DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE?

“The quality of democracy in the OECD and EU has declined in recent years. At the same time, growing political polarization has made the day-to-day work of governance and thus member states’ capacity to reform more difficult. Related to this is the fact that many governments are less inclined to engage in the broad-based consultation of societal actors during the planning phase of reforms. Governments’ communication abilities and implementation efficiency are also on the decline.

The current issue of the Sustainable Governance Indicators shows some very worrying trends within OECD and EU countries which, given the major policy challenges ahead, may seriously burden them in the future.”

These are the headline conclusions of the 2018 report on “sustainable governance” of the German Bertelsmann Stiftung. This foundation has been running its sustainable governance project since 2011, producing annual measurements of democratic quality, governance and policy performance in 41 advanced democracies (OECD and EU countries). Data is compiled on about 70 indicators for each country, drawing on the best available international statistics and expert assessment. The research team consist of about 100 country and regional experts and six in-house analysts, under the oversight of an international Advisory Board. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the research team.)

Read the full report here.

WHAT’S RUSSIA UP TO?

Last week, British, Dutch and American authorities made public a detailed expose of misdeeds around by the Russian state. Here is an extract from a recent review article on some relevant literature:

Vladimir Putin’s presidency falls in two parts. The first period could be seen as an attempt to impose some kind of order in the Russian state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But by 2014, the man who had wanted (or so he said) to be a liberal European president had turned against Europe and “the West.”

The oligarchic economy of Putin’s early period was one of competing clans and gangs in a system that left the state with little control. Putin took on this system and by the end of his first period, the Russian oligarchy was consolidated as the kleptocratic control of the state by a single oligarchical clan under Putin.

His Russian state has essentially three resources available to it. The first one is inequality. The nation’s wealth, which is not great, is in the hands of the Putin oligarchy. The second resource is the use of cyber capacity for propagandistic and manipulative purposes. This is a weapon with two advantages: it is cheap and it is effective. And the third resource is ruthless determination.

As seen from the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the collapse of Communist dictatorship. As seen from Russia, it was the collapse of the Russian empire. The loss of empire, dignity and respect created fertile soil for nationalistic-fascistic ideas of an alternative Russia.

The relevant ideas draw in part on religious-historical mysticism. “Russia” has evolved from the Kyivan Rus with origins more than a thousand years back in history and from the tradition of Russian orthodox Christianity. That empire was geographical but it was even more to be understood as spiritual, an empire of virtue. Technically the empire has collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives. This, for example, is why the Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia.

The long-term aim is the reconstitution of the physical empire. The short-term aim is to weaken its here-and-now enemies: the European Union, America, Western liberalism, democracy. Since the purpose is noble, noting is forbidden in action: destroying Ukrainian autonomy, undermining the credibility of the European Union, destabilizing the workings of electoral democracy in America, undertaking assassinations on British soil, brutalizing the conduct of war in Syria. Lies and denials are standard.

The Russian state has behind it a weak and unsophisticated economy and a population poor in education and health. Therefore, since Russia cannot be strong, its foreign must be make others weaker. Russia cannot be a builder – so it must be a wrecker.

Read the review article in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy here.

 

DICTATORSHIP AGAINST DEMOCRACY

The story of democracy, in the title of John Keane’s grand history, is one of life and death. It is not a glorious story. Death has been more prevalent than life.

The Greeks invented, says S.E. Finer, two of the most potent political features of our present age: they invented the very idea of citizen, as opposed to subject, and they invented democracy. But it did not last. Democracy emerged, haltingly, in the fifth century BC and collapsed with the end of Athenian independence less than 300 years later, having suffered several fits of near death in the process.

After that, the world forgot about democracy for 2000 years, until it was reinvented in the American Constitution of 1787. Whereas Athenian democracy had been direct – decision-making collectively by assembly to which all citizens had access – the Americans invented representative democracy. Now, citizens would elect representatives to the national and local congresses that would take charge of decision-making on their behalf.

Although the Athenians invented the idea of the citizen, the inclusive concept of citizenship and of universal suffrage took hold only in the twentieth century. In the latter part of that century, this form of government expanded from a minority to a majority of countries and territories. At the entry into our century, 140 of about 190 countries in the world had functioning multiparty elections. If, finally, there has been glory in the story of democracy, that has come only recently. And even so, the lesson to be drawn from history is that democracy is not a natural form of rule. It must be wanted, it must be created, recreated and nurtured, and it is inevitably exposed and in danger.

