Multilateralism for a Despotic Age

Democracies need different rules of engagement with authoritarian regimes.

I know very well that right now some are try­ing to iso­late Cuba. We Europeans want to show, on the con­trary, that we are clos­er to you than ever,” said Federica Mogherini, the head of the European External Action Service, in a not-so-sub­tle dig at the Trump Administration. A few weeks lat­er, Carl Bildt, Sweden’s for­mer Prime Minister, pussy­foot­ed on Twitter around Iran’s aggres­sive pos­ture in the Middle East: “Yes, Iran obvi­ous­ly sent a drone into Israel air­space. Israel reg­u­lar­ly vio­lates the air­space of Lebanon and Syria.”

The idea that polit­i­cal dia­logue, or engage­ment on eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al top­ics, can bridge the gap between coun­tries gov­erned by lead­ers who are account­able to vot­ers and tax­pay­ers and those pil­laged by a nar­row preda­to­ry elite counts among the worst mis­con­cep­tions plagu­ing for­eign pol­i­cy think­ing on the polit­i­cal Left and Right. While the two approach­es often dif­fer in their pre­scrip­tions, Barack Obama’s mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism and Donald Trump’s cyn­i­cal real­ism are two sides of the same coin, pro­duc­ing much the same effect: to obscure the moti­va­tions of lead­ers of dif­fer­ent coun­tries and the par­tic­u­lar incen­tives that they face.

Fortunately, there is an alter­na­tive to both. Even though defend­ing Bush-era neo­con­ser­v­a­tives might not be the most pop­u­lar of propo­si­tions these days, the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive out­look left lit­tle space for the illu­sion that democ­ra­cies and author­i­tar­i­an regimes could behave alike in any mean­ing­ful respect in the inter­na­tion­al are­na. That insight needs to be re-learned today by both American and European policymakers.

No social sci­en­tist would deny that the nature of a polit­i­cal regime—or its insti­tu­tions—mat­ters a great deal for domes­tic pol­i­cy out­comes. Autocracies depen­dent on nat­ur­al resource rev­enue are less like­ly to sup­ply pub­lic goods and be respon­sive to the wish­es of vot­ers and tax­pay­ers than democ­ra­cies where pub­lic rev­enue comes from gen­er­al tax­a­tion. Governments fac­ing weak polit­i­cal scruti­ny will rely on net­works of patron­age cater­ing to polit­i­cal loy­al­ists instead of pro­vid­ing pub­lic goods and a social safe­ty net for the gen­er­al pub­lic. And so on and so forth.

The same log­ic extends itself eas­i­ly to for­eign pol­i­cy. When author­i­tar­i­ans engage in “mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” or “dia­logue,” they are not doing the same things as lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. A gov­ern­ment that is account­able to vot­ers faces pub­lic scruti­ny and crit­i­cism of its for­eign pol­i­cy deci­sions. Large and con­se­quen­tial com­mit­ments made by lib­er­al democracies—such as EU and NATO mem­ber­ship, for example—do not reflect just the whim of the lead­ers of the moment but a broad­er soci­etal con­sen­sus, run­ning across polit­i­cal divides. Not even Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz ques­tion the geopo­lit­i­cal deci­sions that pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments made after the fall of communism.

Because of a much small­er num­ber of veto play­ers, one should accord a much low­er degree of trust to promis­es made by author­i­tar­i­ans. Not even the staunchest sup­port­ers of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would dare to argue that the deal means a mate­r­i­al shift in the long-term ambi­tions of Iran’s mul­lahs, who are like­ly to scrap it the moment it becomes con­ve­nient for them. After all, the regime did not acqui­esce to the tem­po­rary restric­tions on its nuclear pro­gram in good faith but only because the Iran Deal also empow­ered it to play a much more aggres­sive game in the Middle East.

Likewise, once Russia’s eco­nom­ic mod­el start­ed run­ning out of steam in the sec­ond half of the 2000s, Vladimir Putin’s for­eign pol­i­cy stance hard­ened quick­ly, with­out being sub­ject to the same pub­lic debate and scruti­ny that would accom­pa­ny a sim­i­lar shift in a democ­ra­cy. If some hailed China’s President Xi Jinping as a new guar­an­tor of an open glob­al­ized world in the Trump era, his emu­la­tion of Putin’s polit­i­cal and nation­al secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy, includ­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er in his own hands, sug­gests a sim­i­lar hard­en­ing and exploita­tion of for­eign pol­i­cy for domes­tic polit­i­cal pur­pos­es in the years to come. It is unlike­ly that the West can suc­cess­ful­ly talk Mr. Xi out of it or offer a bar­gain that the Politburo Standing Committee could cred­i­bly com­mit to.

Alas, the pre­vail­ing ortho­doxy of the past decades has assumed that any form of coop­er­a­tion and mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism is good and that essen­tial­ly any dis­pute between any regimes can be tack­led by using diplo­mat­ic tools. The fail­ure of that approach to deliv­er the goods—in Syria, for exam­ple, or in east­ern Ukraine—has pro­voked a back­lash, man­i­fest­ed today in the Trumpian, neo­re­al­ist view of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as a Hobbesian zero-sum com­pe­ti­tion, which sees no val­ue in inter­na­tion­al struc­tures beyond those reflect­ing the imme­di­ate self-inter­est of countries.

