Chapter 6 Democratic Erosion and Multilateralism: When Authoritarian Leaders Challenge the Liberal International Order

In: Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism
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Marianne Kneuer
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Abstract

In recent years, scholars’ attention to changes of government toward non-democratic variants has increased. The studies to date crystallize around a consensus that the modes of democratic regression in the post-Cold War period differ from the previous ones and that the prevailing archetype for this period is democratic erosion marked by two characteristics: first, a gradual and incremental process distinct from abrupt breakdowns such as coups d’état, executive coups or revolutions; and second, the process is implemented by legally elected incumbents by legal means or upholding the façade of legal means. In fact, quantitative measurement corroborates that 70 percent of the cases of autocratization after 1994 occurred on account of democratic erosion.

So far, scholars have set out to describe and explain this process of gradual democratic erosion on a domestic level. This chapter will take a different perspective and ask: What foreign policy implications does the fact that countries are in a process of democratic erosion have on the international level? Departing from an actor-centered approach, the argument is that the protagonist of democratic erosion, the erosion agent, might link her or his domestic mission to missions on the regional or international level. That means that in the same way that erosion agents strive to change the rules of the game domestically, they strive to change the rules of regional politics or even might try to influence the international level.

This chapter looks at cases of democratic erosion and the activities of their incumbents on the regional and international level and traces in what way and to what degree the erosion agents did change foreign policy approaches and introduce new foreign policy elements. The sample for this study embraces the following countries: Venezuela, Russia, Hungary and Poland, as well as the United States under President Trump.

Introduction

Democracy has been increasingly under pressure in the last decades. After the euphoria over democratization in the 1990s, combined with the expectation of more development and peace as expressed in the strategic UN document “Agenda for Democratization” (1996) by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the evidence of the plateauing of democratization in the mid-2000s, the last two decades started to raise concerns of an observable trend away from democracy. While, on the one hand, there was relative stability among existing liberal democracies, the disturbing aspect referred to the intermediate sub-regimes – encompassing those that were neither fully consolidated democracies nor fully consolidated autocracies – namely: deficient and flawed democracies (Merkel et al. 2003), electoral authoritarianism (Schedler 2006), competitive authoritarianism (Levitsky and Way 2010) or hybrid regimes (Diamond 2002; Morlino 2009). These intermediate sub-regime types showed a high degree of dynamics, albeit in negative terms as instable and fragile, and seemed to be more prone to becoming authoritarian regimes (Cassani and Tomini 2019, 141).

Moreover, the picture of post-Cold War development reveals three major patterns (Kneuer and Demmelhuber 2020, 4–5): first, the resilience of autocracies in two main regional clusters, East and Southeast Asia (China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) and the Middle East (Gulf monarchies, Iran); second, the unsuccessful consolidation of democratizing countries that got stuck in a hybrid state (numerous countries of the former Soviet Union) with open-ended results (either reversal or progress); and third, democratic erosion of liberal or electoral democracies as reflected, for example, in a regional cluster in Latin America as well as in Central and Eastern Europe.

Research to date crystallizes around a consensus that the modes of democratic regression in the post-Cold War period differ from the previous ones, and that the prevailing archetype for this period is marked by two characteristics: first, a gradual and incremental process distinct from abrupt breakdowns such as coups d’état, executive coups or revolutions; and second, the process is implemented by legally elected incumbents by legal means or by upholding the façade of legal means (Bermeo 2016; Haggard and Kaufman 2021; Kneuer 2021; Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Lust and Waldner 2015; Lührmann and Lindberg 2019). In fact, quantitative measurement corroborates that 70 percent of the cases of autocratization after 1994 occurred on account of democratic erosion (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019, 1104). Thus, democratic erosion has become the main route toward autocratization in the post-Cold War period. More than that, this specific route affects predominantly democracies (Cassani and Tomini 2019, 47; Lührmann and Lindberg 2019, 1103), and not only deficient ones but also liberal democracies where democratic erosion starts at a high level of democratic quality, such as Brazil, Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, India and even the United States during the Trump administration (V-Dem Institute 2021).

The latest accounts confirm the ongoing trend of cases of autocratization worldwide outnumbering cases of democratization (see V-Dem Institute 2021; Freedom House 2021). Hence, autocratization has become a relevant phenomenon not only for scholars, but also for policy-makers and practitioners, with a focus on democratic erosion being the main route toward autocratization.

I define democratic erosion as an “active and intended process of democratic deconstruction implemented in an incremental way” (Kneuer 2021, 8). In this vein, democratic erosion is conceived as an actor-driven process in which the legally elected incumbent purposefully initiates the dismantling of democratic institutions, processes, and norms and principles with the aim of changing the “rules of the game.” According to the argument of liberalism, such internal processes of change would also be reflected internationally. In other words, the preferences of the erosion agent, and the strategy guiding it to restructure the system, would be reflected in foreign policy behavior. Furthermore, it could be assumed that the change in the balance of power – in the sense of an excessively expanded executive and a limited influence of the legislative and other stakeholders – would increase the incumbent’s leeway for possibly formulating new foreign policy goals or even changing course. Finally, another assumption relates to the externalization of the erosion agent’s behaviors or patterns of behavior that result from the transformed power constellation in favor of the executive. In this respect, the question is: To what extent do ideological or ideational strategies such as illiberal thinking, authoritarian governance styles or national-populist narratives affect the behavior in international politics? In all, what implications does democratic erosion, as a specific path to autocratization, have for a country’s international behavior and its foreign policy?

