Dealing with the Authoritarian Challenges to Liberal Democracy

Benner The Challenge To Authoritarian Democracy Original

Source: krem​lin​.ru

Badisches Tagblatt: What has stopped the global spread of liberal democracy that many hoped for and expected in the 1990s?

Thorsten Benner: Liberal democracy means separation of powers, rule of law, minority rights, and a permanent contest of interest groups. All this presupposes political elites that accept these limits to their power. These enlightened elites are much rarer than commonly assumed in the widespread enthusiasm after the demise of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Entrenching yourself in power, enriching yourself, and distributing the spoils of the state to cronies – all this works much more seamlessly in an authoritarian system. This is a realization, for example, reached by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is why he now seeks to cement his authoritarian rule.

BT: And citizens simply go along?

Benner: Citizens accept liberal democracies if they can guarantee prosperity and stability. But for many, the 1990s were traumatizing in post-communist societies. Basic welfare and social services collapsed while the promise of prosperity proved elusive for the many left behind. And in the West, many citizens have developed doubts about the ability of liberal democracy to deliver. These doubts are compounded by economic and cultural fears of decline and immigration. The financial crisis of 2008 – after which many seemed to have to pay for the excesses of the privileged – and the permanent crisis of the EU and the Euro have only added to this. 

BT: What then makes nationalism and authoritarianism attractive?

Benner: A leader who finally gets things done (“I alone can fix it,” intoned Donald Trump during the presidential campaign), or belonging to a strong nation with clear enemies (be it Islam or the skeevy left-red-green 1968er Germany,” as the Alternative for Germany’s Jörg Meuthen has put it). If you add to this the right to a job and generous social security benefits, as the National Front’s Marine Le Pen does, you have a package that is very attractive for many.

BT: Based on the traumatizing experiences you mentioned, are right-wing populism and nationalism an Eastern European phenomenon?

Benner: Trump, the Freedom Party of Austria, the National Front, and the Brexit-fervor demonstrate that Eastern Europe well falls short of a monopoly. At the same time, the two countries where right-wing populists have entrenched themselves in power – Hungary and Poland – are Eastern European. After 1989, Eastern Europe decided to accede to the EU system. This was a free choice. But Eastern Europe did not get to have a say on the laws and rules it had to comply with. In addition, West European companies assumed key – in many areas dominant – roles in East European economies. This has fueled resentment against the putative diktat of the EU and Western Europe. At the same time, liberal democracy’s roots in Eastern Europe are shallower. In Hungary in particular, there is a high degree of disillusionment with the elites dominating the transition during the 1990s and 2000s. Liberal” has a bad meaning for many, since it is equated with the market-based reforms of the 1990s. These meant riches for a few but left many out in the cold, especially those losing social protections and not being able to successfully relaunch their lives in the new capitalist realities. That is why many Hungarians found much positive in Victor Orban’s promise to build an illiberal state on national foundations.” 

BT: Why do so many right-wing populists maintain close ties to the Putin government?

Benner: For many, like the National Front, the Putin régime is a key funding source. For others, it offers crucial political support against the liberal-democratic establishment. For some, Putin is also an idol, both in terms of his determined authoritarian rule and his supposed fight for Christian-conservative values. And for Putin, right-wing populists are the perfect instrument for destabilizing Europe. 

BT: How should one counter influencing efforts by authoritarian states such as Russia?

Benner: It is crucial to realize that Russian and also Chinese influencing efforts exploit our own weaknesses. Trump and right-wing populists are homemade but are instrumentalized externally to drive a wedge deeper into our societies. Sensitive data can be stolen because parties, parliaments, and governments have failed to adequately invest in data security. Lies fall on fertile ground since many no longer trust established media. And a sizable number of lobbyists, bankers, lawyers, and accountants all too happily offers its services to authoritarian clients. We are asymmetrically open, for example as regards investment. We need to work on correcting these weaknesses.

BT: How can this happen?

Benner: We should remain open but need to harden ourselves in crucial dimensions, such as the cybersecurity of our key democratic institutions. Openness needs to be accompanied by transparency (for example, of financial flows and mandates from authoritarian players). As far as investments are concerned, we need a broader understanding of companies that are systemically relevant,” not just in a narrow national security sense but more broadly in terms of key technologies and as far as all media companies are concerned. We, for example, cannot allow our newspapers, many of which are struggling financially, to be bought by investors from non-like-minded countries. 

BT: Isn’t the West hypocritical when complaining of Russian meddling? After all, the Clinton administration massively supported Yeltsin during the Russian election campaign in the 1990s?

Benner: The West supported forces that it thought were good for democracy. It did not make systematic use of lies and disinformation. 

BT: Will not every effort to limit external influencing inevitably come with the criticism that we are doing what we decry elsewhere: restricting freedom and rights?

Benner: Transparency does not curtail basic rights. Rights will only be restricted where the actions of individuals and organizations pose a grave threat to liberal democracy. 

BT: You demand disclosure requirements for foreign funding of NGOs. Is this not the same as what you criticize about Russia, namely denouncing NGOs as foreign agents”?

Benner: This is not about denouncing but making funding sources transparent. Only if we know how an organization funds itself do we have a complete picture. 

BT: Can a liberal democracy ban funding of political parties from abroad?

Benner: Yes, legal channels for funding political parties and campaigns from abroad can be curtailed. This is, for example, the case in the US, where campaigns are not allowed to receive a single dollar from foreigners and foreign entities. Germany has the rule that only Germans and other EU citizens can donate to parties. Regardless of the particular rule, parties should be obliged to disclose all funding 

BT: Do we need to become less liberal to counter authoritarian tendencies?

Benner: Militant democracy” was Germany’s answer to the failures of the Weimar Republic. Applied with care and a sense of proportion, it very much remains the right concept.

BT: How great do you judge the threat of a century of authoritarianism,” against which Ralf Dahrendorf warned 20 years ago?

Benner: There is a sizable danger. In Europe, we have the power to take fate into our own hands to make sure Dahrendorf’s scenario will not materialize. For this, we need to realize that liberal democracy is not self-sustaining. We need to fight for it every day, to sustain and improve its ability to guarantee rights, prosperity, and security. As Barack Obama has rightly argued, citizen is the most important office in a democracy. We need to make sure not to cede patriotism to fringe movements. Rather, we need to anchor patriotism and the nation firmly in the center, working toward a strong Europe and open societies. To this end, there are some bright spots. The Pulse of Europe movement is bringing together pro-European citizens in cities across the continent. French presidential candidate Macron combines a strong grounding in patriotism and the French nation’s historical calling with a strong pro-European message. Even in Hungary, with Momentum there is a fresh political movement of those born around 1989 presenting a credible challenge to Orban’s illiberalism. This gives hope.

This interview, edited for clarity, was conducted in the context of the research project Liberale Demokratie im Zangengriff: Umgang mit Einflussnahme von außen,” supported by Stiftung Mercator. A German version appeared Badisches Tagblatt on April 12017.