Democracy-autocracy divide will not serve global – or even Western – interests
- Taking on autocratic powers has given the West a new-found sense of purpose, but it risks alienating emerging global players with its simplistic world view
- A narrative that focuses on the clash between world orders does not resonate with countries more concerned about economic struggle and the climate crisis
In the early years after it was launched in 1963, the conference focused on the Cold War and nuclear threats and served to project the strength and cohesion of the transatlantic alliance. After the end of the Cold War, the conference agenda widened to cover issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber threats.
It remains a Nato-centric event, but as the balance of power in the world has shifted, representation from emerging powers like China and India has also grown. This includes participation by our think tank, the Centre for China and Globalisation, which this year held a side event on China-US relations.
The meeting held on the sidelines of the conference between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while signalling that both sides were moving on from the balloon incident, nevertheless served to highlight the division of the world into two camps.
Despite the ascendancy of this vision, it is far from clear that framing the world as a competition between democracy and autocracy is the best way to address the complex and evolving threats of our age, even for the interests of Western countries.
First, a simplistic binary doesn’t match the messy multipolar reality of today’s world. Take the positions that countries have adopted with respect to the war in Ukraine: they often don’t align neatly along a democracy-autocracy divide.
For example, people in countries like India and South Africa see “rich versus poor countries” as the main fault line in global politics. Even in G7 countries, the democracy versus autocracy dichotomy is far from dominating the perceptions of citizens.
If the West pushes too hard on framing the world as a competition between democratic and non-democratic states, it risks alienating people who do not see things this way. This includes states destined to play a greater role in global affairs as they gain economic and demographic weight, states which should be encouraged to participate in shaping the international order if we are to keep multilateralism alive.
The second problem with seeing everything through a democracy versus autocracy lens is that it doesn’t capture the risks and challenges people are most concerned about.
This year’s Munich Security Index records an increase in 20 risk indicators compared to the previous survey, which itself registered significantly higher risk perceptions than in the preceding year. As the authors of the report write, the index reflects a new age in global politics marked by an “omnipresent sense of insecurity”.
Political leaders do not agree on much these days, but this year’s conference shows they do agree that the international order is at a critical juncture – a moment German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has famously called Zeitenwende, an epochal turning point.
If we are indeed at a historic turning point, the question is: where are we turning to next, and what visions of the international order will shape our future?
Wang Huiyao is the founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based non-governmental think tank