04 June 2009

The "New" Authoritarianism

Remember the old days of the iron-fisted dictator?

Using the blunt instruments of fear and force, they dominated all within their purview, but were largely marginalized by the rest of the civilized world.

Welcome to a new era of the globally-savvy despot.

Sure, the authoritarian rulers of today still use some of the old-school, tried-and-true tactics - they undermine the rule of law by rewarding loyalists and intimidating dissidents - but they apparently have also learned to strike smarter, not just harder.

They have realized the power of the Internet, the media, and the global marketplace. They do not just blackout information, they carefully manipulate it. And they use the pathways of globalization to exert market influence for economic and political gain, and to leverage international legitimacy and foreign aid. Even if the leaders' temperaments and styles of governance are unpopular or distasteful, it is difficult to deny their effects on foreign policy, global security and economy.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia - organizations that know quite a bit about public influence - convened a group of experts to analyze the ways in which five influential countries --China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela -- impede democratic development both within and beyond their borders. Their research resulted in the new report just released today, "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians," which explores the common traits of these regimes and how they are largely responsible for the recent overall decline in political freedom throughout the world.

Here are some highlights and key findings from the report:

Capsule Summary: Pivotal authoritarian regimes have adapted and modernized their repressive methods and are undermining democracy in updated, sophisticated, and well funded ways. The result is a disruptive and serious new challenge to the emergence of an international system based on the rule of law, human rights, and open expression.
  • Democracy Redefined: Leading authoritarian regimes are working to reshape the public understanding of democracy. A redefined and heavily distorted version of the concept is communicated to domestic audiences through state-dominated media.
  • Internet Under Threat: The leading authoritarians—particularly in China, Iran, and Russia—are using advanced and well-funded techniques to subvert legitimate online discourse, often using loyal commentators and provocateurs.
  • Authoritarian Foreign Aid: These regimes are using soft-power methods to advance their interests internationally, particularly through billions of dollars in no-strings attached development aid.
  • Rules-Based Organizations Under Siege: At the regional and international level, these authoritarian regimes are undercutting or crippling the democracy-promotion and human rights efforts of rules-based organizations including the United Nations,
  • Illiberal Education—Tainting the Next Generation: By either actively promoting or encouraging the presentation of history through a strongly nationalistic or extremist lens, authoritarian regimes are inculcating in the next generation attitudes of hostility toward democracy and suspicion of the outside world.
Common Traits:

While there are indisputably major differences among this group of countries, the analysis in Undermining Democracy reveals important common traits. Each of the fi ve is ruled by a relatively small in-group—usually with a limited degree of internal rivalry—that uses the power and wealth of the state primarily to serve its own interests, and secondarily to ensure either the explicit or passive support of the masses. In keeping with this oligarchic power structure, each is also promoting or enabling antidemocratic standards and values, both at home and abroad. An absence of institutional accountability leads to repressive and arbitrary governance, and to entrenched, rampant corruption. Finally, the lack of built-in corrective mechanisms like genuinely competitive elections, free media, independent civil society organizations, and the rule of law make these systems inherently unstable, as basic problems and irresponsible policies are allowed to fester and grow into major crises.


During the height of the Cold War, there was little ambiguity about the nature and designs of the dominant authoritarian states. The current environment presents a murkier picture. Modern authoritarian governments are integrated into the global economy and participate in many of the world’s established fi nancial and political institutions. And while they tolerate little pluralism at home, they often call for a “multipolar” world in which their respective ideologies can coexist peacefully with others.