The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis will have a profound effect on the world, including potential threats to democracy both at home and abroad. For more on how the United States should respond to threats to democracy at home, see “Don’t Let the U.S. Response to the Coronavirus Crisis Do More Damage to Democracy” by Brian Katulis and Trevor Sutton.
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating efforts among authoritarian governments as regimes tighten their grip at home while seizing the opportunity to advance their agenda abroad. Over the past several years, autocratic governments have become increasingly assertive in nature. An illiberal and undemocratic model of governing—championed primarily by Russia and China—has appeared to gain currency, particularly as the United States and other democracies turn inward to deal with domestic challenges. As former NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2019, “Tyranny is once again awakening from its slumber.” This assertiveness does not stop at national borders; just last year, the U.S. Intelligence Community warned that “Russia and China seek to shape the international system and regional security dynamics and exert influence.”
Beyond the serious implications for the citizens of each respective country, if this trend continues, it could lead to a dangerous new level of competition among world powers at exactly the time when they need to be working together to combat a global pandemic and other emerging threats.
There are three clear trends of how authoritarian states have responded to COVID-19 in ways that could have ramifications that will last far beyond the pandemic response: consolidating power at home; seeking geopolitical advantage amid the crisis; and trying to weaken democracies from within.
Consolidating power at home
Autocratic regimes, while seeming strong from the outside, often tend to be brittle. Their leaders constantly worry about regime stability. A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic creates an opportunity for such leaders to consolidate power and strengthen their grip on the country.
The COVID-19 outbreak, in particular, presents a unique combination of circumstances that is ripe for exploitation. With fears at an all-time high, people are looking to leaders to bring calm and order. And with a crisis of this magnitude, people want a quick, robust, and comprehensive national response that only a strong government can provide. Countries’ efforts to track the spread of the virus have also led to the collection of a massive amount of personal data. Smartphone tracking, for example, could be critical for the legitimate cause of tracing the virus’s spread, but in the wrong hands, those powers could easily lead to abuse of civil liberties. Meanwhile, there is unlikely to be a strong reaction at home or from the international community. Mass protests or demonstrations are either not allowed or will legitimately risk peoples’ health, and world leaders and global public opinion are consumed by COVID-19—making it possible for autocrats to take action that would otherwise be strongly condemned.
Aspiring strongmen in declining democracies around the world have been building power amid the crisis. Both Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte have sought sweeping powers to combat the spread of COVID-19, which their legislatures dutifully granted even amid criticism from human rights groups and activists. Perhaps nowhere has the power grab been clearer than in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he will be president indefinitely. For several months now, there has been a delicate effort to pass a complex series of constitutional amendments that would restructure the Russian government with the goal of keeping President Putin as the central political force in the country. The package was met with a lukewarm reception by the public and faced a referendum later this month, but Putin has since done away with any pretexts, even mentioning COVID-19 as a reason why there needs to be stability at the top of government.
The Russian government has also stepped up its surveillance capabilities amid the new rationale of enforcing a quarantine. This has included advancements in facial recognition software tied to a network of cameras to catch individuals breaking quarantine. There are 178,000 of these cameras in Moscow alone, and an additional 9,000 cameras are to be set up this year. There are also ongoing operations that monitor social media for spreading false information about the outbreak.
Autocratic governments could easily use these new tools outside of the pandemic response in the future to further entrench themselves in power and crack down on dissent.
Seeking geopolitical advantage amid the crisis
Modern authoritarian regimes have made the argument to their people that their model of government is stronger and better suited to tackle large-scale challenges than so-called messy democracies. It is a gamble that people are willing to forgo some of their freedoms for the protections that a powerful state structure can offer. Regimes not only target their constituencies with this propaganda but also an international audience in an effort to help build support for the country and its system of governing. Amid a massive global threat such as COVID-19, where a strong central government is necessary, authoritarian governments are trying to advance this narrative.
