Rethinking relations with authoritarian regimes

Democracies are sounding the alarm over the ascendancy of China and Russia. Yet at the same time they support a growing number of authoritarian governments. A new authoritarian world order is being established and democratic governments are contributing to it. To stem the trend, or not accelerate it, democracies must rethink their relationships with their non-democratic partners.

China, Russia, but also many autocratic partners who have adopted less repressive forms of authoritarianism than dictatorships, or who use a vocabulary with democratic overtones, are part of this new order. The global challenge facing democracies is not limited to authoritarian giants.

The lesson, however, is far from learned. Most aid from pro-democracy donors goes to authoritarian states. The West is also making certain authoritarian governments key economic and security partners. The fight against terrorism (in Mauritania) or the search for new economic and commercial partners (Ethiopia until very recently) are good examples.

It is not uncommon to see democratic leaders praise certain autocratic leaders when one wishes to make them partners.

The idyll between the West and Rwanda does not fade despite the repression employed by the Rwandan government on its territory and abroad.

Given the demographic and economic weight of authoritarian states in the world, maintaining relations with their governments is essential. Moreover, to counter the trend of democratic backsliding, maintaining these relations is the best strategy.

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Nevertheless, inconsistencies between diplomatic, trade and security agendas, and democratic values, can contribute to authoritarian entrenchment. For example, training programs for national armies also develop the repressive arm of the state. Helping to strengthen political parties in a landscape dominated by one party can reinforce the pre-eminence of the latter.

Another major problem is the tendency to avoid working on substantive political issues, so as not to be perceived as associated with authoritarian actors and their practices. Programs and initiatives are then oriented towards sectors and reforms of a technical nature. Security sector reform, for example, focuses on the professional training of armed forces, police and intelligence actors, while ensuring greater control of this sector by civilian institutions. Another example is decentralization, which focuses on strengthening local administrative structures to foster closer links between authorities and local voters, as well as better service delivery. However, technical achievements are too often transformed into tools of repression and control.

Authoritarian governments instrumentalize these inconsistencies and unwillingness to do the substantive political work, allowing them to choose the reforms and changes they implement. Unsurprisingly, they opt for initiatives that do not threaten the regime.

The reluctance of democracies to think and do the substantive political work with their authoritarian partners allows autocracies to divert aid to other ends, channeling it into the apparatus of repression or transforming institutions created or supported by democracies into tools of control, be it local administrators, cooperatives or even civil society groups. Democracies must therefore understand that the way they engage with their authoritarian partners can foster authoritarian entrenchment.

A report I co-authored for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy1 offers a series of recommendations for rethinking relations with non-democratic partners. These include: 1) the need to maintain more coherent relationships so as to systematically promote democratic change, including within the programming framework addressing security and economic issues; 2) privilege, in addition to the technical work, the political discussions which are lacking, while being aware of the political relations in which the projects and programs fit; 3) try, therefore, to compensate for the effects that the commitment may have in terms of authoritarian entrenchment. This means that democratic governments must learn to better anticipate and thwart potential efforts to divert aid and relationships for authoritarian ends.

To make a difference and counter the current trend, democracies must also reaffirm their faith in democratic values ​​and institutions in their own territory. They face their own rise of undemocratic forces. To credibly promote the benefits of democracy abroad, democracies must demonstrate their willingness to tackle these issues within their institutions.

Without these changes, democracies will continue to sound the alarm about the rising tide of authoritarianism, while fueling that same tide.

1. How Not to Engage with Authoritarian StatesNic Cheeseman and Marie-Eve Desrosiers, London: Westminster Foundation for Democracy, February 2023

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