• Iran
    The Islamic Republic’s Power Centers
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  • Authoritarianism
    Academic Webinar: Authoritarianism
    Moisés Naím, distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, leads the conversation on authoritarianism. CASA: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2024 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach Department at CFR. Thank you all for joining us. Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be made available on our website,, if you would like to share them with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We are delighted to have Moisés Naím with us for a discussion on power and authoritarianism. Moisés Naím is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an internationally syndicated columnist. Dr. Naím’s experience in public service includes his tenure as Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry, director of Venezuela’s central bank, and executive director of the World Bank. He has held appointments as a professor at IESA, Venezuela’s leading business school, and Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Naím is the host and producer of Efecto Naím, an Emmy-winning weekly television program on international affairs that airs throughout the Americas on Direct TV. He was the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine for fourteen years, and is the author of many scholarly articles, and more than ten books on international economics and politics. Welcome, Dr. Naím. Thank you very much for speaking with us today. NAÍM: Thanks for inviting me. Delighted to be with you. CASA: You have been reflecting on the nature of power, authoritarianism, and autocracy for many years, and have written a series of books that focused on these themes. Could we begin with you telling us a little bit about your current thinking on the subject? NAÍM: Of course. I am as concerned, as many other people are, about the fact that democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is moving. This is not just an opinion; this is solid data from Freedom House, which is an institution that analyzes and surveys the world in terms of its propensities towards freedom or not. And in the most recent report about the state of freedom in the world, they show that it has—global freedom has declined for the eighteenth consecutive year. So for every year in the last eighteen years, democracy was declining and authoritarian regimes, of different stripes and forms, were taking over. Political rights and civil liberties were diminished in fifty-two countries, and the fact is that the majority of the people in the world today live in authoritarian regimes, or regimes where the checks and balances that define a democracy are not functioning—fully functioning and are limited and constrained. This is a very complex, surprising world in which a lot is happening for the first time—or a lot that we believe is happening for the first time, in fact, has happened before. I have here a phrase—a couple of phrases by European thinkers in the 1930s. After the First World War and before the Second World War, they saw it coming. They did not know exactly what form would it take. But José Ortega y Gasset is a famous Spanish thinker of that time, and in 1930 he wrote a book, and one of the phrases in the book is, “we don’t know what is happening to us.” And that is exactly what is happening to us—that we don’t know what’s going on. We know that something big is going on, but we don’t know exactly how is it going to affect our jobs, our companies, our politics, our life, our society, and so on. Another politician, at the same time—an Italian this time—in the 1930s, wrote a book. Antonio Gramsci was his name. He was in jail for political reasons, and Gramsci wrote, “the old is dying and the new is yet to be born. In this interregnum, monsters are hatched.” I repeat: “The old is dying and the new is yet to be born. In this interregnum, monsters are hatched.” And we have the same feeling now, that first, yes, there is a lot that we don’t know, and that surprise us all the time, and happens for the first time. It’s almost—I wrote a column recently about that, the unprecedented planet, in which a lot of things were happening for the first time, typical in most—a well-known example of this is climate change, right? It’s creating all sorts of unprecedented situations and points of view. I have been tracking the world from this perspective, as you said, for a long time, and there are two books of mine—or three books of mine that I think do not answer all the questions, but do answer most of the important questions of our time. They are thirty years in the making. There was one in 2005, another ten years later, and another ten years. The first one is Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy (2005). And the book showed how, at the time in which everyone was globalizing and—going global it was called—very fashionable. The group that—you know, that took most advantage early on and were early adopters were criminal cartels, and they were very good at using borders as ways of leveraging their capacities, possibilities, and goals. So Illicit—the role of illicit, the role of criminalize, and governments is something that I’m sure we’ll have speak today. But looking at this, what’s happening was also that the governments were waging war on all these criminal activities, in the trafficking of people, of drugs, of narcotics, of money, of weapons, of—even human organs, and art, and everything else. And governments were