It is rare that policymakers, analysts, and academics agree. But there is an emerging consensus in the world of foreign policy: threats to the stability of the current international order are rising. The norms, values, laws, and institutions that have undergirded the international system and governed relationships between nations are being gradually dismantled. The most discussed sources of this pressure are the ascent of China and other non-Western countries, Russia’s assertive foreign policy, and the diffusion of power from traditional nation-states to nonstate actors, such as nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations, and technology-empowered individuals. Largely missing from these discussions, however, is the specter of widespread democratic decline. Rising challenges to democratic governance across the globe are a major strain on the international system, but they receive far less attention in discussions of the shifting world order.

In the 70 years since the end of World War II, the United States has fostered a global order dominated by states that are liberal, capitalist, and democratic. The United States has promoted the spread of democracy to strengthen global norms and rules that constitute the foundation of our current international system. However, despite the steady rise of democracy since the end of the Cold War, over the last 10 years we have seen dramatic reversals in respect for democratic principles across the globe. A 2015 Freedom House report stated that the “acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.”

Although the number of democracies in the world is at an all-time high, there are a number of key trends that are working to undermine democracy. The rollback of democracy in a few influential states or even in a number of less consequential ones would almost certainly accelerate meaningful changes in today’s global order.

Democratic decline would weaken U.S. partnerships and erode an important foundation for U.S. cooperation abroad. Research demonstrates that domestic politics are a key determinant of the international behavior of states. In particular, democracies are more likely to form alliances and cooperate more fully with other democracies than with autocracies. Similarly, authoritarian countries have established mechanisms for cooperation and sharing of “worst practices.” An increase in authoritarian countries, then, would provide a broader platform for coordination that could enable these countries to overcome their divergent histories, values, and interests—factors that are frequently cited as obstacles to the formation of a cohesive challenge to the U.S.-led international system.

Recent examples support the empirical data. Democratic backsliding in Hungary and the hardening of Egypt’s autocracy under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have led to enhanced relations between these countries and Russia. Likewise, democratic decline in Bangladesh has led Sheikh Hasina Wazed and her ruling Awami League to seek closer relations with China and Russia, in part to mitigate Western pressure and bolster the regime’s domestic standing.

Although none of these burgeoning relationships has developed into a highly unified partnership, democratic backsliding in these countries has provided a basis for cooperation where it did not previously exist. And while the United States certainly finds common cause with authoritarian partners on specific issues, the depth and reliability of such cooperation is limited. Consequently, further democratic decline could seriously compromise the United States’ ability to form the kinds of deep partnerships that will be required to confront today’s increasingly complex challenges. Global issues such as climate change, migration, and violent extremism demand the coordination and cooperation that democratic backsliding would put in peril. Put simply, the United States is a less effective and influential actor if it loses its ability to rely on its partnerships with other democratic nations.

A slide toward authoritarianism could also challenge the current global order by diluting U.S. influence in critical international institutions, including the United Nations , the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Democratic decline would weaken Western efforts within these institutions to advance issues such as Internet freedom and the responsibility to protect. In the case of Internet governance, for example, Western democracies support an open, largely private, global Internet. Autocracies, in contrast, promote state control over the Internet, including laws and other mechanisms that facilitate their ability to censor and persecute dissidents. Already many autocracies, including Belarus, China, Iran, and Zimbabwe, have coalesced in the “Likeminded Group of Developing Countries” within the United Nations to advocate their interests.

Within the IMF and World Bank, autocracies—along with other developing nations—seek to water down conditionality or the reforms that lenders require in exchange for financial support. If successful, diminished conditionality would enfeeble an important incentive for governance reforms. In a more extreme scenario, the rising influence of autocracies could enable these countries to bypass the IMF and World Bank all together. For example, the Chinese-created Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the BRICS Bank—which includes Russia, China, and an increasingly authoritarian South Africa—provide countries with the potential to bypass existing global financial institutions when it suits their interests. Authoritarian-led alternatives pose the risk that global economic governance will become fragmented and less effective.

Violence and instability would also likely increase if more democracies give way to autocracy. International relations literature tells us that democracies are less likely to fight wars against other democracies, suggesting that interstate wars would rise as the number of democracies declines. Moreover, within countries that are already autocratic, additional movement away from democracy, or an “authoritarian hardening,” would increase global instability. Highly repressive autocracies are the most likely to experience state failure, as was the case in the Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In this way, democratic decline would significantly strain the international order because rising levels of instability would exceed the West’s ability to respond to the tremendous costs of peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and refugee flows.

Finally, widespread democratic decline would contribute to rising anti-U.S. sentiment that could fuel a global order that is increasingly antagonistic to the United States and its values. Most autocracies are highly suspicious of U.S. intentions and view the creation of an external enemy as an effective means for boosting their own public support. Russian president Vladimir Putin, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, and Bolivian president Evo Morales regularly accuse the United States of fomenting instability and supporting regime change. This vilification of the United States is a convenient way of distracting their publics from regime shortcomings and fostering public support for strongman tactics.

Since 9/11, and particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring, Western enthusiasm for democracy support has waned. Rising levels of instability, including in Ukraine and the Middle East, fragile governance in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sustained threats from terrorist groups such as ISIL have increased Western focus on security and stability. U.S. preoccupation with intelligence sharing, basing and overflight rights, along with the perception that autocracy equates with stability, are trumping democracy and human rights considerations.

While rising levels of global instability explain part of Washington’s shift from an historical commitment to democracy, the nature of the policy process itself is a less appreciated factor. Policy discussions tend to occur on a country-by-country basis—leading to choices that weigh the costs and benefits of democracy support within the confines of a single country. From this perspective, the benefits of counterterrorism cooperation or access to natural resources are regularly judged to outweigh the perceived costs of supporting human rights. A serious problem arises, however, when this process is replicated across countries. The bilateral focus rarely incorporates the risks to the U.S.-led global order that arise from widespread democratic decline across multiple countries.

Many of the threats to the current global order, such as China’s rise or the diffusion of power, are driven by factors that the United States and West more generally have little leverage to influence or control. Democracy, however, is an area where Western actions can affect outcomes. Factoring in the risks that arise from a global democratic decline into policy discussions is a vital step to building a comprehensive approach to democracy support. Bringing this perspective to the table may not lead to dramatic shifts in foreign policy, but it would ensure that we are having the right conversation.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and a nonresident senior associate in the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C..

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Andrea Kendall-Taylor