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Essay - Democracy on the Defense

Democracy on the Defense

Turning Back the Authoritarian Tide

(By Yascha Mounk - March/April 2021 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)

YASCHA MOUNK is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Founder of Persuasion.


After the Cold War ended, it looked like democracy was on the march. But that confident optimism was misplaced. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that it was naive to expect democracy to spread to all corners of the world. The authoritarian turn of recent years reflects the flaws and failings of democratic systems.

Most analyses of the precarious state of contemporary democracy begin with a similar depiction. They are not altogether incorrect. But they omit an important part of the picture. The story of the last two decades is not just one of democratic weakness; it is also one of authoritarian strength.

Since the 1990s, autocratic regimes have advanced in terms of economic performance and military might. Dictators have learned to use digital tools to oppress opposition movements in sophisticated ways. They have beaten back democratic campaigns that once looked promising, taken hold of countries that seemed to be on the way to becoming more democratic, and vastly increased their international influence. What the world has seen is less a democratic retreat than an authoritarian resurgence. Autocrats, long focused on bare survival, are now on the offensive. The coming decades will feature a long and drawn-out contest between democracy and dictatorship.

The outcome of that contest is not foreordained. To prevail, the United States and its democratic allies need to understand the stakes of this historic moment and work together to protect global democracy in more imaginative and courageous ways than they have in the past. They will also need to solve a dilemma created by the tension between two core objectives: stemming backsliding within their own ranks, on the one hand, and maintaining a unified front against authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Russia, on the other. Simply put, it will be hard to oppose antidemocratic governments in countries whose support is crucial to confronting full-throated, increasingly assertive authoritarians. Dealing with that dilemma will require a skillful approach that preserves the possibility of cooperation with countries that have questionable democratic bona fides while reserving close partnerships for genuinely democratic allies. It will also mean abandoning “democracy promotion” in favor of “democracy protection”—seeking, for the most part, to secure, rather than expand, the democratic world.


Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House cast unprecedented doubt on which side the United States would take in the conflict between democracy and dictatorship. Even before 2016, Washington regularly supported autocratic governments when the prospects of finding democratic allies in a strategically important country looked slim. But the past four years marked the first time that a U.S. president seemed to openly favor dictatorships over democracies and boosted autocratic forces within democratic allies.

Trump called the desirability of NATO into question. He repeatedly refused to condemn autocratic attempts to interfere in democratic elections, murder dissidents on foreign soil, or put bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers. He expressed admiration for dictators including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un even though they and their countries shared little in the way of ideology or geostrategic importance.

Under Trump, the United States also promoted extremist forces within other democratic countries. In an interview with the far-right news outlet Breitbart, Richard Grenell, then the U.S. ambassador to Germany, insinuated that he sought to “empower” populist movements across Europe. Meanwhile, Pete Hoekstra, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, held a private gathering for members of an extremist Dutch political party and its donors at the U.S. embassy. Back home, Trump himself welcomed a series of authoritarian populists to the White House, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Put diplomatically, during Trump’s tenure in office, the United States ceased to be the so-called leader of the free world. Put more bluntly, large parts of the Trump administration effectively defected to the autocratic camp.

On the surface, the moderate leaders of powerful democracies in Europe and elsewhere have little in common with Trump. Little love was lost between him and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, or Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. But despite those European leaders’ putative support for democratic values and their elegant speeches in support of human rights, their actual deeds have repeatedly aided and abetted the forces of autocracy around the world.

When Merkel was struggling to deal with a large inflow of refugees from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, for instance, she spearheaded a deal between the EU and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that cut off one of the main routes for migrants headed to mainland Europe. Even as Erdogan sought to concentrate power in his own hands and was busy jailing more than 100 journalists, the lucrative agreement helped him cement his political standing. Germany and several other European states also pressed ahead with Nord Stream 2, a Russian-built gas pipeline that would secure their energy supplies while leaving some central and eastern European democracies immensely vulnerable to pressure from the Kremlin.

The most important service that Merkel and other European leaders provided the autocratic camp, however, was their failure to confront democratic backsliding in neighboring countries such as Hungary and Poland. Over the past decade, governments in both Budapest and Warsaw have rapidly eroded the rule of law, weakened the separation of powers, undermined the free press, and rendered elections deeply unfair. Freedom House, an organization that tracks the status of democratic governance around the world, recently downgraded Hungary to “partly free”—a sad first for a member of the EU.

