A strange reversal is taking place across the world.
But the result is not a world in which every country is free to go its own way.
Instead, the world’s tyrants — while still complaining about color revolutions and U.S. interference — roam far and wide, promoting their ideologies and their corporations, bullying and buying and burrowing and shooting their way to influence.
Russia and China, the loudest conjurers of imaginary CIA pro-democracy plots, have become the world’s most active underminers of democracy beyond their borders.
Russia clandestinely stokes racism and xenophobia in Sweden, as the New York Times reported. Far less covertly, as the Times also reported, Russians bribe candidates, stack rallies and buy TV ads to sway and undermine an election in the African island nation of Madagascar.
Sometimes the regimes deploy troops, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has done to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power.
Sometimes they deploy corporations. When Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni feared a challenge from a suddenly popular opposition politician, his intelligence agency turned to China’s flagship communications company Huawei to help penetrate the dissident’s encrypted messages, as the Wall Street Journal recounted in August.
Other nations follow the lead of the big two. Dictators in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have sought to squelch democracy and bolster dictators in Sudan and elsewhere across the Middle East.
Sometimes the motivation is so mercenary that even United Fruit Co. at its heyday might have blushed. China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to lock up natural resources and impose big infrastructure contracts on one-sided terms. Russia’s Madagascar dirty tricks were aimed at maintaining a stake in a local company that mines chromium.
But the world’s dictators also act to save themselves at home.
Not so long ago, democracy was ascendant, and the dictators felt threatened. One by one, past lies about democracy being a “Western” value were shattered: It turned out that Asians, Slavs, Arabs — indeed, all human beings — want to live in the dignity of self-rule.
The dictators responded first with desperate brutality against their compatriots — gunning down students in Tiananmen Square, murdering opponents in the shadow of the Kremlin, luring a freethinking journalist to be dismembered in a Saudi consulate.
But they realized that freedom beyond their borders could be a threat, too. Putin invaded and still occupies much of Ukraine, because a thriving democracy on his border gives his own people dangerous ideas. China bullies and threatens Taiwan, because self-governing Chinese citizens there put the lie to Communist propaganda at home.
counterpointWhat if the crisis of democracy is (mostly) in our heads?
Democratic governments also can use international pressure and institutions to press authoritarian regimes to honor universal human rights, emboldening and encouraging the citizens of unfree nations. By contrast, put Venezuela on the U.N. Human Rights Council, and you can be sure no autocrat anywhere will be made to feel uncomfortable. The more Venezuelas there are, the better Xi Jinping can relax.
Just look at China embracing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman not long after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and the crown prince, supposed defender of the Muslim faith, in return actually praising China for its brutal repression of Uighur Muslims in western China.
Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush would be speaking up against this authoritarian aggression and for the right of all human beings to live in freedom.
Today we have a president who prefers the company of strongmen — whether Turkish or Saudi, Russian or North Korean — to that of democratic allies. His presidency is both a consequence of Russian activism — Putin worked hard for Donald Trump’s election, after all — and its enabler.
We don’t know yet whether Trump will prove a historical aberration. His isolationism obviously resonates, and it amplifies a retrenchment that began, far more modestly, in the Barack Obama years. On the other hand, Congress continues in a bipartisan way to back the National Endowment for Democracy — which, in contrast to Russia and China, supports democracy overseas transparently, and without favoring any particular party or outcome.
More heartening: Even the dictators’ onslaught and American reticence cannot stop people from rising up and demanding their rights. Algerians, Lebanese, Armenians, Tunisians, Sudanese, Bolivians, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Hong Kongers, Ethiopians, Malaysians — these people all deserve more support than they are getting.
But they are not waiting for support, nor letting themselves be intimidated by the new imperialists of authoritarianism.