This article was originally published in German with the PRIF Blog under the title “Gemeinsam gegen die bösen Autokratien? Zu den Fallstricken demokratischer Allianzbildung als Pfeiler einer zukünftigen deutschen Sicherheitsstrategie“
Owing to China’s rise and the increasingly assertive behaviour of authoritarian states, the theme of a new “systemic competition” has become prominent in German foreign policy discourse. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has further boosted the idea that the world’s democracies must join forces in the face of menacing autocracies. However, the German government would be ill-advised to make the idea of a binary world split into “good” democracies and “bad” autocracies a cornerstone of its national security strategy.
In times of rising security threats, the disruption of long-cherished mindsets, and a seemingly overly complex world, there is a strong demand for clear answers. Nuanced views are easily discarded in favour of a world view that assumes a strict, dichotomous separation into good and evil. While this can be helpful in restoring a basic sense of security in people and building a consensus around difficult political decisions, such clear-cut answers tend to gloss over important nuances, can lead to miscalculations, and even turn into self-fulfilling prophesies. Most recently, Russia’s war in Ukraine has (re-)popularised the notion that “good” and “evil” in today’s world are primarily associated with national regime characteristics, specifically a dichotomous division into peaceful, responsible democracies and aggressive autocracies. However, this notion falls far short of observable reality, ignoring decades of research on the causes of war and peace that have painted a far more complex picture. As a guideline for practical policy, it risks contributing to the emergence of antagonistic blocks in world politics, making it even more difficult to build a broad, inclusive alliance in support of a world order based on rules and international law. At worst, overemphasising the democracy-autocracy distinction may even lead to the emergence of a genuine authoritarian counter-coalition.
The keynote speech of German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, delivered at the launch event for the development of a German national security strategy (NSS), is a case in point. The title of the speech defines security as the „freedom of our lives”, thereby tying it explicitly to the basic principles of liberal democracy. In her speech, Baerbock not only calls for the defence of democratic norms and institutions, urging Germany to prove through practical policy “that the liberal idea is stronger than any authoritarian regime.” She also makes the case that a state’s domestic political regime determines its foreign policy noting that an “alliance of liberal democracies worldwide who stand by international law, by democracy and by a rules-based international order” has “given a resolute response to Putin’s war”. Dismissing the notion that there are “good and bad dictators,” she consequently pleads for a harder line also in dealing with “other autocratic, dictatorial regimes that call freedom and democracy and security into question, that break our international rules”. A similar notion can be found in NATO’s new Strategic Concept which, owing to Russia’s war in Ukraine, sees the “interests, values and democratic way of life” of its members “challenged by authoritarian actors”. The idea of a new “systemic competition” between democracies and autocracies was already a prominent idea back in Germany’s 2021 election campaign (see here and here), as well as the eventual coalition agreement of the new, so-called traffic light coalition.
“Democratic peace” theory: a problematic security policy template
This rhetoric reflects a notion that became very prominent in Western foreign policy circles during the 1990s: the “democratic peace” proposition. Its core idea can be traced back to Immanuel Kant, but it received substantial academic attention since the 1980s and gained further currency in the heyday of liberalism after the end of the Cold War. Its basic claim is deceptively simple: democracies rarely if ever wage war against each other. However, a closer empirical examination of the foreign policies of democratic states reveals that peaceful relations with other democracies go hand in hand with a pronounced willingness to wage war on states that are not considered to be members of this club. Moreover, as revealed by PRIF’s research programme on the “antinomies of democratic peace”, there are specifically democratic casus belli, like the enforcement of supposedly universal normative principles with military means. Paradoxically, the desire to establish a democratic peace has given rise to justifications for waging “democratic wars”. Most notably, US president George W. Bush (2001-2009) based much of his post-9/11 foreign policy on the proposition that democracies are inherently peaceful, while autocracies are aggressive. This became the basis for a programme of forcibly democratising the latter in the interest of global peace, as enshrined in the 2006 US National Security Strategy.
A second demand that emerged from the debate about a democratic peace in the early 2000s revolves around the “Concert of Democracies”. Similar ideas had previously been discussed among US-American liberal institutionalists. But the proposal of such a concert rose to prominence in US neo-conservative circles in the early 2000s, informing the Bush administration’s foreign policy programme, and specifically the idea of wide-ranging privileges for democracies in matters of global governance, deduced from their supposedly inherent capacity for peace and cooperation. By contrast, autocracies are to be relegated to second-class status and excluded from global rule-making. Academic observers rightfully warned against the dangers of building such an international two-class society. In particular, pressing global issues, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation, can only be tackled jointly. Democracies’ attempt to establish such a stratified world order would also further exacerbate the security dilemma between democratic states (or those recognised as such by the global North/West) and the “rest” of the world (declared as not sufficiently democratic).
As the ongoing squabbles about the “Community of Democracies” show, the plan to unite the world’s democratic countries failed politically at the very first step: which states are deemed sufficiently democratic to be accepted into the exclusive club of (liberal) democracies? Simple dichotomies are often inexpedient for dealing with the messiness of the real world. Political systems are democratic to degrees, and can at the same time exhibit authoritarian features. In times of populist and autocratic trends, from which democracies are not exempted, a clear-cut classification has become even more difficult than in the early 2000s: Based on the latest data of the V-Dem democracy index, for instance, Hungary and Turkey (two fellow EU and/or NATO members) would have to be excluded from the list of democracies. India, too, would have to be placed on the autocratic side, next to China and Russia. If one were to set the bar even higher and, like Baerbock, use the term “democracy” as synonymous with its liberal variant, only 34 states would remain in the “club of democracies”, representing a mere 13 % of the world’s population. It was therefore with good reasons that, in their initial response to the war in Ukraine, Germany and other Western nations made considerable efforts to achieve a global condemnation of Russia’s aggression. In the UN General Assembly, they aimed for a resolution that would receive support from all world regions and countries regardless of their regime type. This condemnation was based not on an exclusionary and contested understanding of democracy, but on the far more universal principle that wars of aggression are clearly prohibited by international law.
