Most authoritarian presidents are masters of calm restraint in public. Looking on benignly at parades and congresses, Xi, Putin, Kim, Hun Sen, Ayatollah Khamenei and the rulers of Myanmar conceal the power they command. Although Japanese leaders’ tenure is much shorter, they too make conveying humble sincerity in public into an art form while in cabinet practising democracy democracy with Japanese characteristics. In Thailand, ministers approach the king on their knees. In Malaysia, the three-yearly tenure of the Agong (king) rotates between states, and in November 2022 he resolved an electoral stalemate.
All of these leaders probably endorse Gandhi’s misquoted view that Western democracy might be a good idea. Like them, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew considered that too much democracy was not a good thing. ‘With a few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to developing countries’, he told an ASEAN meeting in 1992 at the height of the ‘Asian values’ campaign. His son became prime minister in 2004, and still is.
Indeed, the performance of democracy elsewhere doesn’t always inspire confidence. Government of, for and by the people has given way to diluted democracy in several countries. Poland, the United States and Britain were the examples chosen by American journalist Anne Applebaum in 2020 in Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Lydia Khalil, in her Rise of the Extreme Right, crisply declares that ‘Democracies are in decline … People are losing trust in democratic institutions to meaningfully address the major issues of the day’. As well they might, for sincerity and trustworthiness are rare among leaders in the 2020s.
Some countries’ systems lack any credibility: those of Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mali and Saudi Arabia, for example. Other leaderships, including those of former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison have lost credibility too. They have been labelled ‘kakistocracies’—government by the worst leaders available. In recent years, hubris and personal entitlement have been taken to new heights in Brazil and the Philippines, where presidents emulated the braggadocio of President Trump.
Australia and democracy
In Australia politicians can brag, but only up to a point: they must never appear to be ‘up themselves’. One of the worst things an Australian politician can say is ‘Don’t you know who I am?’—or the Morrison equivalent, ‘I don’t hold a hose’. Sitting in the back seat of a ComCar instead of beside the driver is not done. Whatever may happen once politicians are inside the ‘people’s house’, they usually carry their own bags to the door. Never, says Australian convention, should politicians blame someone else for their mistakes. They play by the rules, and the people are the umpires deciding who is to replace them.
As evidence of democracy these egalitarian habits are deceptive. Australia has no bill of rights because Australian politicians don’t want to surrender their power to the courts. It took years to get them to set up the National Anti-Corruption Commission and give it proper powers and independent finance for similar reasons. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 180 countries, Australia fell from seventh place in 2012—equal with Norway—to eighteenth in 2021 while Norway rose to fourth.
For years, Australia has had some of the most oppressive libel laws in the OECD. More than seventy pieces of security legislation were passed after 2001. And the dwindling of the mainstream press is not due only to competition from social media. Journalists watching the cases of Julian Assange, Bernard Collaery and David McBride are scared for their jobs and their liberty. The authors of Democracy 2025 show that Australians’ trust in government is among the world’s lowest.
One thing Australian prime ministers can be trusted to do is send the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to war, as they have frequently done: nine times since 1901. They can make the decision alone, or with the National Security Committee of Cabinet, but since 1950 it has invariably been based on a prior decision by the United States. Instead of informing the public, as they did in decades past, both major parties now slither towards America’s next war. First they and the media demonise an enemy, then they send humanitarian and technical aid, followed by weapons, then advisers. Eventually, when Washington gives the word, they commit the ADF, for as long as it takes, to defend our values and democracy.
The claim that Australia’s way of life is assured by this system is spurious. Prime ministers talk glibly about protecting Australia’s freedom, national interest and national security. They endorse the recently US-devised ‘international rules-based order’, even though the international law-based order is what we signed up for in 1945. Australia is not free but subjected, not independent but aligned, and despite the merits of compulsory voting, not all that democratic. We are not alone among nations in this, and we are used to it, so most of the time we just live with it. But now the defence of democracy is being cited as a pretext for another war.
Scott Morrison used to say that an ‘arc of autocracy’ hung over us, as communist ‘red paint’ theoretically did during the Cold War. Yet Morrison autocratically appointed himself to five ministries. Immediately after replacing him as prime minister, Anthony Albanese went to a NATO meeting, later meeting with his Quad counterparts from India and Japan and with US President Biden. Biden told him the group of four was about democracy versus autocracy: about ‘shared values and shared vision’. Its common purpose—containing China—didn’t need to be made explicit. As for our democracy, Biden said, ‘we’ have to fight for it, but how can we fight for something we do not genuinely practise?
