Defeating the Dictators: Charles Dunst on the roadmap to reform democracies

Democracy and economic development can and should go hand-in-hand, says Charles Dunst, author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman

Charles Dunst-Defeating the Dictators
Charles Dunst, the deputy director of research and analytics at The Asia Group, a strategic advisory firm headquartered in Washington DC. Photo: Hachette India

In his book Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman (Hachette India), Charles Dunst — the deputy director of research and analytics at The Asia Group, a strategic advisory firm headquartered in Washington DC — delves into the pressing issue of rising authoritarianism and its associated dangers. He highlights the various challenges that democracies face in the current political climate, particularly in the wake of the increasing number of countries turning towards authoritarianism.

The erosion of democratic institutions and values by autocratic leaders such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin has made democracies more fragile than ever before. Leaders like Viktor Orbán are disrupting democratic foundations from within, adding fuel to the fire of authoritarianism. As a result, many are beginning to believe that authoritarianism could deliver a better life than democracy ever could.

Dunst argues that many countries, including China and Gulf States, no longer see democracy and individual freedom as the guaranteed paths to success. Instead, they are turning towards a more authoritarian model of governance that is characterized by a lack of transparency, accountability and individual freedoms. Dunst’s book is a compelling call-to-action for democracies to take action to restore the tarnished reputation of the democratic model and rebuild trust amongst its citizens.

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In this interview to The Federal, Dunst — a former foreign correspondent who has reported from countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Hungary, Romania, and Andorra — discusses the eight principles he lays out in his book for good governance, the state of democracy in the US and India, the warning signs of authoritarianism and more. Excerpts:

In the introduction to Defeating the Dictators, you write that the book is essentially an ‘aspirational roadmap’ for democracies to deliver on their promises and usher in a more democratic and peaceful world. Can you briefly outline this roadmap?

I lay out eight principles for good governance that democracies can follow to deliver on their promises and defeat authoritarianism. I start with the idea of meritocracy, arguing that governments should be formed based on merit. By creating a more meritocratic system, we can ensure that education funding is more accessible to low-income households, allowing more children to have access to quality education.

Another important principle is accountability, which is a particular problem in the United States and the United Kingdom. There is a widespread notion that governments are not held accountable for their actions, including instances of corruption. Trust is the most critical aspect of governance, as without it, nothing can be accomplished; a lack of trust can also lead to increased cynicism and disillusionment with the democratic process.

This issue is particularly prevalent in Europe and Northeast Asia, where countries like Japan and South Korea have lost faith in their governments. In the United States, the lack of trust manifests itself in the form of anger towards the government. While there may not be as much anger in Japan and South Korea, there is undoubtedly a simmering frustration. Without trust in the government, whether it is in response to a pandemic or the construction of infrastructure, nothing will be achieved. Trust is the foundation upon which much of governance rests.

Defeating the Dictators

In addition to trust, I believe that democracies should also focus on long-term thinking. It would be wise to develop five or ten-year plans. Even if we don’t accomplish them, and even if there is a change politically, we can still hold ourselves fairly accountable. These plans can help us measure our progress towards improving our education metrics, performance, and increasing life expectancy.

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Infrastructure is another important aspect. In some democracies, like the United States, basic infrastructure is already in place and requires continuous improvement. However, in countries like Indonesia, basic infrastructure is yet to be developed, and it is crucial to build it with a long-term vision of what it should look like in 40 years: how can we digitize, how can we make sure it’s functional. Social security is another principle that needs revamping to cater to workers who are not covered under traditional safety nets in countries like the United States and India.

Human capital is a significant area that requires investment in building the workforce of the future. With the Internet’s spread worldwide, there are more talented individuals today than ever before. It is easier for someone in Washington to find highly skilled individuals in countries like India, Malaysia, or Zimbabwe to complete tasks quickly, thanks to the Internet. It is crucial for democracies to invest in building human capital and train individuals to design and build semiconductors, electric vehicles, and other emerging technologies that the Western democracies may be comfortable outsourcing.

While some areas, such as infrastructure and human capital, are achievable, others, like merit and accountability, may be challenging to achieve in the short term.

How do you see these principles of good governance as giving democracies an advantage over autocratic challengers?

By better living up to these principles, democracies can stifle the autocratic impulse at home and make our system more attractive abroad. When democracy delivers, people in democracies will be less disillusioned and thus less open to the illiberal leaders who would come to power democratically and then do away with democratic institutions, as happened in Hungary. Delivering will also see more people around the world look to democracies as a model, rather than to autocracies like China and Saudi Arabia.

Do you believe that simply being a democracy, with these principles in place, can be enough for a democracy to prevail against an autocratic challenger like China, or are there other factors that need to be considered?

Democracies have an advantage in the global competition against autocratic challengers like China. Our open societies and liberal governance make us more likely to innovate and self-correct, giving us a better chance to own the future. The stronger we perform at home, the better able we will be to prevail against autocratic challengers.

Economic growth is often cited as a justification for sacrificing democratic values. Can you elaborate on how countries can pursue economic development without undermining democratic norms and institutions?

There are several paths to success, but democracies have historically posted strong economic development by investing in innovation and human capital. We have also benefited from our open societies, which produce the cultural exports — like K-pop or Hollywood — that have made South Korea and Los Angeles tourist destinations, for instance. Democracy and economic development can and should go hand-in-hand.

