will always be a threat to democratic nations, particularly when they take control of large and powerful countries.


Besides its own attraction, liberal democracy has spread globally because the world’s two leading powers for the past two centuries – the United Kingdom and United States – themselves have been relatively liberal and democratic. Even if, at the time of their primacy, they were imperfect, both countries have been significantly better than their authoritarian rivals, to say nothing of the repressive regimes in charge of Germany, Japan and Russia during periods of the twentieth century.


Insofar as they have sought to resist authoritarian revisionists, both the UK and US have recreated elements of their domestic political orders at the international level, leading to the creation of an international order based on openness and expectations of peaceful change. Even if the rules behind this system benefited the UK and US above most other countries, they have shown that they have been willing to use their power to protect the sovereignty of many less-powerful nations.


But the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes never subsided, even if it declined in severity in the 1990s and 2000s. Granted, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime posed a continued threat from Iraq throughout the 1990s, just as Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia remained a thorn in the side of the emerging Euro-Atlantic order. It also became clear how dangerous authoritarian regimes, such as the Taliban, could become if they allowed terror groups to use the territory under their rule to launch attacks on democracies.


Nevertheless, for much of the post-Cold War era, the strategic challenge from authoritarianism was greatly diminished. Despite 9/11, the Taliban, to say nothing of the regimes in Iraq or Serbia, were never a strategic threat to liberal democracies in the way that the Third Reich, Militarist Japan or the Soviet Union were. Over the past five years, however, powerful authoritarian regimes – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy in Russia – have either surged in strength or found ways to project power against less-powerful neighbours. A number of autocracies in smaller powers, such as Rwanda and the Gulf states, have also become emboldened. Authoritarian regimes are once again on the march.


The contemporary authoritarian challenge to the international order

After two decades of consolidation on Russia’s part, and three decades of sustained economic growth on the part of the PRC, the leading democracies are once again being challenged by powerful authoritarian regimes. Moreover, the globalisation of the 1990s and 2000s, having reduced the power and sovereignty of the democratic nation-state, has opened up a number of cracks and fissures in the leading democracies that the authoritarian powers have started to exploit. Indeed, the authoritarians have felt emboldened by the social problems in many liberal democracies, such as economic stagnation, political discord, and a lack of national self-confidence, as well as by taking advantage of the very openness of pluralistic, democratic political systems to spread disinformation and expand their influence.


This is not to say that the nature of the challenge posed to liberal democracy by authoritarian regimes is uniform. On the contrary, it is different: some regimes only seek their own preservation – some even seek patronage from powerful democracies – while others become revisionist, and focus primarily on their own vicinities, but remain relatively weak, if irksome (so-called ‘rogue states’). The most dangerous authoritarian regimes are those which gain control of the largest and most powerful countries; they tend towards outright geopolitical revisionism, much as the Nazis or Soviets once did.


Today’s leading autocracies – the PRC and Russia – have adopted different strategies for altering the international order. Both see the prevailing international order as antithetical to their interests and seek to dismantle it piece by piece. However, the CCP has developed a ‘counter-systemic’ strategy, whereas the Kremlin prefers an ‘anti-systemic’ drive.[5] The former involves disaggregating the prevailing order and replacing it with a new one, while the latter involves simply dismantling the prevailing order. Thus, a counter-systemic strategy can be likened to a true ‘great power’ strategy, while an anti-systemic drive is a poor man’s approach.


The CCP’s counter-systemic strategy

Despite predictions that its economy will slow down – which are almost certainly correct – or even collapse – which probably are not – the PRC has already reached a level of parity with the US that even the Soviet Union did not reach.[6] Although the US economy is set to remain the largest in the world for several more years, in many areas of industrial production, from steel to cars, the PRC has gained the ability to outproduce the combined industrial output of the US and several other leading democracies.[7] And this says nothing of the development of Chinese infrastructure: as of 2020, the PRC has built the longest motorway system in the world and has more than twice the length of high-speed railway in operation than the rest of the world put together.[8]


This combination – the political determination to revise the established international order, connected to the material strength and the infrastructure of power – has given the PRC the means to reshape its own neighbourhood. The CCP’s agenda is counter-systemic. As the PRC grows in strength, the CCP has used its power to turn the international environment to its own advantage. This can be seen by CCP actions in the South China Sea, where a number of illegitimate or excessive maritime claims have been made, backed by military force in the form of artificial islands and a significant naval modernisation programme.


