How should democracies deal with authoritarian states? This is a bipartisan problem that has confronted every American administration without exception. Answers vary widely, falling between two poles of a spectrum. Some believe it is America’s mission to promote freedom in the world in a principled manner; others claim that foreign policy should be about national interests alone, and that policymakers should deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.
In reality, U.S. foreign policy has frequently tried to both advance freedom and protect the national interest. Foreign policy, after all, is largely driven by responses to events, where beggars can seldom be choosers. After 9/11, even the most principled democracy promoters realized the need to cooperate with authoritarian states to safeguard the American homeland. Conversely, President Donald Trump’s response to the Bashir al-Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria indicates that moral principles come into play even for the most dyed-in-the-wool realist. The George W. Bush Administration, for its part, tried to square the circle by claiming that the promotion of democracy would create a safer world for America. The results were not encouraging. Nor did President Obama’s approach—to “extend a hand” to avowed authoritarian rivals, while chiding allies for their democratic failings—improve the situation. Today, scholars and watchdog groups both point with alarm to a demonstrable backtracking of democracy around the world.
When and how, then, should America cooperate with authoritarian states, and how should it discriminate among them? Neither traditional academics nor the think tank community have developed any helpful guidelines of late. But a classic essay does offer some clues.
In 1979, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick wrote “Dictatorships & Double Standards” for Commentarymagazine, wherein she denounced the foreign policy of the Carter Administration. Her main criticism was, simply put, that Carter took too harsh a line on right-wing authoritarian regimes that sought partnership with the United States, while adopting a soft approach to left-wing revolutionary regimes. Carter, Kirkpatrick argued, had it backwards: America needed to differentiate between “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” regimes.
The regimes she called authoritarian certainly violated human rights and sought to cling to power—but they did not spew anti-American ideology, nor did they educate young generations to hate America. By contrast, the regimes she termed “totalitarian”—at the time, mainly of a communist persuasion and backed by the Soviet Union—did exactly that. Not only were totalitarian regimes America’s adversaries, but their policies in both education and the information space made their countries’ road to democratic development much more challenging. Authoritarian governments, she argued, could gradually evolve into democratic states over time; totalitarian ones might never do so. Thus, she argued, America should engage with authoritarian regimes, while confronting the totalitarian ones. This became known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, and it profoundly influenced the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy, which Kirkpatrick later helped implement as UN Ambassador.
Forty years later, the Soviet Union is no more, and communism has been dispatched to the dustbin of history. Kirkpatrick’s doctrine has also been criticized for legitimizing polices, particularly in Central America, that undermined democracy to protect right-wing leaders. But how do her ideas hold up four decades later? Many authoritarian regimes that were allied with the United States largely did evolve into democracies, as countries as disparate as Chile and South Korea show. (The Reagan Administration did its part in nudging these allied countries toward democracy without sacrificing the relationship.) By contrast, those that fell into the totalitarian category, as defined by Kirkpatrick, have been notably slow to develop democratic institutions. This is true for Russia and the successor states of the Soviet Union, for China, and for communist-aligned states in the developing world like Angola, Ethiopia, or Cuba.
More importantly, Kirkpatrick’s crucial insight was that there are deep and policy-relevant distinctions between authoritarian regimes. Today, U.S. policymakers still cannot agree on what these guidelines might be. The distinctions that political scientists have identified within the literature on “hybrid regimes” are of little relevance to policymakers. What remains are democracy rankings like Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report. But even assuming such indices provide an accurate rendering of reality (a separate and important matter), they are not meant to be translated directly into policy.
A concrete example: How should America approach Turkmenistan and North Korea? Both countries receive among the lowest rankings for political freedom in the Freedom House index. But there are crucial differences between the two countries. One constantly spews anti-American propaganda, operates labor camps, starves its population, builds nuclear weapons, engages in systematic smuggling, and lobs missiles over its neighbors. The other is a reclusive but neutral country, a secular state on Iran’s northern border that has good relations with the United States and occasionally cooperates with U.S. interests in the heart of Asia.
Another example: on the latest Freedom House Index, U.S. allies like Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates are ranked lower or on par with Iran and Venezuela. Even assuming this reflects reality, should America take a softer approach to Caracas or Tehran, and downplay these regimes’ systematic entanglement with terrorism and drug trafficking? Conversely, if freedom indices were to guide policy, should America take a harder stance on two pro-American states that actually help counter extremist Islamists? Only the most single-minded democracy activists would argue that U.S. policy should be determined on the basis of freedom levels alone. Yet democracy promoters frequently do argue that America should take a harder stance against authoritarian practices in pro-American states, while advocating greater engagement with hostile actors. This approach certainly informed the Obama Administration’s approach to the world, especially Iran, with dubious success.
