The Trouble with the 'War on Autocracy'
It’s the War on Terror, but bigger.
For the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a majority of Republicans now desire that their respective representatives vote against further aid to the beleaguered country. While this is only one poll, it follows a series of indications that Republicans are steadily turning against an expanded role for the U.S. in the conflict. It is not hard to see why this drop in Republican support is happening: A localized war for control over Russia’s near abroad has been re-framed as the beginning of a century-long war for progressive democracy.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly declared that the 21st century will feature a battle “between autocracy and democracy,” and he clearly sees the Russo–Ukrainian War as the first of many battles to come. Ukraine has readily supported this framing, and there is no mystery as to why: They are being attacked and are understandably attempting to get as much help as possible. “Help, Russia is attempting to reconquer its near abroad” does not a stirring battle cry make. The real question is why Biden administration officials are using such a framing device. They did not have to do so. There are national interest arguments for why America should want to see Ukraine remain independent of Russian influence. But instead, they have opted for a global war on autocracy.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. The global war on terror was started with a genuinely necessary goal: the degradation of Al-Qaeda’s ability to use Afghanistan as a springboard for terror attacks on U.S. soil. But instead of opting for a definitive national interest argument—which would have resulted in a shorter and less globe-spanning conflict—America opted to begin a war against all terrorism. The framing of the War on Terror unlocked the ability to wage war against anything we described as terrorism, along with all sorts of goodies for the military-industrial complex.
But the war on terror is now winding down, as America has pulled out of Afghanistan and our military has stopped giving out the Global War on Terrorism service medal to all troops. A new framework is needed in order to keep the war machine spinning. As a result, the war lobby and its clients have eschewed framing the Russo–Ukrainian War in terms of national interest, and decided—like with the War in Afghanistan—to use it as a springboard for a global war.
This framing has many problems. To start, there is no real evidence that the democracies truly believe that they must do battle with all autocracies. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Western leaders were happy to shake hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even months into the invasion it was clear that most European leaders were hoping that the problem would just go away so they could keep buying cheap Russian gas. President Biden, for all of his talk about democracy against autocracy, relented on his previous opposition to meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships, the moment gas prices got too high. If the framing is “democracy vs. autocracy—unless we need something from them,” then it cannot be taken seriously. The United States was willing to engage with violent dictatorships in the Cold War, but it never allied with communist states for a reason: because it was a war against communism. The entire concept would have been made farcical by such an alliance.
There’s no real evidence that the West is taking the democracy vs. autocracy divide seriously even now, a year after the full-scale invasion. Plenty of countries in the anti-Russia coalition have no qualms about working with China, which in many ways is worse (and more threatening long-term) than Russia. Just months ago, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made clear that decoupling with China was off the table. Lithuania, to its credit, is taking the Chinese threat seriously—but they are pretty much alone in the entirety of the European Union in that regard.
Now, it is not exactly bold to state that autocracy—true autocracy—is bad. Changing policies with a ballot is always better than with a bullet. But think for a moment what a War on Autocracy means: the War on Terror, but bigger. Terrorism and terrorist-states were mostly confined to the Middle East. Autocracies can be found around the globe, and—as was recently demonstrated by the European Parliament’s designation of democratic Hungary as an “electoral autocracy”—the label is extremely vague. Hungary was defined as an autocracy because Hungarians support people and policies the EU Parliament does not like. Such a label is nonsensical; the country’s capital city, Budapest, is led by a member of the country’s opposition party. There is not a single autocracy in history that would allow such a thing. It is not enough to be a democracy—a country must be a progressive democracy, or be uniquely powerful, to be seen as okay.
It is not hard to follow what will happen next. Should the war on autocracy get up and running, any state that goes against progressivism can be an economic or a military target. And what happens if individuals end up supporting views labeled “autocratic”? What does it even mean to “support autocracy”? Like “liberalism”—which once meant support for rights such as freedom of speech and religious belief and now means support for abortion and transgender ideology—the word “autocratic” essentially has been made to mean “supporting bad things.” If America and the West embarks on a War on Autocracy, it will essentially be a declaration of war on those who think differently.
This is borne out when looking at a map of countries that have sanctioned Russia: it’s just the global north, and, within that, mostly just the West. The Atlantic Council, in their sanctions tracker, did not even bother to track any countries in the global south other than Australia. The global south is almost entirely absent from the War on Autocracy. Would those pushing the “autocracy against democracy” framing claim that the global south is pro-autocracy, as America did for countries that did not support the War on Terror? One would hope not; such a concept would surely be labeled as racist.
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So why has the global south not joined in? Probably because they have seen this movie before. In the name of values, the global north has supported coups, knocked over governments, and allowed indiscriminate killing. The global south is not necessarily going to support Russia—which has also caused its fair share of unnecessary conflicts—but they will not be inherently drawn to the West because the West is democratic. To be clear, the West in the Cold War acted genuinely with the best of intentions; it was a struggle against communist evil, and all great struggles require gray on behalf of the good. But more importantly, communism was actually a philosophical threat that could be exported to our shores. “Autocracy” is not a philosophy. You cannot export it. There is no “Autocratic Manifesto” of which to share copies.
Right now, the world is entering into a new multipolar order. The West should be focusing on China and establishing a coalition to balance against it, one that will at times have to include autocracies. Instead, we are building yet another framework that no doubt will result in needless wars and lost lives. They will come up with all sorts of official labels. Wilsonianism, neo-conservatism, and neo-idealism are all the same in the end: interventionism on behalf of something other than national interest.
If these notions are not opposed now, then what as-of-yet unborn American generation will fall in a needless war against an “autocracy”? Are we going to economically cut off much of Africa? Are we going to re-invade the Middle East? The possibilities of such a prolonged ideological conflict are endless—which is, of course, exactly what is intended.