losing this battle. You know, they won some skirmishes here and there with the cartels and the criminals, but all in all, they were losing. So that led me to my following book, The End of Power (2013), in which I analyzed—I started with thinking that this is a government thing only to discover that this was happening everywhere; not that power was disappearing, but yes, power was more constrained. People that had power had now more limits, more restrictions on how it can use power. And the central theme of that book was that, in the twenty-first century, power had become easier to obtain, harder to use, and easier to lose. And that is directly relevant to the subject of authoritarianism that we’re discussing here. Ten years later, I wrote a book called The Revenge of Power (2022), which is what we’re—those who have power in massive quantities, what we are doing to limit the erosion of the power, and the ways, and the sharing of power, and the distribution of power, the sources, the origins, the usages, the possibilities of power at this time. And I came up with the idea, recognizing that what the revenge of power is is that some authoritarian regimes were using the three Ps to retain government. The three Ps are populism, polarization, and post-truth. The three are very well-known characteristics, but they have acquired unprecedented potency under the new circumstances, and they define very quickly what are the new breed of authoritarian regime that appear to look like democrats, but in fact, they are undermining democracy from the inside. We have a long list of leaders that were elected, some in fair and free elections; others by just stealing the elections, but once they got in government, they started limiting, constraining, and diminishing the powers that constrain, the power of the public chief executive. So that is a context in which we are moving. And one of the themes that I would like to—hope to chat with you all has to be with what I mentioned before: the criminalized nature of the state, and how this is related to authoritarianism, and to globalization. Let me stop here and start the conversation, Maria. CASA: Oh, thank you so much for that introduction. Now let’s open it up to questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) We’ll start with a raised hand from Carl Gilmour, an undergraduate student at Stanford University. Carl? (Pause.) We’ll give Carl another second—otherwise we can come back to him. Well, let’s move on to a written question. It’s from Michael Strmiska, professor of world history at SUNY Orange in New York state, who writes, “I see a dilemma with the need to restrict communications and mis- and disinformation from extremists and authoritarians, though this would seem to mean a restriction of free speech. However, free speech is never an absolute right. What can governments do to prevent authoritarians and extremists from taking power through manipulation of the information and social media sphere? I no longer believe the argument that the solution to hate speech or other such disinformation is more speech because, with social media, lies and hate can be spread at lightning speed in great mass and force. NAÍM: Well, the question has many good answers embedded in it. It’s hard to disagree with the professor’s perspective, and his caution. We have been surprised by what’s happening in social media and how that has changed a lot in the world of politics and so on. That, we should remember, was driven by technology. It was driven by all sorts of innovations. I think his question is the question for our time: how do we protect free speech and democracy while at the same time limiting the impact of the wrongdoers, or the people that are abusing the system, or using the system for very nefarious goals. We don’t know; nobody knows. That question is at the core of the great debate of our time. All I want to stress—perhaps in addition—is that expect surprises, and it’s very likely that the surprises will come more from the world of politics and from the world of technological innovation. But we don’t know what those are. CASA: Next we’ll go to Buba Misawa, who is professor of political science at Washington and Jefferson College. Please go ahead, Buba. Q: Can you hear me? CASA: Yes. Q: OK. Professor Naím, that was a great conversation you started. But let me ask a simpler question, and I know, between you and Gramsci you can answer. Why are we attracted to this new model or this old model of authoritarianism? Is it because democracy has failed, or why? NAÍM: Another great question at the core of a lot of the debates that are going on, so thank you very much, Professor Misawa. The answer has a lot to do with the underperformance of governments and the—you know, broken expectations. The expectations of people—very justifiably—grow much faster than the capacity of the state to respond to their needs, and hopes, and ambitions, and expectations for a better life. That is happening. That was also always happening, and somehow I think the famous professor identified it, that the gap between the expectations of the voters, or the people, and the capacity of the state to deliver on that, that has always existed, but now it has been amplified with technology, and with the globalization, and with all kinds of new ways of doing things, and changing the regime. The essence of the story is that we will have to deal with the non-performance of governments, and what is happening is that we need to—I don’t think we have to relaunch everything and throw the baby with the bath water, but capitalism