While there is a nascent literature on democratic erosion, mainly from comparative politics and regime studies (providing large-N descriptive accounts or in-depth case studies), this new phenomenon has barely been explored in terms of its international dimension. In contrast to the international dimension of democratization, which has been broadly studied, research on the international dimension of autocratization lags behind, and when it comes to the specific path of democratic erosion, the literature falls short in conceptual as well as empirical work. One reason might be that research on the international implications of democratic erosion is located at the intersection between comparative politics and international relations.

In order to disentangle research perspectives on this topic, one focus addresses international influences that make democratic erosion possible by reinforcing authoritarian preferences of political elites or by impacting on other domestic factors that might cause democratic erosion, such as weakening institutions and polarization of elites and masses (see Bermeo 2016; Meyerrose 2020). Thus, within this perspective, democratic erosion acts as a dependent variable. Another perspective, which establishes democratic erosion as an independent variable, explores how erosion agents change the country’s foreign policy according to their domestic autocratization strategy and to what extent the domestic change in the “rules of the game” is externalized and leads to a modified compass on the international level, in particular on how central foreign policy principles are readjusted. Finally, an essential knowledge from democratization studies is that there exists a dynamic interaction between domestic and external dimensions, be it in terms of structural links, zeitgeist or interplay between actors.

The following considerations concentrate on the second perspective. In the next section, the concept of democratic erosion is presented. Then, the still-few theoretical threads and empirical findings that might be helpful for building a conceptual framework regarding democratic erosion and the international dimension are discussed. The main part explores the foreign policy behavior on the global, regional and neighbourhood level on the basis of illustrative spotlights. The tentative finding points to the pursuit of diversification as a common trait of the foreign policy of eroding democracies with regard to political and economic liberalism. What particularly concerns multilateralism and global governance, however, is that while governments in eroding democracies also in this regard diversify (e.g. advocating for counter-hegemonic region-building), they are more prone to also choose the exit option (withdrawing from international institutions). The chapter terminates by discussing the implications of the fact that eroding democracies challenge rule-based multilateralism and might perforate the permissive post-Cold War consensus on international cooperation and by suggesting avenues for future work.1

Democratic Erosion and the Domestic Dimension

Since the flattening of the Third Wave of Democratization in the mid-2000s, concerns about democratic recessions have increased, underpinned by indices such as Freedom House, which states a consecutive decline in global freedom since 2006. However, much disagreement exists on how best to interpret this trend. Some speak of the decline and crisis of democracy (Freedom House 2017; 2018; 2019), while others question the assumption of a democratic rollback (Levitsky and Way 2010) or warn about alarmist tones and state that the current widespread pessimism presents an overly dramatic storyline (Carothers 2009; Skaaning and Jiménez 2017. While the hypothesis of a reverse wave is contentious (see also Skaaning 2020; Tomini 2021), the democratic regression of countries such as Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, Brazil and India present weighty cases due to their size and their geostrategic role. In addition, developments in Hungary and Poland have been startling, since it was in the group of post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe that democratic consolidation was considered most successful and, also, because Hungary and Poland had been seen as two showcase countries for such consolidation. That a democratic regression could happen at all within the framework of the EU was as unexpected as the EU was unprepared for it.

For a long time, attention has focused more on the macro-structural perspective, that is, the extent to which a reverse wave is imminent or has already occurred. Less attention, however, has been paid to the course of democratic regression. In fact, the conceptual tools to capture this specific path, its logic and mechanisms, are lacking. Only in the 2010s were first approaches produced. Erdmann and Kneuer distinguish two routes of democratic decline and transition from democratic rule: “slow death,” taking up Guillermo O’Donnell’s (1995) term and referring to democratic erosion as incremental decay, and “rapid death,” as a sudden breakdown of a regime relapsing into authoritarian rule (Erdmann and Kneuer 2011, 12). The work of Lust and Waldner (2015) and Bermeo (2016) established the notion of “democratic backsliding,” followed by a proliferation of different concepts such as “democratic deconsolidation” (Foa and Mounk 2016), “de-democratization” (Bogaards 2018) and “death or end of democracy” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Runciman 2018).

