Dealing with Autocracies in a Multipolar World

Armin Laschet is a former Minister-President of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, having also formerly served as Leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). You may follow him on Twitter @ArminLaschet.

The former French diplomat and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord described foreign policy as “stepping on someone’s toes until they apologize.” Talleyrand-Périgord was a companion of Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century but the definition shows his understanding of the goals that foreign policy needed to follow at that time. From his point of view, a state is obligated to enforce its own interests, regardless of what this means for others. It goes without saying that Talleyrand-Périgord is to be understood by the standards of his time.

Due to the policy of enforcing national interests without considering other nations’ needs, international relations have often been characterized by war and violence. The disaster of two world wars with millions of deaths and the genocide of the Jewish people ushered in the rules-based world order after 1945, based on the Charter of the United Nations. However, after World War II, the world was divided into two blocs, the liberal democratic West and the bloc of communist states dominated by the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar confrontation of ideologies were accompanied by the hope of establishing a democratic and liberal world order. The end of the communist system was succeeded by a dynamic, transformational phase in the former communist countries, which charted their path towards democratic and market economy-oriented systems, especially in Eastern Europe.
Likewise, the divided German people seized the opportunity to reunite in 1990. Motivated by its historic responsibility, Germany decided to align with the Western community and has been acting as a “civil power” by avoiding military instruments and using diplomatic resources to solve problems. Moreover, as the world’s long-time “export leader,” Germany established itself as a “trading power.” As a result of Germany’s economic success and its geopolitical position in Europe, the country’s influence gradually increased, eventually reaching what substantially exceeds its level of influence three decades ago. Simultaneously, new risks arose, such as climate change and the impact of new technologies, but also the proliferation of violence and global health threats like the latest pandemic.

Today, Germany is compelled by its allies to increase its contributions to global security. Three decades after the end of the bipolar world order, the expected and proclaimed victory of democracies seems too optimistic. Foreign policy differs from country to country. It depends on a country’s geopolitical position, economic interests, threat perceptions, and history as well as the type of domestic political system. Since at least the beginning of the Ukraine war in February 2022, Germany has been facing the question of how to deal with autocratic regimes.


Germany’s Role in the World
Germany’s self-definition as a “civil power” emphasized international norms and a values-based foreign policy approach. On the one hand, this means policymaking based on international law and on fostering human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Instruments of foreign policy such as diplomacy, development aid, and, if required, military support, are meant to promote these values.

On the other hand, German and European wealth depends on trading with non-democratic countries. As a result of the Russian war against Ukraine, the German government rejected the Nord Stream project. The German involvement in the Nord Stream project was justified by the need for economic cooperation, which was to be treated differently than political relations with Russia. Additionally, one more source of motivation for promoting the pipeline was the impact that economic interdependence was meant to have on conflicts with non-democratic countries, since both Germany and Russia benefited from and depended on each other. As late as 2022, a group of German decisionmakers thought that economic cooperation might have a positive impact in preventing a greater Russian escalation. That was clearly a misinterpretation.

Since then, there has been increasing debate in Germany about how to deal with non-democratic countries. Any answer to this can only paint a broad picture in terms of what Germany’s foreign policy must consider in the near future.

A Turning Point Beyond Russia
The main goals of German foreign policy are protecting peace, wealth, and freedom for people in Germany and Europe. As mentioned before, the preconditions for achieving this have changed dramatically over the last three decades. The return of war to Europe by means of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was described by the German chancellor Olaf Scholz as “Zeitenwende,” a turning point in international relations. However, Germany’s current view of the world is focused on the war in Ukraine because this is a conflict between neighbors. Therefore, no serious German decisionmaker would question the sanctions imposed on Russia and the support for Ukraine. The German people, however, fear direct involvement.

Defining a turning point in international relations needs to be embedded in our worldview. It is characterized by five points that Germany and its partners must deal with.

First, the international power structure is undergoing fundamental change, triggered by the economic rise of East Asian countries, especially China, which strives to become the world’s leading superpower by 2050.

Second, the fundamental technological transformation that has taken place over the last 20 years is tangibly observable. Access to new technologies is a mass factor, but also a strategic resource.

Third, violations of international law are a threat to international security. At the same time, populist streams that question basic values of democratic countries are rising.

Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic spiraled out of control and became a polypandemic. Within a couple of months, it escalated to the level of a global health crisis.

