Washington will convene its second Summit for Democracy today. Its aim, the Biden administration says, is to review action on commitments by countries that attended the first gathering to “advance democracy, fight corruption, and counter authoritarianism.”
The forum, first held in 2021, was launched to stem the global democratic retreat, with an eye on China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow, many in Washington say, bolster autocratic regimes worldwide, providing an alternative, non-democratic model of governance and the tools to repress local populations.
There is some truth to these claims. Democracy is indeed in retreat globally. The percentage of countries ranked as “not free” by Freedom House is the highest since 1997. Russia has interfered in elections across the West, supporting far-right candidates and sowing false claims of voter fraud. China equips authoritarian countries with surveillance tools and is positioning its Global Civilization Initiative as a counterweight to the West’s democracy promotion campaigns.
But Washington’s clean division of the world into two camps — a China- and Russia-led League of Autocracies and a U.S.-led League of Democracies — is a self-serving binary that obscures the complex interplay between regime type and statecraft.
Some of America’s closest allies and partners are illiberal or authoritarian countries. And the United States and its allies too behave as agents of autocracy, enabling the suppression of democratic voices.
Take, for example, Israel, America’s chief partner in the Middle East and the recipient of nearly $60 billion in U.S. assistance since 2001. Israeli companies sell roughly $1 billion in surveillance technology to clients across the world. The sale of surveillance technology is an unstated component of the Abraham Accords, with the transfer of these tools playing a confidence-building role in the lead-up to normalization.
The Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration and fully embraced by its successor, serve as a vehicle to strengthen authoritarian rule in the region in additional ways. They prolong the statelessness of the Palestinians. At odds with the will of the people in signatory countries, they require coercion to withstand domestic opposition. And they are used by authoritarian states, such as Sudan, to gain the support of lobbies in Washington and manipulate its porous pay-for-play political system.
Washington treats the rise of China as a catalyst for democracy’s decline. But great setbacks to democracy are taking place in countries that are tightening their embrace of the United States. Chief among them is India, where the government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi relentlessly attacks Christian and Muslim minorities, jails independent journalists, and hounds civil society activists. Just last week, Rahul Gandhi, the country’s top opposition leader, was convicted on a flimsy charge of defamation and swiftly disqualified from politics.
India is the world’s most populous country and aspires to be a great power. So the stakes of its ongoing political changes are huge. Nonetheless, many in Washington shy away from even nominal recognition of India’s move toward autocracy.
For three years running, the State Department has ignored the recommendation of the U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom to designate India as a religious freedom violator. And in spite of Modi’s anti-democratic measures — including the annexation of the disputed region of Kashmir and the discontinuation of any semblance of elected rule there — the Biden administration invited Modi to address the 2021 Summit for Democracy.
In the think tank world, India is largely left out of discussions on digital authoritarianism, disinformation, and far-right populism. Now, scholars like Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute, are now even whitewashing extremists like Yogi Adityanath — the militant Hindu monk who founded a vigilante group and orders Muslim homes to be bulldozed — by painting him as an economic reformer. (This is straight out of the Modi playbook.)
India is being given a free pass because it’s seen as a strategic counterweight to Beijing. But New Delhi doesn’t fit into Washington’s simple binary. As it’s courted by Western liberal democracies, India bans their content and rails against the likes of George Soros. India, while a rival of China, remains a close partner of Russia.
India’s neighbor Pakistan has a much weaker democratic tradition, but it’s also taken a sharper turn toward autocracy as it moves closer to the United States. The Pakistan Army has been trying to tilt toward the U.S. away from China. And this pivot was a factor in its decision to turn against former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan, Pakistan’s most popular politician, survived an assassination attempt he linked to the military. Members of Khan’s party have been abducted, blackmailed, and sexually assaulted. The ex-prime minister has been hit with dozens of charges, including terrorism and treason. A journalist close to Khan was murdered in Kenya last year after fleeing the country. Amid all this, the Pakistani foreign minister — desperate to court audiences in the U.S. — has made five visits to the country in the past year and even appeared on the Daily Show.
China and Russia have no qualms about giving authoritarian regimes a helping hand. But it is a mistake to overstate their influence in the global democratic retreat while ignoring that of the West.
Past and present policies of the U.S. and other Western powers have shaped today’s architecture of repression in much of the Global South. When officials in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan target dissidents and minorities, they deploy sedition laws developed by British colonists. And the practices of secret detention and torture employed in America’s War on Terrorism are used by authoritarian governments to target political dissidents across the globe. This too is America’s post-9/11 legacy, alongside the tens of billions of dollars it’s spent on democracy promotion and governance assistance worldwide.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.