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They Can Only Go So Far

But this sort of paternalistic stewardship is a far cry from the forms of governance seen in much of Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, where public-spirited authoritarians have been far more rare. Africa has seen kleptocrats such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, warlords such as Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor in Liberia, and the more ordinarily corrupt rulers of Nigeria. Simply lumping China in with the world's other dictatorships makes no sense. But for all of China's strengths, its system is not a serious challenge to the United States' animating -- and winning -- ideas.

All of this makes our world both safer and more dangerous. It is safer because the self-interest of the great powers is very much tied to the overall prosperity of the global economy, limiting their desire to rock the boat. But it is more dangerous because capitalist autocrats can grow much richer and therefore more powerful than their communist counterparts. And if economic rationality does not trump political passion (as has often been the case in the past), the whole system's interdependence means that everyone will suffer.

We should also not let the speculations about an authoritarian resurgence distract us from a critical issue that will truly shape the next era in world politics: whether gains in economic productivity will keep up with global demand for such basic commodities as oil, food and water. If they do not, we will enter a much more zero-sum, Malthusian world in which one country's gain will be another country's loss. A peaceful, democratic global order will be much more difficult to achieve under these circumstances: Growth will depend more on raw power and accidents of geography than on good institutions. And rising global inflation suggests that we have already moved a good way toward such a world.

The totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century induced us to draw a sharp distinction between democratic and authoritarian states, a habit of mind that is still with us. But democracies don't automatically all have the same interests (just look at the clashing U.S. and European views on Iraq), and neither do autocracies. Nor does the fact that a country is authoritarian determine the way it will behave internationally. We need a much more nuanced conceptual framework for understanding the non-democratic world if we are not to become prisoners of an imagined past. And we shouldn't get excessively discouraged about the strength of our own ideas, even in a "post-American" world.

Francis Fukuyama is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is "America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy."

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