Richard Youngs / Sep 2022
A debate is brewing about the shape of international relations after the Ukraine invasion. Some suggest that the divide between democracies and autocracies will become a more dominant driver of geopolitics, while others insist this cleavage will lose relevance to more pragmatic realpolitik. This debate presents a false dichotomy, however, as both dynamics will have a significant place in post-invasion international politics. The more pertinent question is what kind of coordination emerges between democratic governments.
President Biden has suggested that ‘We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.’ Such impassioned commitments to defending liberal order and democratic norms frame the battle for Ukraine as part of a broader struggle for democracy and against autocratic values. And they are supported by emerging policy coordination that is taking shape between democratic governments across the world. Western leaders have reached out to India, Japan and Latin American democracies to coordinate actions in defence of democratic values.
But at the same time, the US and European governments are also seeking deeper cooperation with authoritarian regimes to help counter Russia. European states are reaching out to Gulf suppliers to replace Russian gas, and the US is softening its position towards Venezuela. And so, while the democracies-autocracies divide makes front page headlines there are other powerful dynamics that cut across and dilute it. In parallel to a more idealistic commitment to democracy, the new context is pushing Western states and other democracies towards greater pragmatism.
Each time talk of like-minded democratic coordination emerges – as it has periodically in crisis moments over the last twenty years – sceptics predictably point to the lack of full alignment between democracies. And the same divergences are visible this time round. Many democracies did not back US and European condemnation of Russia in the United Nations, while many autocracies did not line up fully behind Russia.
In practice, the two dynamics will co-exist. The post-invasion world will not be one driven primarily by competition between governance systems, but the democracy-autocracy divide is likely to become more consequential. On the one hand, much geostrategy is still not very pro-democratic. On the other hand, even if it does not become the absolute or predominant driver of international relations, the democracy-autocracy divide will assume a higher profile after the war in Ukraine – given events on the ground there, it is surely too cynical to dismiss the place of political values entirely.
Focusing on this supposed dichotomy misses several important considerations. The most germane question is what the Western ‘defending democracy’ narrative is actually designed to achieve. And here, it is crucial to specify that a harder edged Western strategy against Russia is far from being the same as a strategy for democracy. The democracy-versus-autocracy framing is taking shape as a mobilizing narrative for a whole range of strategic policies – like efforts to end dependence on Russian fossil fuels or increase European security spending – that are not in any operational sense driven by an ideological commitment to supporting democracy as such. The whole terminology of ‘defending democracy’ is being stretched extremely wide and applied to any policy in some manner related to Western nations defending themselves or their own interests.
Western democracies may be more committed to using robust means to defend themselves, but this is not the same as promoting democracy as a value globally. For now, the ‘defending democracy’ focus has been mainly about democracies protecting themselves with more determination, rather than extending the political rights of citizens in other places around the world.
Western states have not significantly increased diplomatic and financial investments in promoting democratic norms. The need to support democrats in autocratic countries is not the same thing as geopolitical rivalry against autocratic governments. While the war in Ukraine has certainly brought forward some commitments to reinvigorate democracy funding - the US, for example, has promised a European Democratic Resilience Initiativee with $320 million in new funding - Western democracies have for now not promised significantly to boost their democracy strategies and funding over the long term.
While European democracies and Japan have quickly increased spending on defence, they have not yet boosted democracy support. But if it is really the case that ‘democracy is security’ as so many leaders now assert, then the increase in defence spending would be paralleled with an increase in democracy funding. Yet Western democracies’ spending on democracy support is still negligible compared to their defence budgets and after the invasion it may be that the increase in defence spending pulls funds away from democracy and human rights budgets. Even more so, spending on humanitarian support in the conflict and efforts to head off a food-security emergency are likely to draw funds away from other foreign-policy budgets, including democracy aid.
The key question is whether democratic countries aim to build stronger and more mutually-enhancing linkages between their big-picture geopolitics and their lower-level or second-order decisions about democracy-support strategies – how democratic action is funded, which agents of change are best supported, where and when is conditionality appropriate, among many such tactical questions. In nearly all Western states, overarching pronouncements about the relationship between democracies and autocracies in the international system remain strikingly disconnected from the way that concrete democracy-support operates in practice. If this disconnect persists, the democratic coordination taking shape in the wake of the Ukraine invasion is likely to be about self-defence far more than the defence of democracy.