A Kirkpatrick doctrine for the 21st century must begin by observing that authoritarian states vary greatly among each other, and then determine exactly which criteria should factor in policymaking. I propose three key criteria: how a regime treats its population; what ideology motivates that regime; and the regime’s approach to the world around it.
By definition, authoritarian states do not treat all their citizens alike. Some rule, and others are ruled. Such regimes can never be fully meritocratic, and they will inevitably apply restrictions on political speech and activity to maintain their own survival. But beyond that, authoritarian states come in many shades and differ in how they approach their population. Some are quite simply murderous and predatory, but there are also more benign forms of authoritarian rule: sometimes called “soft” or “liberal” autocracies.
The former category is what first comes to mind when the word “authoritarian” is used: It conjures up images of Kim Jong-un, Bashir al-Asad, or Saddam Hussein. These most egregious authoritarian regimes lack widespread public legitimacy and are often built around, and serve the interests of, a minority constituency. Such regimes go far beyond targeting political challengers; they resort to repression to generate a climate of fear in large circles of the population. Opposition is scarcely tolerated and the threat of violence abounds. Political dissidents suddenly disappear or die. When push comes to shove, these regimes do not hesitate to kill their citizens by the thousands. While the Kim dynasty’s North Korea, Asad’s Syria, and Hussein’s Iraq are the most egregious modern examples, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia also fit the bill: Witness their systematic killing of political opponents at home and abroad, and the fate of perhaps a 100,000 Chechens in the past two decades.
On the other side of the spectrum are what we might call the liberal autocracies. These are non-democratic governments that, while not permitting their citizens to elect their leaders, provide some protection for the rule of law and individual freedoms (as in 19th-century European monarchies). Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukyama identified a “soft authoritarian” model in East Asia, and more recently, Fareed Zakaria contrasted liberal autocracies favorably to “illiberal” democracies, observing that rapid transitions to electoral democracy without a basis in strong institutions often degenerate into populist, divisive regimes.
The term “liberal autocracy,” of course, is only useful as an ideal type. Few such regimes fully live up to the “liberal” part of the term—but they still stand in strong contrast to the murderous regimes of the North Korean or Syrian type. More liberal authoritarian states often rest upon considerable public legitimacy, albeit derived not from elections but from dynastic lineage, tradition, or the charismatic authority of a leader. Legitimacy could even be a result of financial largesse and the provision of stability, which explains why so few oil producers experience revolutions. The point is that many authoritarian regimes focus considerable energies on ensuring they are supported by key constituencies. They may offer limited forms of political participation, and they often keep divisive ideologies like nationalism or religious extremism in check, garnering the support of minority constituencies.
It goes without saying that even the most benign autocrat will apply pressure on political challengers, the press, and civil society organizations when they pose a danger to the regime. Yet crucially, liberal autocracies do allow a limited civil society distinct from the state. Regular citizens, as long as they do not engage in politics, largely go about their lives normally. Challengers may be intimidated, muzzled, or even jailed, but they are seldom “disappeared” or outright killed as in the harshest regimes. Liberal autocracies often provide considerable public goods, too, and many have a decent record of helping to lift their population out of poverty.
Of course, in all authoritarian systems, the well-connected dominate business life and have privileged access to resources and state contracts. Political and economic power are frequently interconnected, if not altogether merged. Still, because more benign authoritarians have a vested interest in maintaining public legitimacy, they seek to establish a business climate conducive to foreign investment and to ensure that corruption does not spiral out of control. In short, the more benign authoritarian states endeavor to build efficient state institutions.
Of direct importance to American policymakers, the Middle East and Central Asia are home to a number of liberal autocracies, with regimes that prioritize stability and keep extremism in check while gradually, though not always successfully, seeking to facilitate economic development and build functioning state institutions. Examples include countries like the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Morocco in the Middle East, and Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Still farther east, China embarked on such a path under Deng Xiaoping, building a meritocratic bureaucracy and a state that succeeded in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Under Xi Jinping, however, the Chinese system appears to be reverting to a harder authoritarian system based on one-man rule, while forcibly interning hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in “re-education camps.”