While democratic backsliding is widely used, there are good arguments to prefer democratic erosion. Backsliding has been criticized because it insinuates a rather accidental, involuntary and unconscious reversal (Bogaards 2018 1482; Lührmann and Lindberg 2019, 1099). Moreover, backsliding implies a reversal to a previous state or historical precedent. This kind of backward linearity, however, can seldom be found (Kneuer 2021, 4). Looking at post-socialist cases including Russia, they actually did not “slide back” into their previous socialist system, but rather into a different type of rule. Hence, the concept of democratic “erosion” is used here.

As I have argued elsewhere (Kneuer 2021), the metaphor of erosion implies that with the force of an agent, an existing structure is hollowed out and consequently deteriorates. Thus, the erosion agent actively weakens an existing democracy (a regime that fulfills the conditions of democracy for a certain time), which consequently experiences an incremental dismantling of its democratic structure. What the notion of erosion is able to express in a more pertinent way than backsliding is the driving factor for the process (an erosion agent), the object of the erosion (democracy) and the direction and nature of the process (gradual hollowing out). The term even indicates the outcome of the process: a shell as a remnant of the erosion process keeping up a façade of the former structure. This shell can be filled up with different kinds of new content (the “something else”).

This understanding of democratic erosion attributes a critical role to agency and to opportunity as the erosion agent needs to get access to power, to have a sufficient scope of power and to remain in power. Thus, the specific propensity of democratic erosion has been described as a process that is initiated by a legally elected leader (Bermeo 2016; Lust and Waldner 2015; Haggard and Kaufman 2021; Kneuer 2021; Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). What prototypical cases such as Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hungary under Viktor Orbán and India under Narendra Modi display is that political leaders seek electoral victory, and thus popular legitimation, in order to then pursue their strategy of transforming the democracy according to their envisaged alternative model of rule. This approach involves two dangerous balancing acts. On the one hand, the eroding agents try to maintain the façade of legitimacy (as long as possible), which means domestically that they still need the support of the population and depend on re-election. On the other hand, they need a method for changing the democratic rules of the game without domestic political resistance becoming too great and thus disrupting the plan for democratic erosion. Open and strong resistance is what erosion agents must fear most because they must then drop their mask and resort to repressive measures. This, in turn, is something they would want to prevent for as long as possible.

To achieve this dual goal of democratic deconstruction without loss of domestic political support, erosion agents resort primarily to three mechanisms: a sequenced approach; legalism; and a legitimizing narrative that undergirds the transformation into an alternative model with an appealing ideology that is able to mobilize at least a large part of the citizens.

Sequencing

A critical logic of action deployed by the erosion agent is that they proceed in sequences when dismantling the democratic structures, processes and principles. I assume that erosion agents implement these changes neither in a contingent or arbitrary way nor in one strike (Kneuer 2021, 9–10). Looking at long-term cases such as Venezuela or Hungary, we can observe an evolutionary sequencing pattern starting with electoral victory (access to power), reconfiguration of the balance of power and the neutralizing of control instances, securing persistence in power as well as limiting political freedoms and civil rights. This kind of sequencing is a perfidious trait as it makes democratic erosion almost imperceptible (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 6) because it lacks a visible starting point, which other routes of rapid death imply (coup, declaration of martial law, etc.). Often, it is only possible to know a posteriori that an incumbent is aiming at transforming the democratic country due to the incremental and sequential evolution of erosion. It is equally difficult to identify an endpoint to democratic erosion (Lust and Waldner 2015; Haggard and Kaufman 2021). Therefore, it makes sense to differentiate the outcomes of democratic erosion processes: democratic erosion can stop before a regime becomes autocratic or it passes the line. Once this happens, it does not make sense to speak of democratic erosion anymore, but rather of autocratic consolidation.

Legalism

Erosion agents play a “game of deception” (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019, 1108) as they strive to give a legal appearance to their transformation. For this reason, they attach great importance not only to coming into power legally, but also to remaining in power for as long as possible through more or less legal elections while, at the same time, safeguarding this with more or less legal laws that help to cement their claim to power. This can be, for example, the abolition of term limits in presidential regimes or the amendment of electoral laws. Most importantly, at some point, erosion agents need to reconfigure the balance of power and the institutional setting. The preferred method is “executive aggrandizement” (Bermeo 2016), constitutional rewriting and changing laws, which gradually weaken liberal democracy and accountability. In order to do so, they employ what Corrales (2015) refers to as “autocratic legalism,” a concept based on the example of Venezuela, which identifies two features: first, the autocratic character is often not overt but buried among an array of clauses that empower citizens or other groups; and second, the constitution and laws that reconfigure the rules of the game have been enacted in a constitutional manner following the constitutionally sanctioned processes. Scheppele holds that legalism’s requirements are simply formal insofar as the laws meet a positivist standard for enactment as a technical matter, following the rules laid down and regardless of the content or the value commitment of the law (Scheppele 2018, 556, 562). In this way, the autocrats capitalize on the normative force of formal constitutional procedures in order to justify their actions.

