| 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.