Democracy & Disorder: The struggle for influence in the new geopolitics

Miniature globes illuminated. Photo: ptwo/Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Executive Summary

At the heart of the new era of geopolitical competition is a struggle over the role and influence of democracy in the international order. This dynamic has unfolded rapidly since the 2008 global financial crisis. Recent years have witnessed regional and global power plays by Russia and China. Their international efforts are usually cast as moves to establish spheres of influence, but they are broader than that. Competition between great powers is over nothing less than the future democratic character of the international system. Both Russia and China, using different means and with different strength, seek to achieve three objectives: to develop military and economic spheres of influence in their regions; to weaken democratic institutions and norms that challenge their own internal legitimacy; and to diminish Western dominance of the international order. To date, the West’s response has been insufficient to the challenge.


2019 marks the third decade of a world that has been largely free of the risk of direct great power conflict. Thirty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and democratic openings across Central and Eastern Europe not only heralded the fall of the Soviet Union, but also symbolized the widespread appeal among citizens for a democratic model of governance. The quarter-century that followed was unique in world history: For the first time, democratic states dominated the structure of world power with neither a peer military competitor nor a rival model of governance with which to contend. The United States, in particular, stood unrivaled on the world stage, exercising global unipolar reach.

It is in vogue now to look back at the period of American hyperpower as one of over-extension and overreach, and to focus near exclusively on America’s Middle East wars. As consequential as those were, the dynamics of that period were wider and more nuanced. It was an era that saw multilateralism flourish and wars of all forms decline (although terrorist acts did not). Global GDP rose and the percentage of the world’s population living in absolute poverty declined steadily. There was cautious optimism about trends toward great power cooperation and away from proxy warfare—an optimism that was interrupted by 9/11 and the Iraq War, but not reversed.

This was also an era that laid the seeds of present-day challenges. Advances in technology and globalization, spurred by lower trade barriers, boosted global GDP but also led to the dislocation of middle-class livelihoods in many Western societies, sowing political tensions.

Now, in the wake of the global financial crisis, two critical dynamics have unfolded concomitantly. First, the powerful democracies of the trans-Atlantic community (the bulwark of the Western-led order) are facing political turmoil at home and setbacks in the liberal quality of their own governments.

Second, the democracies find themselves losing ground internationally to authoritarian powers bent on breaking the hold of the democracies on the character of the international order.

The concurrence of these two phenomena leads to this essential question: What role will leading democracies, and democracy itself, play in the changing international order?

Over the past year, 33 Brookings scholars examined the interplay between domestic and international challenges to democracy in critical countries and regions. The key findings of this project make for challenging reading for those citizens and policymakers committed to defending the space for democracy in international affairs, but there are also grounds for optimism and for mobilization.

At this crucial geopolitical juncture, democratic states are under increasing strain from an interconnected set of domestic challenges—political, economic, and cultural. Key regions and countries around the world are experiencing a recession in democratic liberalism caused by a culmination of long-term challenges including ineffective governance, economic inequality, and socio-cultural upheaval. Backsliding among advanced democracies across the West is most prominently a crisis of liberalism, as economic grievances along with identity-based struggles have resulted in the rise of populist movements on both the left and right of the ideological spectrum, some of which have authoritarian tendencies. In emerging and non-Western democracies, the internal challenges are more prominent in the service delivery realms, where governments prove incapable or unwilling to reduce corruption and violent crime. While all democracies—advanced and emerging—have always struggled with certain internal political, economic, and social weaknesses, such faults in the modern democratic state have become more acute in the wake of the global financial crisis.

The result is a prevailing perception among analysts and policymakers that, following decades of advancements, democracy’s momentum has run its course. In fact, not all trends are negative: The consolidation of democracy across parts of Asia and Africa means that globally, more people now live in democracies than at any point in history. Still, several of the world’s most powerful democracies have been sapped of strength at a critical moment in time.

Against a backdrop of economic and political tensions, illiberal and authoritarian leaders are gaining power through electoral processes and following an illiberal playbook to weaken liberal democratic norms from within. Today, a powerful contest of ideas runs not only across states but also through them, as illiberal and authoritarian-leaning individuals and parties are consolidating control within democratic systems. Current governments in Hungary and Poland and an increasingly authoritarian Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represent the forefront of illiberal and neo-authoritarian challenges within the EU and NATO. The success of these illiberal forces in gaining power through electoral means highlights the separation of liberal principles—ideas that promote individual liberties, and legislative and judicial checks on the executive—from democratic processes such as elections that translate popular will into policy. Even more than a setback in democracy, their efforts are emblematic of a crisis of liberalism.

Worryingly for the Western institutions in which they operate, illiberal actors across the West and beyond at times appear to be forging a loose “nationalist international,” with shared disdain for liberal domestic and multilateral arrangements. The illiberal playbook has also opened space for outside authoritarian interference; some political forces are acting with direct political and economic assistance from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The insidious nature of the challenge is that no single move in isolation appears to be an existential threat to democracy, and popular support behind these movements makes it difficult for defenders of liberal democracy to develop effective responses.