Some regimes, thus, cut across neat analytic categories. Take Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that is aligned with America and sits on some of the world’s largest energy resources, but has simultaneously played a key role in boosting the Salafist ideology that gave birth to the violent, anti-American extremism plaguing the Muslim world today. More recently, the incoherence has been compounded: The new Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is responsible for the bloody murder of a dissident in a consulate abroad, while also embarking on a project of authoritarian modernization that includes loosening some stifling limitations on civil rights. While regular Saudis have experienced greater freedoms, the crackdown on political dissidents has actually gotten worse. Saudi Arabia combines elements of the malign and (relatively) benign forms of authoritarianism.
Such ambiguous cases do not obviate the need for these distinctions, however. For ethical reasons as well as for the sake of national interests, America cannot and should not ignore how governments treat their populations. It should be wary of dealing too closely with predatory and murderous regimes, making exceptions only when the national interest overwhelmingly compels it to do so. By contrast, U.S. policymakers should be open to cooperating with more liberal autocracies, and identify ways to strengthen the liberal elements in their systems of government. But the way a regime treats its population cannot be the sole criteria determining U.S. policy. Only at our peril do we ignore the ideological nature of authoritarian regimes.
Kirkpatrick famously distinguished between authoritarian and totalitarian systems. The regimes she called traditional autocracies “do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations.” By contrast, totalitarian ones, such as revolutionary regimes motivated by an all-encompassing ideology, “claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that . . . violate internalized values and habits.” Kirkpatrick rejected the Carter Administration’s tendency to “accept at face value the claim of revolutionary groups to represent ‘popular’ aspirations and ‘progressive’ forces.” In the end, she argued convincingly, such revolutions tend to bring to power regimes that are equally if not more repressive than their predecessors, and motivated by an ideology hostile to the United States.
Kirkpatrick’s observation is as valid today as it was four decades ago. Too often, American policymakers have focused on the perceived repressiveness of a given regime, accepting at face value the claims of a regime’s opponents that they represent a democratic force. If a regime is authoritarian, the logic goes, its opponents must represent democracy. But that is frequently not true. America has repeatedly ignored the ideology behind political forces only to see it manifest itself fully only after they secure and consolidate power—with serious consequences both for American interests and local populations. If she were with us today, Kirkpatrick would no doubt have found the American embrace of “moderate Islamism” eerily similar to (and equally disastrous as) the Carter Administration’s approach to that day’s “progressive” and “popular” forces.
In Kirkpatrick’s day, communism was the totalitarian ideology that chiefly threatened America’s security and national interests. Today, that role has been taken over by the equally totalitarian ideology of radical Islamism. This is not to say that Islamism is monolithic, any more than communism was. But in all its manifestations, Islamism challenges America in the realm of ideas and seeks to undermine American interests and allies.
In a throwback to the Carter years, however, U.S. policy has treated these anti-American regimes and movements quite favorably. The Obama Administration refused to take sides in the 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran, but was perfectly willing to express support for protesters against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak two years later. Similarly, it embraced Turkey’s Justice and Development Party under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even as it purged and jailed hundreds of secularist opponents from 2010 onward, but publicly chastised neighboring secular Azerbaijan over its restrictions on media and civil society. The Trump Administration has tried to reverse this embrace of Islamism, adopting a more hostile approach to Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, while showing more understanding for secular regimes, as in Egypt. But its internal incoherence undermines its policies: Whereas many in the Administration favor a harder line on Turkey, the President himself appears to disregard this and prize his personal relationship with President Erdoğan.
The election of Hamas in 2006 shows how totalitarian ideologues can use the democratic system to their advantage, only to abolish democracy once they are ensconced in power. Given Hamas’s record in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, it should have surprised no one that Mohamed Morsi would seek to do exactly that in Egypt in 2012, following the maxim “one man, one vote, one time.” But in the spirit of the “Freedom Agenda,” the George W. Bush Administration had downplayed the Brotherhood’s deeply anti-American and anti-Semitic ideology to cultivate the organization. The Obama Administration then embraced it: Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper even went so far as to calling it a “largely secular” organization.
Going forward, America can hardly afford to repeat such errors. It must look beyond a procedural understanding of democracy, and take into account the ideology of regimes and political forces. As Kirkpatrick observed, political forces that “describe the United States as the scourge of the 20th century, the enemy of freedom-loving people, the perpetrator of imperialism . . . are not authentic democrats or, to put it mildly, friends.” This was true for the communists of her era; it is equally true for Islamists today.
Similarly, today Americans must consider whether a given regime or political force’s worldview is compatible with Western Enlightenment values. Do they promote a perspective of the world comfortable with the primacy of reason and experience? Or do they derive their views from a hateful ideology—whether a secular one like communism or ethnic nationalism, or a distorted interpretation of divine revelation, as in radical Islamism?
