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University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation

What Does Ukraine Mean for the Future of Democracy?

April 21, 2022
Susan Hyde


In the latest in the Talking Policy series on Ukraine, Susan Hyde, a Professor of political science at UC Berkeley and IGCC researcher on the Future of Democracy initiative, talks about the relationship between the war in Ukraine and the global war for supremacy between democracy and autocracy. This interview was recorded on April 14, 2022.

In a speech in Warsaw on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden framed it as a battle between democracies and autocracies. He’s certainly not alone in characterizing what’s happening in Ukraine in those terms. Is the Ukraine war really about a battle between democracy and autocracy? And when people use this language, what exactly do they mean?

That’s a really good place to start and a pretty insightful question. When this language is used by elites on the global stage, it’s often misinterpreted. What people often go to is: the U.S. often allies with authoritarian regimes, so obviously we can’t be sincere in talking about democracy as part of our foreign policy objectives. I think we will probably be unpacking what this war is really about for a long time and I don’t know what it’s really about in a deep sense. But it is definitely a battle between a democracy and an authoritarian regime that invaded them for no real reason. And that’s something that carries a lot with it. We haven’t seen too many cases historically, or recently, of unprovoked attacks on democracies.

But another way to consider this question is to ask: when Biden talks about this as a battle between democracy and autocracy, what does he really mean? One of the ways I like to think about it, without getting into the psyche of Joe Biden, is that:

It means something to have values and ideals as a basis for your foreign policy.

That’s something that great political thinkers, going back to some of the earliest scholars of international relations—Hans Morgenthau, for example, [have noted]. Having principles and values undergird a country’s foreign policy is common in democracies. Another way to think about it is that a lot of countries that are allied around this are focused on trying to reflect and represent the people that live within their borders. And sometimes we see leaders turn against them. And I think that is something that we’re seeing in this case, too.

Recent research, including research produced by IGCC affiliates, shows that democratic backsliding is happening all over the world, including in long-established democracies like the United States. You are a part of a new IGCC initiative called The Future of Democracy that is going to be studying this phenomenon. Can you give us a little bit of context about what is happening globally to democracy? And is what’s happening now or something that has been on a slow burn for a long time?

It depends on what you mean. Over the course of human history, we’ve had countries that we’ve labeled as democracies. The global primacy of democracy has waxed and waned. And we’re definitely in a period of it waning. There was a pretty short period, which happens to be a period that was influential in my life, between 1990 and 2003, where there was a lot of really pro-democracy rhetoric from most countries in the world. This is where a lot of my research is coming from. So, yes, democracy is eroding in many countries throughout the world. And it is a slow burn thing. It’s not a particular moment in which you flip a switch in a country that was democratic and it becomes more authoritarian. But we’re seeing really similar trends occurring in many countries around the world and with similar causes.

Why is democratic backsliding happening in so many places at the same time?

It’s a big question and a lot of us spend a lot of time on it. There are two things that I think are important to keep separate in terms of causes. One is the internal set of causes, which can be contagious across borders but are essentially things that come from within countries. And [one of] those [things is] the domestic reaction to what is a high point in the global movement of people. There’s lots of migration, and that can produce a backlash. There’s rising populism, which is a global trend, but [it has] an internal cause in a lot of countries.

I also emphasize this in a lot of my speaking and writing the international dimensions.

In the immediate post-Cold War period, there was a lot more consensus about the international value of democracy. There were a few events that started to chip away and undermine that. One was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was a body blow to the credibility of the U.S. and its allies in its promotion of democracy and sullied the name of democracy promotion.

You can [also] look across U.S. presidents and U.S. presidential rhetoric. Most U.S. presidents between the end of World War II and fairly recently have been very pro-democracy. Of course, the U.S. had authoritarian allies, but the rhetoric was still there and that led a lot of countries in the world to lean in the direction of democracy, sometimes insincerely. Some of the backsliding we’re seeing is actually a revelation of what was there all along. It’s a dropping of the democratic mask, so to speak.

How important is Trump in all this? Do you think his importance is exaggerated?

He’s more of a symptom than a cause in my book. He certainly was more unabashed in the way he went about it. But the weakening of consistent U.S. support for citizen movements in other countries that were pro-democratic in nature has been going on for a while. What [Trump] did was just blatant public cozying up to, not just authoritarian regimes that have long been allies, but to the worst leaders. It wasn’t just countries that allied with the U.S. in foreign policy; it was countries that were opposed to us in foreign policy and were dictators and were very repressive to their people. That brazenness really undermined anything that the U.S. could do rhetorically in terms of democracy promotion.

But you know, other countries do it, too. Trump is coming out of this populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant thing that has happened in a lot of countries. Look at the French elections. A lot of countries are experiencing these same dynamics so it’s hard to just say it’s just all about Trump.

What will autocrats learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Will the crisis embolden autocrats? Or will it chasten autocrats?

There are two sides of this coin and it’s very complicated to figure out where we should be looking. But I think it’s clear that autocrats are taking a lot of lessons from this. One of the scarier ones has to do with what China is learning from this and what they think they can get away with in terms of Taiwan and some of the other countries in their orbit.