Legitimizing Narrative

The erosion agent needs to mobilize the public and to persuade important parts of the political, economic, social and military elite in order to gain support from both the citizens and the relevant groups (Kneuer 2021). Often, these regimes “embody, pursue and propagate an attractive idea or mission … that can count on international resonance” (Weyland 2017). This mobilization and persuasion transports the message of an innovative project (refounding the nation, a revolutionary project) and intensely promulgates the transformative mission by communicative means. For this purpose, the new autocrats use a wide array of predominantly discursive strategies to legitimize their project of transformation. Therefore, legitimation strategies continue to play a role when it then comes to the realization of the envisaged revolution or mission.

Summing up, democratic erosion encompasses the following propensities: it is (a) actor-driven by an erosion agent who intentionally strives to change the democratic rules of the game by expanding the executive competences, undermining horizontal and vertical accountability and also curtailing liberal rights; for this they use (b) a legal and legalistic approach and (c) an incremental and sequenced logic of action that (d) makes it difficult to identify the ongoing erosion process and – at any stage of the process – difficult to estimate its further development and its endpoint.

Democratic Erosion and the International Dimension

Based on the argument of liberalism, such a domestic process of transformation would also be reflected internationally. Hence, a first and basic assumption is that the preferences of the erosion agent and the guiding strategy for changing the rules of the game would be reflected in its foreign policy objectives and foreign policy behavior. Thus, the modified balance of power – in the sense of an excessively aggrandized executive, the centralization of decision-making in the head of government and its party as well as the limited influence of the legislative and other stakeholders in a majoritarian setting – would expand the incumbent’s leeway for possibly formulating new foreign policy goals alongside the domestic project that the erosion agent is pursuing. Another assumption relates to the externalization of the erosion agent’s behaviors or patterns of behavior that result from the transformed power constellation. In this respect, the question is to what extent ideological or ideational strategies such as illiberal thinking, authoritarian governance styles or national-populist narratives affect foreign policy objectives and behavior. The more domestic projects of erosion are linked to ideological motives and narratives – as in the case of Chávez’s Socialism of the 21st Century or Orbán’s illiberal democracy – the more it can be expected that ideological principles also play a role in the transformation of the international system.

In order to examine the implications that democratic erosion as a specific path of autocratizing countries has for their international behavior and their foreign policy, this chapter suggests looking at each level of the international system, by breaking down the foreign policy behavior on the global, regional and bilateral levels.

Eroding Democracies: Challengers of the Liberal Order?

There is intense debate on the liberal international order and the increasing pressure on it.2 An important finding in this debate is that the challenge to this order comes less from external forces than from within. Ikenberry speaks of threats to liberal internationalism that come from within the West itself (Ikenberry 2018). Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Hofmann (2019) argue that the global order is transforming and that this is a change within the order and not a change of the order. And the interesting analysis of speeches in the UN General Assembly by Kentikelenis and Voeten (2020) supports this, concluding that the contestation during the Cold War between outsiders and insiders shifted into an inner contestation after 1990. Likewise, Lake, Martin and Risse (2021, 238) point to various challenges coming from within core states of the liberal international order that display nationalism, populism and authoritarianism. When these properties are present as a (partial) mixture, then it is a particularly problematic mélange.

It is not far-fetched to assume that the group of internal challengers precisely includes those countries that are in democratic erosion. This in turn leads to the question of how those countries’ foreign policy behavior affects the global order. As Ikenberry (2018) argues, an exit or deliberate absence from the liberal international order is not a realistic option for most states. How, then, do governments in democratic erosion perceive their role in the global order and how do they influence it without exiting?

For a systematic perspective, the distinction by Lake, Martin and Risse (2021) dividing the liberal international order into three levels – economic level, political level and the level of international institutions – offers a useful framework. While economic liberalism implies mainly open markets and the free movement of goods and capital, political liberalism entails a liberal democratic political and economic system, but also the protection of human rights, of the rule of law and of freedom. Finally, liberal international institutions refer to multilateralism and collective security.

It stands to reason that the political liberalism aspect is the biggest problem for governments in democratic erosion. If, driven by an agent of erosion in power, a country begins to change the rules of the democratic game domestically, then it is logical that these rules would not be accepted at the global level either. However, the still dominant “liberal script” of the international community makes it difficult to openly declare oneself an autocrat. Not only are autocracies norm challengers, they are also incumbents in eroding democracies and, therefore, they need to engage in “image management” (Dukalskis 2021) to influence their perception abroad and protect their country against criticism. Therefore, and as long as exiting is not an option, the agent of erosion will most probably look for a strategy to save face while, at the same time, counterposing a different political model and thus challenging the hegemony of “Western” liberal democracy.

