A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Protecting Democracy


Just as COVID-19 presents a threat to public health, China’s and Russia’s authoritarianism presents a threat to the West, warn our authors from the International Republican Institute.

© China Daily via REUTERS

The coronavirus has caused a global health crisis that risks fueling a pandemic of authoritarianism, nationalism, economic autarky, and malign foreign influence of the kind that the United States and its European allies constructed alliances and institutions to guard against after 1945. This is a time for democracies across the Atlantic to help and support each other, but also to rally around protecting the free and open international order from authoritarian assault.

By virtue of their open societies, Western nations are more vulnerable to this pandemic; their governments are more limited in their ability to control citizens’ behavior than the dictatorships in China and Russia, which are not subject to the same legal constraints. At the same time, both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin view the crisis now mostly playing out in the West as a strategic opportunity to extend their influence at the democracies’ expense. Meanwhile, strongmen are using the cover of the crisis to consolidate power in ways that threaten the democratic integrity of the European Union.

Four Threats to Democratic Systems

Both the US and Europe will emerge from the fog of the immediate crisis and face a new world order profoundly reshaped by COVID-19. Western democracies will grapple with a new balance between the state and the economy, new powers in the hands of governments to surveil their populations in order to manage public health, new pressures on established political parties from nationalists and autarkists on the left and the right, intensified migration pressures from nations in the Middle East and Africa unable to handle the epidemic, new forms of malign foreign influence associated with leveraged Chinese and Russian forms of health assistance, and revolutionary demands from citizens for health and welfare safety nets following the extraordinary insecurities produced the pandemic.

In this new world order, questions of democracy and governance will be more, rather than less, relevant as governmental and societal responses to the crisis expose fissures and vulnerabilities within democracies. Throughout Europe, we already see these cleavages being exploited by China and Russia. At the same time, competing narratives of unity in the face of the crisis—ranging from those who advocate a more robust response capacity at the EU level to those who emphasize national unity, sometimes with a decidedly anti-EU cast—will shape transatlantic politics for years to come. So, too, will the consequences of emergency measures and societal controls and various forms of state-driven surveillance and enforcement introduced in response to the pandemic.

Those who believe in the ultimate strength of democratic forms of government to deliver best for the people that they serve—in particular Europeans and Americans—must begin now to prepare and act to win the battle for the post-crisis narrative. Even in the midst of the crisis, at least four potential post-COVID-19 threats to the democratic systems that the US and Europe have worked so hard to build since the end of World War II are becoming evident. It is incumbent on those who believe that a strong transatlantic response to these challenges is necessary in the wake of the crisis to begin to plan now for how we will address them, together.

Freedom Takes a Back Seat

In the short term, of course, the virus is putting enormous strain on freedom of movement as most European nations have effectively closed their borders, thereby reversing one of the founding tenets of European integration: the free movement of people. At the same time, some leaders are using the opportunity presented by the pandemic to centralize control and weaken institutions that countervail executive power. In Hungary, parliament has passed State of Danger legislation allowing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by emergency decree. In both Serbia and Turkey, the governments have used the crisis to crack down even harder on the press and the capability of the opposition to function.

In the short term, democratic political and civil society leaders need to step in wherever necessary to stem moves to sidestep democratic processes, as illiberal politicians try to take advantage of the crisis to move their own political agenda forward. More broadly, in the aftermath of the crisis, democratic political leaders will need to address questions regarding how well democracies responded.

It is thus critically important that Europeans and Americans prepare for this eventuality by marshalling the resources to strengthen democratic institutions. European nation-states and the EU itself have an extensive infrastructure of such organizations at their disposal. So, too, does the US. Working together, we can effectively demonstrate what will be the real lesson of this crisis: that citizen-centered government that both communicates with and responds to the needs of the people it serves is best positioned to act effectively to meet the challenge—including supporting health and economic recovery over the long term. With a united response, we can help to build and rebuild trust between government and citizens, assist political leaders to respond in crisis situations, and amplify local, citizen-led responses.

The Temptation of Autarky

As the state takes more control over the economy in various countries in the transatlantic community, we must plan for calls for “industrial self-sufficiency” to grow louder in mainstream politics.