I do think that it’s clear to people who are receiving accurate information that this war is quite costly for Putin. And it maybe it depends on what’s driving the particular autocrat. But for some of them, I think they might not want to have a war go the way that this one has been going. And it’s been very interesting to watch what’s been happening with NATO in recent days and weeks—it seems like it’s shoring up the strength of the NATO alliance, which people were thinking was relatively irrelevant not that long ago.

There are probably both things at work, right? Some learning about what one can potentially get away with. But

It’s also pretty clear that there are limits to invading other countries without consequence. And my hope is that there’s still going to be a real international response, not just towards Russia, but towards future deterrence of unprovoked territorial aggression.

There are many concerns about the strength of democracy here in the U.S. Is Ukraine shifting attention that is needed for Americans to be focusing on the magnitude of the problems at home?

I think all countries, and especially great powers, have to be able to deal with what’s going on at home and what’s going on the global stage. It’s just the nature of foreign policy. You can’t really ignore one for some period of time. I’ve been reading commentary that says something like: we need to get our own domestic house in order before we can do anything on the international stage. I think that that’s a little bit wrongheaded. If we leave the international stage or ignore it for too long, it changes in a way that does not advantage us.

Russia could be shifting its attention away from previous efforts to encourage democratic backsliding in the U.S. They may have bigger fish to fry at the moment and may stop some of that. It would be nice if they would stay out of U.S. elections in the next round.

I do think having an enemy abroad can be good for democracy at home.

One of the things that’s been concerning me the most about the health of U.S. democracy is that some U.S. citizens are starting to view their fellow citizens as their worst enemies, which is a very dangerous place to be.

Not that I’m saying we’re headed to a civil war or something like that, but we certainly are headed towards political violence. We’re already experiencing it. We’ve been experiencing it for a while. Having an “other” helps with the nationalist narrative and the ability of the U.S. to unite around something, which I think is really positive. The problem is we have a leader of one of the two political parties who’s going far out of his way to align himself with Putin. And as my colleague Gabe Lin says, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that partisans follow their party leaders, regardless of the logic of what the party leaders are saying.

The confrontation between democracy and autocracy has been building up for many years. Even during peacetime, authoritarian powers were exploiting the liberal international order to advance their own interests and develop economic dependencies and, in some cases, undermine democratic governments. Can this kind of order be maintained in a way that safeguards the democracies from the threats posed by autocratic states like Russia?

I tend to not describe things in the democracy versus autocracy framework, in part because I think it leaves out citizens, and they’re a really important factor in thinking about this. I do think that it’s unrealistic to expect that the U.S. and all of its allies will become democratic and stay that way without struggle. I think that’s an unrealistic expectation for humans as we are currently constructed. What I like to emphasize about the pro-democracy international order, and in a world in which the most powerful state is democratic, is that, this doesn’t cause the most powerful authoritarian countries in the world to become democratic. But it affects a lot of the medium-power countries and the countries that are not necessarily as geopolitically important. That means that those governments are pressured to act better than they would absent that pro-democracy international pressure. The relationship between countries that are at least trying to have some plausible deniability that they’re still democratic, and democracies, is one that I think works relatively well for stability, for economic exchange, for anti-poverty efforts, for global public health.

Even if some of the leaders are hanging on to power through somewhat manipulated elections, they’re still trying to keep this veneer of democracy. So they’re not murdering their number-one political opponent. They’re not torturing journalists. They’re not controlling all of the sources of information within their country. And that, I think, is improving the lives of a lot of people around the world in a really powerful way. That said, I think it’s really dangerous to have a foreign policy strategy that’s like, oh, we’re against all authoritarian regimes. Why? Because some of the other large nuclear powers in the world are authoritarian regimes. And it just doesn’t make that much sense to completely antagonize them and say it’s you’re either with us or against us.

I think it makes sense for the U.S. to have a foreign policy that’s defined by supporting governments that are responsive to their own citizenry, and to not ally with governments that are the single greatest threat to their own citizenry. That’s the logic that underlines, for example, the UN’s policy around the responsibility to protect. And it’s consistent with state sovereignty.

Over the next year, what are the most important things we should be watching if we care about democracy?

This war is clearly big and it’s going to have reverberations throughout the world. I am really interested to see how China handles this relationship. It’s not their war in a lot of ways. At the same time, they’re experiencing internal movement, from being a party-based dictatorship to one that’s more personalist in nature, which can be destabilizing as far as I understand it. I do think that’s a really big thing to watch: how does China react to this conflict?

If we care about democracy, it’s important to pay attention to the degree to which the U.S. public cares about democracy, specifically whether the U.S. Republican Party can get its house in order on this front, because it can’t be a political party and can’t continue to have a democratic government if one of the two political parties will not accept election results in which they lose, which is a really troubling thing.

I also think it’s interesting to watch how the European Union and some of the more powerful states within Europe react to all of this, including those experiencing democratic backsliding. If their citizens are upset about something, are they engaging in more repression or are they cracking down on free speech or are journalists being targeted? There’s lots to worry about. But the good news is that there are a lot more people than leaders in the world. And many times, again and again in the course of human history, they’ve been able to use their power and numbers to press for a better life for themselves.

The music featured in the IGCC podcast is courtesy of Gato Loco de Bajo.