Reconciling a country more divided than at any time since the Civil War will be no picnic for the new U.S. administration. But the divisive, nationalist, authoritarian brand of politics that has destabilized the United States is, in fact, a global challenge. President-elect Joe Biden should make turning the tide on this scourge his No. 1 global priority, in concert with allied countries and people working for peace and freedom around the world. All other great, systemic challenges of our time – pandemics, inequality, political polarization, and climate change – will be exponentially harder to address as long as authoritarian leaders and the militarized systems that support them have free rein to trample on reasoned political debate and constructive multilateral cooperation.

In early 2020, for the first time since 2001, the majority of the world’s countries were under autocratic rule. All but 20 countries have restricted freedoms in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Nationalist-populist leaders are at the helm of too many of the world’s most powerful countries: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and for a bit longer, Donald Trump.

His electoral loss notwithstanding, their brand of divisive, authoritarian populism is succeeding on the back of two profoundly dangerous global trends: polarization and “securitization.”

Divide and Rule

Polarization is transforming societies all over the world. Research into the weaponization of social media and its exacerbation of conflict has shown that people increasingly exist in opinion communities, agitated and mobilized by fear and loathing of those who think differently. For the public, as for policymakers, it is becoming harder to take a balanced view. Respectful, evidence-based policy dialogue matters less.

In this climate, nationalist and populist leaders have become adept at using social media as instruments for political distortion and societal control, and they have succeeded in mobilizing their base behind their vision in order to assert their power and their economic interests.

The Politics of Coercive Power

Dovetailed with this trend is securitization: in response to the deliberately fanned fears of their base, populist autocrats offer a “tough” approach to security – facing down assorted “enemies of the people” through an intensification of military and law enforcement powers. The strong arm of “law and order” cements elite control in the face of increasingly widespread and vocal movements for democracy and equality around the world. Governments are increasingly a threat to civilians and civil society, and responsible for a disturbing proportion of violent deaths all over the world.

Besides the power of physical coercion, the promise of security makes for powerful political discourse. Politicians – whether in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Egypt, or the Philippines – wield the rhetoric of “security” to outbid one another in proving to their constituents that they are not “soft” on national security. Nationalist-populist politicians usually — though not always — prevail in such auctions. Either way, securitization is the clear winner: global military spending has consistently risen over the past two decades, and 2019 saw the biggest increase in a decade, with the U.S., China, and India all increasing their defense budgets by more than 5 percent.

The Persistence of a Failed Security Model

Few countries are immune from these problems, but the strongman approach to security fails people in repressive and violent contexts the most. Our world today has much more conflict than 20 years ago, and the two decades of intense investment in military and law enforcement approaches since 9/11 have much to do with this. The post-9/11 wars have cost the U.S. alone more than $6.4 trillion, killed 800,000 people, and displaced a further 37 million.

An important legacy of 9/11 has been to make it easy for governments to brand rebels, dissidents, and nonviolent critics alike as terrorists. From the Philippines and Afghanistan through the Middle East, north and east Africa and down to the Sahel, governments involved in this “war on terror” have responded to insecurity not by addressing grievances, encouraging compromise, and pursuing justice, but by cracking down on armed rebels, political opponents, and marginalized groups alike.

In spite of the damage this does, Western governments like the United States, the U.K., and France have kept the political, financial, and military support flowing to partners like Egypt – a keen buyer of Western arms –  despite their long, dismal records of cracking down on civil society activists.  The overwhelming beneficiaries of the ensuing violence have been the world’s authoritarian leaders.

As a result, enormous investments in security have made little impression on intractable wars and governance challenges. And the more this securitized approach fails, the louder the fear-mongering becomes, as year on year, democratic governments pour more resources into national security and remote warfare.

Today, many governments want us to think there is no viable alternative to cracking down on protesters, militarizing borders, droning jihadists, and arming and funding abusive “partner” governments. Just as over a decade ago, to stave off al-Qaeda, the U.K. argued for “huge support from the international community” for then-President Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan and President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen, today the European Union is arguing that, “we need guns, we need arms, we need military capacities” for our “African friends” because “their security is our security.”

One reason this kind of policy thinking has been so persistent is that fables, lies, and vested interests have proven hard to challenge.  From the Gulf of Tonkin deception that escalated the U.S. war in Vietnam to Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction that spurred the 2003 invasion, to the present day, false narratives about what the most important threats really are and about the purported necessity of hard security responses, have been hard to refute until far too late. Arms manufacturers like BAE Systems in the UK and Raytheon in the U.S, as well as energy companies also play a part by quietly insisting on foreign policy decisions that protect their profits, regardless of the human cost.