Even so, Brussels has yet to levy serious sanctions on either Hungary or Poland, and both countries continue to receive billions of Euros from the EU. Because the bloc has failed to exercise any effective control over the money’s distribution, it has essentially provided the antidemocratic populists who lead the governments in both places with a slush fund to reward their political allies and punish their adversaries.


This shameful period of inaction in the face of the authoritarian resurgence is now, hopefully, coming to an end. In the United States, Joe Biden’s victory in last year’s presidential election put politicians deeply committed to democratic values back in power. In the EU, the attacks on democracy by some member states have become so blatant that several crusading politicians, including Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, and Sophie in ’t Veld and Sergey Lagodinsky, two members of the European Parliament, have forced the bloc to start confronting the authoritarian governments in their midst. But unless democratic leaders recognize the extent of the authoritarian resurgence and the serious threat it poses, their response is likely to be too little, too late.

The EU’s attempts to contain autocracy within the bloc is a depressing case study in how halfhearted efforts are likely to fail. In 2020, after years of inaction, the EU finally tried to impose stronger conditions on the funds it disburses across the bloc. A European Commission proposal envisioned a system that would freeze payments to member states if they violated the rule of law in their countries. Poland and Hungary, two likely targets, fought back, threatening to veto an EU budget that included funding for vital COVID-19 relief efforts. True to form, European leaders quickly caved. In a compromise that was designed to save face but mostly demonstrated how autocratic leaders within the EU are now essentially immune from negative repercussions for their attacks on democracy as long as they give one another political cover, the commission abandoned the measure’s core elements.

As a result of the deal, the European Commission still cannot withhold funds when member states take steps to weaken the rule of law. To sanction such states, Brussels instead needs to demonstrate that EU funds are being misspent. In another concession, the commission promised not to bring any rule-of-law proceedings against member states until those that are opposed to what is left of the new rules have a chance to contest their constitutionality in front of the European Court of Justice. This effectively guarantees that Orban and other autocratic leaders will win more unfair elections, remaining in power for years to come. In the end, the failed attempt to discipline Hungary and Poland merely illustrated how much impunity autocratic leaders within the EU now enjoy.

Across the Atlantic, it is too early to assess how effective the new U.S. administration will be in bolstering democracy. Initial statements from Biden and members of his senior foreign policy team suggest that they take the autocratic threat seriously and are keen to restore the United States to its role as the “leader of the free world.” A year ago, Biden wrote in these pages that “the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” This attitude marks a real shift from the last four years. Under Biden’s leadership, the short-term survival of NATO will, thankfully, no longer be in doubt, and countries that depend on the United States for their security will rightly breathe a sigh of relief.

Over the next years, the United States is also more likely to work closely with long-standing democratic allies than with either autocratic states or backsliding democracies. In contrast to Trump, Biden will undoubtedly have better relationships with democratic leaders such as Merkel and South Korean President Moon Jae-in than with autocratic ones such as Erdogan or Sisi. Biden is unlikely to invite antidemocratic populists such as Orban or Modi to the White House, as Trump did on several occasions. And under Antony Blinken’s leadership, the State Department will once again express concern over attacks on human rights and free institutions around the world. Populists and autocrats will have to pay a price for attacks on core democratic values.

Biden and his team have also signaled their intention to convene a high-profile summit of democracies. Although the incoming administration has not released details about the summit’s timing or content, the proposal’s intention is clear: to reinvigorate democratic countries in their fight against autocratic threats. If done right, the summit could send an important signal about the United States’ commitment to democratic values.

All these changes will represent a notable improvement over the Trump administration. But even if they are fully implemented, they likely won’t suffice to stem the authoritarian resurgence. The problem is that two of the central goals of these efforts—containing the influence of powerful autocracies and halting backsliding in key democracies—are often in conflict with each other. Any attempt to halt the authoritarian resurgence must simultaneously stop embattled democracies such as India and Poland from joining the ranks of the world’s dictatorships and prevent countries such as China and Russia from reshaping the international order. But if Washington wants to contain Russia, it needs to preserve a close relationship with Poland, and if it wants to contain China, it needs to keep India onboard.