The CCP’s revisionism can also be seen through attempts to reshape international organisations such as the G77 and through geostrategic initiatives such as the so-called ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), Beijing’s innocent-sounding metaphor for a vast Chinese geostrategic project to re-engineer the economic and political geography of Eurasia, as well as parts of Africa. Primarily, the BRI involves the construction of infrastructure, not least in terms of ports, roads and railways, often to facilitate the extraction of raw materials from target countries to the PRC or draw them into Beijing’s geopolitical orbit. As Charles Parton, a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy, explains:


“If BRI is not a geopolitical strategy, it is a geopolitical stratagem. It worries foreign countries into thinking that they must choose: either play along with Chinese positions and thus benefit economically, or miss out — even be punished — if they go against it.”[9]


Moreover, other forms of subtler CCP political influence often follow in behind, from Confucius Institutes and Chinese television programmes to attempts to influence foreign political parties.[10] This is not a supplementary outcome but central to the BRI: the CCP considers democracy to be a threat to its reign; therefore, the CCP seeks to degrade democratic politics and undermine powerful democratic countries like the UK and US, which it sees as obstructions to its international agenda.[11]


The Kremlin’s ‘anti-systemic’ approach

At the same time Russia, under the murky and kleptocratic leadership of Vladimir Putin, has also grown increasingly revisionist, particularly in relation to Eastern and Central Europe. But the Kremlin has a different set of objectives to the PRC. Granted, like the CCP, Russia’s kleptocracy sees liberal democracy as a threat to its existence, particularly in smaller countries around Russia’s borders, countries which, with democratic rule, may prove inspirational to the Russian people. But unlike the PRC, Russia lacks the material power to push back against the leading liberal democracies in the Euro-Atlantic area. Unlike the CCP’s counter-systemic offensive, the Kremlin’s approach is ‘anti-systemic’. Whereas the CCP seeks to rewrite the rules of the international order in accordance with its own interests, Putin’s kleptocracy seeks only to degrade or scramble them.


Since the early-2000s, the Kremlin has used oil and gas revenue to strengthen its hold over Russia and modernise the Russian armed forces, which it has used to invade and weaken surrounding countries when they have taken decisions which might lead them towards a more liberal and democratic future. The Kremlin has also undertaken a plethora of activities designed to undermine the Euro-Atlantic structures, degrade liberal democracy in countries surrounding Russia, negatively reposition countries on the international stage, and humiliate democratic governments, often through forms of ‘wet work’ – using radioactive poison and nerve agents.[12]


Other authoritarian regimes

Other autocracies also pose a threat to liberal democracy and the prevailing international order. None are as influential as the PRC and Russia, but this does not mean they do not pose a challenge in their own right. The stale absolutist monarchies of the Middle East frame liberal democracies as threats to Islam, while they encourage jihadi Islamism as an escape route for their peoples’ frustration. They also attempt to influence the political systems or undermine democratic forces in neighbouring countries, such as Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt and Libya over the past decade. At the same time, such regimes are susceptible to Russian and CCP influence, which can be expected to grow alongside Chinese and Russian material power and strategic successes, particularly if the democracies fail to push back or offer an alternative to authoritarian government.


How should the liberal democracies respond?

Not only have the liberal democracies been slow to respond to the recent surge in authoritarianism, but they have also grown more timorous and insular in recent years. This combination makes them particularly vulnerable insofar as the CCP and Putin’s kleptocracy see themselves as locked into a period of sustained competition with liberal democracy.


Irrespective of the type of revisionism – whether anti- or counter-systemic – liberal democracies need to enhance their resilience and ability to compete with authoritarian power. They need to promote critical thinking in schools and universities so that the next generation of citizens is able to better detect propaganda and disinformation spread on social media from abroad. Liberal democracies would also do well to encourage civic and national engagement, even patriotism, to generate the ‘we-feelings’ on which democracy depends. They should also adopt stiffer sanctions – such as new treason laws – to deter collusion between their citizens and authoritarian regimes. A liberal democracy that does not believe in itself or its right to exist, or which fails to protect itself, will not last for very long when confronted by a ruthless autocracy.


