The end of the Cold War, the implosion of communism, and the advance of new democracies in the 1990s strongly suggested that the positive direction of global freedom would continue into the new millennium. While this assumption was entirely reasonable, it did not foresee the emergence of a new set of influential illiberal powers that in the past decade have sought to actively contest democratic development and the democratic idea.

While the leading authoritarian states have divergent interests, they all agree on the goal of containing the spread of democracy. Venezuela has used its energy wealth to impede democratic accountability in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, and its subsidies to Cuba have served as a decisive lifeline to the regime in Havana. Russia continues its effort to check democratic advances in the states on its periphery, using a range of economic, political, and military instruments. Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter enemies, but they are united in their opposition to democracy across the Middle East, from Tunisia to Lebanon. When it comes to authoritarianism, China is in a league of its own, innovating methods of political censorship and control for domestic and international application alike.

Established democracies have been slow to recognize this increasingly determined challenge from countries such as China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Part of this weak response is likely due to the impact of the global economic crisis, which has created a “crisis of confidence” in the West. However, the trend of retrenchment within the democracies was underway well before the global economic downturn, which suggests that something more fundamental is at work. Meanwhile, the illiberal powers’ assertiveness can be seen in a growing number of spheres—diplomatic, political, economic, military, and “soft power.” 

With time, ambitious authoritarian states have become emboldened. These regimes are doggedly seeking to draw new lines and create new political expectations and standards of behavior within their borders and beyond them.

Through cooperation and learning, authoritarian governments around the world are sharing repressive strategies with one another for cracking down on civil society and restricting access to free spaces like the Internet. Undemocratic states are working together to reshape the international system by building an authoritarian architecture of illiberal institutions and promoting counternorms.

This website and the blog that is a part of it is intended to serve as a reference point for interested audiences and help improve understanding of the diverse ways in which influential authoritarian regimes are seeking to reshape the international order and democratic norms.

The Big Five


    Over the last generation, China has undergone a vast economic transformation. However, while China has enjoyed considerable economic growth in recent years, it has not moved in the direction of...

  • IRAN

    The Islamic Republic’s system of authoritarian control relies on coercion, terror, and massive state subsidies that total tens of billions of dollars annually for basic staples.  The regime enforces its...


    Russian President Vladimir Putin has been the country’s paramount leader since 1999. Under his rule, high energy prices have served as a cushion against social and political unrest, but a...


    Ruled by the Al Saud royal family since 1932, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Space for civil society and free expression is severely limited: human...


    One month after President Hugo Chavez’s death in March 2013, his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, took office following a controversial and flawed election. Maduro inherited a politically polarized country suffering...

Forum Staff

  • Christopher Walker

    Vice President for Studies and Analysis

    Christopher Walker is Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. In this capacity, he oversees the department that is responsible for NED’s multifaceted analytical work, which includes the International Forum for Democratic Studies, a leading center for the analysis and discussion of democratic development. Prior to joining the...

  • Melissa Aten

    Senior Research and Conference Officer

    Melissa Aten is a senior research and conferences officer at the International Forum for Democratic Studies. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and an M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, where her research focused...

  • Jessica Ludwig

    Research and Conferences Officer

    Jessica Ludwig is a research and conferences officer at the International Forum for Democratic Studies. She holds a B.A. in International Studies from Baylor University and an M.A. in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies from the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, where her research interests focused on the...

  • Dean Jackson

    Assistant Program Officer

    Dean Jackson is an assistant program officer at the International Forum for Democratic Studies. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio and an M.A. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations, where he focused on international security and comparative democratization in...

  • Hainer Sibrian

    Program Assistant

    Hainer Ernesto Sibrian is a program assistant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies. He holds a B.A. from Georgia State University and an Advanced Arabic Language Certificate from the American University in Cairo, as a David L. Boren Scholar.  His research interests include Latin America, the Middle East, and...


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