The Rise of Authoritarian Regimes in the 21st Century

Written by Dia Abdul 06/02/2024

Executive Summary  

In the mid-2000s, the alarming wave of global autocratization emerged, despite the three previous waves of democratization. External factors such as the major powers’ foreign policies and the inaction of international institutions such as United Nations contributed to the re-growth of autocratization. However, these external factors cannot rival the efficacy of the internal factors such as shallow democratization. Without “checks” and “balances” autocratic rulers can easily manipulate and reshape the system, as the power is concentrated in their hands, instead of the various branches of government; leading to a “one man race” election through which they grip on power.  

To ensure democracy’s effectiveness, it is crucial for the internal forces to fuel the system by forming a democratic system that reflects the context and consistently making changes in its laws and constitutions to reflect the society's needs and preferences. Costa Rica’s example demonstrates the power of strong roots of democracy in successfully surviving external forces of “neighborhood effect” that might have caused regime change.  

Regardless of external powers, the lack of national fertile ground and will to adopt, democracies cannot be planted, nor can take strong roots to withstand reverse waves of autocratization.    

The Backlash  

The world has experienced three waves of democratization, and each was followed by a reverse wave of autocratization. After the birth of the third wave in the 20th century, it was thought that democracy has strengthened its roots around the world, and the risk of autocratization has faded into the background. But it was in the mid-2000s that the alarming alert of the reversal wave echoed worldwide. Despite the immense emphasis given to the phenomena throughout history, it continues to reoccur.  

One defining line between democracy and autocracy that is easily recognized is the style of ruling: in the hierarchical system of autocracy people are unable to voice their opinion to the one that is on top of the hierarchy. Unlike democracy, in which the system is vertical, and people can voice their opinion through the elected representatives in the various bodies of government, one example that is associated with this type of ruling is the United States’ government with three branches; in which the president is one piece of the power puzzle as he cannot act separately from the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.  

The increasing recognition of human rights that democracy has fostered over the years is a positive aspect of the political system, which is now under the threat of autocratization, lays the foundation for more human violations to take place, especially by including the frequent resort to military force to resolve political disputes which has had tangible effects on human life and security.1 For instance, resulting in conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Syria, or Russia launching a “special military operation” in Ukraine in 2022.  

The aim of this paper is to underline the main factors that fertilize the ground for the recent wave of autocratization and ways that anchor the reversal phenomena of democratization.  

Fertilized International Ecosystem  

External factors create a fertile international ecosystem for the growth and propagation of autocratization wave, and the foreign policy of major powers is a crucial one.  

After the World War ll in 1945, United States emerged as one of the superpowers, directed its foreign policies toward promoting democracy and imposing it on several countries, including the defeated Axis alliance countries of Germany, Japan, and Italy. These efforts also focused on giving economic and political aid to France and Greece as the two were threatened by the rival ideology of communism. The flow of democratization wave has increased, and many non-democratic systems transformed into democratic ones, such as Brazil in 1945, and Argentina in 1946, to name a few.  

When the Cold War developed, the US consistently compromised its support for democracy in favor of military rulers and dictators that supported it against its rival Soviet Union (USSR). The non-democratic rulers started gaining power; autocratization wave started to flow higher than the subtle wave of democratization, leading to rebirth of autocratic regimes in Brazil in 1964 and Argentina in 1966.  

The rebirth of the third wave of democratization occurred between 1975 to 1991, fueled by the US foreign policy as hegemonic approach, yet again. During that period US supported democratic rulers, at the same time the congress conditioned its foreign aid on recipient countries’ human rights standards, which sent message to those non-democratic states that they lost a powerful external ally. The period’s highlighting events had been the end of dictatorship in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and the ultimate collapse of the USSR.2 In addition to Argentina that has persisted its democratic status ever since.  

The why of such dynamic occurrences is the interdependence of the world created by globalization; fueled by trade, finance, social, and political motives. This is what forces the states to change their direction according to the will of their partners of interest.  

As time passed, the inconsistency of US’s support for democracy grew due to strengthening its ties with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. In addition to the rise of Russia and later China as two of the world major powers. Eventually, minimized the checks on autocratic abuse of and grip on power, leading to the birth of the third wave of autocratization.  

Self-empowered Russia and China, both grew their economy and political power on the international stage, along with strengthening the transnational network that they have built with other likeminded leaders such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. The transnational network has been serving them in spreading autocratic norms through providing support for non-democratic rulers; that in return has strengthened the roots of autocracy in non-democratic states. In most cases the support is through providing economic aid, to counter the efforts made by the democracies’ response to sham elections and coups with measures such as economic sanction. For instance, Russia, China, and Turkey collaborated to provide trade and investment to the Venezuelan regime, offsetting sanctions imposed on the country due to its rigged elections and crackdowns on the opposition.3 

Their collaboration's impact has even halted the action of the United Nations (UN). Russia and China as the UN’s permanent members vetoed a draft resolution that would ensure continued provision of humanitarian aid across the Syrian border without the approval of the Syrian government, an ally of their own, assuring Assad’s continued reign.4 

The inaction of the international institutions such as UN on the crucial events that human right violation takes place in, is another factor that removes the barriers for the flow of autocratization wave. Some analysts assert that what happened with the Syrian civil war is what sat the stage for the current crisis in Ukraine.5 Some mark the Russia’s invasion of Crimea peninsula in 2014 as the catalyst.6 The issue is rooted in UN’s charter that granted the five permanent members including Russia and China veto rights; without consensus amongst these members, decisions cannot be implemented.  

