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Report March 28, 2023

Fostering a Fourth Democratic Wave: A playbook for countering the authoritarian threat

By Hardy Merriman, Patrick Quirk, and Ash Jain

Fostering a Fourth Democratic Wave is a joint project between the Atlantic Council and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), aimed at catalyzing support for nonviolent pro-democracy movements fighting against authoritarian rule. 

The project recognizes that civil resistance movements—using tactics such as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and a range of other nonviolent tactics—are one of the most powerful forces for democracy worldwide and therefore central to reversing the last seventeen years of democratic recession. 

The project produced a three-part report, titled Fostering a Fourth Democratic Wave: A Playbook for Countering the Authoritarian Threat, that:

  1. Proposes new approaches and tools to support civil resistance movements
  2. Advances a new international norm — the “Right to Assist” pro-democracy movements
  3. Develops strategic and tactical options to constrain authoritarian regimes and drive up the cost of their repression


The security of the United States, democratic allies, and humanity’s future depends significantly on the state of democracy worldwide.

Yet over the past seventeen years, authoritarianism has risen globally, while democracy shows alarming decline. Dictatorial regimes in China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and many other countries have become more repressive. Meanwhile, democracies in all parts of the world have backslid, with some regressing completely into authoritarianism.

This playbook focuses on a key factor that can help reverse both of these trends. Popular civil resistance movements—using tactics such as strikes, boycotts, protests, and many other tactics of noncooperation—are historically one of the most powerful drivers of democracy worldwide. They can play a central role in transforming authoritarian regimes and countering democratic backsliding. We offer recommendations for how the United States and democratic allies can adeptly support and enable these movements.

The stakes in this contest over global governance could not be higher. A more authoritarian world is a world dangerous for democracies. As autocrats support each other, abuse their own populations, and undermine democratic states, they also perpetrate and create conditions for violent conflict, atrocities, humanitarian crises, the growth of violent non-state actors, subversion of multilateral institutions, and transnational corruption. These produce massive human suffering, and further exacerbate internal weaknesses of democratic governments, thereby creating a positive feedback loop that contributes greatly to the present-day autocratic wave.

Turning the tide now requires urgency, clear vision, strategy, collective action, discipline, and innovative tactics. Democracies must unify, strengthen their alliances, and go on offense because the future depends on it.

Yet this threat can be countered. Three previous global democratic waves have emerged from democratic troughs. Developing a strategy to catalyze a fourth wave begins with a clear-eyed look at the challenges we currently face. Externally, democracies confront an increasingly existential conflict waged against them, with authoritarian governments using democratic openness to enable them to spread corruption, undermine government institutions, influence economic decision-making, and manipulate the information environment. Simultaneously, many democracies are experiencing legitimacy crises due to long-standing failure to deliver adequately for their constituents. This core weakness has made them more vulnerable to populism, polarization, disruptive information technologies, external authoritarian attacks, and internal demagogues who now use a well-trod path to weaken democratic governance from the inside out. Past denial about the potency of these threats enabled them to grow. Turning the tide now requires urgency, clear vision, strategy, collective action, discipline, and innovative tactics. Democracies must unify, strengthen their alliances, and go on offense because the future depends on it.

Any strategy to counter authoritarianism will entail action on multiple fronts. By articulating in this playbook how to better support and create an enabling environment for pro-democracy civil resistance movements, we focus on one of the greatest foreign policy opportunities available today—engaging the power potential of populations worldwide who want to protect and advance human rights and democratic rule. Our allies are found not only in fellow governments and registered civil society organizations, but also among billions of people who live daily under either weakening democracies or the abuse of dictatorship.


Image: Opposition supporters rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins - RC121A2BC480