(WASHINGTON, DC) On the 20th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square crackdown and on a day when President Obama told a crowd in Egypt that he "is seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," a group of distinguished experts gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss a new report on authoritarianism.
The report, a joint RFE/RL, Freedom House, and Radio Free Asia project, is titled Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians. The study contends that five influential authoritarian states - Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, and Pakistan - are actively working to undermine democracy within their borders and abroad.
To discuss the report and the day's news from Cairo and China were James Traub of the New York Times Magazine, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Peter Beinart of the Council on Foreign Relations, and noted China scholar Perry Link from the University of California, Riverside. The debate was moderated by RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin and included remarks by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Chairman and Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, respectively.
"This report is extremely important because, if there's one thing that wasn't supposed to be true after the end of the Cold War, it was the indefinite survival, if not flourishing, of autocratic regimes," said Kagan.
Link told the crowd that China is evidence that economic modernization does not guarantee political liberalization. He called the Chinese system "resilient authoritarianism" and said the government is very attuned to political dissent and committed to putting it down.
"One important method the government employs is to change language," he said. "For example, what used to be characterized as a tension between freedom and control is now reframed by authorities as a choice between chaos and order."
Beinart cautioned that an exclusively hardline approach to authoritarians is unlikely to succeed.
"We need to rid ourselves of the belief that coercion is the best or only method of promoting democracy," he said. "Aggressive engagement does not mean abandoning democracy. Our strongest weapon in promoting democracy and the single best tool we have against authoritarianism is the power of our own example. We have to show that we can provide economic prosperity and economic justice better than authoritarian countries."
Rep. Hastings made a similar case: "If we want to lead, we must lead by example, and that means respecting the rule of law and human rights at home and abroad."
Traub said Obama's "downplaying" of the language of democracy is a potentially troubling aspect of the Administration's foreign policy.
"Although I'm dismayed by the lack of such language, my hope is that President Obama is trying to repair a lot that was broken in recent years and plans to thereby create a foundation which will allow him to use language and policies that will further the cause of democracy."
Traub said he believes the dangers of the autocratic backlash in Undermining Democracy are overstated. He added that "this backlash is not as unified and coordinated as the report suggests."
Kagan argued that "autocratic regimes do not exist in isolation from each other."
"They are cooperating, they are spending money and the only thing happening is that we are not. Without challenging them, we will live in a world more and more populated by autocratic governments, a world that we thankfully escaped in the 20th century. But, out of ignorance, or lack of will or concern, it's a world we may be sliding back to."
To conclude the event, Senator Cardin called the conference "an important reminder that there are many millions of people around the world yearning for a free tomorrow and struggling today in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. He said the US "must stand in solidarity with these individuals and support them morally and materially as they aspire to realize the shared ideals of democracy."