This dilemma will make it difficult for the Biden administration to carry out its pro-democracy agenda. When the United States convenes its proposed summit of democracies, for example, it could safely abstain from inviting countries that are rapidly backsliding and have comparatively little geostrategic importance, such as Hungary. But it will be harder to avoid inviting backsliding democracies such as India or Poland, which, because of their size or location, are important allies in the effort to contain the United States’ most powerful authoritarian adversaries.

Democracies will never be able to sidestep this predicament entirely. They can, however, be open about the nature of the problem and publicly commit themselves to a consistent strategy. This would require that the leading democratic states clearly distinguish between two levels in their relations with other countries: a lower tier available to countries that share a geostrategic interest in containing powerful dictatorships, even if they themselves are autocracies or backsliding democracies, and a higher tier for countries that share both democratic values and geostrategic interests.

This strategy would represent a continuation of past foreign policy in recognizing the need to sustain strategic alliances with countries that are less than fully democratic. But it would also represent a marked departure by committing the United States and other powerful democracies to reserving the status of full partner for liberal democracies and downgrading their relationships with other longtime partners if they significantly backslide.

Creating this two-tier structure would provide a modest yet real incentive for governments of countries interested in maintaining a relationship with established democracies to end their attacks on the rule of law. It would also provide pro-democracy activists and movements in those countries with evidence of the international benefits of resisting would-be autocrats. Especially in deeply divided states where pro-democracy forces still have some hope of displacing the government through elections, this policy change might just make the difference between aspiring autocrats’ losing power and their holding on to it.

At his proposed summit of democracies, Biden should establish criteria for what would constitute a breach of minimum democratic standards and what costs Washington would impose on countries that failed to live up to them. He should also invite other countries to adopt their own versions of this Biden Doctrine. The more developed democracies pursue this approach, the more powerful its effects will be.


This kind of approach would require policymakers in the United States and Europe to rethink the notion of “democracy promotion.” For the most part, that term has been used to describe admirable efforts to bolster democratic movements in autocratic countries or fledgling democracies. But at times, the United States and others have abused it, misapplying it to destructive attempts to impose democracy by force. The deeper problem, however, is that the very idea of democracy promotion rests on the assumption that the future will be more democratic than the past.

In light of the recent authoritarian resurgence, leaders need to stand this assumption on its head. It is certainly possible that some autocracies will democratize over the coming decades, and when such opportunities arise, developed democracies should do what they can to help. But the primary goal of U.S. and European foreign policy should not be to promote democracy in countries where it does not already exist. Instead, it should be to protect democracy in those countries where it is now seriously at risk.

Just as democracy promotion developed gradually, democracy protection will take time to evolve. But there are some immediate steps that the United States and its allies should take. As Warsaw restricts press freedom, Radio Free Europe should restart its Polish-language broadcast, as it did its Hungarian-language broadcast in 2020. In turn, Voice of America should monitor changes in India that might justify a new Hindi-language program. Organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy should step up their activities in such places—a shift of resources that is increasingly crucial as governments in those countries stifle civil society and crack down on nongovernmental organizations.

A serious commitment to democracy protection would also mean using diplomatic tools to put pressure on backsliding allies. This would necessarily involve sticks as well as carrots. One potential stick could be the expanded use of targeted sanctions against officials who work to subvert democratic institutions. Another would be to delay or cancel planned initiatives that would boost antidemocratic governments, such as the Pentagon’s intention to move thousands of U.S. troops to Poland.

Democracy protection will also require a greater focus on the connection between foreign policy and domestic politics. Of late, commentators and policymakers have begun to emphasize how international issues such as free trade affect domestic politics: unless ordinary citizens believe that the liberal international order will improve their daily lives, they will be unwilling to carry its burdens. But the link is just as strong in the other direction: citizens who lose faith in democratic values or no longer believe in their own political system can hardly be effective advocates for democracy.

Leaders in developed democracies need to take on autocratic challengers in their midst. But they must avoid doing so by illiberal means. This can be a tough line to walk: many democracies, for instance, are increasingly willing to ban extremist political parties, restrict speech deemed hateful, and censor social media platforms. The efficacy of all these measures is doubtful. What is certain, however, is that budding autocrats often use strikingly similar laws and regulations as cover for concentrating power in their own hands.

