Welcome to the freedom recession

NEW YORK — The reemergence of authoritarian powers has been a hot topic among foreign policy thinkers in the past few years. These states find capitalism perfectly acceptable — a few are even getting quite good at it — even as they despise and restrict the freedoms taken for granted by citizens in liberal democracies.

China’s economic power, and to a lesser extent, the cash reserves that similarly authoritarian regimes in Russia, Venezuela and Iran have accrued selling oil and natural gas, have given them new credibility in the world. While these countries are vastly different, they are playing a similar game. If they were boxers, they would be counter-punchers, exploiting openings in the defenses of the lumbering heavyweight champ.

These counter-punches come in different forms. For Iran, it is aid for Hezbollah and Hamas. China sends money abroad in the form of sweetheart, no-questions-asked contracts signed with dictatorial regimes for natural gas in Myanmar or oil in Sudan. Russia and Venezuela spread their largesse “in kind,” offering cheap energy in exchange for influence.

These trends have attracted media and academic attention, but little from official Washington. Now, a new report from Freedom House, in conjunction with two U.S. government broadcasters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, examines the long term implications of this trend, both in terms of basic political freedoms in the countries involved, and more seriously, the risk that emerging nations will emulate this new “authoritarian model.”

Undermining Democracy, as the report is titled, looks at the practice of authoritarianism in five countries: China, Russia, Venezuela, Pakistan and Iran. It is published, its authors say, in the midst of a “political recession” — that is, three years in a row in which Freedom House’s index of political freedoms shows a decline across the world — the first time that has happened since the index began in 1972.

While Iran’s Shiite theocracy, Russia’s kleptocracy and China’s communist state would seem to have little in common, there are actually striking similarities with regard to some aspects of government behavior.

  • Each exercises considerable influence in its region, intervening covertly and overtly in the affairs of its neighbors. Russia, for instance, used a $180 million debt write-off and a $2 billion loan to convince Kyrgyzstan to eject U.S. and NATO forces from a vital airfield used to supply the Afghan war.
  • All these countries, to varying degrees, play lip service to some version of “democracy,” as Iran’s upcoming elections attest. Even China uses the term to describe reforms within its ruling Communist Party, as if the definition of the term can be stretched to mean “a vote among career bureaucrats.”
  • All, too, struggle with the paradoxical problems that grow out of their efforts to meld capitalism and authoritarianism. Pakistan’s democracy, for instance, is now threatened by cynical deals cut with extremists that have spun out of control; Venezuela is saddled with a president bent on usurping constitutional rules and spending the national wealth abroad on ideological projects; and Russia’s “largely decorative elected institutions,” as the report memorably puts it, are really just a convenient way to mediate the division of spoils.

Similarly, all of them practice capitalism of one flavor or another, seeking its advantages (free trade, access to Western-founded clubs like the World Trade Organization and the IMF) without the transparency or accountability that should come with such membership.

Most disturbing of all for Western policymakers, however, are the echoes of Cold War aid policies. This “authoritarian aid” has drawn worldwide attention in recent years, particularly China’s practice of cutting deals for mineral rights with dictatorial regimes. At a time when Western Europe, Japan, and the United States suffer from the self-inflicted wounds of bubble finance, keeping up with these anti-democratic rivals in the dispersal of largesse may prove impossible.

It is worth remembering that only 20 years ago, such practices were standard procedure in Washington (and in Paris, London and other European capitals). Looking the other way as dictators brutalized their own was a Cold War staple, a policy meant to stave off the advance of Soviet influence, which continued even as the wheels began to fly off the big Red truck. To the West’s great credit, such policies were quickly phased out as the Cold War drew to a close, and old retainers like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Jean “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko suddenly found their American Express cards no longer worked.

But those practices, never completely eliminated, have been embraced with new vigor by the “new authoritarians.”

“This unconditional assistance — devoid of the human rights riders and financial safeguards required by democratic donors, international institutions, and private lenders — is tilting the scales toward less accountable and more corrupt governance across a wide swath of the developing world,” the report says.

Michael Moran, foreign affairs columnist for GlobalPost, is a member of the communications advisory board of Human Rights Watch.

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