In Other News – Fight for Democracy – 3/30/2023

March 30, 2023

Russia’s economy is finally feeling the effects of sanctions. A recent report (by the Wall Street journalist who was recently arrested in Russia on charges of espionage) states that energy revenue dropped by almost 46% in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2022. Europe’s price cap on Russian gas and ban on seaborne Russian crude oil have caused energy receipts to plummet and while Russia has found a buyer for its energy in China, it is at such a discounted price one might argue with friends like these, who needs enemies. Concurrently, Russia is spending a great deal money on its war, including on Iranian drones and other weapons, prompting many to sound alarm bells anew about the economic viability of the Russian state at war, which may be why there is renewed nuclear sabre rattling in Belarus.

Meanwhile, the U.S. led Summit for Democracy was held this week amidst a challenging backdrop for democracy throughout the world. A curb on freedom of speech and political opposition in India, the elimination of a critical election monitoring capability in Mexico, and post-electoral violence in Kenya are just the most recent examples of the pressures being put on free and open societies by interests seeking power above the public good. These cases demonstrate how unchecked corruption, curbs on media freedom and free speech, a diminishment of the rule of law and the autonomy of a judiciary, and manipulated elections are effective strategies to slowly undermine the institutions that underpin effective democracies – one need only to look and Hungary and Turkey that one could arguably call erstwhile democracies.

Still despite these trends, there are also indications that in other corners that democracies, their institutions, and the people they represent are willing to struggle through the inefficiencies of political freedom in order to pursue a better life. Ukraine is the most cogent case for this today. Despite crushing energy prices and domestic tensions, European countries continues to support the war. Recent elections in Brazil and Nigeria belied the expectation of debilitating post-electoral violence. And the decision in Israel to place judicial reforms on hold quelled, at least temporarily, fears of a constitutional crisis.

Concurrently, China is pursuing its own alternative vision of the future, grounded is a vision of autocratic rule as an effective mode of governance and economic development. Autocracy in the short term is more efficient. In the wake of pandemic lockdowns, democratic aspirations are dead in places like Hong Kong and Myanmar. The club of autocrats are seeking new alignments as evidenced in the newfound alliance between Russia and Iran, as well Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with China and its intention to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The number of countries willing to diplomatically recognize Taiwan continue to diminish in the wake of significant Chinese investment in Africa and Latin America, suggesting the continuous repositioning of various governments towards China in the face of their own economic requirements. Indeed, across Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, the case for prosperity is being made by both autocrats and democrats with varying diplomatic, economic, and security enticements.

Buyers of China’s prosperity without democracy should be wary… they ought to look at how Xi’s vision is really playing out in China and in places that have received large Chinese investments (who really benefits and who is saddled with crushing debt). Life in China is extremely difficult for most and impossible for some like the Uyghurs and the prospect for individual success perilous. What’s more, Putin’s disastrous genocidal war has shown the world in flagrant relief that autocratic leadership is sclerotic, unimaginative, deaf to facts, and brutal. Truly, democratic societies are the best counterweight to autocratic governments.