What makes Western liberal democracy weak? This question must have been considered by its geopolitical adversaries: the authoritarian regimes in their effort to unlock Pandora’s box: the weapons that can play havoc on the national and global security preparations of the West. Both the strength and weakness of Western democracy lie in its core value: ‘freedom.’ Threats against values are contested at socio-cultural and political levels, not on traditional battlefields. The metaphorical battlefields are all around us now, targeting socio-cultural and political awareness, and their weapons are highly unusual.
We get fixated on the radical right, not considering the bigger picture, interconnected phenomena, and the underlying dynamics, which work to raise the radical right. The rise of the radical right is inevitably a result of broader system-wide dynamics at national, regional, and global levels. Endurance of the radical right, its encroachment to the mainstream, and its ability to challenge democracy through considerable electoral margins—none of these would have been possible without robust underlying dynamics, keeping the edge of the radical right.
Acknowledging the incendiary role of the radical right, this article analyzes the interconnected phenomena that enable the radical right to ascend in a context of rapid geopolitical changes. How are the West’s grassroots politics being manipulated to incubate radical right narratives, ensuring the edge of authoritarian ideals against the core values of Western liberal democracy?
A wider scholarly debate is currently taking place on the decline of democracy. The concept also points at an existential crisis in Western liberal democracy, beleaguered at home with the rise of populism, extreme right, and extreme left. However, can we consider the crisis of democracy devoid of contemporary geopolitics?
History teaches us that geopolitical rivalries tend to keep a firm hold on conflicts to maintain their global influence. For example, the Cold War created conflicts worldwide from the Malayan emergency (1948) to Indo-China War (1946). The uprising in East Germany (1953), the Cuban revolution (1953), and the Afghan war (1978) were shaped by the proxy wars of the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, these conflicts lost their magnetic north, giving way to archaic ethnic and religious rivalries.
While the liberal world was battling religious fanatics in the post-9/11 world, another geopolitical rivalry was brewing as rising China and resurgent Russia advanced their authoritarian partnerships worldwide. The battle lines are drawn already between authoritarianism and the Western liberal democracy. The West received a rude awakening when Russia invaded Crimea, was militarily involved in Syria, and deployed a fully-fledged hybrid war against the West. Examples are the Russian disinformation operations during the 2019 European elections, Russia’s attempts to forge ties with the European radical right, and the interference in the 2016 US election.
The populist wave in the West, anti-establishment sentiments, weaponized conspiracy theories, the barrage of fake news and disinformation—none of these could have been possible without a geopolitical rivalry between authoritarianism and Western liberal democracy. Like it or not, the crisis in the West and the world is now under a tight gridlock of geopolitical rivalry. The autocratic regimes so far have the upper hand in their onslaught against Western liberal democracy. How does authoritarianism create conditions for the rise of illiberalism in the West? The next section examines evidence on how Western democracies are being beleaguered within.
The Iceberg: Mechanisms Of The Authoritarian Contagion
When hybrid warfare targets the core values of liberal democracy, the indicators can be misguiding; they may not indicate any ‘war’ in the literal sense. Three key factors shape the authoritarian onslaught. First, it is an ideological battle aimed at overthrowing the pre-eminence of liberal democracy. Second, it exclusively targets the core values of Western liberal democracy. Third, it takes place at socio-cultural and political levels of society, creating conditions detrimental to Western liberal democracy. Authoritarian hybrid warfare and its culture wars create socio-political tension in Western societies. How exactly does this happen, and what is the evidence for such phenomena at work?
It is essential to understand the real-world authoritarianism rising as a geopolitical adversary to answer this question. Russia, China, and their allies vie for geopolitical influence rooted in authoritarian values. ‘Categorized as a Consolidated Authoritarian Regime, Russia receives a Democracy percentage of 7 out of 100 in the Nations in Transit 2021 report.’ In 2021, Freedom House ranked China among the worst countries in terms of ‘political rights and civil liberties.’ China and Russia forge partnerships, connecting with similar authoritarian instincts of the countries around the world. However, freedom and democracy indicators alone do not show the threat of authoritarianism since it is impossible to measure something which is not democratic by using the democracy indicators. This is where many aspects of the current authoritarian challenge slip out of the radar.
