Russia’s war against Ukraine is a stark reminder, if one was necessary, that dictatorships make us all less secure. Day-after-day, Ukrainians are being killed or tortured, losing their homes and being forced to live in darkness and cold.
Several thousand kilometers to the south and west, Ethiopians, Somalis, Nigerians, Egyptians and others are going hungry from a lack of food. In Europe, energy costs have soared, inflation is rising and more needs to be spent on defence, money that could otherwise have been used for better purposes.
Across Europe, governments are seeking to draw lessons from the Russian war against Ukraine. Some seem obvious: do not make yourself dependent on authoritarian governments for essential needs.
Or, at least, diversify such risks. Germany’s reliance on energy from Russia now stands as ‘Exhibit A’ of what not to do. Russia had signalled, in words and deeds, its intention to disrupt Europe’s security order and yet most of Germany’s political class operated for years as if trade was the only foreign policy objective that mattered.
Beyond the obvious lessons, how should democratic states co-operate with authoritarian governments in the future?
My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, has studied the security strategies of 13 democratic governments to understand how they see this relationship.
From this, some trends can be observed.
The risk of authoritarian regimes is only now being taken seriously. While the Czech Republic developed a foreign policy strategy to take account of this as early as 2015, for many others Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 triggered fresh thinking. Four governments are now updating their strategies (The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and the UK), two (Germany, Ireland) did not have strategies in place and are developing them now.
While there are differences in how governments describe the problem of authoritarian regimes, all recognise the threat of disinformation campaigns or cyberattacks by authoritarian governments that seek to weaken democracy.
There is a limit in most of these security strategies: they do not explore authoritarian security threats beyond their borders, such as the weakening of regional stability, risk of international conflict and potential for humanitarian emergencies.
The US strategy is an exception, mentioning that “respect for democracy and support for human rights promotes global peace, security, and prosperity.”
Most of the strategies also fail to address the problem of democracies becoming more autocratic.
Danes don’t mince words
A recent Danish government report is an exception, in language that does not mince words. It mentions the serious risks that would result from Donald Trump being elected again as US president.
On risks in the EU it notes that the “strengthened unity in the EU and the dynamic development of the EU’s strategic autonomy and role as a security policy actor are threatened by populist forces that are challenging fundamental EU principles regarding the rule of law and democracy and which want to roll back the EU.
“As long as they only have power in countries like Hungary, the problem is manageable; but should they win power in one of the major countries, there is a serious risk of the cohesion and dynamism of the Union being undermined.”
The Danish report clearly explains how authoritarian rule weakens security, the foreign policy of many democracies views human rights, the rule of law and democracy as mainly as “values” that deserve support, for example through funding projects, but not as “interests” which should be put at the centre of hard foreign policy concerns.
The idea that democracy is a value that may be trumped by interests has influenced the institutional set-up of many foreign ministries.
For example, while the German Foreign Office claims democracy is a key foreign policy concern and provides significant funding for projects in selected countries, it has no dedicated department, unit, or even person dealing with democracy across the board.
This lack of focus on democracy is a mistake.
If we look at developments in Russia over the last 30 years, it turns out that the supposed ‘idealists”‘ — human rights activists and democracy supporters — had the most realistic understanding of the Russian regime and the security risks it created. We would be safer today if such voices had played a central role in western governments’ foreign policy planning.
Looking ahead, the threat authoritarian governments pose to global security needs to be explored in greater detail to finetune foreign and security strategies.
But a necessary change of direction is clear: consider democracy and human rights abroad to be key security concerns and matter of hard foreign policy, rather than only as idealistic values.