National Fertile Ground 

The external factors such as the shift of foreign policies of major powers and the inaction of UN are all driving forces behind the resurgence of autocratization. However, they are insufficient to rival the efficacy of internal forces such as the shallow root of democratization, which helps the autocratic rulers to easily reshape or manipulate the political system.  

Every nation may experience turbulent times, leaders may change, the world may undergo different waves of regime change, but what fertilizes the ground for the autocrats to grip on power is the lack of ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ mechanisms, such as in some cases democracy has not taken strong roots to include these mechanisms.  

Establishing a democratic foundation begins with the division of governmental powers into its various branches. So, that each branch with its own individual power can check and balance the other branches; the key ones usually are the executive, legislative, and judiciary, as in the example of the US system.  

Checks are mechanisms which allow institutions to limit one another; by blocking, delaying, or criticizing decisions. Balances allow the political system to reflect various voices and interests; this includes structures such as federalism, consisting of a national and a subnational government. In addition to broader features of democratic functioning, such as various political parties.  

These mechanisms are crucial to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a leader or political party, especially the updated version of autocrats, who muddy the waters for the world, making it difficult to recognize them by not being fully democratic nor autocratic. Their government consists of various branches, they hold elections and allow some civil liberties. Although, the degree of civil liberties changes in one autocratic system to the other; some are more restricted such as North Korea, a country where its people live in total isolation from the rest of the world, with bare minimum personal freedom. Unlike, Russia’s Vladimir Putin that allows some degree of liberty and uses modern tools such as media to expand his influence, instead of classical repression tactics.  

However, “staged election” is the common theme between these in-between ruling regiemes, because only theoretically, it is possible to hold opposition, as the power is concentrated in the hands of the autocrat. The various branches of government exist, but with no separate powers; the executive branch consists of the president and his advisors responsible for enforcing laws and directing the various departments including defense department that are a part of the executive branch. The legislative branch responsible for making law is also dominated by the ruling party. So, by both being under the control of the autocrat, judiciary under the political repression of both branches have no choice but to apply the laws enforced by them. Which is why the government’s bodies are unable to carry out checks and balances. For instance, Vladimir Putin with loyalist security forces, legislative body composed of the ruling party and pliable opposition factions, a subservient judiciary, and controlled media climate, he can steer the outcome of elections in his favor. The authorities frequently make changes to the electoral law and the timing of the election, to secure his win and defeat of the opposition. In 2020, Putin signed a law permitting the use of electronic voting in Russia, and another one to allow three-day voting period; critics asserted that the expanded time limit allowed the officials to manipulate the outcomes to a greater extend.7 

This reflects the shallow roots of democracy, because in most cases democracy has been a top-down process; imposed by external forces. Whilst the people in such context have a long history with hierarchical style of rulings: monarchy, imperialism, tribalism, dictatorship, and so forth. History demonstrates to them that autocratic rulers are decisive and capable of facing even the laws to fight so-called external and internal enemies of the nation, which results in weakening the roots of democracy.

Autocracy's resurgence is fueled by external factors including major powers' foreign policies and the inaction of United Nation, as well as the internal factors such as shallow democratization which can play a more effective role. 

Democracy Growing Strong Roots  

Quick wins cannot be achieved with democracy because it is a process, more so a bottom-top process in the 21st century. To ensure the effectiveness of democracy, internal forces should be the ones that fuel the system; by forming a democratic system that reflects the context, and consistently making changes in its laws and constitutions to reflect the society's needs and preferences.  

Costa Rica’s democracy is one of the examples that radiates the power of strong roots of democracy in staying resilient in the face of external forces of “neighborhood effect” that might have caused regime change. The country was democratized in 1948 and has survived since. In order to ensure the continuity of its strong tradition of civilian rule, in 1949 the country abolished its military forces by reforming the constitution. The new constitution bans the existence of a permanent force but does not preclude the formation of temporary military forces; following a national emergency declaration, the Costa Rica Congress could authorize the requirement and training of a temporary force.8 Unlike, Brazil in which the regime change took place with each wave due to the strong roots of military dictatorship which works as barrier to Brazil’s democratization. Similar to invasive plants that absorb most of the nutrition from the soil and stop the flow of nutrition of other plants. The presence of military force in Brazil’s political life has played a huge role in the birth of coups, even the recent one that brought down the president Dilma Rousseff in 2019, due to the increase of the leading role of Brazilian Armed Forces since 2000s.9 Reverting to the default of making political changes by conducting military coups stops the democratic principles from taking root.  

