The New Containment: Undermining Democracy

Nearly seven decades ago, George F. Kennan authored a seminal article that argued for a policy of containment to combat the spread of Soviet influence. Kennan’s essay came at a time when the Soviet Union, a frenemy to the West during World War II, was becoming increasingly hostile and expansionist in the postwar era. In a devastated Europe, Joseph Stalin was methodically installing puppet regimes in countries to his west. Communism was on the march. The American public saw an increasing threat but had little appetite for further military conflict after the end of years of global war. 

This was the context into which Kennan boldly stepped with his argument against an immediate military “rollback” of Soviet advances. In what was initially known as the “X Article” because of his anonymous authorship, he wrote in 1947 that, to meet the Soviet challenge, the United States needed to pursue “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Quickly becoming a cause célèbre, Kennan’s doctrine was controversial. Some criticized it for being too defensive in responding to the Soviet threat. Others felt the concept was too broadly conceived and not sufficiently focused on vital US interests. In the end, however, the concept Kennan articulated would become the basic strategy the United States followed throughout the Cold War.

In an unanticipated twist, and in an irony of history, influential authoritarian powers, led by China and Russia, have forged their own version of containment in the post–Cold War era. But it turns Kennan’s ideas about tyranny upside down, seeking to contain the spread of democracy rather than the growth of totalitarianism. 

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Today, in response to what they identify as critical challenges to their own regime interests, the resurgent authoritarians have marshaled vast resources to counter democratic development around the globe. This evolving “containment of democracy” has three key elements. First, it aims to erode the rules-based institutions that have established global democratic norms and cemented the post–Cold War liberal order. Second, it looks to check the reform ambitions of aspiring democracies and subvert the vitality of young democratic countries. And third, by systematically assailing the established democracies and the central ideas associated with them, it seeks to reshape the manner in which the world thinks about democracy. 

The leaders in this new containment effort are influential authoritarian countries as diverse as China, Venezuela, and Russia, all of whom are compatible with each other, as well as bitter enemies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. The manner by which diverse authoritarian regimes counter democracy may vary. Russia takes an open and belligerent stance, as does the leadership in Iran and Venezuela. The Chinese government takes a more nuanced approach to checking the development of democracy, although it has become increasingly assertive since Xi Jinping has assumed the position of China’s paramount leader.

The new containment germinated in the mid-2000s and can be traced to popular uprisings that took place in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Frequently referred to as “color revolutions,” these rebellions were characterized by mass mobilization against entrenched, and deeply corrupt, authoritarian regimes. In the aftermath of these citizen uprisings, authoritarian leadership devised regime-protection strategies that could flourish in a modern environment. 

“Color revolutions” have become a fear and an obsession for regimes that operate without democratic mandate. When used by officials in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, and other authoritarian countries, the term now has become shorthand for any form of dissent. The authorities in Beijing invoked the specter of a “color revolution” in their narrative about the evil of the “Occupy Central” protests in Hong Kong in the fall of 2014. The Kremlin has similarly characterized recent protests in Kyiv (and Moscow) as early warnings of would-be color revolutions. For regimes that monopolize political power, this swiftly moving, semi-organized political dissent has been identified as the chief threat to their continued power. 

Over the course of the last decade, authoritarian governments have become ever more adept at using modern methods to stop such dissent before it gets started. During this time, the containment of democratic voices at home has become increasingly sophisticated. Repressive governments have learned how to apply the forms of law to crack down on independent civil society, while also developing modern techniques to manipulate media, both online and off. They have adopted market reforms but then used the market to modernize authoritarian tools of repression. 

The most critical adaptation by the authoritarians has been the leap from subverting democracy within their borders to methodically disrupting it beyond them. The proliferation of regional and international rules-based institutions and the democratic standards they promote, along with the extraordinary growth and global integration of the Internet, is now seen by authoritarians as a direct threat to their grip on power. These developments have altered regime calculations, eliciting a muscular response to contain what they view as threats emanating from beyond national borders.

A case in point is Russia’s action in Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych was forced out of office during the Maidan protests last year. Moscow’s harsh and ongoing destabilization of Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist rebellion in the east of that country, should be seen clearly for what it is: a Kremlin containment effort to prevent Ukrainians from achieving a democratically accountable government that would place Ukraine in the European community of nations and threaten Russia’s corrupt system. This is just one example of a larger effort by Russia and other authoritarian states to contain democracy.


Seeing regional and international rules-based bodies as a threat to regime interests, the leading authoritarians have focused their efforts on hobbling the democracy and human rights components of the institutions critical for safeguarding democratic standards. 

Russia, for example, in cooperation with like-minded regimes in Eurasia, works to limit the human rights initiatives of the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the largest regional security organization, whose agenda includes democracy, human rights, election monitoring, and media freedom. Moscow has led the way in undermining the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights by obstructing its “human dimension” activities, in particular its election observation efforts, which have been viewed as the gold standard in this field. 

