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The authoritarian threat is real and growing. Whether it is hard power, global interference operations, or the subversion of elections, the evidence is clear from Australia, Ukraine, the United States, and elsewhere — democracy is under siege.
What are we, the West — those lovers of liberty, democracy, freedom, whatever one wants to call it — going to do about it? Increasingly, the evidence says nothing. That evidence is not some sophisticated dataset or experimental polling design; it is the (frankly) grotesque political polarization of free societies.
Even if President Trump chose to condemn Putin’s authoritarianism and anti-Americanism in Helsinki, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The decade-long deepening of partisanship and societal divisions in America have severely reduced the credibility of US foreign policy decisions.
A long line of political science research on foreign policy signaling connects domestic politics — like extreme partisan polarization — to the credibility of foreign policy decisions. The thinking goes that when a democracy (in this case, the US) expresses a foreign policy preference to a dictatorship (Russia), the dictatorship first determines how credible that signal is. In other words, will the US follow through with its stated policies, whatever they may be? If it does, what are the chances the US will reverse its policy? In the US’s current political environment, the odds of enforcing coherent, long-term policies that require any authority beyond that of the White House’s increasingly eccentric occupant (and aspiring occupants) seem slim.
If Trump makes any promises in Helsinki, the first thing Putin will observe is a US government facing uncertain elections in November. The results of the US election will be forecasted and broadcasted to the world from now to November 2nd — because that’s what a free and fair election looks like. Next, Putin will examine American society because, in democratic societies, popular support will be necessary for the government to act decisively. Information on Americans’ opinions is easily available to anyone.
Polarized, democratic societies stuck in an increasingly crass navel-gaze, like the US, have little resolve to follow through. Dictators can easily detect this. Observing America’s deep divisions, Putin will deem an American response to a plausibly deniable provocation, such as interference in free elections (or further irredentism), as highly unlikely and will call the US’s bluff (assuming there is a threatened response in the first place).
This logic applies to all international relations between dictatorships and democracies, and it is partly why China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are getting away with murder. They have the tactical advantage of an artificial monopoly on political power. Their governments force political consensus at the barrel of a gun.
The strategic advantage of democracy is that opposing sides can agree to disagree and work together in innovative, flexible, and unifying ways that the artificiality of authoritarian foreign policy cannot defeat. But in these polarized times, the freedom to disagree is also a soft spot.
American thought leaders, politicians, and everyday families should reflect on their partisanship in this context. Turn off the cable television, take a break from social media, and have some tough, constructive conversations about how to fix things with those whom we adamantly disagree. Putin and his ilk will be taking note.
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