But resilience and competition has to go hand-in-hand with measures to protect the economies of liberal democracies from corrupting influences or financial loopholes which most citizens would consider to be unethical – many practices which the so-called Pandora Papers of autumn 2021 revealed. Part of liberal democracy’s attraction and success is that it can generate a relatively transparent, stable and rules-based environment for the production of economic wealth. If a liberal democracy fails to uphold economic transparency, allows wealthy citizens to undertake unethical financial practices, or fails to prevent authoritarian regimes from getting inside and spreading corruption within its economic system, less-fortunate citizens (or the citizens of developing and/or authoritarian countries) may conclude that life is better under more economically successful autocratic political systems. They may then vote for or support parties or political leaders with illiberal or authoritarian agendas.


At the same time, the leading democracies ought to double down on upholding an open international order. As HM Government’s Integrated Review explains, insofar as the post-Cold War ‘rules-based international system’ has been undermined by the authoritarian regimes’ anti- and counter-systemic actions over the past decade, it is now vital to prevent them either from closing parts of the international order off or creating authoritarian spheres of influence.[13] Besides rebuilding their military strength to deter autocratic revisionism, the leading democracies ought to push forward with organising themselves in new geopolitical groupings and coalitions, particularly to push back against authoritarian powers. The UK has already experimented with this idea, having invited Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea to attend the G7 Leaders’ Summit in 2021 – forging a ‘Democratic 11’ grouping. Australia, the UK and US also formed AUKUS to empower themselves in the Indo-Pacific – a move widely welcomed by important democratic partners such as Japan and Taiwan. President Joe Biden may also have an even broader coalition in mind with his proposal for a Summit of Democracies.


Moreover, liberal democracies could do more to coordinate their aid programmes and render them more effective for changed circumstances, namely a world of growing competition with autocratic rivals. This would involve coordinated systemic pushback against the CCP’s BRI through infrastructural development and the greening of developing countries’ economies (increasingly, liberal democracies must prove themselves the most effective at promoting environmentalism). Further, liberal democracies would do well to start rethinking international development to allow for greater resources to be spent on promoting liberal democracy around the world, or strengthening it in countries where it is under pressure.


Finally, liberal democracies ought to remember their own contingency and how precarious they are once constituted. It is often forgotten that liberalism is a potentially totalising ideology, while democracy can potentially descend into rule by the mob. As such, liberalism and democracy are often in competition with one another: it is only when the two are kept in balance that liberal democracy is born, affording a degree of protection for the individual within a decision-making process underpinned by the legitimacy afforded by majoritarian but constitutional rule. Thus, rather than a product of teleological forces – an idea which gained traction in the aftermath of the Cold War – a functioning liberal democracy is a constructed political formation. Any policy or decision which might unsettle the delicate balance between liberalism and democracy (and the nation) should be carefully considered before attempted implementation – authoritarians revel in discord in democracies because it can be portrayed as structural failure.


James Rogers is Co-founder of the Council on Geostrategy, dedicated to help make the United Kingdom, as well as other free and open countries, more united, stronger and greener.


[1] Freedom House, Country and Territory Ratings and Statuses 1973-2021, 2021,

[2] Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, Democracy under siege, Freedom House, 2021,

[3] Freedom House, Country and Territory Ratings and Statuses 1973-2021, 2021,

[4] Ibid.

[5] James Rogers and Alexander Lanoszka, A ‘Crowe Memorandum’ for the twenty-first century, Council on Geostrategy, March 2021,

[6] According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Soviet economy peaked at 57% of the US economy in 1975. See: ‘A Comparison of the US and Soviet economic systems: Evaluating the performance of the Soviet system’, Central Intelligence Agency, October 1985,’ Today, China’s economy is 70% the size of the US economy. See: GDP (current US$), World Bank, 2020,

[7] See: Crude steel production, World Steel Association, January 2021,; Car production, Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, March 2021,

[8] Of the 56,129 km of high speed track in operation globally, the PRC accounts for 38,283 km. See: Atlas of High Speed Rail 2021, International Union of Railways, 2021,

[9] Charles Parton, Belt and Road is globalisation with Chinese characteristics, Financial Times, October 2018,

[10] See, for example: Didi Tang, Hi-Yah! Beijing sells kung-fu to Africa, The Times, September 2021,; and How China’s Communist Party trains foreign politicians, The Economist, December 2020,

[11] See, for example, the infamous ‘Document 9’, where the CCP explains in detail why liberal democracy is a threat to its existence. Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation, ChinaFile, November 2013,

[12] Andrew Foxall, How Russia positions the United Kingdom, Council on Geostrategy, April 2021,

[13] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Cabinet Office, March 2021,

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