The link between foreign and domestic policy is also a reason to stop autocrats abroad from limiting what citizens of democracies can say at home. Over the past several years, China has mounted a concerted campaign to deter citizens, municipalities, and corporations elsewhere from criticizing its human rights record. In Germany, for example, the city of Heidelberg in 2019 removed a Tibetan flag flown outside its city hall after pressure from Chinese diplomats. Following economic threats from the Chinese government that same year, the National Basketball Association criticized Daryl Morey, then the general manager of the Houston Rockets, for supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Although it will likely prove impossible to completely prevent this sort of muzzling, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 might serve as a model for an effective response. That U.S. law creates a major deterrent to engaging in graft by imposing stiff punishments on corporations that pay bribes to foreign officials. A similar deterrent could be created by legislation in the United States and Europe that would prohibit corporations and other organizations from punishing their employees for criticizing the policies of autocratic regimes. By tying the hands of organizations such as Nike, Volkswagen, and the Houston Rockets, such laws would make it far easier for them to resist outside pressure to silence their employees.


A final step in heading off the authoritarian resurgence would be to reform two of the liberal international order’s foundational institutions: the EU and NATO. The Americans and Europeans who designed those bodies assumed that their own countries would never experience serious democratic backsliding. As a result, neither organization has straightforward means for suspending or expelling a member whose character has fundamentally changed.

This is particularly problematic for the European Union, which requires its members to sacrifice an unusually high degree of sovereignty to join the bloc. Although national politicians sometimes find it hard to explain this to their voters, there are some compelling reasons for the arrangement. On their own, most EU countries are too small to tackle transnational problems such as climate change or significantly influence world politics. Since these countries share a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, giving up a measure of independence enables them to promote their shared values.

According to this same logic, however, the rise of authoritarian leaders within EU states deeply undermines the bloc’s legitimacy. It may be rational for citizens in the Netherlands to pool some of their country’s sovereignty with that of nearby democracies, such as Greece or Sweden, as their interests are presumably aligned. But it is hard to explain politically or justify morally why rules set in part by would-be dictators in Budapest and Warsaw should bind Dutch citizens. If policymakers in Brussels don’t address that contradiction, the EU will face a legitimacy crisis of existential proportions—one that its current institutions are entirely ill equipped to solve.

NATO faces a similar problem. Like the EU, the alliance was founded, as the treaty’s preamble makes clear, on a determination “to safeguard . . . the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Since the alliance’s primary purpose has always been military, however, it has long tolerated some violations of those principles. Portugal, one of NATO’s original members, was a dictatorship at the time of the alliance’s founding. In the decades after 1952, when Greece and Turkey joined, both countries remained in good standing despite their occasional control by military dictatorships.

The problem that NATO faces today, however, is different. Even when Greece, Portugal, and Turkey were dictatorships, they remained reliable members of the alliance; during the Cold War, they clearly sided with democratic countries such as the United States rather than communist powers such as the Soviet Union. Now, some member states, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Turkey, appear to favor China and Russia over the United States. The Turkish military may have even attacked a U.S. commando outpost in Syria in 2019. These internal contradictions are unsustainable. A mutual-defense pact that includes countries willing to fire on another member’s troops will quickly lose all credibility. Ejecting a member from NATO, however, is even more difficult than doing so in the EU. Although some lawyers have suggested clever workarounds, the treaty does not explicitly contain any mechanism for suspending or expelling a member state.

In both organizations, fixing these flaws would take enormous political capital, necessitate serious diplomatic pressure, and potentially require a complete legal or organizational reinvention. All of these are good reasons why democratic leaders likely lack the appetite for making the necessary reforms. But without mechanisms to ensure that member states either stay aligned with each organization’s missions or exit it, the EU and NATO will drift into dysfunction and irrelevance.

Politicians who are serious about democracy protection must prioritize reforming these institutions, even if doing so leads to serious internal conflict. Member states whose actions are no longer in line with the core mission of the EU or NATO must either change course or accede to rules that make it possible to expel them. If these reforms prove impossible, however, it may be better to refound both organizations on a more sustainable basis than to let them decay.

European leaders are starting to wake up to the threat of democratic backsliding in their midst. A new U.S. administration has pledged to defend democracy against illiberal threats. For this determination to be translated into meaningful action, statesmen and diplomats will need to look beyond the traditional diplomatic playbook. To address the threat that resurgent authoritarians pose, the world’s democracies need to commit to bold action. If they do, they will no doubt face an arduous and uncertain journey—one that will cost them political capital and inspire blowback. The alternative, however, is incomparably worse.