Loyally repeating his American ally’s message six months later, Albanese alerted The Australian to the world-wide contest between authoritarianism and democracy. He described democracy as fragile, saying that ‘democracies have to stand up for democracies’. But what does Australia standing up for democracies mean, and which ones does it stand up for?
Democracy is understood as a social contract between the people and those they elect to represent them. It may be a better system than all the others, as Churchill proposed, but like most others it delivers selectively. In fact, democracy permits ‘state capture’. The World Bank says state capture is ‘the exercise of power by private actors through control over resources, threat of violence, or other forms of influence’ in pursuit of their own interests. While successive Australian governments issue dire warnings about foreign actors committing cyber-crime, accuse foreign companies of paying no tax and point accusingly at foreign agents of influence and money launderers, they appear to be unable or unwilling to tackle state capture.
Clinton Fernandes has argued that Australian trade, foreign and defence policy, and social and economic programs are captured by such entities, most of which are not Australian and many of which are American. Our democratic system fails to defeat these forms of state capture, particularly where weapons purchases worth many billions—almost all of which favour the United States, Britain and France— are involved. A further example of state capture is News Corp, which since 1987 has owned two thirds of Australia’s metropolitan print mastheads and several populist news websites, exercising excessive influence, especially on electoral outcomes.
The co-chairmen of News Corp are Rupert Murdoch—an American since 1985—and his son Lachlan Murdoch, who advocates press freedom but allows Fox News to promote reactionary causes in the United States and Australia, including the ‘great replacement theory’ of contemporary white supremacists. Brenton Tarrant, the Australian-born Christchurch terrorist, gave this title to his manifesto. The theory, frequently articulated by Tucker Carlson on Fox News in the United States, inspired Reclaim Australia and the sovereign citizen movement. After the 2020 US presidential election, Fox News cast doubt on its result more than 700 times.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd called in 2020 for a Royal Commission into the Murdoch media in Australia, describing them as ‘a cancer, an arrogant cancer, on our democracy’. Another prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said in 2021 that it was News Corp, not either of the major parties, that was ‘the most powerful political actor in Australia’. Conservative mainstream media like News Corp can lull us into assuming that rabid ideologues and their propaganda operate only in communist countries.
Many people, led by mainstream media, unthinkingly favour Western democracies, assuming that the Rest are autocracies and that they have only to become democracies to be as successful as ‘we’ are. Evidently, nations called democracies all apply their own interpretations of the term, as with the ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo’, the ‘Democratic Republic of [North] Korea’, the ‘People’s Republic of China’, the ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’ and the ‘Democratic Republic of Taiwan’, for example. Only the last of these was invited to President Biden’s 2021 Summit for Democracy, where, as a province of China, it was given its own special category.
The record of some democracies in our region doesn’t inspire confidence. Myanmar’s is lamentable. In India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, too, assassinations and civil conflict reflect poorly on democratic structures established by Britain. Hong Kong’s history as a democracy dates only from 1984, when the British allowed some reform but without ever granting full universal suffrage to the colony before the handover to China in 1997. Taiwan’s history as a US-style democracy is also short, with no direct presidential election held there until 1996.
For centuries, the United States, Britain and other imperialist powers showed those they ruled that power came from the barrel of a gun, not from a ballot box. But the British Empire refused to call its colonial conflicts ‘wars’, instead naming them internal revolts, police actions or states of emergency. Americans have always been quick, when wars end, to restore power selectively to their former enemies—as long as they are anti-communist, meaning that they support US economic and political hegemony. Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs was pointing to Britain as the world’s most violent country in the nineteenth century, and to the United States inheriting that distinction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when his (free) speech was shut down by the Democracy Forum in Athens in October 2022. When he shocked his audience by calling the United States ‘A semi-democratic white-dominated hierarchical racist society that aims to preserve privilege by the elites [founded as] a slave-owning genocidal country’, the plug was literally pulled.
In its 2021 ‘Democracy Index’, The Economist Intelligence Unit placed Australia in the high 8s and Britain in the mid-8s. It rated Canada, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries highest, at above 9 on its 10-point scale of free democracies. The US score was 7.92, above many others but below its neighbours Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile. Two states lavishly supported by the United States are Ukraine, which at 5.81 was among the lowest-scoring democracies in Europe, and Pakistan, the lowest-scoring among the Asian countries with a rating of only 4.31. India, under the far-right populist leadership of Narendra Modi, was in the mid-range at 6.61, slightly below Indonesia.