in the twenty-first century and democracy in the twenty-first century need adjustment. The world and assumptions that were—on which these were based are no longer with us, and we have not replaced them yet. And that’s where Gramsci is so relevant, you know. In this interregnum—he called it—a lot of very bad things can happen, but also very good things can happen. But the essence of the story is that expectations are making governments very hard to function and very—there is a need to—as I said, and I’m repeating myself—there is a need to adjust our capitalism and democracy that we have until now to the new realities. And we all know the long list of new things that are happening that need a response; climate change being, you know, very important in this story. CASA: Our next question is from Bernard Haykel, professor at Princeton University. Q: Thank you, and I hope you can hear me. Thank you, Professor Naím. I’m a great admirer of your work. NAÍM: Thank you. Q: I have two questions, so one is that you have different petrostates, both of which are authoritarian, but they deliver very different goods and services to their populations. So take, for example, the UAE or Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Venezuela, on the other. So what accounts for that difference? And the second is that in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, they tell you, you know, we’re a tribal society. If we had democracy we would have inefficient government, we would have chaos, we would have Islamists who would come to power, as you can see, for example, in Kuwait where they have a parliament. And so, therefore, there is an argument that authoritarianism is really the best way to contend with the global problems and with providing services to their populations. Thank you. NAÍM: Yes, yes, Professor Haykel, that’s absolutely right, and we don’t know—there is a respect for authoritarianism that is essentially grounded on the performance, and so we now give very—a lot of importance to governance and to the capacity to govern. And they are doing a good job down there in the Gulf countries, surely. But it is so specific—their set of circumstances, their origins, their history, their society, the geopolitics, their economy—is so specific to them that it’s hard to replicate elsewhere. We have not seen it. And then we don’t know how resilient these governments are like that without starting in the route of repression in, you know, the underlying assumption in this conversation. The elephant in the room, of course, is the capacity of these governments to be repressive, and then what happens. We saw, for example, the admiration for the Chinese model and its capacity to build infrastructure and to build all kinds of things. And it was presented to us as an example to follow. And remember the Beijing Olympics. It was this perfect display of organization and performance, but we—as you know now, that China has been entangled in all kinds of problems and all kinds of difficulties. So yes, we need to look at other examples, but remember the context and understand that this is a picture in a moment, but over time the sustainability of this governance is going to change. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Rodrigo Moura, who is an undergraduate student at the University of Essex. He asks: You have mentioned the three Ps that authoritarians use to gain and consolidate power and influence. What about money? How do you see the use of economic incentives by authoritarian regimes, mainly abroad, to gain influence? NAÍM: Yes, there are two themes there. One is the economic performance of a nation and a regime, and can it provide the prosperity that people need, want, and fight poverty, and fight inequality, and so on. That’s one dimension on the theme of power. The other dimension on the theme of power is one that is a very complicated one, and it has to do with money and politics, and how money can replace the will of the voters. And we are seeing that even in democratic societies in which money defines political outcomes with the negligible contribution of participation of the rest of the people. So money has many dimensions, but the two main ones are that money and politics, and the necessity to provide for a better life for as many of the people in the country as possible, and those are two challenges that a lot of governments are not meeting. CASA: Our next question—let’s take our next question from Lindsey McCormack, a graduate student at Baruch College. Lindsey? Q: Thank you. Professor Naím, I have a question—a follow-up to your piece in El País from—it was included in the background materials for this webinar. You discussed how today’s dictators don’t really have an out like maybe a generation ago that they could, you know, take a lot of money, and go somewhere and retire in luxury. (Laughs.) That was a very interesting point, and you suggested that’s a reason—a reason it can be so difficult to transition away from authoritarian regimes, that essentially their leaders are trapped in the situation of their own making. And I was wondering if you have any idea what to do about that? It wasn’t a good situation in the past where you could steal a bunch of money and go to the French Riviera, but at least it gave an out and the possibility of change. NAÍM: Yes, that’s a very thorny issue, as Ms. McCormack indicated—as she—as you mentioned. The challenge here is what do you do with dictators. And most of them cannot run the risk of not being in power because if they are not in power, they are in jail. So government