Russia and other members of the OSCE, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, have been at the forefront of the movement to create alternative “zombie” election observation efforts that parody their authentic counterparts. These bogus election-monitoring efforts are especially pernicious because they let authoritarians limit the scope of democracy from the inside.

In Latin America, Venezuela has played a similarly destructive role with regard to the democracy and human rights work of the Organization of American States. The Venezuelan government, along with allies in countries such as Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, has targeted the work of the organization’s two principal bodies: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Within the United Nations system, an “authoritarian fraternity,” led by Security Council members China and Russia, routinely cooperates to obstruct democracy-friendly measures on a range of issues. Moscow, for example, has taken a leading role in blocking action that could stop the Syrian government’s brutalization of its own population. Beijing routinely runs interference for the odious regime in North Korea. While China generally takes a somewhat lower profile than Russia in UN decision making, it is aligned with Moscow on a range of issues that counter the democracies.

Meanwhile, as they whittle away at democratic standards and the architecture that supports them, the authoritarians are building a web of their own new structures, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (formerly the Eurasian Customs Union), that operate in parallel to—and mimic—their liberal counterparts but aim to institutionalize authoritarian norms.

Through a treaty arrangement with SCO members, for instance, China has challenged the norm against “refoulement”—the return of persecuted individuals to the hands of their persecutors—using a designation of “terrorist” as the basis for repatriation of political asylum seekers. Outside of the SCO, China has convinced countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia to cooperate with this new standard. More broadly, authoritarian regimes work with one another to monitor activists and oppositionists and block their freedom of movement, for instance through international “watchlists” and “blacklists” that are generated within the context of the SCO and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

China has also created a number of informal alternative diplomatic venues that exclude leading democracies and focus on infrastructure, economy, and trade, such as the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the China-CELAC Forum (with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).

The focus of such efforts is not merely defending authoritarianism at home, but reshaping the international norms that stigmatize such governance. The Internet has given an urgency to this effort. Behind the smoke screen of “Internet sovereignty” and “Internet security,” authoritarian regimes are doggedly working to neutralize democratic discourse and organization in cyberspace. Oppressive governments now routinely seek to apply repressive local standards to platforms such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube, with the aim of constraining the free flow of independent information and quarantining democracy. The pursuit of greater control over the Internet is not only taking place at the highest-profile intergovernmental bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, but also at the regional level, where China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are using bodies such as the SCO and GCC to this end. 

While the Edward Snowden disclosures have focused global attention on the National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance apparatus, Russia and China have developed their own vast surveillance systems, which operate without any meaningful accountability or under rule of law. In Russia, the System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM), a national system for the interception of all electronic communications, is used by the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) to collect, analyze, and store all data transmitted or received on Russian networks, including phone calls, website visits, and e-mail. Russia’s Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are among those that have also adopted draconian SORM standards, and it seems apparent that these democracy-unfriendly cyber-norms will spread further in the region. 


In the same spirit of disruption with which the authoritarians have worked to alter the institutional framework, they also have sought to obstruct the success of key democracies, or aspiring ones, in their immediate neighborhoods. This containment goal has to do with limiting the demonstration effect of both young democracies and middle-performing countries with reform ambitions whose full achievement of democratic governance would possibly be contagious for nearby authoritarian regimes. 

While the violence in eastern Ukraine has attracted much of the global attention, it is important to appreciate that Moscow’s attack on Ukraine is not principally a military one. Through its support of a violent insurgency in places like Donetsk and the Donbas region, Moscow maintains strong leverage over the entire country, thereby enabling the political goal of preventing successful reform in Ukraine. 

The Baltic states, despite or perhaps because of being NATO and EU members, are also targets of ongoing Kremlin-backed political efforts and media campaigns aimed at weakening these countries by raising doubts about the integrity of their young democracies. 

Similarly disruptive tactics are used toward other neighbors with democratic aspirations, such as Moldova and Georgia, both of which Moscow has subjected to political threats, painful economic boycotts, and, in Georgia’s case, military conflict and territorial aggression. 

“Frozen conflicts” have become an instrument of containment. Some 1,500 Russian troops stationed in the breakaway republic of Transnistria are used by Moscow to paralyze the progress of reform in Moldova. Georgia faces ongoing disruption as a result of the Moscow-supported frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On March 18, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin upped the ante by signing an “alliance treaty” with South Ossetia that almost completely integrates the breakaway territory into Russia. In late November 2014, Putin signed a similar agreement with the authorities in Abkhazia that effectively brings it within Russia’s border and management space. 

China’s approach to the dangers posed by the democracy movement in Hong Kong is also one of containment. Beijing’s efforts to slowly squeeze the democracy out of Hong Kong, designated as a semi-autonomous “special administrative region,” have come into sharper relief over the setting of the rules for the 2017 elections for the region’s chief executive. Beijing has insisted on retaining the right to determine which candidates could be on the ballot. But rather than embarking on a harsh, violent response that could pose a risk to stability and prosperity in Hong Kong, the central authorities work to contain its democratic aspirations by further sapping the independence of Hong Kong’s media, judiciary, and political elite.