Fifth, the German Federal Court has demanded a stricter policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions beyond 2030. Protecting freedom is not only an obligation for this generation, but also for future ones. 


How to Deal with Autocratic Systems
A renewed global rivalry between democracies and autocracies is highlighted not only by Germany but also by other Western democratic governments. In view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden said during his visit to Warsaw in March 2022: “We are engaged anew in a great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression.” At the same time, in an interview for The Times, the then UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that “The West focused on cheap goods at the expense of freedom and security.” She also pointed out that “there’s been too much accommodation of trade and economic growth with authoritarian regimes over the past 20 years and too much complacency, and not enough focus on security and defense.”

There is no doubt, Western democracies need to learn lessons from the Russian aggression. This requires a renewed strengthening of defense capabilities and building credible deterrence, which also applies to Germany and its armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Diplomatic efforts of the EU and the United States have intensified in reaching out to democracies of Latin America. The EU and Japan have committed to expand cooperation on global issues with the United States. At the same time, the Indo-Pacific region as well as vibrant democracies such as Australia and New Zealand are fast becoming the center of attention of Western policymaking. In 2021, Australia, the UK, and the United States agreed to establish AUKUS, a trilateral security agreement to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines and enhance cooperation among the three countries in areas such as cyber security and artificial intelligence.

Although one might certainly welcome a global strengthening of cooperation among democracies, it is reasonable to question whether excluding autocratic regimes from the equation is a sensible strategy for opposing Russian aggression. More fundamentally: on what definition of democracy and autocracy should such a strategy be based? Given that democracy means people’s ability to elect, or to vote out a government, the term ‘democracy’ certainly does not automatically include Western values.


Dealing with Russia’s War in Ukraine
What have democratic and authoritarian countries done so far in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine? The United States, Canada, and the EU condemned the invasion and imposed sanctions on Russia. They coordinated their support for Ukraine by delivering weapons with determination and cohesion that was not anticipated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, neither condemning the invasion nor supporting Ukraine aligns with the idea of “democracies vs. non-democracies.” Other democratic countries, such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, have aligned with the policy of the U.S., EU, and Canada. Still, when considering countries like India (the world’s largest democracy), South Africa, Israel, or Brazil, it becomes obvious how narrow the definition of a struggle between democratic and autocratic regimes is, since all of these democracies abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution that condemned the invasion.

For example, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva even demanded that support for Ukraine be stopped. In October 2022, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called for the rejection of sanctions against Russia, even though Hungary continues to align itself with the EU’s sanctions policy.

In contrast to those democratic countries that reluctantly support Ukraine, some rather autocratic countries such as Singapore agreed to condemn Russia’s actions. Even China—normally considered an important partner of Russia and a systemic competitor of liberal democracies—expressed a more neutral position towards the Russian invasion in the UN Security Council and promised German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock not to deliver weapons in support of Russian military actions. Furthermore, China cautioned Putin against nuclear escalation of the conflict.

This truly questions the premise that this is only a rivalry between autocracies and democracies.

What would happen if Western values-based democracies only concentrated on cooperation with each other? The Ukraine crisis demonstrates that dealing exclusively with democracies would weaken the position of the international community on Russia. If democratic countries around the world appeared weak and lacked unity, losing the support of war-averse authoritarian states would be easy to imagine. Can policymaking be successful within a closed circle of values-based democracies? How would these democracies address challenges beyond the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, such as climate change, the pandemic, or UN reform?


Dealing with a Climate-Neutral Future
There is a broad consensus among scientists that increasing CO2 emissions are threatening our climate. Establishing a climate-neutral economy and society is one of the most important goals of Germany’s foreign policy. After all, the quality of life of future generations depends on it. In 2015, Germany was among 197 countries that negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement. Since then, the agreement has been ratified by 180 countries. The goal is to limit the rise of the global mean temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The involved countries have been working on Nationally Determined Contributions since the agreement was established. On the one hand, Germany decided to become climate neutral by 2045. On the other hand, since 1990, the world’s CO2 emissions have increased from 20 billion to 32 billion tons in 2015.

The goal that Germany and the EU are trying to reach has had an enormous impact on our economy. Reducing fossil fuels by expanding renewable energy is a turning point in our economic system. Additionally, Germany got out of nuclear energy.

