Thursday, June 04, 2009

A New Tide of Authoritarianism

From Freedom House:

Democracy seen threatened by new authoritarianism

China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela form a clique of authoritarian states that use their wealth and influence to undermine global democracy and rule of law.

Their findings:

Democracy Redefined: Authoritarian regimes are tarnishing the public understanding of democracy.

Internet Under Threat: Leading authoritarians are using advanced and well-funded techniques to subvert legitimate online discourse, especially in China, Iran and Russia. In addition to controlling access through physical, economic, and technological means, these regimes have deployed armies of commentators and provocateurs like the “Fifty Cent Party” in China and the “Brigades” in Russia to disrupt legitimate internet discussions.

Authoritarian Foreign Aid: By doling out billions of dollars in no strings attached foreign aid, these regimes are hobbling international efforts to improve governance and reduce corruption.

Rules-Based Organizations Under Siege: As part of a broader effort to export authoritarian influence, these regimes are disrupting key international rules-based bodies that support democratic and human rights, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Court of Human Rights. At the United Nations, they have formed ad hoc coalitions to blunt criticism, obstruct proposed sanctions, and advance antidemocratic measures. The governments of Venezuela, Russia, and China have been particularly active in creating new institutions to serve as counterweights to existing rules-based multilateral organizations.

Illiberal Education—Tainting the Next Generation: By either actively promoting or enabling the distortion of history through a nationalistic or extremist lens, authoritarian regimes are inculcating in the next generation attitudes of hostility toward democracy and suspicion of the outside world.
Their summary of the challenges facing us:
Today’s authoritarians recognize that absolute control over information and economic activity is neither possible nor necessary. Instead, they have adapted their traditional coercive mechanisms with more subtle methods. Political discourse is “managed,” rather than blatantly dictated, through the selective suppression or reshaping of news and information. And while the most important business entities are either co-opted or swallowed up by the state, the days of the command economy are over. Their citizens are allowed to enjoy personal freedoms—including foreign travel and access to consumer goods—that would have been unthinkable in the era of Mao and Brezhnev.

During the Cold War, the nature and goals of the dominant authoritarian states were clearer. In contrast, modern authoritarians, integrated into the global economy and participating in many of the world’s established financial and political institutions, present a murkier challenge.

In a 21st-century context, isolation of or disengagement from these states are not viable options. And generally speaking, in order to advance economic interests, these regimes would prefer engagement with the United States and its allies, but only on their terms.
And while the new authoritarians continue with this sophisticated approach, we become less so. ("If we just talk to them, they'll like us!")

The 1930s were often described as an authoritarian age, as it witnessed the rise of Hitler, the consolidation of Mussolini, and the ascendancy of Stalin. It was even worried about here, as FDR pushed the limits of government power to their limits.

And today doesn't seem too dissimilar, does it?

More worrying still - we know how the 1930s ended.