One reason democracy succeeded and built strong roots in Spain is that it smoothly transitioned to democratic constitutional monarchy without direct foreign intervention; the king Juan Carlos acted as the core engine of the transition after a civil war and 40 years of dictatorship. He was able to bridge the gap between reformist and democratic movements, along with the old military, clerical and economic elites.10 Today, the Crown is head of the state, the elected prime minister is the head of the government. The new system balances the historical context, in which monarchy in its different conceptions has dominated the political landscape.  

New Zealand has a long record of free and fair elections, and of guaranteeing political rights and civil liberties.11 In 2019, then-prime minister Jacinda Adren introduced bipartisan gun control legislation after a deadly attack on the Muslim community, despite most of the population being interested in guns as they are by nature hunters.12 It is the reform for the sake of long-term goals that helps democracy survive and take strong roots, because people lose faith when the democratic government fails to protect their rights and freedom.  

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy, the various branches of the government work to achieve balance between the Crown, Government, and Parliament. There are some key institutions that operate as checks and balances on the executive branch consisting of the Crown and Government, including the Prime Minister, and Cabinet ministers. The first branch is the parliament which provides the core check, the second one is the courts by applying the laws made by the parliament, the third one is provided by impartial officials, the fourth key institutional check is provided by the media and civil society.13 The implementation of these mechanisms was strong enough to fight back the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to chip them away, during his time in the office.14 

Balance Is the Key  

Nonetheless, there can be drawbacks associated with strong checks and balance as they allow a wide range of participants and prevent unilateral actions from being taken. Leaving a vacuum that may give a chance to an autocrat to rise; through showing decisive actions. For instance, the US intense grip on the implementation of checks and balances mechanisms moved the country closer to the risk of gridlock, resulted in the win of an unconventional president such as Donald Trump. Through his rhetoric speeches that are usually likened to the fascist speeches he was able to attract the attention of American voters. One example is Trump asserting that Immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country” and they should be forced out: showing decisiveness. In a survey %38 percent of Americans supported having a president “willing to break some laws” to “set things right” with the country.15 

Balance is crucial for preserving effective checks and balances without preventing the government from taking crucial actions. This is an essential step towards preventing the rise of all forms of autocrats, as they rise from environments that are fueled with extremism. Even back in history, the birth of nationalism that led to the formation of nation-states, made the masses view nationalism as a positive force, few could predict that being extreme nationalist would lead to the birth of fascism, causing large scale of human suffering.  

Breaking From the Victim Mentality  

So far blaming strongmen and labeling them as the villain of the story has not prevented their rise to power is evident in the fact that they are still surviving in the 21st century. Each of the following players carry their share of responsibility; the major powers in supporting non-democratic rulers, the inaction of the international institutions, and the nations who instead of working toward strengthening the roots of democracy they opt for support strongmen.  

Nations that burry their heads and hope for the wind of autocracy will blow over, do not help the cause either, because as the standards of democracy lower in one place, they will lay more expansive foundation for more autocrats to gain power. 

A Worthwhile Journey  

The process of creating a healthy national ecosystem is a multi-dimensional process, which needs the involvement of various components of society.  

In this context, citizens play a crucial role by becoming active in participating in critical national matters through non-governmental organizations, for instance, to stop the nation from unquestionably adhering to the ruling authorities and take their share of responsibility. The kind of mentality needed for preventing the rise of autocrats is that if each citizen asked what impact today’s national political environment might have on the prospect of regime change, would it lead towards a healthier democracy or the decline of it? 

The role of the media is also crucial as it can spread the right kind of awareness amongst the people, educating them on the priorities of the nation. In addition to another crucial role which includes opening debates amongst intellectuals and policy makers; that may resolve the challenges through their creative recommendations and in-depth analysis. 

Intellectuals can share their invaluable insights on the democratic norms and principles that help protect human rights and interpret the national political landscape to the population.  

Policymakers can decide the priorities and decision-making principles, as well as the possible fallouts in the implementation process.   

At the same time, it is essential to strengthen the international institutions to be able to function independently from the hegemony that may cause stagnation. The Syria and Gaza case have been awakening calls for reformation.  


Autocracy's resurgence is fueled by external factors including major powers' foreign policies and the inaction of United Nation, as well as the internal factors such as shallow democratization which can play a more effective role.  

In shallow democracies the autocrats hold power in the government, directing various branches with no separation of powers; the executive and legislative branches are dominated by the ruling party, preventing the legislative and judiciary from exercising checks and balances and allowing them to enforce laws.  

To create a democratization ecosystem, it is crucial to recognize the role of the national factors in establishing a democratic system that is both responsive to society's requirements and preferences, also, robust enough to withstand the reversal wave of autocratization. This is clearly reflected can in the case of Costa Rica, which remained resilient amidst the reversal tides of autocratization since it rode the wave of democracy in 1948. 

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  15. Bender, Michael C., and Michael Gold. “Trump’s Dire Words Raise New Fears About His Authoritarian Bent.” The New York Times, November 21, 2023. Read more. ↩︎
Content Type:Analyses
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