The interplay between internal strains and external efforts to exacerbate them has weakened the leverage of the political West. The phase when the United States and other like-minded states could enlarge the democratic community through democracy promotion efforts with manageable domestic and international pushback has ended. The global financial crisis and the rise of China have triggered a deep level of introspection within the political West. The world’s most important shaping power, the United States, is in strategic disarray and appears to be withdrawing from its commitment to supporting and exemplifying democratic standards. The European Union, the other bulwark of the liberal order, has turned inward, facing domestic instability caused by characteristics inherent to a more open order, including economic integration, low trade barriers, and the free movement of people. The authoritarian powers, briefly scared by democratic uprisings in the Arab world and then Ukraine, have gained confidence that they can both suppress dissent at home and build competing networks of influence abroad, with limited effective resistance from the major democracies.

As a result, regions of contestation have emerged across the developing and industrialized world. It is a competition of influence that involves political, economic, and military tools—and it is increasingly digitalized.

In the developing and emerging countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, investments in infrastructure, energy, and technology are turning from tools of G-20 cooperation into tools of great power competition—with the West losing ground. In the Middle East, there has been a return to the kind of proxy warfare that so devastated the “third world” during the Cold War. In Europe, China’s increasing economic engagement is softening the continent’s resolve, especially at a moment of American unilateralism, and Russia has found vulnerabilities to exploit and to advance its direct political interference. In East Asia, China has shifted from a strategy of constraining American dominance to one of asserting Chinese hegemony. Geopolitics in the region, defined increasingly by Sino-U.S. rivalry, will test the strength of both consolidating democracies and advanced democracies.

Globally, tools for digital authoritarianism implemented by Russia and China present Western states with a new set of challenges, and ones that represent the future of competition. Moscow continues to deploy non-conventional tools such as cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns throughout Europe and in the United States. China’s focus is primarily domestic, employing powerful digital tools to control and surveil its domestic population. But Beijing in the future may seek to export an authoritarian model, which is increasingly backed by technologies for digital censorship and monitoring. Advancements in artificial intelligence will only make the challenges more formidable in the years ahead.


At a time when global democracy is challenged, the majority of those living under democratic governance live outside the West. Protecting the democratic character of the international order will therefore require new coalitions of democratic states beyond the traditional trans-Atlantic core.
To preserve the prospects for democracy in a changing international order will require serious effort along four lines:

  • Democratic renewal: A shared international agenda. Instead of a posture of “democracy promotion,” the West should join with other democracies in a shared agenda of domestic renewal both to shore up the essential foundations of democracy and to strengthen its international appeal. This requires a clear focus on economic inclusion.
  • Detoxifying identity politics and migration debates. As part of this agenda of democratic renewal, governments and civil society must find ways to detoxify identity politics. This requires open debates on migration and a focus on local and urban integration, as well as eschewing the hateful rhetoric that ties migration to terrorism and violence.
  • Defending democracy in Europe and Asia. To defend the space for democracy in both Europe and Asia, democracies need to push back on authoritarian powers’ interference, respond firmly to illiberal developments within alliances and institutions, and build democratic cooperation across the Indo-Pacific. Given the centrality of Asia to the global interplay between democracy and order, we also propose a new “Dialogue of Democracies in Asia.”
  • Deepening cooperation with non-Western democracies. Across the board, but particularly in terms of support to nascent or emerging democracies in the developing world, both Western and non-Western democracies should advance democratic cooperation on aid, infrastructure, governance support, and crisis management, joining forces to compete more effectively with development models advanced by China that may prove to have adverse effects on democratic governments.

While the question of democracy in the Middle East and West Asia remains fraught with ever-changing instability and complexity, critical areas of focus include support for basic democratic institutions such as civil-military relations, parliamentary procedures, and free media in stable countries. While the legacy of America’s Middle East wars and Russia’s move toward proxy warfare may make this impossible in the short term, a strategy that puts ending civil wars at the heart of Western policy would, over time, increase the odds of stability and eventual progress toward government accountability and governance reform.

The trajectory of democracy and the state of the international order are two issue areas often debated separately, but they are intimately linked. If in the coming phase of contested international order, leading and emerging democratic states renew their political institutions and social contracts and forge a wide coalition for action, then we could see a period when strategic competition with China and a firm pushback against Russia will be blended with economic growth and focused cooperation. If not, we will enter a period characterized both by democratic retrenchment and a more turbulent, even violent clash between models. A new Cold War is not the worst potential scenario ahead of us, nor should it be the ceiling of our ambition. Between them, the world’s democracies still have the intrinsic strength to shape and judiciously advance a values-based order that protects democratic freedoms.