A global governance suitable for peace needs differentiation
Baerbocks’s statement that there are no “good” or “bad” dictators is understandable as a moral judgement, since authoritarian rule by definition comes with systematic violations of political and civil human rights. Authoritarian regimes, however, differ dramatically when it comes to how their respective systems of rule operate, including the extent to which they violate or respect human rights and democratic principles. Similarly, autocracies do not all behave in the same way internationally: they exhibit significant variance in their propensity to international cooperation, their peacefulness, status quo orientation and compliance with global rules and norms.
When it comes to authoritarian regimes’ proneness to waging war, a well-known study has revealed stark differences between cases; a variance that can be best explained by how dependent dictators are on domestic civil or military elites that constrain their freedom of action. Personalist regimes face much fewer barriers to use war as a foreign policy tool than other autocratic regimes. Differences within this group of regimes are therefore just as big as those between democratic and autocratic systems, especially since the propensity for war also differs widely among democratic regimes.
This is not to deny any connection between regime type and foreign policy. In the case of Russia, regime features like the extreme concentration of power in the hands of one person, state-led propagation of historical myths and the inability to accurately gauge risks and benefits arguably paved the way for its attack on Ukraine. However, these are country-specific features that are not shared by all autocracies and certainly not to the same degree. The lack of free elections and open debates robs autocracies of important mechanisms for deliberative policy-making, but does not completely preclude it either – just like the existence of such institutions in democracies does not always guarantee rational and consensus-oriented decision-making. For example, China’s political system features elements like debates within the political leadership, the integration of academic expertise, controlled “authoritarian deliberation”, and regular policy evaluation, which were key to its successful economic modernisation and also contribute to a status quo orientation in its foreign policy. Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, with its disastrous consequences and unclear perspectives for military or political victory, is therefore better understood as an example of authoritarian state failure than as the inevitable outcome of such a system.
Similarly, shared values and a commitment to international law and a rule-based world order cannot simply be taken for granted on the part of democracies, as the example of the G7 shows. In the current struggle over how to deal with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the dividing line between the Global North and South is much more pronounced than the one between democracies and autocracies. The sanctions regime against Russia is mainly supported by advanced industrial economies, or countries from what used to be called “the developed world”. Meanwhile, the hold-outs include not just China, but also countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa that are commonly classified as democratic. The motives that underlie their positions are idiosyncratic, but there are no signs of a sense of ideological kinship, much less of an authoritarian solidarity with Russia. This is true even for autocratic China: the outbreak of the war did not deter Beijing from reaffirming its “strategic partnership” with Russia and amplifying some of Russia’s propaganda. But the Chinese government’s behaviour is motivated by a shared threat perception – specifically the military and political pressure which the US and its allies are exerting on both countries. Beyond this, the partnership is lacking a shared normative basis or regime-based identity, and it should therefore not be seen as the evil mirror image of the “Western community of values”.
Accordingly, interpreting Russia’s war on Ukraine, or even the future of the global order, through a simplistic, dichotomous lens that pits democracies against autocracies, may actually exacerbate this divide. It also undermines the prospects of a broader alliance that could unite countries with different regime types behind the joint interest to support a world order based on rules and international law.
No easy resolution of conflicting objectives
For the current debate on Germany’s new national security strategy, these observations mean that authoritarian regimes should be assessed on an individual basis and dealt with in a correspondingly differentiated way. Authoritarian governments should be evaluated and treated according to their actual behaviour – just like democratic ones. In doing so, conflicting objects cannot be avoided, and double standards will be inevitable. This includes, for instance, the dilemma that cooperation with authoritarian regimes may be required for the pursuit of goals such as tackling climate change or nuclear non-proliferation, but can contribute to their stabilisation and perpetuate potentially severe human rights abuses. Research on democracy and human rights promotion, however, gives little reason to expect that the sharp distinction into “friends and foes” and the global formation of two opposing camps is more conducive to democratising authoritarian regimes in the long run. A peace- and security-oriented political strategy should therefore not rely on an alliance of (liberal) democracies that aims at closing ranks in the face of an assumed confrontation with authoritarian regimes. The pursuit of an anti-authoritarian regime change agenda (or its mere suspicion) can lead to distrust and an exacerbation of security dilemmas on the international level, as well as to an intensification of domestic authoritarian repression. This plea for a security agenda that privileges cooperation over confrontation does not mean that the German government should refrain from supporting democracy and human rights on the global stage. Nor does it imply that confrontation and even military deterrence may not be necessary in individual cases, most immediately Putin’s Russia. However, foreign policy should not be based on generalisations and overly simplistic world views that are based on stereotypes rather than reliable evidence.
Above all, the notion of a world in which liberal-democratic forces need to hold the line against a tide of aggressive authoritarianism runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Currently, there is no observable, organised “authoritarian coalition” threatening world peace; however, classifying all non-democratic regimes as intrinsically dangerous makes such a scenario more likely. The more the democratic “camp” understands and presents itself as a liberal and anti-authoritarian coalition, the more likely it becomes that the “rest” will resort to alliance-building as a rational strategy to ensure their own survival. At worst, the resulting antagonism could return us to an era of global, ideological and ultimately violent conflict between competing blocks, to which the war in Ukraine would be a mere overture.