is not just for service or for corruption, but also for protection. And unless you can provide an exit ramp out, it’s going to be very difficult for these people to go anywhere because no other governments would protect them as much as their own government and their own—typically their own military. So that is going to be with us for a while. An international coalition of democracies could do something, but as we know, multilateral work is as desirable as it is often ineffective—too ineffective, in fact. That’s a good question. Thank you. CASA: Our next question is written. It’s from Alfredo Toro Carnevali, professor of political science at Montclair State University. He writes: I was perplexed by the speed with which Ecuador, a relatively stable country a few years ago, was overtaken by organized criminal organizations from Mexico and Armenia, competing for access to the port in Guayaquil. How could this happen so quickly and so dramatically? What can Ecuador do? Could you comment on this? NAÍM: Yeah, it’s an incredible situation. Ecuador was one of the most stable of countries in that tough neighborhood of high political volatility and instability. And then it fell into the trap that met—so many other countries in that neighborhood are having, which is being complacent with the presence of drug cartels and criminals, and that have infiltrated the government, have infiltrated society, that have access to huge quantities of money. And we saw, you know, the globalization of organized crime because a lot of these things—for example, you saw a lot of the Mexican cartels operating in El Salvador—in Ecuador, sorry—and that is part of the answer. It was—it always existed, but never at the speed and scope that it exists now. CASA: We’ll take our next question from Björn Krondorfer, director of the Martin Springer Institute and an endowed professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University. Björn? Q: Can you hear me? CASA: Yes. Q: Yeah. I brought my question. It’s about the role of religion in authoritarian regimes. We see this with white Christian nationalism in the United States, with Putin’s embrace of Russian orthodoxy, in Orbán’s Hungary—I mean really across the world at different—in different religious traditions. What is your sense of the religious power or the religious force in relationship to political authoritarian power? NAÍM: Thank you for the question, Professor Krondorfer. The magic word in global politics or politics today, everywhere, is legitimacy, legitimacy, and legitimacy. There is a huge deficit of legitimacy in which governments are not legitimate, either because they acquired power through sham elections or because they had a coup. But the need to have legitimacy, to be respected, to be recognized as a valid regime is there. And one of the tools for legitimacy is religion, as you well said. And yes, in the same way that money in politics is a very important thorny issue, money in religion to fund and support a specific government is also a big issue for which we don’t have a lot of good answers. But yes, your point is excellent. CASA: Going back to Carl Gilmour, who is a student at Stanford University. He has written his question: Many journalists appear to perish or become confined when confronted with the consequence of publishing truth to the people that expose the abuse of power. What is your recommendation to these beacons of truth when weighing the heavy cost of careers in journalism? Do you foresee that there will be any remedy to this assault on free speech or censorship through fear and violence? NAÍM: Yeah, what a problem, right? And we know that, you know, there are governments, there are countries that have the most journalists in jail. Turkey, Mexico are horrible situations in terms of persecution and the repression of journalists. And I don’t have any answer other than admiring, recognizing, and honoring the work of these journalists who every day go out in the street, not knowing if they’re going to go back at home later in the evening. It is a global situation. We are already seeing how some of these authoritarian regimes are using them—captured journalists—are using them as exchange in deals. There is a very well-known journalist from the Wall Street Journal that has been incarcerated unjustly in Russia, and he is just one of the most visible ones, but for each one of them, there are hundreds that are being repressed everywhere. And trying to generate—the most important prescription is to continue to generate visibility and don’t let them disappear from our information ecosystem. CASA: Our next question is from an executive-in-residence at the IESE Business School, Alex Wallace. Alex? Q: Hello. Thank you for this; so interesting. I wonder if there are any examples of authoritarian regimes where the populace is actually thriving and/or the standard of living is high. I looked at the World Happiness Index, and America is pretty far down there. There’s probably one or two above it that are not democracies. I just wonder if there is any place where authoritarianism has actually not been bad for the populace. NAÍM: Well, yeah, of course, Ms. Wallace. That’s very important. What we don’t know is for how long and how sustainable, you know. Look at the sustainability of these things, and it’s not clear that they are—in the long run, they will have the same format or the same face. But yes, there are places—Hungary is an example of places where the economy is doing relatively well, but that needs support and subsidies. And at the same time, there has been some