Three summits in Brussels as Ukraine fights back
Canberra wrings hands as Honiara goes pinkish

At war with the autocrats

It is by no means clear that the world’s authoritarian states see themselves as members
Professor Henry Reynolds - "It is by no means clear that the world’s authoritarian states see themselves as members of an 'anti-democratic coalition'. Some of the most autocratic are American allies"

| Pearls & Irritations

TOWNSVILLE - “I think we are in a contest,” President Biden declared in June last year, “not with China per se but with autocrats and autocratic governments around the world - whether or not democracies can compete with them in this rapidly changing 21st century.”

Was he referring to particular regimes that assumed a hostile stance towards the United States or were geo-political rivals? Or was it really autocracies anywhere and everywhere that had been put on notice.

That raises many difficult questions. How are autocratic governments defined and who establishes the official list?

The best available guide is the Economist’s Annual Democracy Index. But that greatly complicates the picture. The 2020 index divided the world’s nation states into four categories—Full Democracies, Flawed Democracies, Hybrid Regimes, Authoritarian States.

One hundred and sixty four states were assessed. There were 23 full democracies, 52 flawed democracies, 32 hybrid regimes and 57 authoritarian states.

Just under 50% of the world’s population lived in full or flawed democracies; a little over half lived in hybrid or authoritarian regimes.

Only 14% of nation states were judged to be full democracies and just over 8% of global population resided in them .

Many of them were quite small and concentrated in northern Europe.

Outside Europe they were widely scattered and included South Korea and Japan, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica in Latin America and Mauritius in Africa.

The Anglo settler states, Australia, New Zealand and Canada made the grade.

So was Biden serious when he proclaimed that the democracies were in competition with autocratic governments around the world, all 57 of them?

It is far from certain that the diverse democracies want to march in this latest American crusade.

And do the widely assorted autocracies have a common view about anything much at all given their extraordinary diversity of location, history, culture and religion?

Scott Morrison seems to have no doubts about the Biden crusade, as might be expected.

In a recent address to the Lowy Institute he declared that, “a new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning itself to challenge and reset the world order in their own image.”

Indeed the autocrats were “seeking to challenge the status quo through threats and violence.”

It was therefore necessary to understand “that autocrats don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us. Their mindset is very different.”

Who exactly were there among “the rest of us” was not spelt out.

Morrison’s intellectual perspicacity must have left his audience quite breathless.

He claimed to have an understanding of what instinctively drives the autocrats. He knows that their mindset is very different from ours .

Was he referring to all 57 authoritarian states? Did he even know more than a handful of them?

His own ‘arc of autocracy’ included only Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

But the lack of precision, the vagueness even of what are the essential characteristics of an authoritarian state, is a distinct advantage for a government seeking to ride a wave of whipped up anxiety.

The confected threat of autocratic governments around the world provides the intellectual underpinning for a new cold war. It is a campaign that Australia seems only too keen to join.

Indeed Morrison’s warnings were almost apocalyptic.

The challenges facing Australia, he declared, “continue to mount.” They require us to “increase our resilience, expand our capabilities and harden our defences.”

We are threatened by the “most difficult and dangerous security environment in 80 years.”

Really? Since 1942? One has to wonder whether this was a product of the prime minister’s own fevered imagination or was advice given to him by the defence-security establishment in Canberra.

That this is indeed the case was suggested by the response of Professor Rory Medcalf, the head of the ANU’s National Security College, in an interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.

Commenting on Morrison’s Lowy Address he enthused calling it, “quite a dramatic new way to describe the challenge that democracies face in the world.”

The prime minister was “looking at the challenges to Australia’s national interest and to global stability.”

Medcalf guessed it created “a new framework for this country and other democracies to build their own solidarity, their own coalitions, to resist and to build resilience against these threats.”

Close contact with the authoritarians could only be considered “but not at the risk of compromising Australia’s interests, values and identity.”

It is by no means clear that the world’s authoritarian states see themselves as members of an “anti-democratic coalition.”

Some of the most autocratic are American allies. Many others maintain normal diplomatic and economic relations with any number of democracies.