This strategy is used by many erosion agents and is reflected in the flagging of an alternative democracy model such as “participatory and protagonist democracy” (Chávez), “vertical” or “strong” democracy (Putin) and “illiberal democracy” (Orbán). The core idea of these declared different democratic models rests on being superior to the Western liberal model. Thus, Chávez clearly rejected the representative principle as “artifice from which our people have been dominated” (Chávez Frías 2014, 76) and as a charade that must be broken. Equally, he disdained the division of power as “disastrous legacy” (Chávez Frías 2009) while he claimed that the Venezuelan “participatory and protagonist” democracy would overcome the deficits of the Western model and be more inclusive and just. In a similar manner, Putin followed his ideologist Vladislav Surkov, especially between 2000 and 2008, and the idea of, first, “managed democracy” followed by “sovereign democracy” (Mandel 2006; Snyder 2018, 45–47), entailing a combination of liberal democratic principles, such as the rule of law and respect for freedoms and rights, and the principles of Russian uniqueness and patriotism. Sovereign democracy, in reality, reflects two doctrines: the primacy of sovereignty over democracy and the sovereign Russian democratic institutional development, which does not correspond to Western standards (Petrov 2005, 182). Whereas Chávez and Putin still referred to democracy with attributes and thus argued with self-confidence for a claim to their own understanding of democracy, Orbán exposes his program openly as “illiberal” democracy (Orbán 2014).

This idiosyncratic approach often goes together with a more nationalist narrative, which can even be linked to a (re)foundational program. Thus, Chávez implemented the (re)foundation of Venezuela as the Fifth Bolivarian Republic; Orbán rewrote the Hungarian Constitution, deleting the term “republic” and placing the country in the tradition of King Stephan I while, at the same time, enshrining the “need for spiritual and intellectual renewal”; and the Kaczynski brothers, Jarosław and Lech, were already advocating for a (re)foundation of a new Fourth Republic in Poland in the 2000s.

These examples indicate that erosion agents, who drive an alternative model of rule domestically, mainly translate this into two aspects of their international behavior: on the one hand, they comply with the pro-democratic mindset of being keen to present the image of clean elections and functioning democratic institutions and to getting international recognition of their regime’s values; on the other hand, erosion agents advocate or even antagonize liberal democracy in an assertive way, by calling it “Western” and making it an anti-hegemonic move that can be used domestically as a narrative of independence (Venezuela) or of sovereigntism (Russia). Thus, erosion agents seem to stick to democracy, the rule of law and human rights, but at the same time they claim to diversify the “Western” model, as it does not reflect the specificity of their history and culture. Therefore, this strategy can be labeled as “diversification.”

On the economic level, tensions can arise if eroding democracies cling to or move back to the Westphalian order (Lake, Martin and Risse 2021). But equally here, as exit is not a realistic option, erosion agents would rather seek to diversify. One ingredient of the economic liberal order is US hegemony, which was questioned by Chávez in a quite confrontational way by demonizing the USA as imperialist. Strangely enough, this did not lead to a significant decrease in trade. At the same time, erosion agents can choose to develop closer relationships with nontraditional partners, thus deviating from the US-dominated model of the western hemisphere. This can also, and specifically, include states that are perceived as “pariahs” and that have not been natural partners in previous economic and trade relations. Thus, Venezuela intensified relations with Iran, although these countries share few commonalities or traditional bonds; they are only united by their antagonism toward the USA. In the case of Hungary, the Orbán government does not follow the foreign policy stance of the EU toward Russia and China. Orbán undertook a rapprochement with Russia, which materialized, for example, in the agreement with Rosatom to build two Russian nuclear reactors in Hungary and in huge loans from Russian banks for that purpose. With his friendly relations with Russia and his permanent criticism of EU sanctions against Russia, Orbán clearly deviates from the general EU stance. More than that, he also steps out of line when it comes to EU – China relations. Thus, in May 2021, he vetoed a declaration of the Council of the EU condemning the new security laws in Hong Kong; the background here was beneficial Chinese investments in Hungary. In all, also on the economic level, we can observe diversification in the foreign policy rather than a radical change of course or exit.

With regard to international institutions, the issue is: What position do governments of eroding democracies take toward rule-based multilateralism as an important part of the global liberal order? Three tensions may arise. First, rule-based multilateralism implies the coordination of policies in order to find collective responses to policy problems. Recently, the permissive consensus on such coordinated policy solutions has decreased, especially in regard to issues that are increasingly perceived in a polarized way, such as migration or climate protection. The “transnational” cleavage within societies and political elites between a more cosmopolitan and transnational orientation on the one hand, and the protection of national values and the defense of national sovereignty on the other hand (Hooghe and Marks 2018; Kriesi et al. 2006), affects the attitude of autocratizing governments that domestically embrace a more nationalistic approach. This translates into skepticism toward policy coordination that would contradict these values such as an open-border policy for migrants. Actually, here we can even observe exit options taken when countries do withdraw from international regimes or do not join international agreements: examples are the USA under Donald Trump and Turkey under Erdoğan leaving the Kyoto Protocol; the USA and Brazil leaving the WHO during the COVID-19 pandemic; and the USA under Trump leaving the UN Human Rights Council. It is no coincidence that the countries that did not sign the UN Global Compact for Migration in 2018 also belong to the group of democracies in erosion: the USA, Brazil, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