progress. And let’s not forget the progress that had been taking place in China where literally millions—hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. And that is a performance that is unrivaled in terms of success. But at the same time, as I mentioned in my answer to another question prior, is that now the highly admired system in Russia is beginning to crack. CASA: We have many, many written questions, but we would love to hear your voices, so please don’t be shy and click the raise hand icon if you would like to ask your question orally. In the meantime, we’ll take a question—a written question from Chip Pitts, who is a lecturer at Stanford University. He writes: I worked with a number of NGOs concerned about the expansion of unchecked surveillance technologies by governments and companies, surveillance capitalism. What’s your view on the trends regarding surveillance and how excesses can be corrected? NAÍM:: They are horrible. The threats regarding surveillance are horrible. And becoming more common around the world. Again, China is probably the world champion in terms of surveillance. But it’s also in Switzerland you can find it, and other European countries. Even in very well-functioning democracies you see these technologies that are being used. And, you know, there’s a violation of privacy. There is use to repress movements and organizations. And, again, the only hope we have, I think, is two. One is having a knowledge and understanding, recognizing, keeping in mind that this is happening. Don’t forget that this is going on. And the second is that, again, I think the world of technology may give us some positive surprises in terms of how to protect ourselves from this excessive, abusive, authoritarian kind of behavior in terms of surveillance. CASA: Our next raised hand is from Katie Laatikainen, who is associate professor at Adelphi University. Katie. Q: Hi. Thanks very much. I also wrote my question in the Q&A. I’m interested in what you think an international order premised upon authoritarianism would look like. For most of the post-World War II era liberalism and liberal concepts, universal human rights, rule of law sort of defined the operating system of the—operating system of international relations. Given what you’ve said about authoritarianism and the internal and domestic focus of it, what would be the elements of the operating system if there’s a shift toward authoritarianism as the operating system in international relations? Thanks so much. NAÍM: Mutual protection. What these countries that are authoritarian and beginning—we have evidence they’re working together internationally to ensure that they are protected. That they will not have some color revolution, or some invasion, or some other social political dynamic that puts them at risk. So each one of them has a dense web of international connections with likeminded governments. And we should expect more than that. But always remembering the phrase that says that countries don’t have friends, they have interests. And so the interests of these authoritarian governments are converging for now. But we don’t know if there’s going to be—what’s going to happen in reality there. CASA: Our next question is a written one. It comes from Patrick Duddy, senior advisor for global affairs at Duke University, and former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. He asks: Dr. Naím, could you cite a recent example of a situation in which the international community or local democracy advocates have been able to rollback authoritarianism and restore democracy? NAÍM: Yes, first, let me say hello to Patrick, who’s an old friend of mine. Nice to hear from you. Yes, fortunately, we have examples. I think the most recent example is Guatemala. Guatemala had a government that essentially was voted out of power. But NGOs, and civil society, and the media, and the private sector, and the church, they all got together in a fantastic way and were able, with the support of the United States, by the way—with an important role on the part of the United States. The leadership was, in Guatemala, and Guatemalan democratic politicians were so successful. And so, yes, there is hope. And there’s always opportunity that a good leader, together with a good organization and the support of the international community, can stop the decline towards the autocracy in some—and protect democracies. CASA: We’ll take our next question from Andrea Cuervo Prados, who is adjunct instructor at Dickinson State University. Andrea. Q: Hi, Mr. Naím. Thank you so much for your insights and knowledge. I also wrote my question on the chat, and it is related to Colombia. I would love to hear your thoughts about that country, about Colombia, which right now seems to be moving to an authoritarian regime, recalling some of the initial stages you know very well, Venezuela live under Chavez tenure. So what’s your view on the Colombian case? And do you believe an authoritarian regime is emerging in Colombia? Thank you. NAÍM: Yes, I am worried, and I think there is—there are good reasons to be worried about what happens in Colombia. Colombia used to be a solid democracy. Colombia showed the way on how to combat drug trafficking, how to reclaim neighborhoods that were untouchable by the police and others, because they were controlled by the drug traffickers. So there was a long list that make Colombia a country worth looking at. But then a combination of toxic polarization in which the country were—like many others, by the way—got entangled in all kinds of highly polarizing