How (not) to engage with authoritarian states

Par Nic Cheeseman et Marie-Eve Desrosiers
Westminster Foundation for Democracy

The world is in a prolonged democratic recession, with dire consequences for everyone. Despite this, when countries decide where to send official development assistance (ODA) funding, whether the recipient is a democracy is not a big factor in their decisions. 79% of aid went to autocracies in 2019.
Engaging with authoritarian states without a clear plan for how to avoid doing harm risks entrenching authoritarian rule by legitimising or supporting parts and/or practices of repressive regimes. Authoritarians can manipulate aid budgets and democracy promotion efforts, or pick and choose from donors, in ways that least threaten their regimes.
What is more, democratic initiatives supported by Western states are often outweighed by their everyday engagements with authoritarian partners – from trade deals to joint security programmes. Pro-democracy governments are often willing to sacrifice progress towards democracy for other goals, such as stability, anticorruption, or development, especially with geostrategically important partners.
The report identifies six major pitfalls in the way that pro-democracy governments currently engage with authoritarian states. These developments exacerbate existing challenges, emboldening autocrats around the globe. Yet, cutting off ties with authoritarian regimes is not an option.
This report also sets out recommendations for how pro-democracy governments can engage with authoritarian regimes in a way that creates the greatest opportunities for democratic strengthening.

Février 2023
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