This connects to a second tension, namely reluctance in relation to the pooling or delegation of authority (Lake, Martin and Risse 2021, 229; Hooghe and Marks 2018). Those erosion agents that domestically disseminate the narrative of national sovereignty (Basile and Mazzoleni 2019; de Spiegeleire et al. 2017) tend to advocate getting back control rather than delegating authority to supra- or international institutions. Political elites relying on a sovereigntist mindset would not reject multilateral cooperation completely. They would, however, strive to reduce the influence of supra- and international organizations and institutions. The most extreme expression of this sovereigntism was Brexit. While the Polish and Hungarian governments are not interested in leaving the EU – taking into consideration cost-benefit calculations – they are, at the same time, not willing to accept the rules enshrined in the treaties and fundamental for the functioning of the EU. If sovereigntist and populist thinking marry, the result is a concept that focuses on the nation-state as the primary actor in international politics, strengthening national decision-making bodies, decentralizing the EU and reasserting national control over trade, the economy and other policies (de Spiegeleire et al. 2017, 75–76). This includes security policy; thus, when Turkey purchased the S-400 air-defense system, this manifested a defiance of the NATO alliance. An even stronger step, however, was that Trump openly questioned NATO per se and threatened to withdraw the USA from this alliance.

A third tension between the liberal international order and democratic erosion agents is related to the commitment to global governance. There is significant skepticism toward the idea of global governance, similar to that toward multilateralism. This is reflected in the development of a very different approach, namely multipolarity, that opposes both the unipolarity of the USA and the principle of global governance. Chávez and Putin are both decisive advocates of multipolarity. Thus, Chávez’s foreign policy doctrine was based on a multipolar world, in which Venezuela would play an important regional role vis-à-vis the USA (Government of Venezuela, 2001). This approach can be interpreted as an attempt to enlarge the margin of international cooperation, acting through power diffusion and promoting new international blocs and renewed relations (Corrales and Romero 2013; Romero and Mijares 2016). Similarly, Russia strongly envisions the transformation of the global order. Thus, its Foreign Policy Strategy states as a fait accompli:

The world is currently going through fundamental changes related to the emergence of a multipolar international system…. Globalization has led to the formation of new centers of economic and political power. Global power and development potential is becoming decentralized, and is shifting towards the Asia-Pacific Region, eroding the global economic and political dominance of the traditional western powers. Cultural and civilizational diversity of the world and the existence of multiple development models have been clearer than ever to establish a renewed regional hegemony. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation 2016).

India, likewise, and very much in line with Russia, not only supports the aim of a multipolar world, but Modi’s understanding is that multipolarity has already become the new pattern. Beyond this declaratory level, the search for transforming the global order and undermining international institutionalism results in activities of region-building, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section. Regarding the stance of erosion agents toward international institutions, we can observe, again, a certain strategy of diversification, whereas the exit option, that is, leaving an international organization or regime, has already been chosen in several cases.

Summing up, on the political and the economic level, countries with governments engaged in democratic erosion tend to diversify rather than to exit from the liberal international order, whereas they clearly show counter-hegemonic approaches that do influence their foreign policy behavior. Exit is still not the regular option, but it has been chosen in some cases.

Counter-hegemonic Regionalism: Challenging Political Liberalism and International Institutionalism?

Looking at the regional level, regime-boosting regionalism has become a method increasingly used by authoritarian-minded political leaders. Studies on Russia and China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) (Ambrosio 2008; Libman and Obydenkova 2018; Obydenkova and Libman 2019; Russo and Stoddard 2018), but also on Latin America (Riggirozzi and Tussie 2012) and second- or third-tier countries such as Venezuela and ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) (Muhr 2011) and Zimbabwe and SADC (Southern African Development Community) (Debre 2021), demonstrate that protagonists – or authoritarian gravity centers – exploit regional organizations (ROs) as an instrument to influence their geographical proximity (Kneuer et al. 2019). What can be observed is that countries such as Russia either strengthen and shape existing regional organizations (such as the SCO) or they find new ones, as Russia did in the case of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 or Venezuela when creating ALBA in 2004, thereby gathering like-minded allies.

The motives for this authoritarian regionalism are manifold. On the one hand, ROs provide the opportunity to diversify partners and markets for export or trade. On the other hand, material motives are complemented by ideational reasons. Such ROs, and even more so if they are self-created in a region-building effort, can be used as part of a legitimizing narrative by the government insofar as they can mirror the domestic ideological project and raise domestic legitimacy (Libman and Obydenkova 2018). Thus, formulating new policy goals, such as regional cooperation, or anti-Western discourse that finds popular support at home, can generate internal legitimation. Additionally, Chávez deliberately nurtured a regional regime identity by suggesting a superiority vis-à-vis “Western” alternatives (Kneuer et al. 2019). More than that, if ROs project a counter-hegemonic goal as in the cases of the SCO, the EEU or ALBA, the aim is to undermine the hemispheric international institutionalism and foster the creation of a new institutional architecture (Riggirozzi and Tussie 2012; Hirst 2012; Romero and Mijares 2016).