debates, behaviors, created—weakened the state in Colombia. And now they have a president that is surely frustrating the hopes of the people that voted for him. And he is displaying behaviors that are not democratic. And all, you know, in the mix of showing and trying to present himself and his policies as democracy. But they’re not. So, yes. But at the same time, perhaps the good news is that what’s remaining of democracy in Colombia, and especially in the legislative branch, can curtail and limit the advances—the antidemocratic advances that that are taking place there. But it’s worth watching and crossing fingers. CASA: Our next question is from Jose David Valbuena, an undergraduate student at Buffalo State University. He asks: How does the rise of authoritarianism in certain countries affect the global balance of power? And what implications does this have for international relations? NAÍM: Yeah. Well, the central answer there is the hegemony, and the nature of hegemony, and who has it, and how it sustains it, is a central theme. Hegemony and, you know, dominate—the idea that, for example, the superpowers, that the United States, will continue to be a hegemon, I think it’s true. It will continue to be the hegemon, probably more than anything in some areas of the military, of military affairs, of military organizations. But yet, the hegemony will be—is on—is on the plate to be debated, discussed, eventually adapted at what are the realities of geopolitics in these times. CASA: Let’s see. We’ll take our next question from Rita Kiki Edozie, who is a professor and associate dean at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Q: Thank you. And thank you, Dr. Naím. Very interesting conversation. So about a year and a half ago, you participated in a debate around the same subject, you with Julian Waller. And your thesis was, of course, the rise of authoritarianism; and Julian’s thesis was that authoritarianism would not emerge in the U.S., despite, you know, your thesis about sort of Trump’s authoritarianism. And that’s because the U.S. had institutions at the national, local, and institutional level that sort of—would mute or, sort of, soften the blow of authoritarianism. Assuming both of you are right in that, you know, both there is an authoritarianism on the rise but so is there a pushback against authoritarianism, especially in the U.S., my question to you is: Don’t you think that democratic regimes are sort of embedded with the contradictions of authoritarian thrusts and pulses as well? And that, you know, they go one in hand, and we ought to acknowledge how they sort of coexist together? Thank you. NAÍM: Yes, Professor Edozie. I think the answer to that question will hinge quite a bit on the results of the U.S. elections this year. I do believe that Mr. Donald Trump is a threat to democracy in the United States, in a variety of ways. Because democracy is not just what happens when you go to vote, as you know, but is what happens in between periods in which—the days in which you go to vote, in which you really want the checks and balances to be autonomous, independent, objective, honest, and incorruptible, and all of that. And that is not what President Trump showed us in his time in government, nor what he’s saying these days. So I think whatever generalization one wants to make at this point, it has to be centered on the consequences at home and internationally of an electoral win by Donald Trump, if that happens. CASA: Our next question is a written one. It’s from Harry Mellor, political science student at Wheaton College, who writes: I was wondering what your thoughts were regarding whether the current Russian state reaction to recent terrorist attacks may be employed or used by the Putin regime to push an anti-Islamic authoritarian view, similar to the U.S. during 9/11. Or, in relation to earlier questions, used to bolster the hegemony of Russian Orthodoxy? NAÍM: Yes. I think Putin is already doing it. Of course, he has mentioned a little bit the Muslim theme, but mostly he’s blaming Ukraine. And he’s using the attack to show that—essentially arguing, which is not true, that the attack—the terrorist attack was, you know, the doing of the Ukrainians. And, again, we live in a world in which there are millions of people that don’t know who to believe, what to believe, and where to—you know, how to think about these issues. And I think this is an example. CASA: We’ll take our next question from Susan King, dean at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Susan. Q: Hi. Just to clarify, dean emeritus. So I’m no longer sitting dean. I want to ask a question with that plays off what you’ve just said about the U.S. And you’ve talked about the importance of government. There’s been a lot written just recently about the pandemic sort of overhang, that there’s PTSD, you know, in many communities; and that, reviewing it, that many felt the ambiguity of the guidance that they got has left people really desirous of more clear answers, and some worry that will lead to authoritarianism. Do you see the COVID experience, the pandemic, as sort of a backdrop for the United States elections? NAÍM: I don’t know. That is high expectations, right? Is assuming the government agencies in the United States are infallible and knew what they were doing. And the fact of the matter is, that they were doing it for the first time, without precedents. They surprised us—the scientists surprised us when they came up with a vaccine in record time, because everybody had been saying it takes a couple of years or more to get a vaccine through