Like Hong Kong, Macau is also a special administrative region, which gives it greater autonomy than mainland China under a “one country, two systems” arrangement. President Xi’s visit there, in December 2014, was designed to send a clear message to the islanders on Macau, but also Hong Kong, that pursuit of greater democracy would be rebuffed by Beijing. 

Beijing also pursues containment of Taiwan through intensifying economic integration with the mainland. The activities in Taiwan of China’s “United Front Work Department,” an opaque agency under the command of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, have shed light on the extent to which the Chinese authorities are seeking to undermine Taiwanese democracy. 

Governments in countries such as Saudi Arabia are also in the containment business. The dispatch of its National Guard forces to Bahrain in March 2011 to put down an antigovernment uprising was an indication of the Saudi commitment to containing its smaller neighbor’s democracy movement. More generally, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, Riyadh has deployed considerable diplomatic, security, and economic resources throughout the Middle East to support friends and oppose enemies. While there may be a number of motivations for such support, including helping sectarian allies, its net impact on democratic development is clearly detrimental. 


These authoritarian regimes understand the importance of ideas, which is why they work so hard to prevent the emergence of alternative ones within their own systems. But unlike in the past, when they were content with heavy-handed ideological self-justifications, today they have created more supple arguments not about their own systems but about the discontents and decadence of democracy for international audiences. The best-resourced regimes have built formidable media outlets that enable them to project such messages into the global marketplace of ideas while also discrediting what are regarded as hostile narratives about the policies or actions of the governments in Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran. 

The most widely recognized piece of Russia’s growing international media empire is RT (formerly known as Russia Today). Started in 2005 with a budget of $30 million, the Kremlin’s satellite television station now enjoys a budget of roughly ten times that amount. RT claims to have achieved a global reach of 700 million people in more than 100 countries. In November 2014, the Russian government launched Sputnik, a global news agency whose radio and online content will operate in 30 languages and be disseminated from a host of bureaus
around the world. 

China, for its part, is expanding its international media at an even more formidable pace. Precise data on the full scope of China’s international media spending is not available, but by some estimates, its overall annual international media spending is nearly $9 billion (according to data from 2011). 

The growing international media presence of regimes in China, Russia, and Iran is increasingly trained on the developing world, where a new information war is under way. China has built an enormous media presence in sub-Saharan Africa, and its media content has rapidly gained a foothold there. China’s multibillion-dollar international broadcaster, CCTV, has programs in Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish, while its state news agency, Xinhua, and state radio network, China Radio International, are expanding worldwide. 

In addition to its English-language broadcasts, Russia’s state media devote substantial attention to the Middle East, Latin America, and the Balkans, where the Kremlin sees an opportunity to exploit the information space in settings where the democracies have a limited and shrinking media presence.

While the authoritarians claim that their massive international media ventures are needed so that the world will have a better understanding of their countries, for the most part these mammoth networks do not make an affirmative case for their own systems and achievements, but rather focus on assailing the West and distorting perceptions of democracy. The Kremlin’s international propaganda, for instance, uses a cynical moral equivalence to insinuate that all societies, authoritarian or democratic, are equally corrupt, a backhanded rationale for the status quo they seek to maintain. 


As the resurgence of authoritarian power has gathered momentum in recent years, some observers have taken comfort in the fact that the regimes in Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere have not actively sought to promote their own systems as governance models. There has been little or no effort to create a policy of “autocracy promotion.” The fact that these regimes are not seeking to export an ideology of authoritarianism has made the West less likely to worry about their mobilization against democracy, including the powerful propaganda machines they have assembled. But it is a mistake not to take seriously the effectiveness of their strategy of containing what they fear and do not possess: democratic legitimacy. 

At the Cold War’s end, the West pursued a policy of engagement in the hope that interlocking relationships would encourage undemocratic partners to adopt basic democratic standards, and that market-oriented trade and development would inevitably lead to political liberalization. The leading authoritarian regimes have confounded such hopes and, unlike the Soviet Union, not merely hunkered down to defend an indefensible system, but gone to great lengths to delegitimize the
democratic competition. 

Over the years, this new containment policy has adapted, matured, and extended its reach on a global scale. The authoritarian challenge that has grown during this time deserves a far more vigorous response from the established democracies, if their own standards and values are to survive and flourish.

George Kennan did not see his Cold War–era version of containment as an end in itself but as a means to an end, one that would enable Soviet totalitarianism to self-destruct. The new authoritarians are pursuing their version of containment as a means to an end as well. Having come to the conclusion that their regime security is under perpetual threat in the era of globalization, they have decided to go after democracy before it comes after them. 

Christopher Walker is the executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. 


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