IV. Authoritarian Gravity Centers in Cross-Regional Comparison

Authoritarian Gravity Centers in Cross-Regional Comparison: Future Studies and the International Dimension of Authoritarianism


The contributions of this edited volume made a strong point regarding the relevance of the regional environment when explaining clusters of autocracy in the international dimension of authoritarianism. In the first part of the edited volume, we tested our developed AGC concept in the three different regions: Latin America, the Middle East, and Central Asia. All three regions - following longitudinal data since 2006, as given by the Bertelsmann Transformation Index1 - indicate that there is regional clustering of autocracies and/or a regional trend toward autoc- ratization. This regime-typological puzzle was our point of departure for the research project on AGCs. The overall epistemological interest of this book was to search for explanatory factors.

The three chosen regions are, of course, highly different from each other in terms of regional specifics such as historical pathways, religious, political, economic factors, and/or their incorporation in regional and international systems. Embarking on a small-n comparative approach allowed us to trace in a more fine-grained way the autocratization processes and to incorporate and test historical, cultural, and societal factors regarding their possible impact. At the same time, the nature of authoritarian clustering varies in the three world regions under study: In Latin America, it is the erosion of democracy; in the Middle East, the resilience and resurgence of authoritarianism; and in Central Asia, the autocratization of newly established national states that define the region. The question remains whether there is a common feature behind these unquestioned empirical trends toward autocratization in the three world regions under study. Are there common motives {why), mechanisms {how), and elements {what) at play?

The focus on these three regions does not imply that clusters of autocracy and the presence of agency in the promotion and diffusion of autocratic practices, norms, and ideas may not also occur in other regions: AGCs can overlap with regional hegemons as the contributions on Russia (see the chapter of Ambrosio), Iran (see the chapter of Van- derhill), or China (see the chapter of Bader/Hackenesch) show. Regional networks of transmission and learning are also highly relevant when studying the how, why, and what of autocratic practices, norms, and ideas that are promoted and/or diffused. The case of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCC) presents strong empirical evidence (see the chapter of Harnisch) and indicates similar findings as shown for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA-TCP). AGCs make use of existing regional organizations or even establish new ones for the sake of disseminating autocratic elements more effectively (see Kneuer et al. 2019).

All cases confirm the major role of actors, that is, elite networks - be it as promoters or as adopters of an autocratic governance model and mindset. In presidential and highly personalized (or populist) regimes like Russia and Venezuela, this actorness centers in the presidency. In one-party systems like China, the party plays an eminent role. In monarchical and theocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, the actor constellations include the clergy (Iran and Saudi Arabia) or a very broad actor network of family rule (Saudi Arabia).

Under which conditions can the activity of an AGC evolve most effectively? We find that the gravitational force of AGCs is particularly strong if linkage effects and the density of ties and cross-border flow's within a neighborhood are strong. This linkage can be based on common historical trajectories and formative events (e.g. state-building in Central Asia in the 1990s), political similarities (e.g. the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula), and/or common historical and cultural trajectories (e.g. Latin America). At the same time, however, linkage is not a predictor for the gravitational force of an AGC. Firstly, in countries where linkage is present, the influence of an AGC can be different. The “Chavista model,” for instance, attracted several leaders and audiences in Latin America, but not all. The case of Peru is a telling example: Although the very similar historical and cultural ties prevail, ideological consonance between Chavez and Humala is tangible; Chavez supported Humala’s electoral campaign after being elected, but Humala did not join the Bolivarian project like Morales and Correa did. Obviously, Humala cut off some of the regional networks that were dominated by Chavez, and he deliberately declared to take a different route of governance. Secondly, gravitational forces are contingent. They do not stop at territorial borders or at the doorstep of different political regimes (as the case of Russia’s promotion/diffusion of autocracy has shown; see the chapter of Ambrosio). It is the regional context and existing high degree of linkage effects and the attractiveness of the governance model that make the AGC’s gravitational force and attraction effective, that is, leads to compliance and/or adoption. Thirdly, AGCs are not static “one-way streets”: In the Middle East in particular, we found robust evidence for cases in which the AGC (Saudi Arabia) adopted best-practice features from respective target states. This points to an interactive and reinforcing activity of autocratic consolidation. Finally, the gravitational force of an AGC has limits. The ambition of Chavez was much more comprehensive than the final picture displayed. Chavez wanted to include Mexico and Peru in his revolutionary project, which turned out to be unsuccessful in two regards: Candidate Lopez Obrador did not win the elections, and Humala did not follow the Bolivarian way. Hence, we can find resistance to gravitational force - an aspect that needs more examination.

In a nutshell, AGCs do different things in different regions, but share the common denominator of promotion and diffusion of autocracy based on a strong “pull factor” emanated by the AGC. This has been further confirmed through the cases of the second part of the book: Russia serves as an AGC “by developing the region’s most prominent, illiberal blueprint,” Ambrosio states. Iran provides an example for authoritarian promotion, which can also refer, as Vanderhill shows, to military intervention as a means of supporting authoritarianism. With regards to China, Bader and Hackenesch offer a perspective of party channels that can involve promotion as well as diffusion. Referring to regional organizations like the SCO, Harnisch finds that some forms of autocratic rule export, such as diffusion and learning, are more likely when autonomy concerns vis-a-vis great powers or rivaling legitimacy considerations toward autocratic neighboring states are absent.

Each AGC embodies a strong autocratic protagonist that shows (1) a strong will to be the dominant player in the geopolitical proximity and who uses the existing (geo-)political asymmetries to make this happen and, of course, (2) counts on material and immaterial capacities to enforce this role (see the chapter of Kneuer/Demmelhuber). AGCs do not operate in a vacuum; they may be a stage of additional, competing AGCs as the results for Central Asia and the overlapping Sino-Russian rivalry have shown.

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