Few countries will want their pharmaceutical and broader medical supply chains dependent on China or other foreign countries. The question is whether this will simply be a readjustment to globalization, or whether there will be politically viable calls for each country to have its own production capacity for major products, in which case we risk reverting to a 1930s-like wave of introversion within European nations and in the US. Here, too, we risk losing a major accomplishment of the post-World War II era in Europe: the free movement of goods and services.

In fact, it is the private medical sector in the US and Europe that is most likely to come up with a vaccine for coronavirus. It is private markets on both sides of the Atlantic, not lumbering government bureaucracies, that will devise innovative health solutions to serve citizens who may expect too much from overextended governments. No amount of government spending will be capable of restoring nations to economic health should their large and small enterprises fail to lead their economies out of recession by re-hiring workers and restoring production and services. Furthermore, no nation will innovate its way out of this crisis on its own; institutionalized and multilateral forms of collaboration will be central to devising solutions to the pandemic’s fallout across so many national boundaries. Pulling up economic and political drawbridges would also only cede strategic space to Chinese and Russian efforts to build out new spheres of influence, including in eastern and southeastern Europe.

An Intergenerational Struggle?

It is now well-established that COVID-19 affects people very differently according to their age: while the elderly are especially vulnerable to succumbing not only to the virus but also to existing underlying conditions, younger people seem to have a much higher survival rate. This is a spectacular intergenerational change of fortunes in places like the south of Europe, where millennials and generation Z are the ones who have been the most socially and economically vulnerable recently—particularly in places like Italy or Spain. Now, it is the older members of society that are existentially vulnerable—and it is their turn to feel threatened by younger citizens’ visible unwillingness to change their lifestyles. This could have lasting consequences on intergenerational relations in the future and could lead to political tensions.

Additionally, data from studies we conducted in Europe indicate that the younger generations—even in advanced democracies—are much less prone to believe that democracy is the best possible form of government. Historical amnesia may be partly to blame—they don’t remember the police states that terrorized citizens behind the Iron Curtain, or the fight against fascism that occupied what Americans call the Greatest Generation. It is clear that we need a forward-looking transatlantic response to the concerns of younger generations that will have been shaped by the pressures of both the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. This is a wholly different frame of reference than that of those who fought the Cold War and saw 1989 as a crowning achievement, and it will require both different forms of communication and engagement to ensure their commitment to the democratic process.

Propaganda Targets

As if the acute domestic pressures on democratic systems were not enough of a challenge, in the post-COVID-19 era, the transatlantic community will also have to contend with aggressive attempts by malign authoritarian powers to turn the crisis to their advantage.

In this regard, Europe’s southern peninsulas are the most economically vulnerable on the continent, and they are also the ones that are so far hardest hit by the virus. High levels of social contact in public spaces have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus in places like Italy and Spain, and since the confinement began, many citizens have expressed the opinion that they were left to fend for themselves by their purported friends and allies in the EU and the US—even though Western assistance to allied nations has in fact been higher (and of higher quality) than far-better-publicized Chinese and Russian forms of sometimes questionable medical support.

Chinese and Russian propagandists have picked up on this trend and launched operations to bolster their image at the expense of European governments. Chinese Communist Party propaganda is aggressively attempting to confuse people about the origins of the virus (contending that the US or even Italy were the source of the contagion), and is attempting to curry favor by sending masks and medical equipment to Italy, Serbia, and other places. Local politicians in these countries have praised the Chinese Communist Party for its generosity, and in Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic said it most plainly on Serbian television: “European solidarity doesn’t exist—that was a fairy tale on paper,” contending that the Chinese “are the only ones who can save us.” Russia, for its part, has dispatched military medics and equipment to Italy and Greece to deal with the crisis—all while ignoring cases at home. The subtext of these efforts is that “we are all in this together,” so there’s no value any longer in continuing the EU’s sanctions on the Kremlin for its aggression in Ukraine.

