08 September 2023 - 10 September 2023

Authoritarian Alliances: an alternative world order in the making or just marriages of convenience?

A Ditchley conference at Greentree, in partnership with American Ditchley

Conference Summary (PDF)

Context and why this was important

This Ditchley conference explored whether an alternative authoritarian world order is in the making and, if it is, how democratic countries might best respond. What dilemmas, threats and challenges would these shifts in world order pose for governments and businesses?

The backdrop to this conference was the growing concern, discussion and analysis of the rise of authoritarianism as a global trend. When it comes to alliances, this has been characterised as a distinction between ‘rule of law states’ and the authoritarians. Rule of law states have developed long-lasting alliances because their leaders are constrained by the long-established checks and balances of their systems. For authoritarians, the constraints that shape alliances are often much looser, and consequently relationships between states can be less stable. Participants considered whether this previous world order is beginning to change as tensions increase between the West and authoritarian states and as interests between authoritarian nations converge.

A number of countries globally were highlighted in this discussion. The relationship between China and Russia served as the prime and central example, with their announcement of a ‘friendship without limits’ raising questions about how they may or may not wish to support each other going forwards. Other noteworthy groupings include various Middle Eastern states, certain European nations which have elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies, and some Latin American countries. 


This conference brought together key stakeholders and leaders across industry, government and think tanks, with representatives from technology, finance, consulting, defence, energy and international development gathering around the table. Geographies represented included the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, Australia, Japan, Canada, Turkey and Russia.

Summary of the discussion

The conference discussion began by considering the alliances between authoritarian states, reflecting on whether these are truly formal alliances based on shared ideologies, or rather a temporary overlap driven by pragmatic interests. China’s geopolitical role was a key topic, as were the roles of both India and the broader region of Southeast Asia, which were posited as alternative centres of strategic power. China has developed a strong narrative challenging traditional definitions of ‘democracy’ and ‘free markets’ and has seen some success in creating their own institutions and influencing norms in existing multilateral institutions. 

China has also been engaging extensively in the Global South. There was criticism of the way China has been operating in some developing countries and concerns about China creating debt traps to leverage its soft power influence. There were seen to be limits to China’s abilities in, for example, developing strong lasting security coalitions. Much of China’s model is also being challenged as their economy slows. Even so, a major challenge here for Western alliances is in coordinating and adapting engagement in these countries to demonstrate a viable alternative to China that can be at least as beneficial for these developing countries.

Countering authoritarians’ use of soft power (i.e. in the form of economic coercion) was described as critical in reducing their influence, particularly in smaller countries and regions which may not already have measures in place. Coordination between countries seeking to counter authoritarianism is essential. Some suggested that China sees the window of opportunity closing for action on Taiwan, indicating that the West ought to be prepared to respond in the event of a potential conflict in Taiwan. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that this cannot be done by the United States alone and that bringing along European allies is necessary for effective deterrence. This is because the United States does not have the bandwidth to operate in multiple regions effectively on its own. In particular, the importance of having German and Dutch counterparts across government and politics around the table for effective policy development and enforcement was underscored, given their strengths in industrial and technological capabilities. 

Participants highlighted the notable tilt of many countries towards industrial policy. It is important to bear in mind that if these policies can be coordinated with one another and be inclusive of key partners then this could be an effective method to form alliances that counter hostile and authoritarian alliances. Worth noting also is that although this strategy may be effective in countering the likes of Russia and China, it may also make both countries increasingly isolated, which would pose a new set of challenges.

Another key area of focus was those alliances involving the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. A key takeaway was the increase in middle and developing powers playing the great powers off against one another. The role of the World Bank and the changes it may need in terms of leverage were highlighted as an approach to provide more favourable deals for developing countries and therefore countering authoritarian offers. 

Despite the array of concerns and tensions highlighted, it is important to note that there was a range of views about the coherence, and therefore threat, of authoritarian alliances or their relative weakness. The argument was that there is still time to garner effective coordination between democratic allies and to do so in ways that avoid exclusionary policy development. 

Recommendations and ideas (not consensus but arising in discussion)

In response to authoritarian alliances, the West should reconsider its offer to the Global South.

  • Beyond aid, there is access to data, infrastructure, new technology, markets, and capital. 
  • As more countries have turned towards industrial policy, there could be greater inclusion and coordination. If such policies are inclusive of key partners, then this could be a method to form alliances that could counter hostile and authoritarian alliances.

