Aspiring autocrats face a variety of obstacles. Domestically, institutional resistance, robust democratic culture, and the sort of political difficulties that affect all politicians can slow, or even halt, democratic backsliding. And yet, one obstacle that seems to be under-emphasized is the role of international obstacles in halting democratic erosion. As political scientist Ozan Varol implicitly understands in his discussion of “bolstering […] global legitimacy,”  the international community has incredible power in slowing democratic erosion. Specifically, the international community can levy sanctions, support democrats, and condition aid, among other measures that politically hurt the aspiring autocrat who still needs to win elections. One way that aspiring autocrats can gain international support is by fostering the illusion of democratization through the creation of “spaces for discontent” and the use of “democratic reforms and democratic rhetoric”  to rebut or prevent international claims of democratic subversion. What happens, though, when a known aspiring autocrat needs to garner international support, when illusions of democracy no longer appease potential international actors?
Turkey, an eroding democracy, presents a fascinating case study. In 2015, after it was already clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had authoritarian aims, the Syrian Civil War, the War in Afghanistan, and several other humanitarian crises caused a huge influx of refugees into Europe. Germany welcomed nearly 40 percent of the refugees that entered Europe in 2015 and 2016 and ultimately reaped economic, social, and moral benefits. And yet, nativism and nationalism that still animate politics in Europe caused a huge backlash in Germany and across Europe. Anti-refugee violence, rhetoric, and sentiments spread like wildfire, driving election cycles and affecting approval ratings. In short, the refugee crisis in Europe awoke a dormant nativism that still animates much of European politics today. For that reason, refugees continue to represent a political threat for elected leaders in Europe.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a democratic eroder, has used this dynamic – and the fact that most refugees attempted to enter Europe through Turkey – to aid in consolidating power and continuing to erode democracy. “Time and again, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey wants something from the Europeans, he has reminded them that he is the gatekeeper to tens of thousands of refugees he could send their way.” At times explicitly and at other times behind the scenes, Erdogan has abhorrently but effectively used the “threat” of 3.6 million refugees to coerce European political leaders into turning a blind eye to his “rejection of democratic rules of the game, […] denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, […] toleration or encouragement of violence, [and] readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents,” political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s four indicators of authoritarian behavior. In essence, Erdogan has used Turkey’s geopolitical position as the “gatekeeper” of refugees and Europe’s anti-refugee populist trend to help consolidate power and erode Turkish democracy. By leveraging geopolitical circumstances and the domestic political dynamics of potential interveners, Erdogan has taken an even more aggressive erosive approach to an already-eroded democracy.
Erdogan’s use of the threat of refugees against European elected leaders provides a blueprint for aspiring autocrats to leverage geopolitics and local politics to fight pro-democratic intervention. And while yielding geopolitical and local dynamics alone represents a potent tool in aspiring authoritarians’ ever-expanding proverbial toolkit, this finding implies something far scarier too. Indeed, because geopolitical position affects the ability to fight off pro-democratic intervention, a pro-democratic intervention will be more successful in those countries with weaker geopolitical positions. All of which means that it could be the biggest dominoes – the strongest and most geopolitically significant countries – that fall first, which spells a dangerous and uncertain world for smaller, weaker countries fighting to preserve democracy.Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1713-1718. Ibid.