Democracies like Japan and Denmark have better safety nets, but the frustration of people is more to do with their democracies not working as well as they could be. The cultural and structural problems that lead to this need to be identified and addressed. The solution, however, is not for democracies to become authoritarian. No democratic country should become authoritarian in the name of economic growth. It’s not going to work. There is no amount of economic development that can convince me that living in an autocracy is preferable to living in a democracy.

Social science has shown that living in a democracy is linked to having a better social and cultural life, earning more money, and being more innovative and creative. The United States and India are examples of big, loud democracies that embrace chaos and turmoil, leading to amazing innovation and art. The challenge for democracies is to reform institutions to ensure people believe in democracy enough to stand up for it. The book examines countries that are doing well and considers how democracies can do better, using Denmark’s safety net as an example of what can be achieved, while acknowledging that it is not entirely updated for a gig worker economy. Some autocracies have proven themselves able to provide economic growth with liberty, posing a challenge for democracies.

How do you look at the state of democracy in the United States — the world’s oldest democracy — and India, the world’s largest democracy?

Like India, it is not a positive moment in the United States. We have to ensure that we navigate through the turmoil of what seems like chaotic politics. As citizens, we must demand that the government meets its promises, whether it is the quality of laws or the delivery of safety nets and infrastructure. It is important to make sure that normal people do not tune out politicians because it is quite easy for people in the US and India to say, “I didn’t vote for that guy, I don’t like him, and since he doesn’t seem to be delivering, I’m going to stop voting and stop thinking about politics.” That is really dangerous.

If you do not trust your government and stop voting, then the government has less of an idea of what you want. Politicians are not mind readers, so they will have even less ability to deliver what you want. This will foment further mistrust in the government. In India and the US, certainly things are more polarized, making it difficult for people to find partners on the other side of the political aisle, but it is important to continue to engage in politics and hold our government accountable.

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I think that India and the US are quite similar in that we both face real challenges when it comes to maintaining our institutions and ensuring that the rule of law continues to triumph. It’s important that strong rulers continue to respect the rule of law. However, while the US has many problems, threat to freedom of speech is not one of them; the government doesn’t silence its critics.

How can one identify the warning signs or indicators that might suggest a country is sliding towards or has become a dictatorship?

The line I draw to determine when democracy has become autocracy is when elections are no longer free and fair in any meaningful way. This is something that has happened in Hungary, where I used to live, and I think it’s a good example. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, initially won the election because it was fair and free. However, over the years, with his constitutional majority, he has been able to override the Constitution, rewrite it, and eliminate basic protections of democracies. He has politicized the judiciary, severely cracked down on the free press, and made almost every journalist a friend of his or his party. He has even extended voting rights to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries who are not citizens but are ethnically Hungarian. He extends voting to them because they are minorities in their own countries and are more likely to vote for him since he promises to protect the Hungarian identity and ethnicity. To me, this is a clear sign of a democracy having slid into autocracy. As long as you come to power through fair and free elections, it’s a democratic system.

Regarding warning signs, what is the first thing to go? It’s different in different countries. Sometimes, it’s the judiciary that gets politicized first and stops holding the government accountable. Other times, it’s the muzzling of the free press, and the government has the carte blanche to do as they please.

In the face of rising authoritarianism, what are some concrete steps that citizens can take to uphold democratic values and institutions?

I would urge citizens of all democracies to stay involved in the democratic process and continue voting, even if politics seem troubled. Because if people do not vote, the government will not provide for them effectively: Officials cannot serve a population from which they have grown distant. So, when people opt out of civic participation, the result is what I call a ‘mistrust loop’ in which a distrustful public is disengaged, resulting in a government even more disconnected from and thus unable to serve the public. This leads only to the further deterioration of trust, which weakens the very bedrock of democracy.

In your opinion, what are the geopolitical implications of China’s control over Taiwan’s semiconductor industry for global technology supply chains and rare earths market, particularly in relation to its relationships with other countries? Do you think that other countries, including the US, should be concerned?

China’s domination of industries like semiconductors and rare earths is motivating leading democracies in the West and Indo-Pacific to diversify their supply chains beyond the country. Taiwan’s perceived precarious position is another reason. Democracies are looking to ensure they can produce more of these goods in their own countries — or in friendlier countries like Vietnam.

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What are your thoughts on China’s leadership in green energy innovation? Do you think other countries should look to China as a model for green energy development or be wary of its dominance in this sector?

Many leading democracies are wisely ramping up investment in fields like electric vehicles and rare earths to reduce their reliance on China’s green energy sector.

What role can international institutions and partnerships play in promoting and protecting democracy globally, and how can they be strengthened?

International institutions like the European Union (EU) can better promote democracy by protecting it within their own borders, as Brussels has so far largely failed to do with regard to Hungary. In the longer-term, international institutions can promote democracy abroad by engaging liberal partners to set standards on issues as varied as artificial intelligence and rare earths. They can also assist transitional democracies by providing economic and other incentives for these countries if they consolidate their democratic gains. Democracy must not be spread by force — but by advanced democracies offering a model for the world and assisting transitional democracies.