‘The Bad Guys Are Winning’—Anne Applebaum on the Rise of Autocratic Power Around the World

The Atlantic’s December cover story exposes the conditions that have allowed the leaders of Venezuela, Belarus, Russia, China, and Turkey to thrive––at the expense of the world’s liberal democracies.

The Atlantic's December 2021 cover

“If the 20th century was the story of liberal democracy’s progress toward victory over other ideologies—communism, fascism, virulent nationalism—the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.” For The Atlantic’s December cover story, staff writer Anne Applebaum details the dangerous rise of autocratic power around the world. Reporting from Belarus and Turkey, and just this week from the Polish-Belarusian border, Applebaum exposes the conditions that have allowed the autocrats of Venezuela, Belarus, Russia, China, Turkey, and others to thrive in recent years, in part by working together to achieve their own ends—often at the expense of the globe's liberal democracies.

The Bad Guys Are Winning” is published today at The Atlantic, and is the cover story of the December issue of the magazine.

Applebaum dubs this club of rulers “Autocracy Inc.,” a group lacking a unified ideology but sharing a desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth. Corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another, while sharing sophisticated networks of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. As she writes: “Their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals—deals designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich—which is why they can operate across geographical and historical lines.”

Applebaum writes that the language of NGOs and the narrative power of what used to be called the free world, previously important tools for diplomacy, no longer work. Because while American diplomats and their allies can condemn the ways these autocrats stay in power—in part by intimidating, jailing, or torturing dissidents—today’s autocrats don’t care about their international reputation. Their goals are money and power, and “they are not concerned—deeply, sincerely, profoundly, or otherwise—about the happiness or well-being of their fellow citizens, let alone the views of anyone else.”

In the cover story, Applebaum argues that if the democratic world is serious about protecting democracy, we need to go beyond statements. She calls on President Joe Biden to use his upcoming summit on democracy to force American businesses to change their practices so that these autocracies can no longer flourish at the expense of their citizens, and of America’s future. Quoting from the cover: “To effect real change, the Biden administration will have to ask hard questions and make big decisions. How can we force Apple and Google to respect the rights of Russian democrats? How can we ensure that Western manufacturers have excluded from their supply chains anything produced in a Uyghur concentration camp? We need a major investment in independent media around the world, a strategy for reaching people inside autocracies, new international institutions to replace the defunct human-rights bodies at the UN.”

The stakes are high. “If America removes the promotion of democracy from its foreign policy, if America ceases to interest itself in the fate of other democracies and democratic movements, then autocracies will quickly take our place as sources of influence, funding, and ideas,” she writes. And if Americans don’t hold murderous regimes to account, Applebaum concludes, those regimes “will continue to steal, blackmail, torture, and intimidate, inside their countries—and inside ours.”

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Anna Bross / The Atlantic