the system. Well, the scientists collaborating internationally were able to do it. But what I don’t think is that one should expect governments to have that capacity of dealing with a pandemic of the global scale and doing everything effectively, or doing things in service of certain ideology or political interests. I think there was room for mistakes and an ignorance about how to deal with the situation and doing as much as possible with the information they had. And the political context. Just remember the debates and how difficult they were. And the long-term consequences of COVID, of course, there is—long-term COVID is an issue and is becoming an important issue. But there is a new pandemic which is mental health, as you know. The global—the world has seen an increased level of mental health problems. And the United States is significantly there. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Alex Beltran, an undergraduate student at University of Houston-Downtown: I would like to ask you about your thoughts regarding Mexico and its current national issues, where there is a president who attempted to eliminate several national agencies including the ones in charge of elections. In addition, the current president is very clear on letting the corruption of cartels continue. Is Mexico on its way to becoming more authoritarian? Considering they have elections soon it might be early to talk about that. But I would like to hear what your—what you understand about the subject. NAÍM: Well, I understand that, yes, it’s too—in a normal democracy, it’s too early to be—to talk about what’s going to happen, because you don’t know who’s going to win. In the case of Mexico, everybody knows now who’s going to win, because there’s going to be an election that is heavily influenced by government intervention in favor of the candidate of the government. So that’s one thing. And the government of Mexico, and in particular President López Obrador, are important examples of what I call political necrophilia. You know, necrophilia is this perversion that some human beings have, you know, a strong attachment to cadavers—that they like cadavers. Well, there is a political manifestation of that, people that are deeply, deeply attached to bad ideas, ideas that have been tried and tested in the country once and again, in different countries, with different circumstances. Ideas that always end in more corruption, more inequality, more poverty, and so on. And President—if you look at the initiatives of President López Obrador, you will see that there are all kinds of examples of political necrophilia in which he is doing things that have been tested in the past. And there are clear mistakes to do it again that he’s undertaking. CASA: Our next question comes from Michael C. Davis, professor of law and international affairs at Jindal Global University. Michael. Q: OK, can you hear me? CASA: Yes. Q: OK. I’ve just written a book on Hong Kong called Freedom Undone. And one of the things I constantly run into in talking about the book is a criticism, well, it’s pointless to talk about Hong Kong. China’s not going to listen. And so you’re just—it’s a waste of our time even to host an event on it. And so the question I have is, does—in the cases like this, where a very successful authoritarian regimes is in charge, what’s the best response when you’re told that sort of naming and shaming really doesn’t matter, you’re just going to be called anti-China for this, and they’re going to ignore it? NAÍM: Well, but the rest of the world is not. The rest of the world will clearly benefit from a group of independent, objective, reliable, trusted analysts, professors, journalists, politicians, policymakers that said that—you know, that put the light on what’s going on. As you know better than I, this—recently there was already the decision to pass the law in Hong Kong that clearly curtailed any hopes of a more democratic—to retain some of the Hong Kong’s democratic values, and behaviors, and institutions. So it’s already happened. But I think there is the possibility that you find people that understand what’s going on, and how this backsliding towards authoritarianism in Hong Kong can be—still being formed, or used to be—to inform the rest of the world how to think about China, by the way to look at how they have dealt with Hong Kong. And then the next stage of the conversation, as you know, will have to do with Taiwan. President Xi Jinping constantly repeats that there is no debate there. Taiwan is part of China. And it will become integrated with China. And that creates, of course, all kinds of anxieties because of the role of the United States in the treaty. There is a mutual protection military treaty between China and the United States, as you know. So don’t stop it. Don’t leave it there. Insist. CASA: Our next question is written one from Hunter Shields, undergraduate student at Davis and Elkins College. He writes: If social media acts as a significant factor in the spread of authoritarian government models, does it become the responsibility of nonauthoritarian governments, who may see how such systems can cause chaos, to censor or limit the exposure of authoritarian ideals? Would censoring authoritarian governments make the nonauthoritarian governments act in the same way as they—as they try to maintain the political status quo? NAÍM: Well, I don’t know that censoring is for anything that I would ever recommend. But there is no doubt that we need a regulatory system that, for example, to contain the spread of disinformation that is now happening and that he’s being, as the question said, you know, there’s a lot going on there. And it’s important that the fight is—continues, the fight against misinformation, distortion, lies, hate continues. That we will need to find ways to contain that. