For the world’s established autocracies, and even for opportunistic leaders in some immature democracies, the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis that hasn’t gone to waste. Governments from Beijing to Bangkok and even Budapest have consolidated power or intensified repression. Opposition politics has been stifled. Restraints on executive power have eroded. Journalists have been muzzled and even assaulted.
It comes as no surprise that at the forefront of this authoritarian assertiveness has been the People’s Republic of China. Since the virus spread out of Wuhan, the PRC has pressed its aggressive maritime claims in the South China Sea. It has rounded up prominent champions of democracy in Hong Kong, and sought to exploit the pandemic to undo Article 22 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law so that Chinese authorities can intervene at will in the city’s internal affairs. And Chinese agents have reportedly sowed virus panic in the United States.
To be sure, COVID-19 presents a special challenge that demands extraordinary powers, usually vested in the executive, to manage and eventually prevent the lethal effects of the coronavirus. Discovering who is infected, tracing their contacts, and quarantining them will put various systems of governance to a stringent test. But prudent and aggressive measures to fight the virus ought not to be treated as license for regimes to put their countries on an anti-democratic path. The prevailing mood has been well captured by Thailand’s autocratic prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha: “Right now it is health over liberty.”
To ensure that liberty does not suffer once global public health is restored, nations committed to the liberal order must exhibit effective governance—including but not limited to their pandemic response—to show their model remains worthy of emulation. Governance that is flexible and farsighted—the opposite form, in short, of that demonstrated by the American president’s mingled ignorance and incompetence, to say nothing of his open contempt for epidemiology and appalling summonses to social anarchy—can showcase the virtues of free and open societies.
But the free world must resist rather than ignore—let alone echo—the trend of authoritarian assertion. After a long stretch of neglect and complacency, democracies must again show themselves capable of acting boldly to defend their common liberal creed in addition to the health and security of their nations. This will come as something of a surprise to liberal states long accustomed to thinking of themselves as status quo powers in a global order that was established by and for them. But if the phenomenon of authoritarian power-grabs proceeds unchecked, the facile assumptions of the permanence of that order may look more and more fallacious. As leading authoritarian states pursue a strategy of “co-option, coercion, and concealment,” as H.R. McMaster has summarized it, the old liberal order may rapidly give way to a new order that is distinctly illiberal, with the world reverting to its historical norms of chaos and conflict.
Even before COVID-19, if you can recall that antique era, the liberal order was already unraveling of its own accord. While authoritarian states fundamentally rejected the American-led international system, the liberal states favored under that system came to act as though it was simply the natural order of things. Meanwhile, revisionist powers increasingly contested liberal norms, to their own advantage. The global progress toward free and open societies that had been a conspicuous feature of the latter half of the twentieth century seemed to have stalled, or even reversed.
The democratic world must show vigilance against autocracies bent on revising the terms of international order, as well as solidarity for the potential victims of these non-liberal rising powers. The wider liberal order will not thrive or even survive without the determined effort of the strongest liberal states in the international system, acting in concert but also in their own interest. The pandemic has revealed that the safety and prosperity of our way of life are, to a considerable degree, at Beijing’s mercy. Changing that situation cannot happen in the absence of robust and inspired American leadership. Even if American power is no longer “unipolar,” and even if the United States no longer thinks of itself as the “indispensable nation,” the world’s autocracies have no illusion that the liberal order depends on the ideals and exertions of the world’s only superpower.
As it did for the Soviet challenge, the United States must check the rising authoritarian trend and restore prestige to liberal values by leading a concerted bloc of like-minded nations to defend the cause of liberty. The votaries of freedom abroad are in desperate need of such leadership in a time when innumerable regimes exploit the pandemic––itself incubated, willfully or not, by authoritarian authorities––to consolidate control and eviscerate civil society. If it chooses to ignore this challenge, the Western core of the liberal order will find itself living in a world no longer of its own making.
Democracy remains what it has been since the age of Pericles: the worst form of government except for all the others. For all its flaws, it is the political system that guarantees universal suffrage, the rule of law, and the peaceful and regular transfer of power. Not so long ago, this political culture of self-government was thought to be destined to spread across the globe. At the end of the Cold War, the political and business elite of the West imagined the “end of history” in which democratic capitalism had triumphed over its ideological rivals for all future time.
This was a mirage, and one to which a decadent society (on both sides of the Atlantic) was particularly prone. In the post-pandemic world, this utopian notion should be among the first that we dispense with. It turns out that there is no democratic destiny. This is just as well. There is no despotic destiny either. It remains open for the taking. In a previous age with less need than our own for false consolation, James Madison proclaimed that the “great struggle of the Epoch” was the conflict between “liberty and despotism.” It still is.