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Authoritarian Rulers Are Not As Powerful As They Appear To Be – OpEd

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Take a look at some of the statistics: contrary to popular belief, authoritarian regimes are not infallible or generous. Let us be careful not to fall for their propaganda; our democratic systems’ future depends on it.

A leak in the international press in July revealed a Kremlin document indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally directed Russian authorities to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In many ways, this told nothing new to us. This was already established by the Mueller report and U.S. intelligence agencies. However, something extremely unusual was revealed: a leak within the Kremlin. While no one knows who wrote the document, it is clear that the Kremlin used it to demonstrate – once again – how daring Putin was in attempting to influence the outcome of a presidential election in one of the world’s most developed democracies.

Alexei Navalny, a Russian political prisoner and opposition leader, is well aware of the Kremlin’s calculations. He joked to the Financial Times in 2019: “You can spend $500,000 on Facebook ads and… the entire establishment of a large Western country will complain about interference, even if the effect is laughable. The investments are small, but they provide you with front-page visibility and power.” The Kremlin’s greatest success, he claimed, has been in convincing people that it can manipulate the West – regardless of its actual ability to do so.

The world’s geopolitical order is clearly shifting, and perceptions are changing more quickly than reality. In recent years, authoritarian leaders have been able to exaggerate their influence on other countries’ affairs far more effectively than their liberal-democratic counterparts. This is frequently a byproduct or component of “sharp power” (a means of projecting one’s influence on a global scale similar to “soft” and “hard” power), which penetrates and distorts target countries’ information environments, often to put authoritarianism ahead of democracy. These efforts give the impression of authoritarian omnipotence, despite the fact that these governments are far from omniscient.

How did the public’s perception become so skewed? Consider the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a Global Engagement Center report, China, Iran, and Russia, three authoritarian states, have tried to persuade the international community that they have handled the pandemic more effectively than the democratic United States. However, it is important to note that Beijing withheld information in order to give the impression of success against the virus. Images of a Wuhan super-hospital allegedly built in sixteen hours went viral online, but “fact checkers” exposed the story as a hoax. Similarly, Moscow propaganda lauded Russia’s achievements, such as the Sputnik vaccine. While Russia portrays itself as the world’s savior, its healthcare system is collapsing as a result of rising mortality rates. Authoritarian information policies aren’t just about lies. Indeed, China has sent masks and respirators to other countries, and Russian doctors have visited Italy and former Soviet republics. However, the impact has been grossly exaggerated both by authoritarian powers and by the European public.

Recently, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) polled nine countries, and relative majorities agreed that the EU was “incompetent during the pandemic.” In Italy, 25% of those polled named China as their most helpful ally during the crisis, while only 4% named the EU. However, Beijing and Moscow’s efforts pale in comparison to Brussels’ assistance: the EU’s Covid-19 recovery fund has provided Italy with 27 billion euros.

Similarly, authoritarian countries inflate their economic importance while corroding the democratic institutional framework with modest investments in key sectors. In Serbia, for example, 40% of respondents in another survey said Beijing was their country’s primary source of aid. The EU, the largest actual donor, contributed 1.8 billion euros in 2020, while China contributed only 6.6 million euros of its 56 million pledged. Nonetheless, Serbia’s president has referred to Beijing as his country’s “most honest and trustworthy friend.” And, at the behest of Beijing, Serbian politicians have implemented policies that could jeopardize Serbia’s plans for EU membership.

Authoritarian states are also distorting the image of their power and influence on the military front: Russian propaganda claims a likely victory in a traditional military conflict with NATO. In Hungary, perceptions of Russian power are also exaggerated. A survey conducted by the Political Capital Institute found that more than two-thirds of respondents overestimated Russia’s relative military spending. Many believed it was greater than U.S. military spending (which is actually ten times greater than Russia’s), and the majority believed it was greater than China’s military spending (which is actually four times higher than Russia’s).

Many EU countries are receptive to these messages. In democracies, anti-establishment and eurosceptic politicians have become national messengers of authoritarian propaganda, amplifying its inflationary effects. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has exaggerated the cost of EU sanctions against Russia to the Hungarian economy, contributing to an unrealistic perception of Moscow’s economic weight. Exaggerated perceptions of authoritarian power and influence may lead politicians to adopt pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow policies in the name of pragmatism, as well as to welcome new authoritarian investments in their countries.

If Western democratic models were still as appealing as they once were, boosting from authoritarian regimes would be less successful. However, global approval of U.S. leadership has dropped by more than 15% since 2016, and in 2019, it was nearly tied with Russia and China at 33%, according to a Gallup poll. The storming of the United Capitol on January 6 weakened the image of the United States – and the West – as a ‘beacon of democracy’.

To offset this loss of appeal, supporters of liberty and basic human rights must speak out in support of democratic forces. While recognizing the real threats to democracy posed by authoritarian influence is critical, commentators must avoid sensationalism. The flaws of autocratic models in Beijing and Moscow deserve more attention as well. If the public loses faith in liberal democracy, the attraction of alternative governance models will grow, increasing the risk of authoritarian drift and even power grabs. An effective response to authoritarianism necessitates a nuanced and careful message – one that addresses the challenges posed by autocracies while not aiding their propagandists.

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Richard Rousseau

Richard Rousseau, Ph.D., is an international relations expert. He was formerly a professor and head of political science departments at universities in Canada, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates. His research interests include the former Soviet Union, international security, international political economy, and globalization. Dr. Rousseau's approximately 800 books, book chapters, academic journal and scholarly articles, conference papers, and newspaper analyses on a variety of international affairs issues have been published in numerous publications, including The Jamestown Foundation (Washington, D.C.), Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century (Canada), Foreign Policy In Focus (Washington, D.C.), Open Democracy (UK), Harvard International Review, Diplomatic Courier (Washington, C.D.), Foreign Policy Journal (U.S.), Europe's World (Brussels), Political Reflection Magazine (London), Center for Security Studies (CSS, Zurich), Eurasia Review, Global Asia (South Korea), The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs, Journal of Turkish Weekly (Ankara), The Georgian Times (Tbilisi), among others.

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