Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy

Edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner and Christopher Walker
Johns Hopkins University Press (2016), 243 pages.

By John Bacher (reviewer)

It is tragic that the excellent book Authoritarianism Goes Global did not receive massive and appropriately favorable media coverage before the 2016 US Presidential election, especially in critical swing states such as Wisconsin and Ohio. Had it received such coverage, the outcome of the election might have been very different. The book shows the quite different attitudes toward the problem of creeping authoritarianism offered by the two leading Presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

One of the important insights of Authoritarianism Goes Global is what one of the contributors, Christopher Walker, terms the emergence of a “malign mirror image of soft power.” This seeks, as Walker explains, to spend “vast and increasing sums on media and other tools…o contain the spread of democracy and reshape the norms of the international order.” Clinton and Trump in the election had very different approaches to deal with this threat.

One of the odious “soft power” means that allied authoritarian regimes use to constrain the spread of democracy are expensive propaganda machines. For example, with enormous revenues from the export of petroleum and natural gas, the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin uses the propaganda vehicle RT (formerly Russian Television). Since 2005 , RT has been matched with a surge in funding by “China’s CCTV, and Iran’s Press TV,” which seek to spread negative attitudes toward democracy.

The editors explain that, “Beyond Russia’s border, the Putin regime advances its interests by making allies of parties across the political spectrum, doling out money-making opportunities, and waging an information war against its critics.

“Perhaps the regime’s most potent weapon in this war is RT, the Kremlin’s international television broadcaster, which is a force not only via the airwaves but by social media. Lavishly funded and active in a number of languages, RT has entered into editorial partnerships with a variety of countries, including Argentina and Syria, where Putin has become the mainstay of the Assad regime.”

Contributor Lilia Shevtsova’s article, “Forward to the Past in Russia,” notes that RT has a budget of $300 million annually, which is expected to be boosted by another 40 percent. On YouTube only the clips of the British Broadcasting Corporation, (BBC) are watched more than RT’s. It has more viewers in Europe than the Europe-wide station European news. In major American cities it is viewed the most of all foreign broadcasts.

Peter Pomerantsev is a contributor who shows how Putin’s manipulation has brought in alliances from the right and the wealthy, including Donald Trump. Pomerantsev’s essay, “The Kremlin’s Information War,” notes that many billionaire investors and their far right parties have become allied to Putin. One is Philippe de Villiers, a leader of the Movement de France, which seeks the dissolution of the European Union. He is building theme parks in Crimea and Moscow.

Pomerantsev links Putin’s strategy of luring the right and money to a sinister scheme to disrupt energy supplies. He cites one authoritative study by the Swedish Defence Agency, which found that between 1992 and 2006 Russia cut off energy to countries in Central and Eastern Europe some 55 times. While Pomerantsev concedes that officially these disruptions were caused by supposed “technical problems,” he notes that the Swedish study credibly reveals that they “almost always happened when there was an election that Russia wanted to influence or an energy deal that it wanted to promote.”

The combination of populism, wealth, and far right politics depicted in Authoritarianism Goes Global was affirmed in recent Congressional investigations into General Michael Flynn. He was briefly the National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump. The findings were revealed in a New York Times article on March 17, 2017 by Adam Goldman and Michael Schwirtz.

Goldman and Schwirtz show that RT paid Flynn $45,000 to give a speech in Moscow in “an opulent gala hosted by RT,” in which Flynn sat next to Putin.

Moreover, Flynn was paid $11,250 by the Russian firm Kaspersky Government Security Services to give a paper at a cybersecurity forum in October 2015.

Another contributor, Andrew J. Nathan, in his essay, “China’s Challenge,” shows that cybersecurity was an important area of conflict between Putin and Clinton. Nathan notes that while Secretary of State Clinton “pursued an initiative to codify a broad concept of information freedom in several venues,” this was opposed by Russia, China, and smaller authoritarian states. As secretary of state, Clinton had a good record of fighting for information freedom on the internet while Trump’s national security adviser was advising those who fought her.

Among the most startling revelations of Authoritarianism Goes Global is that the financial muscle of dictatorships out-power the efforts of democracies. This is spelled out in Frederick Wehrey’s revealing essay, “Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats.”

Wehrey reveals the differing agendas of dictatorial Saudi Arabia and the democratic United States and European Union in Egypt during the Arab Spring. He notes that when the American government was urging then Egyptian Army Chief of Staff, General Sisi, “to reach a peaceful compromise” with the popularly elected President, Mohammad Morsi, Saudi Arabia was undermining these efforts.

After Sisi’s coup ousted Morsi, Saudi Arabia blessed the new dictatorship with “$23 billion in aid,” given “in the form of petroleum products and central bank deposits.” This overwhelmed the $2.3 billion package the European Union and the United States had put together to encourage a democratic transition in Egypt.

Authoritarianism Goes Global astutely analyzes the democratic community of nations’ difficulty in countering the machinations of authoritarian states. One hopes its interpretation will supplant the simplistic notion that the United States is the main source of global conflict—a view that the book attributes even to policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which damaged democracy in Canada.

The most infamous exposť of Harper comes out in Alexander Cooley’s essay, “Countering Democratic Norms.” He notes that Canada, alone among NATO member states, during the last ten years “put a squeeze on the activities of foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOS) within their borders.”

In doing so Harper joined the “counter-revolutionary playbook … that targets…democracy activists.” Cooley finds such mischief denies access of such organizations as environmental groups “to foreign funds and even stigmatizes the groups as Trojan horses.”

Cooley’s view that Harper constrained Canadian democracy is based on a study, “Closing Spaces: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire,” published by the Carnegie Study for International Peace. It was authored by Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher and published in 2014.

Carothers and Brechenmacher show that Harper pointed to Canadian environmental groups’ support from the United States as a way to malign them. This included sensational accusations that environmental groups laundered “offshore funds” and used money from “foreign special interest groups.”

Authoritarianism Goes Global needs to be read and its precepts adopted in Canada’s foreign policy. One change that obviously needs is for the Trudeau government to restore Rights and Democracy, the organization that promoted human rights but which the Harper government had disbanded.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a peace and environment activist in St. Catharines.

Peace Magazine April-June 2017

Peace Magazine April-June 2017, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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