They Can Only Go So Far
Are we entering the age of the autocrat? It's certainly tempting to think so after watching Russia's recent clobbering of Georgia. That invasion clearly marks a new phase in world politics, but it's a mistake to think that the future belongs to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots.
I'm particularly interested in trying to discern the shape of the new international moment, because I wrote an essay in 1989 entitled "The End of History?" It argued that liberal ideas had conclusively triumphed at the end of the Cold War. But today, U.S. dominance of the world system is slipping; Russia and China offer themselves as models, showing off a combination of authoritarianism and modernization that offers a clear challenge to liberal democracy. They seem to have plenty of imitators.
Although Gen. Pervez Musharraf finally agreed last week to step down as president of Pakistan, that key U.S. client has been ruled dictatorially since 1999. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe refuses to give way despite having lost an election. In the Andean region of Latin America, democratic freedoms are being eroded by populist, democratically elected presidents such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Take all this together, and various writers have suggested that we are now witnessing a return to the Cold War, the return of History or, at a minimum, a return to a 19th-century world of clashing great powers.
Not so fast. We are certainly moving into what Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria labels a "post-American" world. But while bullies can still throw their weight around, democracy and capitalism still have no real competitors. The facile historical analogies to earlier eras have two problems: They presuppose a cartoonish view of international politics during these previous periods, and they imply that "authoritarian government" constitutes a clearly defined type of regime -- one that's aggressive abroad, abusive at home and inevitably dangerous to world order. In fact, today's authoritarian governments have little in common, save their lack of democratic institutions. Few have the combination of brawn, cohesion and ideas required to truly dominate the global system, and none dream of overthrowing the globalized economy.
If we really want to understand the world unfolding before us, we need to draw some clear distinctions among different types of autocrats. First, there's a big difference between those who run strong, coherent states and those who preside over weak, incompetent or corrupt ones. Musharraf was able to rule Pakistan for almost a decade only because the Pakistani army, his base of support, is the most cohesive institution in a state that's otherwise a basket case. Zimbabwe is in even worse shape, with Mugabe presiding over horrific economic collapse. Feeble autocracies such as Zimbabwe can threaten their own neighbors only by producing refugees desperate to escape hyperinflation and poverty.
Today's autocrats can also prove surprisingly weak when it comes to ideas and ideologies. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Mao's China were particularly dangerous because they were built on powerful ideas with potentially universal appeal, which is why we found Soviet arms and advisers showing up in places such as Nicaragua and Angola. But this sort of ideological tyrant no longer bestrides the world stage. Despite recent authoritarian advances, liberal democracy remains the strongest, most broadly appealing idea out there. Most autocrats, including Putin and Chávez, still feel that they have to conform to the outward rituals of democracy even as they gut its substance. Even China's Hu Jintao felt compelled to talk about democracy in the run-up to Beijing's Olympic Games. And Musharraf proved enough of a democrat to let himself be driven from office by the threat of impeachment.
If today's autocrats are willing to bow to democracy, they are eager to grovel to capitalism. It's hard to see how we can be entering a new cold war when China and Russia have both happily accepted the capitalist half of the partnership between capitalism and democracy. (Mao and Stalin, by contrast, pursued self-defeating, autarkic economic policies.) The Chinese Communist Party's leadership recognizes that its legitimacy depends on continued breakneck growth. In Russia, the economic motivation for embracing capitalism is much more personal: Putin and much of the Russian elite have benefited enormously from their control of natural resources and other assets.
Democracy's only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism. Indeed, one of the world's most dangerous nation-states today is Iran, run by extremist Shiite mullahs. But as Peter Bergen pointed out in these pages last week, Sunni radicalism has been remarkably ineffective in actually taking control of a nation-state, due to its propensity to devour its own potential supporters. Some disenfranchised Muslims thrill to the rantings of Osama bin Laden or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the appeal of this kind of medieval Islamism is strictly limited.
In lieu of big ideas, Russia and China are driven by nationalism, which takes quite different forms in each country. Russia, unfortunately, has settled on a version of national identity that is incompatible with the freedom of the countries on its borders; I'm afraid that Georgia will not be the last former Soviet republic to suffer from Moscow's sense of wounded pride. But today's Russia is still very different from the former Soviet Union. Putin has been called a modern-day czar, which is far closer to the mark than misguided comparisons to Stalin or Hitler. Czarist Russia was a great power with limited ambitions that became an integrated member of the European state system of the 18th and 19th centuries even as it crushed the weak states on its borders and deprived its own people of liberties. It is in this direction that I expect post-Putin Russia will evolve.
China's nationalism, on proud display at the Olympics, is much more complex. The Chinese want respect for having brought hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty in the past generation. But we don't yet know how that sense of national pride will translate into foreign policy. Apart from the flashpoint of Taiwan, China doesn't feel the type of intense grievances that Russia nurses over the shrinking of its empire or NATO's expansion into the former Soviet bloc. And Beijing will have its hands full maintaining domestic stability when the inevitable economic slowdown occurs.
China's problem today, unlike in imperial times, is that it doesn't have a well-articulated sense of what the country represents in the larger world. The so-called Beijing Consensus, which mixes authoritarian government with market economics, is popular in many developing countries, and with good reason: Under Beijing's rules, national leaders can just do business and make money, without being hectored about democracy and human rights.
But China's development model works well only in those parts of East Asia that share certain traditional Chinese cultural values. In dynastic China, no checks and balances restrained the emperor's power; instead, a sense of accountability was fostered by the moral education of rulers and by an elite bureaucracy that was oriented toward public service. That legacy lives on in a host of modernizing, developmentally minded leaders, from the Meiji aristocrats who founded modern Japan to more recent authoritarian rulers such as Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore -- and the current leaders of China.