European Democracy Hub

One prominent theme in current commentary and much Western government rhetoric is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will sharpen the tensions between democracies and autocracies and make this cleavage more central in structuring the international system. In response, skeptics have suggested that democratic values will be more subjugated to realpolitik and that non-Western powers are likely to give the democracy-autocracy divide little place in their strategic reasoning. A third common line is that global politics will fall somewhere between these two extremes, with many strategic dynamics cutting across the democracy-autocracy binary, even as political norms play a stronger role in shaping geostrategic patterns.

The middle-way scenario is the most likely but it still misses one vital consideration—that of precisely what type of democracy-autocracy dynamic will take shape in the war’s shadow.

Mixed Strategic Dynamics

In the wake of the Russia’s invasion, President Joe Biden said : “We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss promised to end the “accommodation of trade and economic growth with authoritarian regimes.” The EU’s new Strategic Compass notes that security policy must now be framed around a “competition of governance systems.” Prominent analysts detect a reinvigorated commitment to defending the liberal order and democratic norms. They argue that the war in Ukraine is part of a broader battle for democracy and against autocratic and illiberal values.

There has been ubiquitous commentary about tightened unity among the Western democracies and their newfound purpose in defending democratic values. Many new strands of policy coordination are taking shape between democratic governments across the world. Forty countries—including not only the United States and European nations but also Australia, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, and South Korea—have formed a Ukraine Consultative Group. Western leaders have reached out to India and promised to coordinate more effectively around its concerns about authoritarian action by China. The EU and the United States have intensified their diplomatic efforts with Latin American democracies too. At their summit in May 2022, the EU and Japan committed to greater coordination on global affairs among themselves and with the United States.

While the democracy-autocracy divide is set to become more consequential, there will be powerful dynamics that cut across and dilute it. In parallel to a more idealistic commitment to democracy, the new context is pushing Western states and other democracies toward greater pragmatism.

The EU and the United States are seeking deeper cooperation with authoritarian regimes to help counter Russia. The United States and some European states are reaching out to Gulf states to replace Russian gas and softening their positions toward oil-exporting Venezuela. The United States used up considerable political capital trying to get the Gulf states to condemn Russia at the United Nations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the Middle East to press the region’s authoritarian states into action against Russia. Democratic powers are likely to take any chance that presents itself to drive a wedge between Russia and China and to work with the latter on crisis mediation, however slim such prospects. French and German leaders are urging better EU cooperation with China, even as they seek to reduce trade dependency on it.

Such traditional strategic balancing is likely to be at least as prominent as an ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Many European diplomats have been hesitant on the democracy-versus-autocracy framing and commonly suggest that the EU does not seek to confront a bloc of countries that lack democratic systems. The EU may also be easing pressure on democratic backsliding in Poland due to the latter’s vital role in managing refugee flows out of Ukraine.

Each time talk of like-minded democratic coordination emerges—as it has periodically in crisis moments over the last twenty years—the most obvious rebuttal is that the positions of different states do not align neatly along a democracy-autocracy divide. The situation is no different this time round. India and South Africa abstained in the United Nations resolution on the invasion. Democratic Israel refused to sanction Russia while authoritarian Singapore did. Among the governments that refused to condemn Russia were many that only two months earlier had participated in the U.S.-led Summit for Democracy and pledged more coordination between democracies. 

There remain differences between democratic states over what might be termed the geopolitics of democracy. In June 2022, several Latin American democracies boycotted the Summit of the Americas as they objected to the United States excluding the region’s nondemocracies. It was also clear in preparations for the December 2021 Summit for Democracy that African, Asian, and Latin American democracies remain reluctant to instrumentalize democracy as part of a geopolitical rivalry with China. While they may be moving toward some reassessment of this position after events in Ukraine, these democracies are unlikely to drop their hesitancy completely. In Asia, Taiwan is an exception in deploying the democracy-versus-autocracy narrative as this serves its national security, and the Western democracies are stressing this more in dealing with it due to the Ukraine war.

Similar dynamics exist within authoritarian states too. While autocrats learn tactics from each other and there is spillover from China’s domestic authoritarian behavior into the way it acts internationally, for now there are relatively few signs of a united alliance of “autocracy support.” Even if China often appears to be leading an authoritarian surge, it wants a world of several balancing powers not an absolute or highly ideological democracy-autocracy divide. China was the top trade partner for Russia and Ukraine alike before the invasion.

While there has been much dissecting of China’s views on Russia’s invasion, a large number of other nondemocratic regimes clearly prioritize varying interests that do not fully align with an ideological divide. Turkey’s multivector foreign policy is perhaps the most striking example of this among authoritarian states. The 141 states that voted to condemn Russia in the United Nations included many nondemocracies. Not all democracies lined up against Russia and not all autocracies lined up behind it.

