How Biden can beat the great-power authoritarians in China and Russia

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President Biden’s Summit for Democracy offers free nations an opportunity to restore democratic momentum at a time when opportunistic authoritarians from Burma to Belarus are on the march. It’s time for democracies to stop playing defense and double down on their collective strengths — after all, autocrats are attacking open systems in part to stymie their own people’s natural attraction to freedom. Great-power authoritarians in China and Russia view subverting democratic practice as central to their geopolitical ambitions; should not free nations see protecting and promoting democracy as part of ours? 

Yes, open societies are uniquely vulnerable to 21st century dangers from disinformation, polarization, cyber-subversion and malign foreign authoritarian influence. But they also are uniquely resilient and dynamic in ways that brittle autocracies ruling without popular consent can never be. And they outperform authoritarians in delivering broad-based prosperity. Nearly every high-income economy on Earth is a rule-of-law democracy that protects property and political rights — a reminder that developmental authoritarianism has natural limits. 

Institutional shortcomings in the United States certainly need addressing. The summit agenda calls on each country to make commitments to strengthen democracy at home. But the summit cannot be an exercise in self-criticism that creates new propaganda for foreign authoritarians. The central goal of the summit must be defending and enlarging the free world rather than lamenting its inadequacies. 

There is an elemental distinction between free societies that provide responsive, citizen-centric governance and autocracies. In such nations, political office is a vehicle for predatory rule over citizens who enjoy few rights. Government protects the economic interests of party elites at the expense of national welfare. Media and civic actors are unable or unwilling to criticize the ruling party for fear of retribution; the state deploys extensive security and administrative resources to sustain the ruling party in power, including by crushing peaceful protests. “Elections” are organized by the regime to produce only one outcome. Authorities deploy digital repression and surveillance to stem the stirrings of organized dissent. Leaders rule indefinitely, often changing the constitution to perpetuate themselves in power.

Autocracies that repress their citizens at home are far more likely to conduct aggression abroad. Chinese and Russian autocrats pursue strategies to weaken democratic institutions beyond their borders in order to make the world safer for their authoritarianism. Russia peddles disinformation and subverts electoral integrity, including in the United States. China runs covert influence operations, corrupts and co-opts foreign political and corporate elites, and deploys economic coercion to suborn the sovereignty of its trade and investment partners. These regimes conduct political warfare abroad — Russia in Ukraine and China against Taiwan — to reinforce authoritarian nationalism at home by intimidating nations they wish to control. 

America cannot be safe in a world in which hostile great-power autocracies assault our domestic institutions, control the commanding heights of technology, and conduct hybrid assaults against nations on the front lines of freedom. Hence President Biden’s appropriate ambition to rally the democratic world. The White House sees the summit as the start of a “year of action” to protect a system of values that has produced greater security and prosperity for more people around the world than any other. 

An action agenda for free nations could include:

  • Creating a “political Article 5,” similar to NATO’s mutual-defense provision, in which democracies join forces to defend allied nations subject to economic coercion and digital assault from authoritarian aggressors; 
  • Establishing democratic supply chains that prevent hostile authoritarian nations from using commodities they control, such as energy resources or medical supplies, as weapons against open societies; 
  • Making technology work for democracy by forging agreements among democracies on digital trade and data protection that safeguard the rights of citizens, not surveillance states; 
  • Doubling down on democratic alliances such as the D-10 grouping of transatlantic and Asian allies, the Quadrilateral Partnership connecting the U.S. with Japan, India, and Australia, and technology partnerships like a T-12 grouping
  • Deploying smart sanctions against kleptocrats and gross human rights abusers to constrain access to Western markets where they launder corrupt funds;
  • Establishing an international fund for independent media to support local investigative journalism that exposes authoritarian governments’ corruption and repression; and
  • Tying foreign assistance to institutional integrity and rule of law in recipient nations, to prevent development aid from strengthening authoritarian regimes rather than the citizens they should be serving.

Responsive and accountable democratic institutions will be essential to solving the world’s toughest challenges — from climate change to social justice to inclusive prosperity. Authoritarians who usurp their people’s most basic rights to life and liberty are not going to be trustworthy partners in attending to the common good of humankind. 

President Biden can follow in the footsteps of predecessors from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan in rallying the democratic world so that freedom and its fruits — not techno-autocracy and dystopic forms of repression — define the 21st century. 

Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Tags Authoritarianism China Democracy Joe Biden Russia Summit for Democracy Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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