In the former camp are what Kirkpatrick defined as “traditional autocracies,” exemplified by regimes such as the monarchies of the Middle East or the secular states of Central Asia mentioned above. For too long, America has failed to fully value the states of the Muslim world that reject a role for radical religious ideology in their societies, and whose laws and education systems continue to be based on secular principles. Such states tend to be eager to participate in the world economy, and to look favorably toward engagement with the United States. Over time, they are likely to gradually develop in a more pluralistic direction.
Thus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have made the promotion of harmony among religious communities a cornerstone of their government policies. Both states maintain a commitment to secular governance and have created national universities inspired by the American model. Uzbekistan, which is undergoing important reforms since 2017, has touted the concept of “Enlightened Islam.” Morocco and Jordan, monarchies with strong Islamic legitimacy, are not fully secular but do play an important role in promoting religious moderation. As for the UAE, its government has implemented important education reforms that have put women on an equal footing. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its earlier support for radical Islamism carries considerable importance, not least given the Kingdom’s role as the custodian of the holiest places in Islam. Whether the Saudi reform agenda can be sustained and ultimately create the conditions for modernization remains to be seen.
What is clear is that regimes motivated by Islamist ideology do not create such conditions, and do not tend to democratize. Even in “moderate” form, they continue to be driven by anti-American and anti-Semitic persuasions. Turkey, for example, may be more pluralistic than either Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or the UAE. Yet President Erdoğan’s ideology means that Turkey poses a challenge of a fundamentally different character to America than those states do. While that does not mean America should sever relations with this NATO ally, the fact remains that it overtly peddles anti-American conspiracy theories and fills the airwaves with hostility to the West, something that must have consequences for U.S. policy. Meanwhile, countries like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or the UAE may rank lower than Turkey in international democracy ratings. Yet they are countries in a hostile neighborhood that welcome American engagement, actively pursue cooperation with Israel, and encourage their citizens’ constructive interaction with the modern world. This difference matters.
Aggressive nationalism poses a slightly different challenge than millenarian ideologies like fascism, communism, and radical Islamism. Anti-American nationalism is increasingly a motivating force for both the Chinese and Russian regimes, as well as an ideology that helps their elites maintain power. This ideology makes a positive relationship with these states difficult—but not impossible—to achieve. Secular nationalists are generally less immune to reason than religious zealots are; thus, U.S. policymakers can at least try to negotiate rationally with Chinese or Russian nationalists, and seek to contain them if talks fail.
In short, the nature of regimes’ ideologies matters, and American policymakers need to spend more time trying to understand them.
The way authoritarian states engage on the international scene is a further point of divergence. It is true that democratic states rarely pose a threat to the international order, and that most countries that do are authoritarian. But it is crucial to distinguish between authoritarian powers that are revisionist or expansionist in nature, and those that accept the status quo in their neighborhood.
A number of larger authoritarian regimes—such as Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey—fall in the former category, pursuing foreign policies that have a destabilizing effect on their neighbors and on international security. As Robert Kaplan puts it in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, they increasingly behave like empires of yore, not nation-states in a rule-based international system. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and has been working hard for over a decade to expand its influence across the Middle East, from Yemen to the Mediterranean coast. Its designs have generated alarm and caused some of its neighbors to retaliate by sponsoring armed clients of their own, with devastating and protracted conflict as a result. Russia, similarly, has a revisionist and expansionist agenda, seeking not only to subdue the states that were part of the former Soviet Union, but to sow division and undermine Western states and institutions.
As for China, the picture is more blurred: On the one hand, China’s rise to international prominence has been based on its economic development and dependence on trade with the industrialized world. This has made Beijing considerably more interested in committing to international rules than Russia, for example, particularly if it can have a seat at the table to define them. But on the other hand, China’s rise has also been accomplished through systematic breaches of international norms, not least through the theft of industrial secrets and manipulation of currency. China is also assertively moving to establish its military predominance along its maritime perimeter, most obviously in the South China Sea. This has brought profoundly destabilizing consequences for its neighbors, from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Australia. China thus seems to be turning into an increasingly problematic and aggressive force.
Similarly, Turkey, traditionally a U.S. ally and a force for stability in its region, has lately displayed a more adventurist approach—sponsoring Islamist militias in the Syrian civil war, undermining the security of Israel, and bolstering the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab in Egypt. Its policies in Syria brought it into direct confrontation with the United States.
