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Autocracy Hiding Behind Sovereignty

Below are a few excerpts from a recommended article in the September/October edition of the American Interest by Peter Ackerman and Michael J. Glennon titled “The Right Side of the Law” which raises many points of debate over the Putin administration’s conceptualization of sovereign democracy.

Even in our own age, which has moved closer than any before it to fulfilling Locke’s vision worldwide, the prerogatives of tyrants are still protected from Locke’s philosophical progeny—the states, groups and individuals engaged in promoting democracy, human rights and civil society. But this time, Putin, other modern-day authoritarians and their sympathizers rely on bromides dredged up from international legal antiquity rather than invocations of the divine. Contemporary autocrats hide behind the principles of sovereignty and its corollary prohibition against meddling in a state’s internal affairs—international legal norms that emerged when moveable type was cutting-edge technology. Their argument no longer works as it did in Gutenberg’s day. State sovereignty remains an important pillar in the structure of international law, but the notion that sovereignty resides in the head of state gave way long ago to recognition that it rests in a nation’s people. The scope of sovereignty narrowed further in the 20th century, as a large body of law came to protect internationally recognized human rights. And with the number of electoral democracies nearly doubling in the past twenty years, an emerging right to democratic governance has become the centerpiece of human rights law. … The risk of a tipping point arises because autocrats are learning to eviscerate their peoples’ civic choices incrementally, thereby avoiding the publicity that a frontal assault would generate. They “nickel and dime” the opposition, abridging only seemingly insignificant rights at first. A small town’s votes are not counted, a union or local cooperative is banned, a petition cannot be circulated, a book cannot be published, foreign travel is prohibited, a speech is outlawed, private assets are expropriated. The cumulative effect of individual choices can become a mighty force for freedom, and the reverse is just as true: If acts such as these are successfully suppressed, the ultimate result can be a dramatic regression in the direction of politics and civil society. The danger lies in the transference of the know-how of oppression from one tyrant to other tyrants around the world, thus putting multiple new democracies on the defensive. … We do not suggest that democracy can spring like a tulip through autocratic concrete. Democracy works, or works best, when civil society not only exists, but is robust and united in a vision of its country’s future and in its strategy for getting there. Once victorious, new leaders must be willing to accept process as an end as well as a means, respecting outcomes with which they disagree. Those outcomes, after all, are the product of processes to which they did agree. They must be firm about procedure and therefore tentative about truth. They must be committed to enriching their people rather than themselves. They must be willing to leave office when they have agreed to leave. They must take pride in the slow and steady development of institutions. Not all oppressed people can expect a quick transition to such leadership. However, nearly all can, at least to some degree, drive positive change and build from one success to the next. In meeting the claim that a given people are not ready for democracy, it is therefore essential to disaggregate the concept of democracy, to ask specifically what the people are not ready for. Not ready for television stations that lampoon apparatchiks’ heavy-handedness? Not ready to boycott a fake election? Not ready to write a blog criticizing corruption? Not ready to read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience? When the issue of readiness is broken down into democracy’s component parts, it becomes harder to justify a specific infringement and easier to make the case for protecting other freedoms that might get lost in the fallout of political competition.