Democracy-Autocracy divide will not serve global – or even Western – interests

Mar 5, 2023
Democracy Autocracy symbol.

Taking on autocratic powers has given the West a new-found sense of purpose, but it risks alienating emerging global players with its simplistic world view. A narrative that focuses on the clash between world orders does not resonate with countries more concerned about economic struggle and the climate crisis.

National leaders and foreign policy experts gathered in Bavaria last week for the Munich Security Conference, also known as the “Davos for Defence”. Over the years, the event has been a valuable factory for ideas and a barometer for shifts in geopolitics and states’ responses to new threats and challenges.

In the early years after it was launched in 1963, the conference focused on the Cold War and nuclear threats and served to project the strength and cohesion of the transatlantic alliance. After the end of the Cold War, the conference agenda widened to cover issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber threats.

It remains a Nato-centric event, but as the balance of power in the world has shifted, representation from emerging powers like China and India has also grown. This includes participation by our think tank, the Centre for China and Globalisation, which this year held a side event on China-US relations.

In 2020, the last time I attended the conference in person, the theme was “Westlessness”, reflecting an identity crisis in the West amid its declining relative power and fractures in the transatlantic alliance.

At this year’s event, which took place amid the fallout from the China-US balloon saga and the war in Ukraine, there was no sense of “Westlessness” to be found. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and hype about the “China threat” have galvanised the West with a new sense of purpose: a grand clash between democracy and autocracy.

The meeting held on the sidelines of the conference between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while signalling that both sides were moving on from the balloon incident, nevertheless served to highlight the division of the world into two camps.

This dichotomy has come to dominate strategic discussions in the West. It permeates US President Joe Biden’s national security strategy and the European Union’s Strategic Compass released last year. It is also prominent in the Munich Security Conference report released ahead of the conference, which warned of a growing divide between “competing order[s]”.

Despite the ascendancy of this vision, it is far from clear that framing the world as a competition between democracy and autocracy is the best way to address the complex and evolving threats of our age, even for the interests of Western countries.

First, a simplistic binary doesn’t match the messy multipolar reality of today’s world. Take the positions that countries have adopted with respect to the war in Ukraine: they often don’t align neatly along a democracy-autocracy divide.

Many democracies have not lined up against Russia; these include India and South Africa, which abstained in UN resolutions against Moscow last year. Conversely, not all autocracies support Russia. The picture on sanctions is also mixed. Singapore has joined the sanctions campaign against Russia, but Israel has not.

As this year’s Munich Security Index shows, the framing of democracy versus autocracy doesn’t resonate well in many countries, according to a survey of 12,000 people from the G7, China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Ukraine.

For example, people in countries like India and South Africa see “rich versus poor countries” as the main fault line in global politics. Even in G7 countries, the democracy versus autocracy dichotomy is far from dominating the perceptions of citizens.

If the West pushes too hard on framing the world as a competition between democratic and non-democratic states, it risks alienating people who do not see things this way. This includes states destined to play a greater role in global affairs as they gain economic and demographic weight, states which should be encouraged to participate in shaping the international order if we are to keep multilateralism alive.

The second problem with seeing everything through a democracy versus autocracy lens is that it doesn’t capture the risks and challenges people are most concerned about.

This year’s Munich Security Index records an increase in 20 risk indicators compared to the previous survey, which itself registered significantly higher risk perceptions than in the preceding year. As the authors of the report write, the index reflects a new age in global politics marked by an “omnipresent sense of insecurity”.

The aggregate risks people are most concerned about across the 12 countries are overwhelmingly transnational in nature. The top risk is an economic or financial crisis, likely fuelled by rampant global inflation.

Climate change, the destruction of natural habitats, and extreme weather and forest fires are the second, third and fourth highest risks respectively. Energy disruption also ranks high, claiming the top spot in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

These risks are not zero-sum problems; the West cannot deal with them by throwing more resources into escalating competition with non-democratic states. On the contrary, risks related to the global economy, public health and the environment can only be addressed by all all nations working together, regardless of their governance system. Geopolitical competition may interact with these threats, but it is not their primary driver.

Political leaders do not agree on much these days, but this year’s conference shows they do agree that the international order is at a critical juncture – a moment German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has famously called Zeitenwende, an epochal turning point.

If we are indeed at a historic turning point, the question is: where are we turning to next, and what visions of the international order will shape our future?

Cleaving the world into two opposing camps has simplistic appeal as a rallying cry for the West. But it is a flawed way to understand a 21st century world that is more multipolar and interconnected than ever, not only through economic and cultural links, but also shared challenges like climate change which call for democratic and non-democratic states alike to work together.


First published in The South China Morning Post February 21, 2023

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