Autocratization and the decline of international cooperation

The last decade has not been favorable to democracy worldwide. The rise of right-wing populists and the hardening of autocratic rule have left clear imprints. The Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index (BTI) traces this development for 137 developing countries and emerging economies, or four-fifths of the world's population. For this purpose, we provide more than 5,000 pages of country analyses and a comprehensive data package.

But sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. That's why we are delighted to supplement our assessments with creative and compelling visual depictions designed by our colleagues at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC. Their latest publication, Graphic Images: Autocrats and the Use of Power, is devoted to portraying autocratic settings in China, Iran and Russia, according to BTI data. We are grateful, especially to Irene Braam and Tony Silberfeld, for this great transatlantic cooperation.

Political regression worldwide was driven by three factors:

In 39 countries, the level of political transformation has dropped significantly within a decade, by more than 0.75 points on the BTI scale of ten. Even democracies that were once considered consolidating, such as Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland and Serbia, belong to this category and are now rated as defective democracies with pronounced deficiencies in terms of the rule of law and participation. Blatant mismanagement and unfulfilled promises of economic and social inclusion were often the reason for voters to choose the populist or ethno-nationalist card.

For some former democracies, however, the road led even further downhill. The tragic frontrunner is Turkey, which had been regarded as a promising example of how to combine political Islamism and democracy, and which is now classified as an autocracy, with a drastic drop of 2.85 points. Another dozen countries have followed this path to autocracy. Ten years ago, 44 percent of the countries surveyed by the BTI were autocratic; today, 51 percent are. In most of these cases, severe deficiencies in the rule of law first allowed power to concentrate in the executive branch and then led to the dismantling of political participation rights.

Moreover, the number of hard autocracies—in which the separation of powers is eliminated and political participation rights are restricted to a minimum—increased to 44 countries, or nearly one-third of all 137 countries surveyed. Often, autocratic hardening was a backlash against weaknesses in legitimacy due to rampant corruption, lack of socioeconomic progress, or democratic movements, the most recent example being Belarus.

The authoritarian narrative

The dismantling of democracy and authoritarian hardening do not work without propaganda. Populists invoke the self-proclaimed “will of the people” and often exploit social divisions along ethnic or religious lines. In autocracies such as China, a narrative is deliberately employed that contrasts a quarreling, sluggish democracy driven by vested interests with efficient and purposeful modernizing dictatorships, which they argue is for the actual good of the people.

It is important to take this narrative seriously, because it taps into a widespread discontent among populations, precisely in defective, fragile democracies that often struggle with deficits in representation and corrupt elites. For years, the BTI has measured declining approval of democracy, not so much in terms of democratic norms, but in terms of the performance of democratic institutions and the level of representation of democratic processes.

The authoritarian narrative holds that, by dismantling democracy, more efficiency can be gained. In Benin, President Patrice Talon initiated electoral reform to eliminate the paralyzing fragmentation of the party system. Now only two parties are represented in parliament, both of which support the president. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele was elected as an alternative to the entrenched polarization between left-wing and right-wing parties. Now he is polarizing himself in contempt of constitutional procedures and is gaining widespread support for his populist-authoritarian course. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte promised to finally clean up corruption and drug-related crime. Despite massive human rights violations and a militarization of politics, he remains popular. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied deposed the government and suspended parliament. This was directed against the Islamist Ennahda as the strongest parliamentary group, but he popularly portrayed this as a nonpartisan move against institutional inertia and clientelism.

After years of corruption and mismanagement in many countries, there is an impatient urge for good governance and democracy to deliver. Authoritarian politicians tap into this dissatisfaction and frustration by pretending to be able to cut the Gordian knot of institutional deadlocks and elitism through their own means, instead of untying it democratically. Their storyline is that the separation of powers and guarantee of fundamental rights is secondary to efficient governance. It is high time, then, to take a look at how efficient things are in the authoritarian half of the world.

The myth of authoritarian efficiency

If all 70 of the world's autocracies were a single country, it would be roughly on par with Nicaragua in terms of its political transformation score of 3.68 out of 10 in the BTI 2022, with no free elections and systematic human rights violations. Among the 62 countries in which the most basic human rights (protection of liberty and physical integrity) are regularly and extensively violated, there are 58 autocracies. Public discourse and free expression is manipulated, distorted, or outright banned in 61 countries, including 59 autocracies. With few exceptions, autocratic regimes are efficient only in repression.

Increasingly repressive: Many autocracies like China used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further tighten freedom of expression.

Because autocratic rulers have no democratic mandate, they are dependent on gaining their legitimacy through societal well-being like economic prosperity and social inclusion. Here, too, the record is bleak. The average authoritarian country scores 4.33 out of 10 in the BTI 2022, roughly the same level of economic transformation as Laos, which suffers from declining growth rates, rising social inequality, distorted competition, and a lack of private property protection. Among the 63 developing countries with the highest levels of poverty and inequality, three-quarters are ruled autocratically. With few exceptions, autocratic regimes are efficient only in privation.