This mini-history introduces a review, in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, of various recent works of the contemporary authoritarian challenge to democracy from Russia and China, and the democratic response, such as it is.

Read the review here.

TOURISM IN TOTALITARIANISM

What do visitors from democratic countries see and learn when they visit countries that are governed dictatorially? All through the 1930s, up until the outbreak of the Second World War, visitors from elsewhere in Europe, America and beyond traveled to a Germany under Nazi totalitarianism. In a gripping book, Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd takes us to Hitler’s Germany through the eyes of some of the foreign visitors.

Many were tourists and were by and large impressed and pleased with what they saw. They took in the sights: the beauty of the countryside and the quaint old towns. They met friendliness and generosity. Many of these visitors were not political but were favourably disposed to Germany and were struck by the country’s progress. They saw the Autobahns, the gleaming new airports and rail stations, the modern architecture. People were at work and seemed happy with their conditions.

The visitors were not ignorant of the repression, the propaganda, the censorship, the person cult, the persecution of the Jews. But what is striking in what they told from their visits is that mostly the knowledge of repression in the end did not matter much for the way they saw the regime. It delivered and what it delivered was impressive.

Other visitors were political: officials, parliamentarians, journalists, academics, some pro-Nazi and some anti-Nazi. What is striking in this group is that almost no one changed their opinion about Hitler and his regime as a result of what they experienced. Those who were pro-Nazi, saw what they expected to see and stayed pro-Nazi. Those who were anti-Nazi, likewise saw what they expected and had their opinion confirmed.

Today, tourism in totalitarianism is in China. Visitors come back home starry-eyed of the regime’s achievements and the country’s development. They have met friendliness and generosity. They have seen the high-speed rail, the airports, the city skyscrapers. They have met people whose living standards are improving and who speak well of their political leaders.

These visitors know that they are in a China of repression, but there is generally a BUT, and what follows the BUT – the impressive display of delivery and development – often causes the knowledge of repression to fall by the wayside when they sum up what they have learned.

In the 1930s, the Hitler regime did deliver for many Germans, but at the cost of depriving all Germans of their liberty. In China today, the Xi Jinping regime does deliver for many Chinese, but again at the cost of liberty deprived. The fact of delivery for some, does not erase the fact of repression for all.

The lesson of Julia Boyd’s fine book is that tourists in totalitarianism should remain skeptical. Many who went to Germany were unable to and came to regret their naiveté. Occasional visitors to China, and regulars too, should caution themselves that in a totalitarian regime that is in control, what they see is not necessarily what there is. It is best to stay agnostic and to assume that from what you see and hear you have probably learned next to nothing about how things really are and what Chinese people really think.

COLD WAR ON TWO FRONTS

(Published in German as Kalter Krieg an Zwei Fronten in WELT_SICHTEN, Juli-August 2018)

In the early years of the 21st Century, the world looked stable. There was economic progress. Democracy was advancing. The global order was collaborative under American leadership and the custodianship of the Washington institutions.

Fast forward to 2018 and this outlook has changed dramatically. China has not become “like us.” Russia has reverted to totalitarianism. Instead of collaborative order, we have confrontational turmoil. Autocracy has made itself assertive and confident, and is increasingly rewarded with respect. Western Europe is in the grips of the politics of anger. Democracy has been pushed on to the defensive, and democratic countries are riven by self-doubt and internal divisions. America elects Trump. Britain goes for Brexit.

China

“Western leaders and analysts have often projected on to China an image of their preferred imaginings, seeing it through the rose-colored glasses of the West.” So writes (in the New York Times) Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, now the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Much misunderstanding of the People’s Republic has grown out of a misunderstanding of Deng Xiaoping and his post-Maoist reforms. He was a pragmatist, but for the purpose of salvaging the regime. The state was bankrupt financially and bereft of authority. It has been thought that Deng recast the regime from being a political project, as it had been under Mao, into an economic project with the management of growth its purpose.

But he never did. His “reform and opening up” was to be exclusively economic. Politically his mission was restitution. The absolute determination then, as it is now, was and is the perpetuation of the Party regime. The PRC has been, is, and will be a political project.

In 2012, Xi Jinping came to power. Since most observers now though of the People’s Republic as an economic project, it was widely expected that Xi’s priority would be economic reform. Those expectations were, however, dashed as it turned out that Xi’s priorities were political.