Authoritarianism exclusively targets ‘freedom’ in a cultural battle, aiming to turn Western freedom in its head. The value of freedom erodes with racial tension and fear of the other, induced into social consciousness. This creates the high wind that glides the radical right and other violent illiberal movements. How do they do it? As the Mueller Investigation and the US Senate Intelligence Select Committee – September 2019 report already revealed, authoritarian regimes such as Russia target equality, stirring up racial tension and dividing Western societies. Then it is the most crucial aspect of criminality. Authoritarianism weaponizes organized crime and lawlessness against the rule of law to unsettle democracies. Criminality underneath authoritarianism is a maze, which makes any researcher feel lost in its sheer magnitude.
Transnational Organized Crime (TOC)
Why organized crime has anything to do with the rise of authoritarianism? Authoritarianism is criminal, shaping the parameters of its battles. A decade ago, researchers found evidence to synthesize the crime-terror nexus, which explains a critical aspect of modern conflicts. Crime-Terror nexus is being transformed in the context of current geopolitical rivalry. It is not possible to analyze the crime-terror nexus now without phenomena such as authoritarianism, Mafia State, transnational organized crime, and illicit global economy.
The state backers of these phenomena naturally select organized crime such as human smuggling as a weapon against the West. Freedom and democracy indicators alone do not show how the world is plunging into authoritarianism. The Global Crime Index is also necessary to understand the bigger picture of the authoritarian onslaught.
With her remarkable contribution to understanding transnational organized crime (TOC) as a form of ‘new authoritarianism,’ Louise Shelley concluded in 1999: ‘transnational organized crime is not currently as dangerous as that of traditional authoritarian states.’ What is happening now? As per the evidence, transnational organized crime is being weaponized against the West. In this context, Turkey’s strongman leader threatened to flood Europe with migrants, creating a migrant crisis in the frontiers of Greece in March 2020. Things became much clearer when the strongman leader of Belarus aided human smugglers, organizing arduous journeys of human misery, which boiled over in the frontiers of Poland in July 2021.
As BBC revealed in November 2021, the Taliban regime already works with human smugglers, organizing illegal human cargo out of Afghanistan. In her acclaimed study, Greenhill analyzed how unusual weapons work. Evidence shows that autocrats have no remorse for resorting to organized crime such as human smuggling, endangering people’s lives for their advantage.
Global Crime Index
Global Crime Index takes the lid off organized criminality, rapidly becoming a weapon against the post-World War II rules-based world order and the rule of law in the West. Alarmingly, Global Crime Index 2021 highlights the ‘state involvement in criminality’, insisting that ‘state officials and clientelist networks […] are now the most dominant brokers of organised crime.’ In 2021 Index, 57 countries are identified with ‘high criminality.’ The rising global organized crime shows the dysfunction of law and order, thriving criminal markets, and criminal networks across the world.
Both Authoritarianism and crime drive people away. Together, these two can trigger mass human displacement across borders: the best example is Afghanistan under the Taliban. This happens in a context where not only authoritarianism and crime but many factors of global instability come to converge, creating mass population displacements. Evidence points to the fact that a moment will arise with the pandemic, hyperinflation, energy crisis, and climate change, more countries will plunge into instability, creating a human surge at the borders of the developed nations. This will happen irrespective of the deteriorating situation in the West as it faces the same set of global insecurities. However, the case elsewhere can always be direr.
In a time of global instability, authoritarianism finds it in the right place at the right time. It only has to organize movements to stir racial tension and aid organized criminality to unsettle the West. Who will benefit from this? The illiberal elements in the West. This choice of weapon seems to work well. It destabilizes the West. At the same time, it creates the conditions for the radical right and other illiberal elements to rise. As authoritarianism is settling into the beleaguered hinterlands of Western liberal democracy, do we have any hope?
Authoritarianism backs lawlessness against the rule of law, fear against freedom, racial tension against equality, and criminality against justice. Western liberal democracy and the post-World War II rules-based world order only have two options, which indicate how critical this existential challenge they just started to comprehend. First, the West must understand the mechanisms of the authoritarian onslaught coming from its geopolitical adversaries: it is not war as we know it. Second, they must fight against authoritarian contagion, which rapidly infects the core values of Western liberal democracy. When the values of freedom, equality, and justice are undermined, authoritarianism wins naturally, creating an existential crisis in Western liberal democracy.
Dr Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research. See full profile here.
© Chamila Liyanage Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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