Not delivering: Many autocracies like Russia are export-dependent and subject to the volatility of demand and prices.

The claim that autocratic regimes have a systemic advantage in terms of governance performance due to strict prioritization, rigorous implementation, and centralized policy coordination is also not confirmed in the Transformation Index. The average governance performance of the 70 autocracies in the BTI 2022 is on par with Nigeria, a corrupt and rudderless regime that has not succeeded in reforming its energy sector or developing infrastructure, is failing in policy coordination, and cannot control the security situation in the north of the country.

Overall, there is a considerable efficiency gap between democracies and autocracies. Instead of being able to act swiftly and effectively through well-functioning, development-oriented dictatorship, autocratic policy coordination falls short of democracies (-1.69), the use of available resources is significantly less efficient (-1.85), and the discrepancy between autocratic and democratic anti-corruption policies is particularly large (-2.14). The ability to devise policy (i.e., to set strategic priorities, implement the government's agenda, and be flexible and able to learn), is also considerably weaker in autocracies (-1.91).

Intentionally overburdened: Many autocracies like Iran have established clientelist regimes and fail to fight corruption.

More internal repression, more external aggression

Democratic erosion and poor governance go hand in hand. This is especially true in cases that involve domestic consensus-building and international cooperation. In the domestic sphere, this can be understood instantly. If minorities are marginalized by an ethno-nationalist discourse (as in India or Sri Lanka), if government critics are criminalized (as in the Philippines), and if polarization is driven by populist governments (as in Brazil or Hungary), then a common understanding of societal goals is harder to reach. This is even more true in the case of autocratic hardening, as in China, Iran, and Russia.

It is important to note, however, that domestic political repression and foreign political aggression are two sides of the same coin of authoritarian regimes under pressure. In Russia, the domestic political repression of opposition voices such as the regime critic Alexei Navalny and the human rights organization Memorial finds its foreign policy counterpart in the invasion of Ukraine. Here, the concern is less about a possible NATO expansion than about the fear of a democratic and successful Ukraine, which could also encourage democrats and reformers in Russia. Iran pursues an unyielding and ruthless ideological course in both domestic and foreign policy, strictly rejecting Western influence and seeking to consolidate theocracy at home while strengthening brothers in faith internationally. The Chinese imperial quest also tolerates no dissent. Domestically, the Communist Party's leading role must not be questioned, neither regionally by Uighurs and Tibetans, nor by critics of the regime. In foreign policy, threatening gestures against Taiwan are also increasing. Taiwan’s successful democratic government is a similar thorn in the side of the regime in Beijing as a democratic Ukraine is to the regime in Moscow.

Curtains fall: In many autocracies like China, increasing internal repression and rising external aggression go hand in hand.

China, Iran, Russia, and numerous other states disregard an international set of rules founded on trust, cooperation, and a consensus-oriented diplomatic approach, and are increasingly convinced that they can do better on their own. The governance gap between democracies and autocracies, noted before, is even larger in international cooperation, as autocratic regimes are less effective in using international support (-2.22), less credible in keeping agreements (-2.45), and less reliable and peaceful in regional cooperation (-2.08). Perhaps we may have overestimated the liberalizing effect of international interdependence. Supporting and involving authoritarian regimes has certainly not led to improved international and regional cooperation.

There are three lessons that democratic societies advocating for international cooperation and multilateralism can take from this:

First, autocracies are less reliable and peaceful in international relations. As systemic demands require clinging to power at all costs, domestic repression needs to be accompanied by curtailing any liberalizing foreign influence. Therefore, keeping international agreements becomes secondary.

Second, to counter the erosion of international cooperation, more value-oriented cooperation among democratic states is needed. This also means it is necessary to decisively counter the erosion of democratic standards in our own ranks.

Third, support for authoritarian governments must be scrutinized, also from a security and defense policy perspective. A clearer differentiation is needed between mutual trust in cooperation among democratic nations and vigilant monitoring of agreements with authoritarian regimes.

In the end, autocracies, despite their seemingly confident and determined demeanor, act from the defensive. This makes them all the more dangerous.

Click here to access the Bertelsmann Stiftung's 2022 Transformation Index.

Click here to view Graphic Images: Autocrats and the Use of Power.

Hauke Hartmann is Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and co-directs the BTI project. With a thematic focus on democratization and human rights, he takes particular interest in governance in Arab and Latin American countries. He was a Fellow at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and received his Ph.D. for his thesis on US human rights policy under President Carter from Free University of Berlin. He was a Fulbright scholar and holds an M.A. both in North American Studies (John F. Kennedy Institute Berlin) and in Latin American and Caribbean Studies (State University of New York).


Hauke Hartmann, Senior Expert at the Bertlesmann Stiftung