There is certainly a lack of patience with constant lectures from leading democracies for them to mend their ways.

And this at a time when dissatisfaction with democracy is rife in its historic homelands.

Many commentators consider that the greatest threat to democracy comes from within.

Beating the drums of war is a time honoured tactic to attempt to unite deeply fractured societies.

No leader would be more keenly aware of this fact that president Biden himself as he begins to prepare for impending bitterly fought mid-term elections.

America itself is currently considered by The Economist as a flawed democracy.

Perhaps Australia could advise the Americans how they could lift their game and recover their place among the ranks of the full democracies.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

"Historic and social factors such as ethnicity, language, religion and cultural norms are much more important in determining how a nation or state is governed."

I think this point is something that must be clearly understood when talking about democracy.

There is no generic, one size fits all, form of democracy, even if people like Scott Morrison seems to think there is.

British democracy, as practised in the United Kingdom, is quite different to the kind of democracy practised in the United States or Australia, for instance.

The Westminster systems practised in the UK and Australia, and Papua New Guinea are all different and dependent on the historic and social factors listed above.

The same argument, as noted by Chris, can be made about autocracies.

Those factors that determine what sort of democracy exists in any one country are infinitely malleable. One of the determinants of that malleability is the quality of leadership. Same goes for autocracies.

In this sense, just as Putin has influenced the style of Russian autocracy, Scott Morrison has influenced the style of Australian democracy; and the kleptocrats in PNG have influenced the style of democracy there.

In all three cases these influences have been extremely detrimental for the population at large.

In Australia, Morrison, just like his hero, Donald Trump, did in the US, has poisoned our form of democracy to the point where it is starting to resemble what goes on in PNG.

Chris Overland

I enjoyed this article.

Democracies are very difficult to both create and then govern successfully.

First and foremost they require a surprisingly self disciplined population which will voluntarily conform to a broadly agreed set of ideas about how their society should be ordered and governed.

For example, that there should be a mechanism for an orderly change of government, operating to a pre-determined cycle, that is not subject to political manipulation and which requires the consent of the governed as expressed by voting in an election.

This may seem self evident to those of us that live in such a society but is manifestly not so in much of the world.

It seems that many people actually prefer to live within a much more authoritarian political structure, especially one which preferences social stability and public order above individual rights and freedoms.

For these populations, personal rights and freedoms have to be subordinated to social control and order because they know or believe that their state is inherently unstable for some reason, e.g., persistent historic inter ethnic tensions or quarrels over territorial boundaries or being surrounded by actual or potential enemies.

The power of this thinking is evident in the fact that so many Russians apparently find it easy to believe Putin's blatant lies about the supposed cabal of drug addicts and Nazis in charge of Ukraine or that many Americans clearly accept that there is a sinister 'deep state' determined to take away their freedoms.

PNG is a flawed democracy in that every five years it elects what amounts to an interchangeable kleptocracy, whose members pillage the resource of the state for the benefit of themselves and their cronies.
There are many other notional democracies that operate in much the same way such as Venezuela or Zimbabwe or some Middle Eastern countries.

For these reasons Morrison's simplistic and binary view of the world is deceptive and misleading. The world does not divide up neatly into good guys and bad guys.

At best, as citizens we can sometimes confidently identify either obviously good or obviously bad behaviours and decisions on the part of either our own governments or those of other countries.

Even then, there will often be serious disputation about how some behaviours or decisions ought to be classified, e.g. Australia's policy in relation to asylum seekers or the wisdom or otherwise of deciding to buy nuclear submarines.

There are no easy answers to the questions posed about the flaws and contradictions found within different forms of government because they are never merely expressions of the structure of the prevailing constitutional arrangements.

Historic and social factors such as ethnicity, language, religion and cultural norms are much more important in determining how a nation or state is governed.

One bitter lesson of the last 30 years is that democracy is neither self evidently superior to other forms of government in the eyes of many people and certainly not readily exportable or transplantable.

In this context, it is a miracle that the hybridized Westminster system bequeathed to PNG by Australia continues to function, at least after a fashion.

Whether its governments can ever be more that a rotating, elected kleptocracy or kakistocracy remains to be seen.

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