By contrast, many equally authoritarian but less ambitious states have established themselves as constructive international citizens. Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and the Central Asian states all cooperate with Washington to counter radical Islamism. Kazakhstan, which has taken on an activist international role since independence, stands out for advancing initiatives for confidence-building in Asia, hosting the international Atomic Energy Agency’s Low Enriched Uranium Bank, and facilitating the Astana talks on Syria. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan actively work to help stabilize Afghanistan. Similarly, across the Caspian and on Iran’s northern border, Shi‘a-majority Azerbaijan plays a crucial role as the corridor for Western access to the heart of the Eurasian continent, while promoting religious tolerance and maintaining the strongest ties to Israel of any Muslim-majority country.
Similarly, Jordan and the UAE have proven key partners for NATO and America, contributing both to the conflict in Afghanistan and to military operations in the Mediterranean. Dubai, an important UAE financial center, has made serious efforts to ensure that its financial regulations help prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.
Even the controversial case of Egypt deserves mention. After the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has not necessarily become more democratic than it was under Morsi; indeed by some metrics it has regressed. Yet Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to fight the jihadi challenge in the Sinai, normalized relations with Israel, defended and protected the Coptic minority, and played a constructive role in the Libyan crisis. Moreover, he has sought to address the root causes of extremism by demanding change to the curriculum of Al-Azhar University, the Muslim world’s most prestigious establishment of higher education, which has increasingly been captured by radical ideology. On the international scene, Egypt under al-Sisi is a more reliable and more predictable actor than under Morsi. That does not mean America should ignore Egypt’s internal deficiencies. But neither should it fail to register the areas in which Egypt’s current regime is a positive change from its predecessor.
What, ultimately, are the policy implications of these distinctions between authoritarian regimes?
Regimes that tend toward liberal autocracies, are not motivated by anti-American ideologies, and play a positive role internationally should be viewed as partners that the United States can and should cooperate with. To the extent that such states welcome partnership with America, the U.S. government should reciprocate that engagement and build long-term partnerships that include security ties, economic and trade relations, and a dialogue on matters of good governance and human rights. The United States should not adopt antagonistic democracy promotion strategies or support regime change in such states; rather, it should seek to identify areas where U.S. assistance can promote good governance, improved accountability, and long-term liberalization in partnership with the government. In other words, U.S. policymakers should work with the government, not against it.
Of course, this is neither feasible nor desirable in the case of violent, predatory regimes that are motivated by anti-American ideology and play a destabilizing role in the world. With such regimes, it may be necessary to adopt policies of containment or rollback (to use Cold War terminology). But even here, support for regime change may be unrealistic or unwise. America may well need to apply antagonistic instruments of statecraft, such as targeted sanctions or support for regime opponents, toward such countries. And in cases like Venezuela, where a regime’s repressiveness combines with utter incompetence and criminalization to produce a failed state, regime change may in fact be the least worst option. But it should always be a matter of last resort.
The vast majority of regimes America deals with will fall somewhere in between these extreme ideal-types. They are likely to have unflattering as well as redeeming qualities. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are perhaps the most obvious examples. One is a NATO ally that is rapidly turning antagonistic toward the United States, while retaining some elements of pluralism and democratic governance. The other is a central actor in international energy politics, whose government is aggressively targeting dissidents while simultaneously correcting some of its past foreign policy misdeeds. Neither presents easy choices, suggesting that a cautious mix of sticks and carrots is in order, which is in turn only possible through a well-conceived engagement strategy. In the final analysis, America’s national interests should determine how it engages with a particular non-democratic state—and it is difficult to see how a policy resting solely on sticks rather than carrots would benefit U.S. interests in either of these two cases.
But, a skeptic might retort, doesn’t U.S. foreign policy already do this kind of reasoning? Perhaps, but all too often such assessments are done implicitly rather than explicitly, and on an ad hoc basis. It is not apparent to either Americans or foreigners how different calculations or criteria factor into policymaking. The result is an American policy that lacks transparency, and that applies different yardsticks to different countries. Large powers often get off the hook, whereas smaller states get slammed for democratic deficiencies of which larger U.S. partners are equally culpable. Moreover, because there is no single yardstick, domestic lobbies can have improper influence on policy. Therefore, some basic typology for differentiating among authoritarian states is necessary for U.S. policy to be consistent and predictable.
Post-Cold War dreams aside, authoritarian government remains the norm in large parts of the world, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The sooner American policymakers make peace with this reality, and devise constructive policies to deal with it, the better.
Svante E. Cornell is director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. He is the author of Azerbaijan Since Independence (2011) and, with S. Frederick Starr, of Long Game on the Silk Road: U.S. and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus (2018).