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Wilson Wameyo, a graduate student at the Jagiellonian University in Poland. He asked: How is the new conflict between Russia and the West emboldening authoritarian leaders in Africa and South America? NAÍM: Yeah. That is the fear. And that is why so many leaders, so many democratic leaders, are saying that the outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine, as a result of Russia’s invasion, will define the prospects for democracy around the world. If Ukraine falls, you know, loses the war, and it becomes a province of Russia, all bets are off in a variety of ways. I don’t think that will happen. But I also think that a victory of the Ukrainian forces is—at this point, is on the table. So negotiations will ensue. And let’s hope that through these negotiations one can preserve the independence of Ukraine, and also stimulates the creation of an international coalition, prodemocracy coalition, that has some tooth and can work on that in support of countries that are fighting the good fight in terms of protecting democracy. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Azzedine Layachi, professor of politics at St. John’s University: You said earlier that we need to adjust capitalism and democracy to the new reality. First, what are some of the specific dimensions of this new reality? Second, what kind of adjustments do you suggest? NAÍM: Well, it’s obvious that the economy as it now works is not aligned to the realities of climate change that we’re facing. The climate emergency requires action and requires sound economic thinking, and action, and policies. Inequality. Inequality around the world has increased in significant ways. And, again, the economy, as it now stands, is—has a peaceful coexistence with inequality that has to be shattered. And if—you know, the fight against monopolies, the concentration of power, and all that has to be very effective. The whole regulation of free speech and speech in general, and disinformation and all that, has to be aligned to democracy and to what we have as a democracy political system. So there is a list of things that can be done, but that require political will that he was going to be very hard to get. CASA: Our next question comes from Mietek Boduszynski, associate professor of politics at Pomona College. The question is: From a U.S. foreign policy perspective, can the logic of great power competition be reconciled with democracy promotion? NAÍM: It depends how the promotion is done. Remember that under the banner of democracy, you know, promotion a lot of bad governments have been maintained. I understand the question. It’s a good question in terms of how to make it possible for democracy in the United States—for the United States to be effective at democracy promotion. I think that is going to be reviewed and is going to change. And I think the way we have been thinking about foreign aid is going to be adjusted. CASA: Our next question is from Diego Abente Brun, professor of the practice and program director, Latin American and hemispheric studies at George Washington University. He asks: Why are some authoritarian Latin American leaders popular—AMLO, Bukele, Milei, and so on? How can we restore faith and trust in democracy? NAÍM: Fandom. In my book, The Revenge Of Power, I talk about the new quality that has politics. You know, you always wanted a politician have to have some sort of attractiveness, the magic, that magnetism that attracts followers. Now it’s more than that. Now it’s a fandom. And it has to do with identity politics. It has to do with how do you feel you belong to a group that is like you and you are like them. And all of that has is having immense political consequences that we have not seen before? CASA: Thank you. I don’t know if we have—maybe we have time for one more question. We’ll take it from Robin Bittick, professor of political science at Sam Houston State University in Texas. Democracy is about self-rule and majority voting. Yet, populism employs something that can be—implies something that can be democratic but can become authoritarian. What can be done to ensure democracy does not result in suicide? NAÍM: Wow. Well—(laughs)—but I understand the feeling, you know, that democracy will be underperforming in some areas that are critical for people. And, again, performance and transparency are two important conditions for all of this. Transparency, and paying attention, and participating. CASA: OK. We have many more questions. We’ve covered an enormous amount of ground. So I’d like to thank you so much, Dr. Naím, for your time with us today. And to all of you, for your questions and comments. The final Winter/Spring Academic Webinar will take place on Wednesday, April 10, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at CFR, and Rebecca Katz, professor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, will lead a conversation on global health security and diplomacy. In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at Follow @CFR_Academic on X. And visit,, and for research and analysis on global issues. Again, thank you all for joining us today and we look forward to you tuning in on April 10. (END)
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Steven Levitsky
Steven Levitsky

Senior Fellow for Democracy