China is the world’s most populous country with more than 1.4 billion inhabitants. The Chinese government decided for the country to become climate neutral by 2060, but for now, China continues to build additional coal-powered plants.

Would Germany and the EU thus be able to convince China to reduce CO2 emissions by diplomatic efforts inside an exclusive circle of democratic states? It is clear that trying to achieve a climate-neutral global economy without dealing with authoritarian states would be delusional. The West therefore needs to direct its climate diplomacy efforts towards China.


Saving Jobs and Wealth
What would happen if we traded only with democratic countries? During the 1950s, Europe had around 500 million inhabitants, while the world’s population stood around 2 billion. Today, while Europe is still at 500 million people, the world passed the 8 billion threshold in 2022. Nevertheless, the EU member states enjoy the highest public benefits on the planet.

China has three times more inhabitants than the EU, and with a trading volume of €245 billion, it is Germany’s largest partner. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in Germany depend on it. One of the most significant foreign policy challenges is to maintain wealth for Germany and Europe. This will hardly be achievable without continuing to trade with China and other authoritarian countries.

Germany and China depend on each other, and their trade is mutually beneficial. However, Germany needs to avoid falling into one-sided dependency on China and insist on having equal market access. Moreover, China has the legitimate right to expand its trade relations. Instead of complaining about the Belt and Road Initiative, Europe should work to develop its own “silk road.”

Trading with authoritarian systems requires a realistic approach and realistic goals. The German and other European governments should not set unrealistic expectations of achieving “change through trade,” but should instead focus on getting in “touch through trade.” Beyond saving wealth and jobs by trading with autocracies, Europeans would be well advised to discuss international standards, such as those on protecting the climate, the environment, or consumers. 


Lessons Learned and Reforms Ahead
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a virus can threaten the entire world within very little time. As the virus broke out, nobody could assess how dangerous it was and what was to be done to prevent people from spreading the infection and exacerbating the already precarious situation. Democratic governments needed to justify why they had to restrict individual freedoms and basic rights. Managing a global health crisis depends on cooperation between democracies and authoritarian regimes. There is a need to exchange information, save people, and talk about medicine, vaccines, and preventive goods such as masks—regardless of whether a country is democratic or not. The World Health Organization needs to be strengthened. It is vital that it prepares a strategy to manage similar challenges, should they occur again in the future.

The international rules-based order depends on the UN Charter and the Security Council. This order is under attack from authoritarian states and populist movements. On the one hand, Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine. The UN Security Council is blocked because all five permanent members need to agree for a binding resolution to pass. Russia’s status as a permanent member prevents any decisions directed against it from being adopted. On the other hand, the international order does not reflect today’s power distributions but rather the state of the world at the end of World War II.

Yet, power distributions and alliances have since changed without this being reflected in reform of the UN Security Council—the most influential institution of contemporary international relations. There are thus two reasons why the United Nations needs to be renewed. First, effective international legislation depends on the ability to effectively prosecute and condemn an aggressor. Second, the world and its power structures have changed since 1945. China and India alone represent more people than the United States and Europe combined, while large parts of the world do not have permanent representation.

What would happen if Western governments ignored the need to reform the system? Having a peaceful future of the world based on the rule of law would turn into a distant dream. While violations of international law have increased over the years, saving the international rules-based order will depend on it being accepted around the world.

What are the main national interests, as defined by Germany’s foreign policy? The main interests pertain to peace and stability in Europe and around the world, maintaining global adherence to international law, preserving jobs and prosperity, increasing pandemic preparedness, strengthening capacities to tackle other global challenges, and mitigating climate change. What would happen if Germany stopped its cooperation with authoritarian countries on diplomacy or trade? It would certainly risk losing the ability to achieve many, if not all of its noble goals.

It is not sufficient to step on someone’s toes until they apologize, as Talleyrand once argued, for no country can solve its problems on its own. Foreign policy depends on the ability to compromise and set up one’s own preferences and priorities. How should one go about reducing global CO2 emissions? How should countries organize information flow and research exchange during a pandemic? How does one secure formidable support for Ukraine in line with international law when authoritarian and democratic countries exhibit mixed reactions? Foreign policy is not about exclusivity and ideological puritanism. Oftentimes it means having to deal with countries with completely different points of view and making agreements against all odds.

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