None of this is to sug­gest that the lib­er­al faith in diplo­ma­cy and mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism is com­plete­ly mis­placed. Cooperation between gov­ern­ments can be extreme­ly valu­able: GATT and WTO have con­tributed to keep­ing glob­al trade open even when indi­vid­ual gov­ern­ments might have been tempt­ed to have recourse to pro­tec­tion­ism, as in the after­math of the cri­sis of 2008. With no sim­i­lar struc­tures in place, ram­pant pro­tec­tion­ism in the 1930s great­ly mag­ni­fied the Great Depression. The phas­ing out of chlo­ro­flu­o­ro­car­bons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol was a clear win for the environment—and for humankind at large—made pos­si­ble by the coop­er­a­tion of all coun­tries, demo­c­ra­t­ic and authoritarian.

Alas, oth­er sit­u­a­tions are more com­pli­cat­ed than the phas­ing out of CFCs, which imposed only a mod­est eco­nom­ic cost and enjoyed over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar sup­port. And in more com­plex set­tings, trust between actors try­ing to coop­er­ate is essen­tial, as any game the­o­ry text­book shows. As a result, mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism will tend to work best when it takes places between like­mind­ed governments—namely, lib­er­al democ­ra­cies with mar­ket economies. If Americans and Europeans want to work with gov­ern­ments lack­ing pop­u­lar account­abil­i­ty, they need a dif­fer­ent set of car­rots and sticks than those that they use to incen­tivize coop­er­a­tion between them­selves. And, final­ly, there are good rea­sons to be extreme­ly wary of coop­er­a­tion between author­i­tar­i­an regimes them­selves, even if they come under ban­ners of “mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” and “coop­er­a­tion,” which seem rec­og­niz­able to us.

There is, there­fore, some wis­dom to the Wilsonian imper­a­tive of “mak­ing the world safe for democ­ra­cy,” albeit with impor­tant caveats about the abil­i­ty of the West to actu­al­ly achieve that end. At its heart, how­ev­er, the idea that a safe and open inter­na­tion­al order hinges on the char­ac­ter of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic insti­tu­tions of coun­tries that are shap­ing it is sound. If tak­en seri­ous­ly, that insight would shift the focus of for­eign pol­i­cy on both sides of the Atlantic and pro­vide it with a basic com­pass: to help increase the returns, eco­nom­ic and oth­ers, of demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance and rule of law—and to push back sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly against author­i­tar­i­an­ism, despo­tism, and kleptocracy.

For one, the West can make it much hard­er for dic­ta­tors and their cronies to hide their mon­ey in London, Switzerland, or Florida. There are ways of crack­ing down on North Korean and Iranian busi­ness inter­ests and illic­it rev­enue. The European Union could become more cir­cum­spect in scru­ti­niz­ing invest­ment com­ing from state-owned and state-con­nect­ed com­pa­nies in author­i­tar­i­an regimes—whether it is Rosatom’s con­tract with Hungary regard­ing the Paks nuclear pow­er plant or the numer­ous busi­ness activ­i­ties of CEFC, an opaque pri­vate enti­ty with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, in Central Europe.

Second, Western democ­ra­cies should pri­or­i­tize trade and visa lib­er­al­iza­tion with oth­er democ­ra­cies over oth­er coun­tries, mak­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance and rule of law not only a goal in itself but also a means to greater pros­per­i­ty and more oppor­tu­ni­ties. The European Union, cur­rent­ly nego­ti­at­ing trade agree­ments with a pletho­ra of coun­tries around the world, should make it clear that the places where peo­ple enjoy polit­i­cal free­doms, such as Tunisia or India, are at the front of the queue. Conversely, for as long as they con­tin­ue with their cur­rent prac­tices, economies such as Azerbaijan and Myanmar—or China, for that matter—cannot expect to ben­e­fit from a deep­er form of trade lib­er­al­iza­tion and reg­u­la­to­ry alignment.

Third, the exist­ing sys­tem of inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions is over­due for a major shake-up, as President Trump has hint­ed many times. Start with United Nations agen­cies, where the idea of one coun­try, one vote has pro­duced mul­ti­ple pathologies—of which the Saudi mem­ber­ship of the Human Rights Council is only the most vis­i­ble one.

Furthermore, some spe­cial­ized agen­cies, espe­cial­ly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, treat their mis­sion as pure­ly tech­no­crat­ic, as if eco­nom­ic ques­tions could be sep­a­rat­ed from polit­i­cal ones. The result has been a dis­as­ter, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the area of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in Africa, where devel­op­ment assis­tance has been used by dic­ta­tors in coun­tries such as Ethiopia—a dar­ling of the devel­op­ment community—as a tool of patron­age and polit­i­cal domination.

If some inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions are inher­ent­ly unre­formable, the West ought to mar­gin­al­ize or wind them down. If nec­es­sary, new struc­tures can be built cater­ing to lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. Regimes such as Russia and China are already busy doing exact­ly that for their own pur­pos­es, through orga­ni­za­tions such as the International Investment Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

To be sure, Western pol­i­cy­mak­ers have no choice but to engage with unfree soci­eties around the world and with their lead­ers. But they need to do so with­out illu­sions and with a strat­e­gy that takes into account the asym­me­try that exists between the behav­ior of polit­i­cal regimes that are account­able to the pub­lic and those that are not. Otherwise, the 21st cen­tu­ry might not be too friend­ly to the polit­i­cal val­ues most of us hold dear.Published on: March 12, 2018 

Dalibor Rohac is a research fel­low at the American Enterprise Institute and a reg­u­lar colum­nist at The American Interest. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.


Multilateralism for a Despotic Age

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