Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.
In 1947, George Kennan’s “X-Article” argued for a policy of containment to combat the spread of Soviet influence. That policy would become the basic strategy of the United States throughout the Cold War.
More than six decades later, in an underappreciated twist, today’s leading authoritarian regimes are turning “containment” on its head, using massive resources and coordinated political efforts to chip away at the rules-based institutions that have served as the glue for the post-Cold War liberal order, while checking the reform ambitions of aspiring democracies and reshaping the way the world thinks about democracy.
Call it the “democracy containment” doctrine.
Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine, where Moscow has annexed Crimea and provoked a debilitating separatist rebellion in the eastern part of that country, has dominated the news recently. But this action should be seen for what it is: a Kremlin containment effort to prevent Ukrainians from achieving a democratically accountable government that would threaten Russia’s corrupt authoritarian system. The Ukraine example is just one small part of a vast containment ambition led by the regimes in Moscow, Beijing, Riyadh and Tehran, which may disagree on many things but share an interest in limiting the spread of democracy.
The strategy has evolved in three key areas. The first concerns institutions. Seeing regional and international rules-based bodies as a threat to regime interests, authoritarians have focused their efforts on hobbling key institutions’ democracy and human rights mechanisms.
Russia, in cooperation with other authoritarian regimes in Eurasia, has undermined the human rights dimensions of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, especially the latter’s election-monitoring and media-freedom functions. Venezuela plays a similarly harmful role with regard to the Organization of American States.
Within the United Nations, an “authoritarian fraternity” led by Security Council members China and Russia routinely blocks democracy-friendly measures on a range of issues. Iran, along with China and Russia, is pursuing greater control of the Internet in intergovernmental bodies worldwide.
As the authoritarians whittle away at democratic standards, they have created their own clubs, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian Customs Union, that mimic their liberal counterparts but whose aim is to institutionalize authoritarian norms.
Through a treaty arrangement with SCO members, China has challenged the norm against refoulement — the return of persecuted individuals to the hands of their persecutors — by using a designation of “terrorist” as the basis for repatriation. China has persuaded non-SCO countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia to cooperate with this new standard. More broadly, authoritarian regimes work with each other to monitor activists and oppositionists and block their movement, for instance through international “watchlists” and “blacklists” that are generated within the context of the SCO and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The second sphere relates to the containment of both young democracies and middle-performing countries with reform ambitions whose democratic success would pose a threat to authoritarian regimes.
In addition to Ukraine, Russia pursues a disruptive policy toward democratic hopefuls Georgia and Moldova. The Baltic states, although NATO and European Union members, nevertheless are targets of Kremlin-backed political efforts and media campaigns that aim to raise doubts about the integrity of their young democracies.
China is taking measures to slowly squeeze the democracy out of Hong Kong. Saudi Arabia’s political and security commitment to Bahrain’s government has served to contain its smaller neighbor’s democracy movement.
The third sphere of containment is in the realm of ideas.
These regimes may not be ideological in the Cold War sense, but they understand the importance of ideas, which explains a good deal about why they work so hard to try to prevent the emergence of alternative ones within their own systems. With time, they have fine-tuned arguments that share the goal of creating an anti-American, anti-democracy narrative.
This matters because the best-resourced regimes — especially China and Russia — have built formidable traditional and new media outlets that enable them to project such messages into the global marketplace. This prowess is especially apparent in the developing world, where a new battle of ideas is underway. China has an enormous media presence in sub-Saharan Africa and has rapidly gained a foothold there. Its multibillion-dollar international CCTV has programs in Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish, and the state news agency Xinhua is expanding worldwide. Russia’s RT, in addition to its virulently anti-Western English programming, broadcasts its jaundiced view of the world around the clock in Spanish and Arabic.
While the authoritarians claim that their massive international broadcasting ventures are needed to offer an unfiltered view of their countries, it is telling that these state-led media conglomerates devote so much of their programing to assailing the West and the idea of democracy.
We can infer from this that the emerging authoritarian doctrine reflects the need for leaders in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere to contain what they fear and do not possess: democratic accountability and legitimacy.
Given the stakes for the liberal order, the democratic world will need to develop a serious “long game” sooner rather than later to respond to the growing challenge presented by the migration of the authoritarians’ illiberal norms beyond their borders.