During his first term, Xi has overseen a streamlining of bureaucratic command through a relentless concentration of power. He has put himself at the helm of civilian, security and military bureaucracies, eliminated the legacy of collective leadership, and elevated his own position in a person cult similar to that of Mao. Censorship, internet control, propaganda – all that is intensified, as is Party discipline, political education in schools and universities, “guidance” in literature and the arts, and more. The internal security budget is now larger and growing faster than the military budget. These “reforms” amount to a radical transformation of the regime, taking the PRC into its third stage, after those of Mao and Deng and his followers, and breaking free from Deng’s legacy of pragmatism and collective leadership.

Finally, Xi has brought ideology back in. Shortly after having become General Secretary of the Party, he took the new Politburo Standing Committee to the National Rejuvenation exhibition in Beijing’s National Museum and launched his “China Dream,” now omnipresent to give meaning to all aspects of state action, at home and abroad. In the reformed People’s Republic, Marxism has no traction. In its place, Xi has introduced a chauvinistic melody of nationalism. The “Dream” is of national greatness and prowess, down to the assertion that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked to the future and destiny of the nation.” His closing address to the People’s Congress in Beijing on the 19th of March this year was his most undisguised celebration of national glory to date.

Russia

Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and the Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many migrated abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed into a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control.

Secondly, any hope of democratization was quashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. The Kremlin is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the great leader who set the job in motion.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why the Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moskva, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev accepted imperial disintegration in Eastern Europe and German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moskva. The European embrace of the Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

The politics of influence

Russia and China have in common that they are ideologically committed and determined authoritarian regimes. Both entertain strategies of foreign policy that go beyond the normal pursuit of national interest to reach deep into the influencing of the cultures and policies of adversaries. While Moscow in this respect is a spoiler, Beijing’s aim is to build and protect respect for its model of governance.

The full ambition of Beijing’s strategy of influence has been elucidated by the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin in a report entitled Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe. This is the first in-depth study available on the detailed nature of Beijing’s influence policy, in this case in faraway Europe.

“China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests. While Beijing’s efforts have received much less scrutiny than the efforts of Putin’s Russia, Europe neglects China’s increasing influence at its own peril. Drawing on its economic strength and a Chinese Communist Party apparatus that is geared towards strategically building stocks of influence across the globe, Beijing’s political influencing efforts in Europe are bound to be much more consequential in the medium- to long-term future than those of the Kremlin. China commands a comprehensive and flexible influencing toolset, ranging from the overt to the covert, primarily deployed across three arenas: political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia. European states increasingly tend to adjust their policies in fits of ‘preemptive obedience’ to curry favor with the Chinese side. Political elites within the European Union and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests. EU unity has suffered from Chinese divide and rule tactics, especially where the protection and projection of liberal values and human rights are concerned. Beijing also benefits from the ‘services’ of willing enablers among European political and professional classes who are happy to promote Chinese values and interests.”

The democratic response

The stability of the early years of the 21st century has been displaced by a new Cold War, now on two fronts. Russia is setting itself on a course of neo-imperialism. China is intent on regaining its position of “Middle Kingdom” dominance in the world. Both are pursuing their aims with the confident determination that is enabled by the backing of nationalistic ideologies.

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty of expression and information, the protection of rule of law, and mutual trust. This world needs to stand up to the authoritarian advance. The democracies need to come together and find their voice up against assertive autocracy. But that coming together is not happening. America is withdrawing from international solidarity and leadership. The European Union is unable, unity being undermined by economic sluggishness, populism and Brexit. The confidence and determination that is conspicuous on the authoritarian side is equally conspicuous in its absence on the democratic side.

It is easy to say that we in the free world should stand firm in defence of our values and to suggest ways in which this should be done. But if the European Union and America are unwilling or unable, where is inspiration and leadership to come from? Who in the world will now defend liberty? It would seem that before we can rise to the challenge from the authoritarian super-powers, we on our side need, first, to recognize the fact of that challenge and then, second, to look to ourselves and get our own democratic house in order.

THE NEW COLD WAR

In the early years of the 21st Century, the world looked stable. There was economic progress. Democracy was advancing. The global order was collaborative under American leadership and the custodianship of the Washington institutions.

Fast forward to 2018 and this outlook has changed dramatically. China has not become “like us.” Russia has reverted to authoritarianism. Instead of collaborative order, we have confrontational turmoil. Autocracy has made itself assertive and confident, and is increasingly rewarded with respect. Western Europe is in the grips of the politics of anger. Democracy has been pushed on to the defensive, and democratic countries are riven by internal divisions and self-doubt. America elects Trump. Britain goes for Brexit.