It is no coincidence that such region-building projects were initiated by erosion agents, who strive to transform their regimes toward authoritarianism. Their regional ambitions target the political and economic levels of the liberal global order, but also the institutional one. The “newly found room for maneuver of regional agency” (Kneuer et al. 2019, 454) serves as a veil for distributing counter-practices and counter-norms of democracy, but it also appeases international democracy promoters that put pressure on those countries, which, in turn, constrain internal and external challengers (Debre 2021, 397).

Looking at Turkey under Erdoğan, we can observe a change in the regional policy goals embedded in the ideological vision of the political elite. The idea of diversification consequently decreased the Western orientation and led to a greater role in the Middle East, extending ties to the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia and advocating a Neo-Ottomanism. In all, Turkey changed from a role model to a “problem maker” in the region (Hammargren 2018; Meral and Paris 2010).

Overall, the common denominator of erosion agents’ regional foreign policy appears to be the claim of an assertive autonomy alongside their domestic political project. These counter- or post-hegemonic efforts of region-building are prone to challenge the international institutional order.

Erosion Agents and Their Neighbors: Influencing the Geographical Proximity

Democratization studies have proven the salience of the regional context for regime change (Gleditsch 2002; Gleditsch and Ward 2006; Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán 2005; Pevehouse 2005; Weijnert 2014). As Gleditsch and Ward (2006, 930) point out, “[n]ot only are regimes generally similar within regions, but there is also a strong tendency for transitions to impart a regional convergence.” Thus, spatial proximity and established networks between countries are robust predictors of democratic growth (Weijnert 2014, 246). Such processes of convergence can also be observed in regard to authoritarian spatial clusters (for the Middle East, see Zumbrägel 2020; Vanderhill 2020; for Latin America, see Kneuer 2020). Indeed, foreign policy seems to gain relevance as an additional instrument of autocratic power consolidation. The fact that autocracies may be geographically surrounded by “gray zone” regimes (neither fully consolidated democracies nor fully consolidated autocracies or hybrid regimes) may motivate autocracies to prevent liberalization and progression toward democracy (von Soest 2015; Whitehead 2014) and even to export their own autocratic governance model in the form of autocracy promotion (for China, see Bader 2015). But what about eroding democracies? Are their governments interested in influencing their environment, and how would this translate into foreign policy goals and behavior? This certainly depends on the regional regime context itself. It would be rather difficult for a government of a liberal democracy, in the process of erosion, to influence a regional context of liberal democracies, whereas the prospects will be different if a deficient democracy or a hybrid regime is surrounded by “gray zone regimes” that are more susceptible or even vulnerable to external influences.

The example of Venezuela under Chávez shows that an attractive ideological “package” and incentives via petro-diplomacy are essential factors for disseminating elements that belong to the tool kit of democratic erosion: constitutional rewriting, lifting of presidential term limits, curbing horizontal accountability and media control (Coppedge 2017; Corrales 2011; Kneuer 2020; 2021; Romero 2011). The strategy that Chávez followed with regard to Bolivia and Ecuador was to (a) empower aspiring like-minded leaders not yet in office (Evo Morales and Rafael Correa), and (b) at the moment they are elected, to export his “alternative” model of political rule by actively promoting those elements that would equally lead to a regime transformation away from democracy (Kneuer 2021). Interestingly, the Venezuelan case also demonstrates the dissemination of economic models (the nationalization of resources) and security models (the civil-military alliance). Likewise, Russia has been interested in influencing elections by providing external assistance, which increases the chances of “winning” elections in authoritarian settings – what Tolstrup (2015) calls “black knight election bolstering” – by exporting techniques of countervailing pressure from foreign democracy promoters or limiting media and internet freedom.

If we want to transfer the hypothesis of regime convergence in regional contexts to the foreign policy of eroding democracies, there are still several challenges. First, the “as-of-yet not fully explored” autocracy promotion research is not directly transferable, because the outcome (autocratization or not) may still be open for eroding democracies. Second, autocracy promotion is not a one-way street, but an interactive relationship in which the goals and strategic preferences of the “target state” also count. Third, there might be competing powers. In Eastern Europe, Russia and the EU are regime competitors regarding Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucasus.

Another set of tensions can arise from changed foreign policy behavior of eroding democracies and the reactions of their liberal democratic neighbors. In fact, such interfaces – erosion agents with new foreign policy goals here and liberal democracies there – can indeed tip the balance of long-standing bilateral relations and put strain on traditional friendships (see the USA under Trump and Canada) or even create conflicts. Thus, Orbán’s Hungary not only provokes Slovakia with its nationalist tones, but also challenges the EU as a whole and its value basis, leading to confrontations with EU organs and EU law. In Latin America, the dichotomy between Colombia’s pro-USA stance in its free-trade treaties and Chávez’s anti-USA position led to a deep conflict between the two neighbors, including quasi-military activity (e.g., when Colombia accused Venezuela of providing a safe haven for the Colombian FARC guerilla group).

