Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Return of History, With a Vengeance--Liberal Democracy Faces Off Against Secular and Islamic Autocracies

"Gallia est omnis divisa in partres tres," Julius Caesar famously wrote. "All Gaul is divided into three parts." Today Caesar might instead observe, "Mundus est omnis divisa in partres tres"--All the world is divided into three parts: liberal democracies, secular authoritarian autocracies and Islamic authoritarian autocracies.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many political analysts exulted that no ideological challenges remained to liberal democracy. We had arrived at, as Francis Fukuyama most famously described it, "the end of history."

That illusion has dissipated. Robert Kagan has published a seminal article in The New Republic, entitled, "The End of the End of History." He argues that the 21st century will resemble the 18th and 19th centuries, in which the foremost ideological opponent of liberal democracy was the authoritarian, autocratic nation state. The difference now is that liberal democracy currently--but not necessarily permanently--is the dominant successful political/economic system. However, first China, and now Putin's resurgent Russia, have proven that there are alternatives to liberal democracy that can successfully combine economic growth and modernization with authoritarian government. Moreover, in both China and Russia, these alternatives to Western liberal democracy can legitimately lay claim to overwhelming popular approval. As Kagan writes:

"Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible after all. Autocrats learn and adjust. The autocracies of Russia and China have figured out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political activity. They have seen that people making money will keep their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses will be cut off."

Kagan views Islamic autocracy as a smaller threat to liberal democracy, in part because he views the Islamist objectives of world domination and a retreat from modernism as unachievable.

However, Kagan notes, efforts to contain radical Islamism will be obstructed, if not crippled, by the resurgent rivalry between the secular autocracies, such as China and Russia, and the liberal democracies. That rivalry will also present secular, nationalist authoritarianism as a viable alternative to liberal democracy, an alternative that inevitably will be attractive to the petty dictators of the developing world.

Kagan has written a remarkable article that should be read and mulled over by every observer of international affairs. In particular, one hopes that it is read by all three of the current U.S. Presidential candidates.


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