But there is no mistaking that this model is not producing security. All over the political spectrum, experts agree that most of the significant Western foreign and security policy engagements of the past two decades – including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen – have all been failures. They have left societies bleeding, autocrats and armed rebels emboldened and empowered, and the roots of conflict unaddressed. Most observers know that Western interventions in the Sahel and West Africa are following similar patterns.

A Chance to Turn the Tide

Looking back on 20 years of authoritarianism, securitization, and polarization, Biden’s entry into office should be a moment for reflection in which the foreign policy establishment eschews “complacent restoration,” as Yale law and history Professor Samuel Moyn wrote recently, and embraces “genuine renovation” when setting forward strategy.

When doing so, it will be vital to recognize what is crystal clear from the data and any serious conflict analysis: authoritarianism and securitization are far greater threats to people’s well-being than terrorism, migration, and power vacuums.

An important reason why these problems have repeated themselves for so long is that international security policy today is such an elite-dominated and state-centric affair, and thus impervious to feedback. But it need not continue to be.

Friends of peace, democracy, and human rights who are in government, in multilateral institutions, and in positions of influence should take heart from the fact that there is so much public activism and appetite for better approaches. All over the world – from Chile and Colombia a year ago to Hong Kong, Belarus, and Nigeria in recent months – ordinary people feel the water heating uncomfortably around them and are taking to the streets to claim their rights. Protestors are challenging dictatorships or slides in that direction. They are opposing inhumane conditions imposed by border-security agencies on people fleeing violence and repression in migrant detention camps in Greece, Libya, and at the U.S. border. They want the war in Yemen stopped. They worry that, in the absence of justice for Iraqis and Syrians, another ISIS could easily emerge. They are tired of inequality and injustice, and won’t stand for racism in policing – and so on.

Western governments must now develop a new strategy, working in much closer partnership with people, civil society, and social movements, like members of the Security Policy Alternatives Network and many, many others who are working under conditions of violence or repression to support peace, rights, and democracy.

Securing a less violent and authoritarian world for future generations means building a strategy right now that will reassert those values of peace, human rights, and democracy. That means concentrating attention on the known drivers of conflict, most importantly, abusive governance, corruption, and exclusion.

A Fresh Start

A Biden administration should show leadership on this from day one. He and his team can do so in three ways:

  1. No more blank checks. Learning the bitter lessons of backing authoritarian “partners” such as Nouri al-Maliki, Biden should follow through on his promised “reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” go further in applying pressure on Egypt, and do the same with other regional strongmen, requiring marked progress on peace, democracy, and human rights as the price of future security and economic partnerships with the United States.
  2. Construct an effective alliance for democracy and rights. The new administration should build a common approach among sympathetic governments and civil society allies on how to protect democracy from the current assault. This means, on the one hand, supporting civil society and peaceful change movements to protect their ability to freely generate demand and pressure for reform. It also means encouraging democratic allies to work in step with the United States to exert real economic, security, and political leverage to incentivize progress on democracy and human rights. Biden’s plan to host a “summit of democracies” next year is a key opportunity to set the agenda on this.
  3. Refresh the U.S. approach to security challenges. The most urgent step here would be a thorough reappraisal of past approaches to terrorism and violent extremism, including by actively seeking feedback from civil society in the field, with the aim of eliminating counter-productive strategies and practices from the playbook. The next priority would be to redesign U.S. security partnerships to focus much more on reform of institutions and structures and to include more community and civil society engagement, including by building on efforts like the State Department’s Security Governance Initiative. At the same time, the new administration should invest in whole-of-society efforts to tackle root causes of violent conflict, with significant resources and a proper implementation plan for the Global Fragility Act and other efforts to support development, democracy, and human rights.


Adopting a coherent, big-tent approach to addressing the biggest challenge of our generation could not only turn back the tide of authoritarianism. It can also restore confidence in U.S. leadership, put Western governments back on the right side of history, and maybe even yield some useful lessons to bring home to the United States and other troubled Western societies in the years ahead.

IMAGE: The silhouettes of Patrick Zaki, drawn by the artist Gianluca Costantini and placed in the Aula Magna of the University Library of Bologna on July 16, 2020, in protest of his continued detention in Egypt. Zaki is a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of Egypt’s most prominent human rights groups, and was detained in February as part of the Sisi government’s continued repression of civil society. (Photo by Michele Lapini/Getty Images)