Russia and China under their present leaderships have in common that they are ideologically committed and determined authoritarian regimes. Both entertain strategies of foreign policy that go beyond the normal pursuit of national interest to reach deep into the influencing of the cultures and policies of adversaries. While Moscow in this respect is a spoiler, Beijing’s aim is to build and protect respect for its model of party-state governance.

The stability of the early years of the 21st century has been displaced by a new Cold War, now on two fronts. Russia is setting itself on a course of neo-imperialism. China is intent on regaining its position of “Middle Kingdom” dominance in the world. Both are pursuing their aims with the confident determination that is enabled by the backing of nationalistic ideologies.

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty of expression and information, the protection of rule of law, and mutual trust. This world needs to stand up to the authoritarian advance. The democracies need to come together and find their voice up against assertive autocracy.

But that coming together is not happening. The European Union is unable, unity being undermined by economic sluggishness, populism and Brexit. America is withdrawing from international solidarity and leadership. The confidence and determination that is conspicuous on the authoritarian side is equally conspicuous in its absence on the democratic side.

It is easy to say that we in the free world should stand firm in defense of our values, and it is easy to suggest ways in which this should be done. But if the European Union and America are unwilling or unable, where is inspiration and leadership to come from? Who in the world will now defend liberty? It would seem that before we can rise to the challenge from the authoritarian super-powers, we on our side need, first, the recognize the fact of that challenge and then, second, to look to ourselves and get our own democratic house in order.

 

DICTATORSHIP AND IDEOLOGY

The three big powers in today’s world are America, China and Russia – two autocratic-dictatorial systems and one democracy.

The two dictatorial systems are in some ways different and in some ways similar. Russia maintains a pretence of democracy – Vladimir Putin has just been re-elected president. China has no such pretence – when Xi Jinping was recently re-anointed as party boss and state president there were not even make-believe elections.

They are similar in that both are engaged in aggressive campaigns for domination in their neighbourhoods and the wider world, campaigns that aim to undermine the position of the sole democratic super-power and its allies, such as democratic Europe.

They are different in the way they engage for added domination. China is a power with vast resources and is able to make itself stronger by the day. Russia is without similar resources. Its campaign is therefore one of strategic relativism. Says Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom: “Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.” This difference also makes for campaigns different in character. China is an elegant player on the world stage. Russia is an ugly and thuggish player.

Both engage, in their different ways, with assertive determination. This assertiveness and determination comes from both states being ideological states. In both countries, the leaders have dressed up their systems in similar ideological cloaks. They are now both nationalistic powers.

Putin’s Russia, explains Timothy Snyder, is inspired by a vision of a greater Russian spiritual empire. This explains, for example, Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, a country that cannot be democratic and European because it is part of spiritual Russia. China is inspired by Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of China’s “great national rejuvenation.” This explains, for example, China’s building of a new global architecture of power in the “Belt and Road Initiative” with the aim of China reclaiming its global position as “the middle kingdom.”

Both nationalistic narratives are also narratives of state and society. In both cases, the unit of purpose is the nation. The core of this thinking is that the nation is one and indivisible and that individuals have their existence as components of the nation. In the Russian case, which Snyder characterizes as no-nonsense neo-fascism, individualism is seen to be the idea of European decadence. European democracy, and the European Union, are therefore the enemies of spiritual Russia, not because of what they do but because of what they are. In the Chinese case, the “Dream” contains not only a vision of national greatness but also the idea, in Xi’s words at the launch of the “Dream,” that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation.”

Nationalistic ideology gives both these powers backing for aggressive assertiveness, all the more being ideologies that submerge individuals into the nation. There is then no autonomous good for individuals that stands in the way of the good of the nation, nor of the state that is the custodian of the national good.

Democratic countries are by definition non-ideological. That is their strength in value terms. The idea that the state is the servant of the person is morally superior to the idea that it is the servant of the nation in the meaning that persons do not matter.

In power terms, are non-ideological democratic regimes at a disadvantage vis-à-vis ideological autocratic regimes? That is probably not the experience, but they may be at a disadvantage in some ways. It may be difficult from a democratic vantage point to grasp and understand the nature of ideologically motivated autocratic assertiveness. That seems to be the case today. The West appears unable to make sense of Putin’s Russia and Russian policies of aggression in the Ukraine and Syria, and of destabilization in Europe and America. The West also appears unable to make sense of Xi’s China and China’s audacious design towards no less than a new world order. The West is hopelessly lacking in hard-nosed realism up against very hard-nosed aggression from the autocratic powers.