Growing authoritarianism needs more robust response from democracies, experts say

As toll of Putin’s Ukraine invasion rises, Senate panel examines how US should respond to threat.
By Roseanne Gerin
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Uzra Zeya, under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights at the US State Department, addresses members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on combating authoritarianism, in Washington, DC, March 15, 2022.
Video screenshot courtesy of C-SPAN

The United States and other democracies must think of new ways to challenge the rising threat of authoritarian governments across the globe, seen most dramatically in Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, according to testimony presented at a U.S. Senate panel today.

State Department officials and other foreign policy experts discussed the challenges presented by shifting geopolitical forces at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing titled “Combating Authoritarianism: U.S. Tools and Responses.”

“Over the past two decades, a new type of 21st century authoritarian support system has arisen,” committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said to open the hearing. “Rather than working in despotic isolation, authoritarian leaders operate through networks of new kleptocratic financial mechanisms, disinformation professionals and an array of security services to protect one another from democratic pressures and to secure their repressive rule autocrats from Venezuela to Cuba, Belarus and Burma.

“We must combat the complex web of kleptocracy sustaining autocrats from around the world,” Menendez said. “We must cut off their lifeblood and impair their ability to buffer one another from sanctions. We must combat digital authoritarianism, including disinformation propaganda and censorship used to subvert democratic principles and advance autocrats’ interests.”

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the panel’s top Republican, said Russia and China were the most egregious models of authoritarianism, followed by Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

“Clearly, the United States and our allies need to step up our game against these regimes,” he said. “The Biden administration has made supporting democracy a focal point of its foreign policy.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s attempt to redefine global norms in favor of authoritarianism are proof of the necessity for the U.S. to take bold action to fight authoritarianism, Uzra Zeya, under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights at the State Department, told the panel.

“Across the globe, authoritarianism — enabled by economic freefall, inequality, alienation and most recently pandemics — threatens democratic governments and societies,” Zeya said.

The U.S. is working with allies to counter the immediacy of Russia’s autocratic attack and on China’s rising influence, while reinvesting with America’s allies to ensure security, prosperity and freedom for Americans and the rest of the world.

Jennifer Hall Godfrey, the State Department’s senior official for public diplomacy and affairs, told the committee that authoritarian governments pose a threat to the global interests of the U.S. and other democracies by lying to their own people and exploiting freedom of expression and independent media to promote misinformation in more open societies.

“To this end, the department, working with interagency partners, maintains a full-spectrum approach to both counter the influence of authoritarian regimes, and — equally as important — to demonstrate in word and in deed the value of democratic governance, government transparency, and the rules-based international order,” she said.

“It is not enough to expose foreign disinformation and propaganda,” Godfrey said. “We must also engage global publics with honest and credible information about U.S. values, priorities, and policy objectives and the strengths of alternatives to authoritarian governance.”

Changing the rules of engagement

Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, in her remarks called for a new strategy toward Russia, China and other autocracies “in which we don’t merely react to the latest outrage, but change the rules of engagement altogether.”

“We cannot merely slap sanctions on foreign oligarchs following some violation of international law, or our own laws: We must alter our financial system so that we stop kleptocratic elites from abusing it in the first place,” she said. “We cannot just respond with furious fact-checking and denials when autocrats produce blatant propaganda: We must help provide accurate and timely information where there is none and deliver it in the languages people speak.”

Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute in Washington, told the committee that China’s ambition is based on ethno-nationalism and a pledge to return China to the center of global events, using its economic strength to bend other countries to its will.

“Political leaders around the world who have taken steps to stand up to PRC bullying and aggression have found themselves on the receiving end of economic coercion designed to turn their business communities against them,” he said.

Twining noted China’s repression in Xinjiang as an example of its authoritarian bent.

“The ongoing suffering of the Uyghur people of Xinjiang — and the feebleness of the international community’s response to what independent tribunals have determined is an ongoing genocide — show that in at least one important way, China has already succeeded in building a new world even if many people in Washington and other world capitals did not yet realize it,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed into law an omnibus spending bill to fund the government, including RFA’s parent organization, the United States Agency for Global Media, for the rest of the fiscal year.

The legislation increases RFA’s funding by 30 percent, to $62.3 million from $47.6 million, a record increase for the 25-year-old digital news outlet.

“We are absolutely thrilled by this momentous development,” RFA President Bay Fang said in an email to employees. “It is the result of a constant effort over the last year to showcase our amazing journalism and our great potential.

“With autocracy and media repression on the rise around the world, RFA’s mission to bring accurate news and information to people who can’t otherwise get it is more important than ever,” she said.

The spending bill also increased the budgets of RFA's sister organizations Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Open Technology Fund that collectively provide accurate information to audiences around the world in support of freedom and democracy.


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