Summit for Democracy 2023
Joe Biden began his presidency saying his slogans would be human rights and democracy. But under his Democrat administration, global support for democracy has declined. The number of ‘electoral democracies’ in the world reached an all-time high in 2012, with 97 allowing voting for someone from a list of candidates. A decade on, that number has fallen to 89. In the same period the number of ‘liberal democracies’ has also fallen, from 42 to 34. These are countries whose governments recognise and protect individual rights and freedoms, and where political power is limited by law. In 2021, ‘democratic backsliding’ was identified in 16 other countries by the Global State of Democracy Initiative
Biden held his first Summit for Democracy in December 2021 and promised another for a year later. It’s set for 29–30 March 2023. The intervening year, 2022, was called a ‘Year of Action’ to ‘support democratic renewal around the world’ by Washington. The attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 didn’t set a great example of American democratic renewal. The hammer assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on 28 October 2022 didn’t either.
Not all of the countries on Biden’s guest list for 2021 had achieved democracy. The record of some for authoritarianism, corruption and infringing human rights was not exemplary; hence the name ‘Summit for Democracy’ not ‘Summit of Democracies’. Evidence of this appears in Freedom House’s annual ‘Freedom in the World’ report on people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories. In Democracy under Siege, Freedom House traced the decline of democracy for fifteen years to 2021. In the view of University of Sydney politics Professor John Keane, Biden’s guest list was ‘cynically drawn up, bureaucratically crafted, agency-structured’ and included states that weren’t democracies at all.
For the second virtual summit, two of the original three aims are repeated: defending democracy against authoritarianism and addressing and fighting corruption. Interestingly, advancing respect for human rights has been replaced by ‘collective action to address emerging challenges’.
By bringing leaders of other democracies together again in 2023, Biden may hope to parade before Republicans how numerous are his foreign friends. But his guests, each with their own problems, will have absorbed reports from the United States of mass shootings, election fraud, civil division, judicial bias, gross inequality, discrimination, right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism. They can hardly look up to the United States as an example of opportunity, freedom and civil liberties when, as one American commentator has put it, half its population ‘struggles at subsistence level, militarized police gun down and imprison the poor with impunity, and the primary business of the state is war’. They know about American agencies that, covertly or overtly, have been behind coups, assassinations, torture and electoral intervention in their and others’ countries.
Biden campaigned with the slogan ‘America is back’. That was a rerun from his earlier days as a senator, when the United States and world leadership were synonymous. The world has changed since then: just what democracy means today is a moot point. Which countries count as democracies and whether democracy can be seen as necessarily for the good when its actual history is unveiled are increasingly questioned. But in Biden’s view nothing has changed: democracy must confront autocracy on the geopolitical front as good confronts evil. ‘Democracy’ is Biden’s weapon against terrorism, communism and authoritarianism. His National Security Strategy announced in mid-October 2022 echoed Barack Obama’s vaunting of US exceptionalism. Again calling America the ‘indispensable nation’, Biden told the world it ‘needs US leadership’.
In 1999 the RAND corporation proposed a means by which the United States could contain China, its only competitor for global hegemony. RAND invoked the ‘Ten Dulles Rules’ of the 1950s and 60s, which aimed at corrupting citizens in targeted countries, undermining their national traditions, disrupting their social systems and attacking their governments. These are the ten steps that still guide the CIA in containing China. According to its own co-founder, the National Endowment for Democracy was set up to do overtly what the CIA used to do covertly. It has supported regime-change efforts across the globe, and is funded directly by the US government. Democracy as it is generally understood has nothing to do with it.
That leaves global hegemony as America’s reason for enmity with China. Yet when Biden and Xi spoke for three hours in Bali in November 2022, the US president, according to the Chinese record, offered several concessions. The United States does not seek a new Cold War, does not support ‘Taiwan independence’, does not support ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’, does not seek ‘decoupling’ from China and does not want to contain Beijing. Biden said that the United States would ‘compete vigorously [with China], but I’m not looking for conflict’. He added: ‘I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War’.
If so, what is the democracy hype about? Why is Australia trying, at great cost and risk, to contain Beijing, whose system will remain its own? What the world needs is not war with China, but concerted action to restrain global heating, deal with recurrent pandemics and stop mutually assured destruction. If US democratic leadership can help do this, so much the better, but that cannot be assumed.
Timothy Erik Ström, 24 Feb 2023
The US and its allies are backing Ukraine to the hilt in order to further subordinate Europe to NATO in preparation for a possible war with China.