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Democracies and Autocracies are Contesting the Future of Multilateralism

April 04, 2024
Stephan Haggard and Paddy Ryan


The year 2024 is putting democracy to the test. Half of the world’s population has gone or is set to go the polls, including large nations such as India, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, and the United States. Yet many of these elections will not be seriously contested, like Russia’s recent rubber stamp poll. Others, such as Turkey’s municipal elections, occur in fraught circumstances under hybrid or backsliding regimes.

Despite unprecedented numbers of people voting, this “year of the election” takes place in an international environment more hostile to democracy than any in recent memory. Democratization has plateaued and a number of once-established democracies are experiencing regression.

At the United Nations (UN) Security Council, illiberal heavyweights China and Russia are bringing the group’s work to a halt, and autocrats are working together within other UN bodies to challenge international norms. In an expanding list of regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, illiberal regimes are promulgating an alternative vision for what global governance should look like.

At a recent workshop hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, IGCC scholars convened with D.C.-based thought leaders, civil society, and U.S. government officials to discuss the challenges posed to multilateral institutions by illiberal regimes. The conversation naturally focused on the great powers.

Russia is expanding efforts to paralyze the Security Council and re-establish hegemony in its near abroad. Moscow works within international organizations to portray its aggression in Ukraine as an anti-Nazism campaign to court nations that were historically subject to colonialism and apartheid.

China is playing an active role in propagating new norms and forming regional organizations. Like Russia—and acting in concert—China impedes global governance, looking to score points against the United States within multilateral organizations. But more creatively, China is beginning to promote an alternative vision of global governance based on competing norms.

By marketing a vision of global governance that privileges state sovereignty over individual rights and promotes alternative conceptions of democracy, China’s arguments regarding the Internet are gaining converts even in democratic nations like India and Brazil. Whether China aims to export its own brand of autocratic rule or simply wants to make the world safe for its own domestic authoritarianism remains to be seen, but the consequences may well be quite similar.

Illiberal regimes are also making use of new regional organizations—call them autocratic clubs—to promote cooperation and defend against democratization. The Arab League delivered critical financial support to Bahrain during the Arab Spring to help the monarchy withstand a wave of street protests. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) offers members ready-made observation missions to validate questionable elections.

China is also using this ‘minilateralist’ approach to win allies and create alternative forms of regional governance. The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization—of which Russia is also a member—promotes police cooperation between member states that can be used to target dissidents across jurisdictions and facilitate their extradition. And the Belt and Road Initiative invests in infrastructure projects abroad, a powerful tool for Beijing to promote its alternative model of state-led development and even share technologies such as facial recognition software that can be used for domestic repression.

The argument that authoritarianism provides a better means to deliver prosperity and order is also gaining traction. It is helped by a narrative of Western hypocrisy and failure to engage on issues that are important for the Global South, particularly around the development agenda. Western nations have been taken aback by the developing world’s seeming indifference to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, whereas those countries point to the democratic world’s inattentiveness to wars happening in the Global South.

At the same time, our own “democratic clubs” like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are witnessing serious democratic backsliding in member states such as Hungary and Turkey, calling into question the staying power of the democratic model.

Where does that leave us? It is clear that the democratic world needs a strategy to combat the strong and increasingly coordinated challenge from illiberal regimes to the current international order. We find ourselves on the backfoot because of growing doubts about the vitality of democracy in the West.

Whatever the outcome of those domestic fights, international organizations, once tools for democratization, are no longer reliably so. The answer to this problem, however, is not to walk away; that would cede the floor to autocratic contenders. Rather, the United States and its partners need to redouble efforts to safeguard existing institutions and advance a principled agenda for them. To do this requires that we track how illiberal regimes are collaborating to undermine a variety of shared norms.

Stephan Haggard is a research professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and serves as research director for democracy and global governance at IGCC. With Christina Cottiero of the University of Utah, he runs IGCC’s project on Illiberal Regimes and Global Governance.

Paddy Ryan is a senior writer and editor at IGCC.

Thumbnail credit: Wikimedia Commons

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