Authoritarianism has Changed, and so Should our Approach to it

Authoritarianism has Changed, and so Should our Approach to it

Authoritarianism is on the rise globally and democratic governments need to be better equipped to meet the challenges it represents, or at a minimum smarter about how they manage relations with authoritarian states.


For all the talk around a global democratic backsliding and the entrenchment of authoritarianism, there has been little discussion of how liberal democracies have and should engage with authoritarian states. Instead, the tendency has been to fall back on tired strategies such as naming and shaming, and sanctions directed at specific, particularly egregious regimes. We have also relied on demonstrations of strength and resolve, and efforts to build moral coalitions of democratic states against dictatorship. But if we are serious about stopping democratic rollback, we have been going about it the wrong way, applying inconsistent approaches. In thinking about how we should engage authoritarianism, coherence is key.

The nature of authoritarianism

To begin with, liberal democracies need to better understand the nature of authoritarianism. Authoritarian states are not a coherent bloc and never have been. Single-party states are different than juntas and autocratic monarchies, for example. Just as importantly, the decades since the end of the Cold War have given rise to growing diversity in terms of authoritarianism, as many autocratic states adapted to the new prominence of democratic norms internationally. Authoritarian governments have learned how to use liberal democratic language and adopt liberal democratic poses to bolster their hold on power. 

As regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa illustrate, authoritarian states can embody hybrid forms of governance, holding elections with multiple parties and proclaiming constitutional limits on power, whether they are enforced or not. These hybrids are the result of democratic backsliding in some cases and the softening of more controlling and coercive forms of authoritarianism in others. This new face of authoritarianism is increasingly being recognized, but recognition has stopped short of leading to adaptation. While many of our strategies were developed in response to the stark authoritarianism of the past, there has been very little reflection on whether we need to revisit them in dealing with these hybrids.

Consistently inconsistent

As importantly, for all our bold talk and grandstanding about human rights and democracy promotion, the international community has been inconsistent in practice. Western reactions to authoritarianism have tended to be country and event-specific, reflecting particular geopolitical crises, human rights violations, or mass atrocities and humanitarian tragedies. Bold strategies have been reserved for the authoritarian offenders of the day. But even this bolder standing up to authoritarianism has been far from consistent: tied to some crises and not others, to the degree of media attention garnered, or to domestic determinants in terms of the course to adopt.

Outside of these evident and episodic calls to action, democratic states have tended to treat authoritarian regimes like any other partner or peer. The issue is not so much that democratic states are ignorant or unaware about authoritarian states, as some too quickly accuse them of being. But when democratic states do raise concerns about authoritarian practices, they tend to do so indirectly. They may also channel their reactions through sectors assumed to be marginal to the structures of political power or through intermediaries, such as civil society actors or the media, believed to be removed from the authoritarian apparatus. In other words, there has been a tendency to be indirect and avoid the political realm, so as to maintain open and cordial relations – a far cry from the supposed approach.  

Unintended consequences

So far, engagement with hybrid regimes has left the international community with an inconsistent set of practices and a largely reactive response to rising authoritarianism. Rather than confronting authoritarianism, we treat it as an unfortunate reality we need to learn to live with, except when a crisis or catastrophe in a particular country forces us to address it directly. But inconsistency can have important unintended consequences. The authoritarian partners of democratic states have taken this inconsistency as a signal that authoritarian entrenchment rarely risks direct consequences, especially if dramatic red lines are not crossed.

Democratic leaders arguably know that hybrid authoritarian regimes are not necessarily wedded to democratic norms and principles. But their bureaucratic structures have made it difficult to adjust course. Indeed, there are perverse organizational incentives that feed inconsistency at the national and international levels. In countries like Canada, for instance, international engagements occur across different ministries and agencies and are further divided within them. In other words, international engagements are broken down into different subject areas or sectors, handled by separate groups or subgroups. 

Engagements with authoritarian states are not any different. Various political or bureaucratic actors are assigned their responsibility or “turf” which leads to a siloed approach to authoritarian states. Officials may be aware of authoritarian realities, yet through this division of labour only work in one specific area in which it is possible to ignore this overarching reality. This sub-division of labour may feel like a good strategy, promoting positive developments in areas outside of authoritarian reach and consolidation, but in reality, it does nothing to contest authoritarianism and “apolitical” approaches cede ground to authoritarian governments to extend control of the political realm. 

It is also naïve to think these initiatives cannot be instrumentalized by authoritarian regimes. A telling example is Rwanda, which has been upheld as a champion of women’s empowerment and decentralization, work supported by many donors. This takes place while the Rwandan government cracks down on dissent and targets opponents at home and abroad. Rwanda’s partners may feel they are encouraging democracy in Rwanda where they can, but turning to purportedly non-authoritarian realms has in fact played into the regime’s strategy of power consolidation. The Rwandan government has increased its political control, the women it has empowered have tended to be those already embedded in the system, and decentralization policies have allowed a deeper presence of authorities at the local level.

If democratic countries choose to make promoting democracy and rights abroad a real priority, they need a clearer dialogue across actors to ensure that one hand does not undo the work of the other.

The international divide

Internationally, there is far from a common approach when engaging authoritarian states. One of the biggest divides is found between individual governments and international organizations. Conversations with diplomats and development actors suggest that international organizations, such as UN agencies, tend to downplay governance issues when operating in authoritarian states. Though they are far from alone in bearing the burden of inconsistency, as collective actors, they have an inherent bias against raising contentious issues, such as controlling or coercive practices, especially when they directly pertain to their member states. 

Put another way, when opportunities arise to discuss authoritarianism, officials representing international organizations may short-circuit them in the name of defending their members and just as importantly in the name of the status quo. Given the role these international organizations often play as convenors, helping to federate engagement across actors, their propensity to avoid governance issues amounts to missed opportunities to engage authoritarianism. As one former Canadian development official in Rwanda noted, for example, when efforts were made to raise governance issues in forums dedicated to development initiatives representatives of some international organizations asked them not to rock the boat.

First, do no harm

How can liberal democracies improve their approaches to authoritarian states in an age of global democratic backsliding? They do not necessarily need a policy on authoritarianism, like the policies on state fragility or democratic promotion that some states devised in the past. These have tended to be short-lived efforts, as is often the case with these kinds of political tools. But they do need to engage more coherently with authoritarian states. 

If democratic countries choose to make promoting democracy and rights abroad a real priority, they need a clearer dialogue across actors to ensure that one hand does not undo the work of the other. For all the different shapes it takes, authoritarianism is always a system. Managing power in an exclusive manner, as authoritarianism entails, is rarely be circumscribed to formal political institutions. In centralizing power and control, authoritarianism impacts and extends to economic and social sectors, as well as civil society. 

For this reason, carving out niche sectors to operate in or sending mixed signals is always bound to fail. At worse, we will have unwillingly contributed to autocratic consolidation.


This post was first published by Democracy in Africa


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