Overall, it is not far-fetched to assume that a situation where erosion agents are surrounded by liberal democracies creates tensions, especially if long-standing foreign policy positions are modified, good neighborly relations are challenged and a conflictual development is hazarded. Therefore, regarding the bilateral level of foreign policy behavior, it is critical to distinguish the different possible settings, that is, whether the environment is dominated by liberal democracies being eroded or whether the environment is rather shaped by deficient democracies or hybrid regimes that might be targets of deliberate influence by the eroding democracy.

Conclusion

The foreign policy behavior of democracies in erosion is a very recent and thus widely under-researched issue. Its characteristics – especially the legal disguise of the incumbent’s changing of the “rules of the game,” the incrementality of democratic erosion and the legitimizing narrative – pose a challenge to the domestic audience, but also to the international sphere and to multilateralism in general. This chapter suggests a basic framework on how to approach a systematic analysis, that is, to look at the global, regional and bilateral levels. At the global level, three dimensions appear to be relevant where governments of eroding democracies challenge the liberal international order: political liberalism, economic liberalism and multilateral institutions.

The explorative study of these three levels showed that with regard to political and economic liberalism, the pursuit of diversification seems to be a common trait of the foreign policy of eroding democracies. What particularly concerns multilateralism and global governance, however, is that while governments in eroding democracies also diversify (advocating for counter-hegemonic region-building), they are more prone to also choose the exit option (withdrawing from international institutions). Hence, eroding democracies challenge rule-based multilateralism and might perforate the permissive post-Cold War consensus on international cooperation. This can produce increasing difficulties, especially when coping with global tasks such as climate change and migration. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic does not seem to have frozen or reversed these effects so far. One aspect that needs further examination is the conditions under which erosion agents tend to diversify, and when and why they choose the exit option.

This chapter focused on the protagonist political leaders in countries where democratic erosion evolves, a typically actor-driven process where the incumbent plays a critical role. In order to gain a better understanding of the internal dynamics of foreign policy formulation, other actors and the audience need to be included in the analysis: the opposition, military, civil society and others. This is especially important as erosion agents strongly depend on popular support and, therefore, rely on legitimation strategies that they consider conducive to generating this domestic acceptance and allegiance. As other studies show, there is an interplay between domestic and external legitimation (Kneuer 2017; Dukalskis 2021). Therefore, future work may explore more closely how erosion agents exploit foreign policy activity for domestic legitimation and whether this actually works or is contested by relevant domestic actors.

Looking at the foreign policy of erosion agents has further revealed a fundamental tension, or even contradiction, between the domestic logic of action – centralization of power in the hands of the executive – and the foreign policy approach, which seeks decentralization of international power. This contradiction, which Romero and Mijares (2016) found for Venezuela, is worth examining. In this respect, political leaders are confronted with the problem of concentrating power in their countries, reducing instances of control and negating participation on the one hand, while, at the same time, boasting domestically about opposing a hegemonic world order and seeking support for it.

Finally, an additional hypothesis that needs to be further studied is the war proneness of eroding democracies. One could assume that the fact that a government is seeking to implement a new model of rule would also make foreign policymaking more fluid and less reliable. Findings from comparative politics have pointed to the fact that intermediate regimes – democracies in consolidation, deficient democracies or hybrid regimes – tend to be more fragile and vulnerable. Studies of international relations come to a very similar conclusion with regard to the war proneness of democratizing and autocratizing countries. Thus, the rich literature, which tested the democratic peace theory, provides us with findings about the behavior of countries changing their regime. Studies show that autocratizing countries are more likely to fight wars than are stable autocracies (Mansfield and Snyder 1995, 35) and that intermediate regimes are most prone to civil wars (Hegre et al. 2001). Moreover, Gleditsch and Ward (1998, 58) find that reversals toward greater levels of autocracy not only increase the probability of war involvement but are even riskier than progress toward democracy. The authors detect an important factor that influences this process, namely how linear the process is. The smoother the change, the lower the risk of war. Thus, there is a need for testing whether eroding democracies entail an increased risk of conflict or war.

To translate these findings into the foreign policy behavior of governments in processes of democratic erosion: Governments involved in processes of democratic erosion would not be expected, due to the linear and incremental evolution of such processes, to take drastic decisions unless they are domestically confronted with contestations to which they would react with diversionary and rally-around-the-flag actions. This leads to the open question whether the foreign policy behavior of erosion agents is more strategic or more erratic.

Both of the last open questions are highly relevant for policy-makers and practitioners, as well as for policy recommendations, and point to the most problematic property of the incrementality of democratic erosion: At what point can external actors actually recognize that they are dealing with a democracy in erosion?

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1

This chapter has been written before the Russian war against Ukraine.

2

See, inter alia, the Special Issue of International Organization 75, Special Issue 2 (Spring 2021), “Challenges to the Liberal International Order.”

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