China has been working hard to transform its image on the world stage from being the source of the global outbreak to being the capable and benevolent world power that is able to tackle the spread within its borders and provide aid to affected countries around the world. Now, as the virus continues its devastating path in Italy and spreads throughout Europe and the United States, China is exploiting the crisis in an attempt to build long-lasting political currency. The global response to Chinese aid in a time of need has been notable. Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said that China is “the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts.” The president of Serbia gave an even stronger embrace, kissing the Chinese flag and saying, “I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping and I believe in China’s help,” calling European solidarity a “fairy tale on paper.” This is far from a universal viewpoint in Europe, however, as both governments and citizens are expressing the view that China’s authoritarian system is incompatible with European Union institutions. And some Chinese equipment has been returned because of defections, making the potential for a backlash against China a real possibility.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been on a public-relations push as well. President Putin touted Russia’s low infection rate as the result of an aggressive early response that was able to curb the spread. Moscow is also supporting its strategic allies abroad. Last week, the Russian army began flying medical help to Italy to help it fight the outbreak in a goodwill gesture that Moscow labelled “From Russia with Love.” For the past several years, Russia has nurtured already close ties with Italy, a core member of NATO and the EU, even asking for Rome’s assistance in lifting EU sanctions over the annexation of Crimea. This gesture will likely not be forgotten the next time the EU needs to reauthorize those sanctions. More recently, in a shocking move, Moscow sent a planeload of medical aid to the United States, which has its own sanctions on Russia. In fact, the company that made the Russian ventilators has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014—a piece of information that will surely be used in a future effort for sanctions relief.
Trying to weaken democracies from within
As has been the trend for several years, authoritarian regimes are increasingly deploying disinformation across borders by using both state media and social media platforms. Typically, the goal of such disinformation campaigns is to exploit the open information environment in democracies in order to weaken their perceived adversaries from within by sowing discord and strife among the population. They do this by advancing conspiracy theories, amplifying hateful and divisive rhetoric, and interfering in elections, as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The significance, severity, and scale of the COVID-19 outbreak provides a ripe target for exploitation. And that’s exactly what has been done.
In internal analysis, the EU’s External Action Service disinformation project, EUvsDisinfo, found that a “significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding Covid-19 is ongoing.” According to the report, pro-Kremlin content promoted the conspiracy theory that the virus was a creation of the West. This message echoed the 1980s disinformation campaign, which spread the conspiracy theory that the U.S. military had invented HIV/AIDS. The Russian campaign also tries to amplify concerns among citizens, especially in Italy, about governments’ ability to manage the outbreak, blaming capitalists for trying to profit from the crisis and praising Putin’s handling of the outbreak. A subsequent analysis showed that Russia is also targeting its own citizens with a different narrative of COVID-19 being a form of foreign aggression.
In what appears to also be an effort to weakening and undermining Western countries’ response to COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suffered a cyberattack on its systems. While any suspected attribution has not been publicly declared, it is believed to be the work of a foreign state actor.
The Kremlin is not the only regime seeking to exploit the pandemic. In an effort to distract from the fact that the virus originated within its own borders, China has engaged in a broad disinformation campaign. This has not been conducted through masked trolls and fake online personas; the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, floated a conspiracy theory that the U.S. Army was behind the virus. China has also seized on other opportunities to consolidate power and influence, using the economic downturn in the West following COVID-19 and the political capital gained abroad to seize on strategically critical industries such as 5G, weaken the trans-Atlantic relationship, and accelerate its long-standing strategic objectives.
What this means for a post-COVID-19 world
Unfortunately, these trends point in a troubling direction. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis—and it can only be addressed through meaningful cooperation among the world’s powers. The pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have been, in some ways, a wake-up call that future security challenges will increasingly be nontraditional threats such as pandemics or climate change. Addressing these threats requires cooperation among great powers. Unfortunately, if the trends outlined above continue, world powers appear to be heading in the opposite direction as the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates the movement toward greater geopolitical competition.
The international politics of the pandemic response will be a marathon—not a sprint. But there are steps that can be taken along the way to help shape it.
In the immediate term, democracies should be clearer about the work they are doing in response to COVID-19. Germany and France have sent more face masks to Italy than China, but China advertises their contributions more. The EU is starting to better communicate this, and these public education efforts should continue and be expanded. The priority needs to be getting aid to those who need it, but democracies should not cede the battle of narratives to authoritarian regimes either.
In the medium term, democratic governments should make it a diplomatic priority to ensure that countries that have declared emergency measures roll back those powers once the crisis has subsided and it’s appropriate. It is unlikely that there will be a clear singular moment when the outbreak is resolved, and ensuring that states do not fall into the trap of never-ending emergency powers should be both a moral and strategic priority for the United States. This is especially true for countries that were on a negative trajectory before the COVID-19 outbreak, including Hungary and the Philippines.
In the long term, the United States and its democratic allies should lead the global effort to ensure that there is an international infrastructure for dealing with nontraditional threats such as pandemics. Part of the reason world powers are falling into the posture of increased competition is that the existing international architecture has largely been insufficient to deal with the current crisis. The future will have more global challenges that do not respect borders. Climate change, for example, will have a profound effect on global security and will make secondary affects such as pandemics and mass migration more common. Creating the framework for greater cooperation ahead of time will help prevent future crises of competition.
James Lamond is a senior policy adviser at the Center for American Progress.
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