Increasing leverage of IFIs such as the World Bank in order to provide a better alternative to the Belt & Road Initiative.

Quantifying exposure in areas critical for national security to equip policymakers with in-depth understanding so that they can plan how to reduce dependencies on hostile states.

Cross-country discussions on industrial policy coordination with countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. 

Areas for greater exploration.

  • The technology infrastructure build-up from China and what to do about it could be productive. 
  • As defence costs continue to increase, the additional financial burden risks falling on the middle classes. This might lead to erosion of trust in the choices made by democratic institutions and a reduction of support among the public for allies.
  • Southeast Asia will also be an area of increased discussion in coming years, given that region’s supply chain strengths but simultaneously its technological dependence on China.
  • India’s role as an alternative to China’s ability to scale development is another area of interest. Particularly given potential issues in engaging with India, both in its supply chain weaknesses and geopolitical tensions (e.g. Canada).
  • The role of international financial institutions — both in their use of leverage and the impact of their potential politicisation. 
  • There is a question of how to coordinate industrial policies with key partners. 
  • Europe’s role in the Middle East is another area that could be explored, given both their proximity and relative lack of activity in the region. 

A number of the themes and questions arising from this conference will inform Ditchley’s programme for 2023-25, these include:

  • Industrial policy coordination
  • The role of India
  • How can we best engage non-aligned or developing countries to create mutually beneficial opportunities?
  • Further exploring key areas related to national security (such as procurement of critical minerals).

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.



Mr Hiroyuki Akita 
Foreign Affairs Commentator, Nikkei.

Ms Sarah Bamber 
Director, National Security, British Embassy, Washington.

The Hon John B. Bellinger III 
Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP, Washington, DC.

Dr Benedetta Berti 
Head of Policy Planning, Office of the Secretary General. NATO.

The Hon Julie Bishop 
Chancellor, The Australian National University.

Mr Teddy Bunzel 
Head of Lazard Geopolitical Advisory.

Professor Nicholas Cheeseman
Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham.

Mr Robert Daly 
Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

Professor Marie-Eve Desrosiers PhD 
Research Chair in International Francophonie and associate professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.

Ms Elaine K. Dezenski 
Senior Director and Head of Center on Economic and Financial Power, Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky PhD 
Senior Fellow, JFK Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University; Vice Chair, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council.

Mr Alexander Gabuev 
Director, Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

Ambassador Mark A. Green (Ret) 
President and CEO, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Dr Debra Humphreys 
Vice President of Strategic Engagement, Lumina Foundation (2016-23).

Mr Cary A. Koplin 
Managing Director, Investment Management Division, Neuberger Berman, LLC. President, The American Ditchley Foundation.

Mr James Kynge 
Global China Editor, Financial Times.

Dr Bonny Lin 
Senior fellow for Asian security and director of the China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Dr Bruno Maçães 
Flint Global, London.

Professor Rajan Menon 
Directs the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities; Senior Research Scholar, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University.

Dr Ziya Meral 
Lecturer in International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS; Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute.

Ms Jami Miscik 
Co-Vice Chairman, Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Advisor - Geopolitical Advisory, Lazard Ltd. Chair, The American Ditchley Foundation.

Professor Rana Mitter OBE FBA 
S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations, Harvard Kennedy School.

Dr Bessma Momani 
Professor of Political Science, University of Waterloo.

Dr Scott Moore 
Practice Professor of Political Science and Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives, University of Pennsylvania.

Mr George M. Newcombe 
Partner, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP (Ret.). Board of Directors and Secretary, American Ditchley Foundation

Dr Shannon K. O'Neil 
Vice President of Studies and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations. Board of Directors, American Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Yurter Özcan 
CHP Representative to the United States (Republican People's Party - the main opposition party in Turkey).

Mr Jon Pruzan 
President, Pretium.

Professor Sergey Radchenko 
Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Admiral Michael S. Rogers AO 
Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor, Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Dr Kevin Rudd AC 
Ambassador of Australia to the US.

Mr Gerard Russell MBE 
Director, Pall Mall Communications.

Mr David E. Sanger 
White House and national security correspondent, The New York Times.

Dr Kori Schake 
Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute. Board of Directors, American Ditchley Foundation.

Mr Tatsuya Terazawa 
Chairman and CEO, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.

Mr Matt Turpin 
Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Dame Caroline Wilson DCMG 
British Ambassador to the People's Republic of China.

Dr Elizabeth Wishnick PhD 
Senior research scientist, China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Division, CNA.