In the propaganda narratives from Beijing and Moscow, there is also an obvious glorification of their respective regimes at the expense of democracies. In China, the focus is on the heroics of President Xi Jinping and the CCP, which they claim are doing what is needed to stop the spread of the virus, unlike ineffectual democracies—even though it was China’s authoritarian suppression of medical and media reporting on the virus at its inception, including the punishment of local officials who sought to sound the alarm, that helped turn COVID-19 into a global pandemic. Meanwhile, the Kremlin initially behaved as if COVID-19 had not reached the country at all and even sent scarce medical equipment abroad as part of its propaganda push. Indeed, the Kremlin seems to have devoted more resources to information warfare against the West than to protecting Russian citizens who will inevitably suffer from the pandemic.

It now seems that the tide of the narrative here may beginning to turn, as more and more stories of inter-European and US assistance efforts come to light. Similarly, it is increasingly clear that “assistance” from the CCP comes at a high price, as Chinese diplomats leverage assistance for political and economic concessions. Nonetheless, Chinese and Russian sharp-power influence in Europe was a significant and growing issue before the COVID-19 crisis broke, and there is every reason to assume it will continue afterward.

The Path Ahead

Europeans and Americans should understand clearly that both Beijing and Moscow define a strategic interest in weakening the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance in order to enhance Chinese and Russian influence in Europe at American expense. The Kremlin also defines an interest in weakening European unity, including by supporting political extremists, in various European countries in order to build out a Russian sphere of influence in the east at Brussels’ expense. Meanwhile, the Atlantic allies’ uneven and belated responses to the pandemic risk discrediting democratic systems in the eyes of fearful publics.

To meet these challenges, the transatlantic democracies must position themselves to shape the post-pandemic order. First, they must ensure that temporary measures limiting basic freedoms put in place to limit the spread of the virus remain just that: temporary. Emergency powers exercised by governments to beat back the pandemic by surveilling and controlling their citizens cannot become the norm. When the crisis is over, we are convinced that democracy will once again have proven itself vis-à-vis its authoritarian detractors to be the most effective—and certainly the most transparent and accountable—form of government in meeting the needs of the people. We must remain vigilant to push back against backsliding that undermines this basic truth: that sovereignty rests with the people and not a permanent class of political elites unwilling to yield power.

Second, democratic governments must resist the temptation to disengage their economies from one another, pursuing the fantasy that each one of them can build (or rebuild) an infrastructure making it fully self-sufficient. Economic globalization has helped produce a broadly middle-class world for the first time in human history. While countries will be more prudential about supply-chain security in the post-pandemic international economy, rebuilding prosperity will be impossible without an open international trade and investment regime. Europe and the US could even consider an economic version of NATO to protect intellectual property, consolidate free-world supply chains and innovation networks, and encourage a qualitatively superior form of market access than that accorded to imperialistic authoritarian powers outside the West.

Third, political parties, government leaders, and civil-society organizations must redouble their efforts to ensure engagement across generations in the political process to help minimize tensions between them driven by the different experiences they have suffered in the various crises that have buffeted the transatlantic space since 2008. The challenge for political parties will be giving young people a greater voice in politics so they do not become alienated and radicalized by disruptive economic conditions.

Fourth, democracies in Europe and America must further develop their capacities to push back against the malign forms of foreign authoritarian influence that risk undermining democratic institutions—and democratic unity among allies—in the West. This includes protecting their citizens from Russian and Chinese misinformation as well as piercing the information bubble that denies Russian and Chinese citizens objective news reporting and leads them to believe their governments’ self-serving and deeply anti-Western propaganda.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her first national address on the pandemic, noted that the COVID-19 crisis presents the greatest challenge Germany has faced since the end of World War II. With old and new democracies working together, Europe and the United States overcame that challenge and built the most prosperous and free community of nations in the history of humanity.

Even as former enemies were able to put their immediate pasts behind them to rebuild Europe, today’s transatlantic democracies must do the same. Crises have a way of focusing the mind on what matters most. And what will matter most after the COVID-19 health crisis has passed is protecting the political liberties and democratic institutions that enable free nations to work together to serve their citizens, uphold their common security, and rebuild their prosperity.

Just as coronavirus presents a mortal threat to public health, so the aggressive authoritarianism of revanchist great powers presents a mortal threat to American and European leadership in the world. Building political resiliency to protect and sustain democracy through the pandemic will be as important as developing the medical antibodies against COVID-19 and restoring public health—and public trust in government—across the West and the world.