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Authoritarian regimes must be opposed

Written By vibykhmer on Tuesday, August 25, 2009 | 6:25 PM


A. Gaffar Peang-Meth
Pacific Daily News (Guam)

August 26, 2009

In an authoritarian regime, political power is concentrated in an authority not responsible nor responsive to the people. Such a system is the polar opposite of a democracy.

In a June posting in Foreign Policy Online, Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Jeffrey Gedmin and Radio Free Asia president Libby Liu warned in "Authoritarianism's New Wave," that our current international system based on the rule of law, human rights and open expression, is being confronted by a "most serious challenge" from modern authoritarian regimes in "updated, sophisticated, and lavishly funded ways."

In the 94-page study, "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians," experts from the three institutions analyze strategies and methods used by China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela "to impede human rights and democratic development" in their countries and abroad.
Windsor, Gedmin and Liu expressed their concerns that "policymakers do not appear to appreciate the dangers these 21st century authoritarian models pose to democracy and rule of law around the world."

The study reveals that the 21st century authoritarians, like the traditional ones, manipulate the "legal system, media control, and outright fear" and protect their power by "rewarding loyalists and punishing opponents without regard to due process."

To domestic audiences, they "redefined and heavily distorted" the concept of democracy, stressing their achievements and belittling what is "Western." To overwhelm, distract and disrupt legitimate Internet discussions which they deemed undesirable, the new authoritarians subverted "legitimate online discourse ... enlisted loyal commentators and provocateurs" and used "draconian laws to punish outspoken online critics and discourage any who might emulate them."

They undermined or crippled democracy, human rights and rules-based organizations, including the United Nations, and actively promoted or encouraged strong "nationalist or extremist" views of history to imprint in the younger generation hostile attitudes toward democracy and suspicion of the outside world.

To advance their interests internationally, authoritarian regimes are using "soft-power methods ... particularly, through billions of dollars in no-strings-attached development aid."

As Russia, Iran and Venezuela use "oil wealth to build foreign alliances and bankroll clients abroad," China, a country that aspires to world power status, has adopted a "doctrine of win-win (shuangying) foreign relationships" and encouraged Latin American, African, Asian and Arab states "to form mutually beneficial arrangements with China based on the principle of noninterference."

This brings to mind Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Asia late last month. On a mission to re-engage the United States in Asia, Secretary Clinton signed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation that is guided by the principle of "Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another." In other words, "Live and let live."

In the June 4 London Economist Online article, "An (iron) fistful of help," the article begins with, "China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela have been doling out largesse. Should Western democracies be worried?"

The significance of "authoritarian aid" does not lie just in its total value -- China does not publish aid figures, but the World Bank says China gives Africa $2 billion a year -- but "autocracies offer an alternative to western aid," which demands "good governance," while China and others do not, says the Economist.

The "Undermining Democracy" study says Chinese aid "now outstrips that of democratic donor countries" in many Southeast and Central Asian states. It says, "The Chinese government is Cambodia's largest provider of military aid, most of which goes to antidemocratic security forces that are used as a political weapon by Prime Minister Hun Sen." It says Beijing has pledged $600 million to Phnom Penh while Washington gives Cambodia about $55 million a year -- less than a tenth the aid from Beijing.

It says each year Beijing trains at least 1,000 Central Asian judicial and police officials, "most of whom could be classified as working in antidemocratic enterprises."

Writes the Economist: "Naturally, help from harsh regimes is rarely encumbered with pesky demands for good governance. This makes it welcome to corrupt officials and even to those merely sick of being lectured by Westerners. Alas, it can encourage bad governance."

"This unconditional assistance -- devoid of human rights riders and financial safeguards required by democratic donors, international institutions, and private lenders -- is tilting the scales toward less accountable and more corrupt governance across a wide swath of the developing world." The study states: "An absence of institutional accountability, leads to repressive and arbitrary governance, and to entrenched, rampant corruption."

It says authoritarian regimes "are eroding the international rules and standards," but that the democracies are "uncertain" about how to respond.

Authoritarian regimes that are "already well-practiced in the art of allowing economic activity while protecting their political prerogatives ... are vigorously advancing their own, illiberal values. ... Why they would abandon this approach when dealing with foreign governments?"

Though the study notes, "In a 21st century context, isolation or disengagement from these authoritarian regimes are not viable options," it warns against falling into "authoritarians' trap," because authoritarians "would prefer engagement ... but only on their terms" in order to advance their economic interests.

Because democracies are rules-based, accountable and open systems, grounded in human rights and rule of law, "It is therefore in the democracies' interest to safeguard and promote the very qualities that set them apart from the authoritarians."

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.

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