In recent years, many analysts and scholars have argued that a second wave of global authoritarianism has emerged in contrast to the first wave which involved authoritarian regimes cooperating with each other, learning from each other, and stemming off democratic challenges as a means of supporting authoritarian regime survival. These analysts and scholars argue that the second wave is distinct in that authoritarian regimes—especially China and Russia—have now globalized authoritarianism beyond fellow autocratic regimes and are now engaged in undermining democracies with the intention of fostering authoritarian norms. In addition, this second wave is different by way of the coercive tools used to achieve these ends, namely ‘sharp power.’ While it is clear that the second wave of global authoritarianism is distinct from the first wave given the new focus on undermining democracies through the use of coercive measures (e.g. censorship, manipulation, and co-optation), it is not evident that the ultimate goals of such global strategies are rooted in authoritarian ideology. In his work on autocracy promotion, Oisín Tansey argues that there is no irrefutable evidence that the second wave is driven by a core desire to promote authoritarian norms and ideology for their own sake. However, the second wave is not completely devoid of normative dynamics either.
In the second wave, authoritarian regimes are using coercive tools to undermine democracies with the intention of countering the normative global hegemony of liberal democracy. But, while the desire to make authoritarianism seem more normatively acceptable on the global stage is a new phenomenon in the second wave, this normative strategy is simply a means to strategic and material ends, which includes regime survival and the desire to better compete globally. In a sense, the second wave represents the recognition by authoritarian powers that autocratic regime survival and competitiveness in a world dominated by the norms of liberal democracy require global strategies that weaken such normative hegemony. Thus, this paper characterizes the second wave as ‘democracy disruption’ rather than ‘autocracy promotion’ because while the strategy of disrupting the normative global hegemony of democracy is new, the core motivations and ultimate goals remain strategic and material. Authoritarian regimes are simply taking advantage of the great power competition in an increasingly multipolar world by altering the normative playing field for non-normative (i.e. strategic and material) ends. Therefore, in order to understand and assess the threat that this second wave of global authoritarianism and the emergence of ‘sharp power’ pose to democracies and democratic norms globally, it is imperative that this ‘democracy disruption’ characterization is adopted.