Fusion or Clash?

Rather than two homogenous blocs of democracies and autocracies facing off against each other, international politics will continue to feature a messy set of overlapping centers of power and shifting alliances. On the one hand, much geostrategy is still not very pro-democracy. On the other hand, even if it does not become the dominant driver of international relations, the democracy-autocracy divide will assume a higher profile as a result of the war in Ukraine. Given events there, it is surely impossible now to dismiss the role of political values entirely.

This divide will be one of several structuring factors rather than the prime organizing basis of international relations. As it will not displace the polycentric nature of the emergent international order, the question is whether the different dynamics will fit together in a coherent liberal-realist fusion or will operate in an inchoate clash.

At present, there is more clash than fusion. This is because of the way in which the Western “defending democracy” narrative is being deployed. At issue is not simply that European countries and the United States are seeking to deepen cooperation with other democracies, but the nature of the deeper partnerships sought, how they are to operate, and what they are to be used for. The Western democracies may be more committed to using robust means to defend themselves, but this is not the same as promoting democracy globally. For now, the “defending democracy” focus is mainly about democracies protecting themselves with more determination and far less about extending the political rights of citizens around the world.

A harder-edged Western strategy against Russia is far from being the same as a strategy for democracy. The democracy-versus-autocracy framing is taking shape as a mobilizing narrative for strategic policies—like efforts to end dependence on Russian fossil fuels or to increase European security spending—that are not driven by an ideological commitment to supporting democracy as such. The whole terminology of “defending democracy” is being stretched extremely wide and applied to any policy in some manner related to Western nations defending their own interests.

While such a wide rhetorical framing is important, a more coherent fusion between geostrategy and democracy would require Western states significantly to increase their diplomatic efforts and resources specifically for supporting democratic norms. The need to support democrats in autocratic countries is not the same thing as geopolitical rivalry against autocratic governments.

There are emerging signs of some wider coordination on enhancing democracy support at the operational level and some new democracy funds. For example, the United States has promised a European Democratic Resilience Initiative with $320 million in new funding. However, for now the Western democracies have not promised to boost significantly their democracy strategies and funding over the long term. If “democracy is security,” as so many leaders now assert, one might expect each increase in defense spending to be matched by an increase in democracy funding. Yet, while European democracies and Japan have quickly increased their spending on defense, they have not yet boosted their democracy support. For example, Germany has made an epoch-changing commitment to spending an extra €100 billion on defense but it is not set to increase its democracy spending in any similar way. Indeed, it may be that increases in defense spending divert funds from democracy and human rights budgets.

Western democracies’ spending on democracy support is still a tiny fraction of their defense budgets and the gap is set to widen as a result of the war in Ukraine. What is more, spending on humanitarian support in the conflict and efforts to head off a food-security emergency are likely to draw funds away from other budgets, including for democracy aid.

And similar considerations are also evident among democracies outside the West. Much of the debate has been framed in terms of whether non-Western democracies are coming out forcefully against Russia’s invasion, not around the broader question of their contribution to international democracy support. At the same time, democracy support remains of a secondary order among non-Western democracies. As many of them react to talk of democratic coordination by pointing to Western double standards, they also remain relatively cautious in upgrading their own contributions to democratic support as an element of strategic self-interest.

For the geostrategy-democracy fusion scenario to prevail, the actions by democratic powers in Ukraine will need to herald a truly systemic shift in their policies elsewhere. Western states are pumping funds into Ukraine, including for weapons, and are promising further support over the longer term. But the war may prove to be a one-off rather than the harbinger of a major new trend toward upgraded democracy support. It is sui generis in being a wholesale military invasion by an autocracy, which is very distinct from the dynamics of less dramatic de-democratization across the world. These lower-key dynamics have elicited lower levels of Western policy attention, and this continues to be the case.

In sum, democratic countries have not yet built stronger and more mutually enhancing linkages between their big-picture geopolitics and their second-order decisions about democracy support—such as how democratic action is funded, which agents of change are best supported, and where and when is conditionality appropriate. In nearly all Western states, pronouncements about the relationship between democracies and autocracies in the international system remain strikingly disconnected from their practice of democracy support.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will change the relationship between these two levels and calls for a tighter nexus between the geopolitical and operational levels of democracy-related issues across the international system. Pragmatic alliances might be necessary but should be nested within a denser network of democratic initiatives. For the community of democratic nations, the policy focus would be better placed on affecting meaningful change at the operational level of the democracy agenda rather than on an abstract and sweeping democracy-autocracy binary.

This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.

This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.