Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
A year ago, the reverberations of the January 6 attack still loomed large. Russia was accusing the United States of “hysteria” for claiming Moscow planned to invade Ukraine. Even Ukraine was skeptical. The leaders of China and Russia, looking confident, seemed prepared to defy the world. Democracy was on the defensive across the globe from South America to Asia. A historic test was about to play out.
Twelve months later, parts of Ukraine lie in ruins, but autocratic leaders around the world are now the ones that are faltering.
Shortly after taking office and with the United States still reeling from the attack on the US Capitol, President Joe Biden declared, “We’ve got to prove democracy works.” He predicted that future generations “are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy?”
Notice that it was an open question. At the time, many believed that autocracy would not only win, but would prove to be the better system. How many believe that today?
How many believe Russia, China or Iran offer a better model than an open society with all its foibles and challenges? How many believe the US would be better off with a more autocratic president?
In 2022, democracy fought back with astounding determination, conviction and, yes, idealism. Autocrats went on the defensive. Even populism started to sputter. At the moment, many of the positive trends – forged with great effort and through enormous human suffering – look promising.
The contest between democracy and autocracy is far from over, but autocracy’s appeal has diminished in the past 12 months due to the very public display of its fatal flaws. When you can’t tell leaders they’re wrong, they will make mistakes – even catastrophic ones. The more powerful and ruthless the ruler, the higher the likelihood that no one dares challenge his wisdom, even if he leads his nation toward a cliff.
With the headway democracy just made – a poor showing for election deniers in the US midterm elections, an exodus of Russians from their own autocratic country, an upsurge of support for embattled Ukraine – democratic leaders need to show they can navigate the economic challenges of the coming months. All the while, they will face the continuing efforts of ambitious autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to regain the upper hand.
Putin, in particular, poses a grave threat. He’s all in, having painted himself into a corner. And he is not about to surrender in Ukraine. Biden and NATO have been careful to support Ukraine while avoiding a direct clash with Putin, but a drastic escalation by Russia remains one of the greatest dangers in the year ahead.
Cornered tyrants are dangerous. And a number of them – not only Putin – are under strain.
As 2022 started, Putin and Xi Jinping still wore an aura of competence. Sure, their regimes were repressive, but their strength appeared to be matched by efficiency. Xi seemed to be handling the pandemic better than the leaders of the free world, if only because he didn’t have to contend with the raucous pushback of democracy. And prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin was punching above his weight, basking in the success of his multiple military adventures. He was undoubtedly satisfied watching turmoil unfold in the US – one of his goals for years.
The autocracy brothers wanted the world to think their system was superior, a message that would preemptively quiet any doubts at home. For 16 consecutive years, according to the non-partisan democracy monitor Freedom House, democracy was losing ground. Authoritarian leaders and illiberal forces were on the rise; only about 20% of the world’s population lived in what it calls “Free countries”, the organization’s research showed.
In 2022, while these global strongmen struggled, self-assured “geniuses” like Elon Musk – who more than once appeared to side with autocrats – revealed their own shortcomings, and oppressed populations fed up with decades of tyranny demanded change.
Through it all, democracy grew stronger relative to its challenger.
Some of the credit goes to Putin, whose imperialist ploy to conquer neighboring Ukraine struck like a thunderbolt. No longer was freedom a vague ideal. No longer was the battle for democracy a metaphor. This was a real war with missiles, carnage and death.
Ukraine’s brave resistance galvanized and unified the West. Even in polarized United States, significant majorities came together in support of Ukraine despite the best efforts of some.
Putin’s calamitous adventure has achieved the opposite of what he wanted. Ukraine has emerged as a heroic nation, with a hunger for democracy more passionate than ever before.
The invasion strengthened NATO, a democratic defense alliance, in a way nothing had in decades. Even Sweden and Finland – countries that had long cherished their neutrality – wanted to join.
The war also exposed Russia’s military as a paper tiger and led to unspeakable suffering in Ukraine and growing repression at home. Putin’s genius, it turns out, was a mirage.
Also a mirage was Xi Jinping’s brilliance. After nearly three years of draconian Covid-19 lockdowns, the country saw unprecedented protests demanding an end to Xi’s signature Zero Covid policy, with some even calling for regime change. Suddenly, Xi lifted all pandemic restrictions with seemingly no transition or preparation.
The rules and regulations that were in place for the past three years were simply tossed aside. But China had not used the time to push for increased vaccination or stock up on certain drugs. Hundreds of millions have been infected, according to reports citing an internal estimate from China’s top health officials, and various models predict more than a million deaths.
The notion promoted by Beijing that autocracy is superior was soon torn to shreds.
In Iran, women rose up against the theocracy, fed up with its repressive rules. The regime – not coincidentally now supplying arms to Russia – responded with more violence, killing hundreds, according to human rights organizations.
No one expected the “Woman, Life, Freedom” activists to continue defying the regime and its brutality. How far will they go? How far will the regime go to snuff them out? How will the rest of the world respond?
In the West, even populism, a potential precursor to autocracy, has started losing its appeal.
Former President Donald Trump launched a new presidential campaign. It was what the British called a “damp squib,” a lead balloon. He’s becoming an increasingly isolated, rather pathetic figure after many of his top choices failed in the midterm elections and election deniers fared badly. Even his calls for Republicans to unite behind Kevin McCarthy as the new House Speaker seemed to do little to quell the rebellion this week. And while the struggle over the speakership may have seemed dysfunctional, it was democracy, in all its messy wrangling, on display. And of course, Trump’s legal troubles seem endless.
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In Brazil, Trump’s doppelganger, Jair Bolsonaro, lost his bid for reelection. Like Trump, he refused to admit defeat or attend the inauguration of the man who defeated him, President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Instead, a grim Bolsonaro decamped to Florida.
In the UK, the populist Boris Johnson lost the premiership and after an embarrassing interlude with the hapless Liz Truss, the decidedly non-populist centrist, Rishi Sunak, became prime minister. Back when Johnson was leading his country out of the European Union, populists across Europe wanted their own versions of Brexit. We don’t hear that anymore. French President Emmanuel Macron defeated his populist opponent, Marine Le Pen who, like other European populists, had to run from her record of closeness to Putin.
The year begins with the forces of democracy, of liberal democracy, ascendant. The far right is in disarray in the US and much of the world. And the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, are on the back foot.
The contest between the two systems is far from over. And Biden was correct when he said it was critical to prove that democracy could deliver for the people.