Forecast for repressive regimes in the 'Teens'

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hoping to identify what "influences" might have been at work in the world at the time of his birth, writer Arthur Koestler once cast what he called his "secular horoscope." He read a copy of the London Times from the day after he was born -- Sept. 6, 1905 -- and found pogroms, industrial strikes, "disturbances in Kishineff" and the Russian empire's failed war against Japan. All, he reckoned, were harbingers of the political events that eventually shaped his life: the collapse of empires, the Russian revolution, the rise of Hitler, the twilight of liberalism.

Now that we are reaching the end of what seems destined to remain a nameless decade, I'd like to borrow this idea and cast the "secular horoscope" of the decade to come. Although I don't have the benefit of hindsight, as Koestler did, there are a few stories that might well turn out to be harbingers of political events to come.

This being the 21st century, I'm not going to start with the London Times but, rather, with the online edition of the Times of India, which several days ago published a story on the world's fastest train. If deployed in the United States, this train, which travels some 250 mph, would go from Washington to New York in less than an hour, from San Francisco to Los Angeles in an hour and a half. Of course it is impossible -- for political, financial and administrative reasons -- to imagine such a train in the States anytime soon. Instead, the new train is "expected to act as a catalyst in the development of central China," for it is the Chinese who have announced their intention to produce it. Just as America built its interstate highway system as it ascended to economic power in the 1950s, China is set to build its fast-train network as it ascends to economic power in the 2010s.

Elsewhere in the news, other authoritarian regimes are in trouble: The riots in Iran this week are by far the most serious since those that followed the disputed presidential election in June. Tens of thousands of people once again took to the streets, openly defied the authorities, fought with police and proved, yet again, that the regime's "divinely derived" legitimacy is in tatters. At the same time, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet drew my attention to a different piece of Chinese infrastructure, which happens to be bad for another bunch of authoritarians: It describes the newly opened gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and China. Since Russia's gas fortunes have long been based on paying Central Asians low prices for gas and charging Europeans high ones, this could -- maybe, possibly -- spell the beginning of the end of Eurasian domination by Gazprom and Russia.

Finally, if you were paying attention to news at all since Christmas, it was hard to miss the rather weird story of the Nigerian man who smuggled some explosive powder in his underwear and tried to blow up an airplane. This attack was in fact a failure, a clumsy attempt that was foiled by other passengers -- and if the attacker is claiming allegiances to al-Qaeda, then that reflects rather badly on al-Qaeda. It's not that the incident wasn't serious -- it could have ended in a horrible tragedy -- it's just that it doesn't look like the work of a well-organized, well-funded conspiracy, which the attacks of Sept. 11 definitely did.

And what do these headlines tell us? If I had to read the tea leaves and make a grand prediction, I would say that in the closing days of the 2000s, the future does not look good for authoritarian regimes in general. The signs, however, are very positive for one in particular: China. The signs also lead me to wonder whether competition between China and the United States -- for resources, influence -- will not be the dominant political story of the next decade. We are already heading that way: The Copenhagen climate summit failed, after all, because the United States and China could not agree on a matter that affected their prospects for growth. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the focus of U.S. foreign policy for the past decade, looks more and more like a major nuisance -- albeit one that keeps coming at us in different forms from different countries -- rather than a coherent threat.

Which makes sense since we were talking about China, and the possible consequences of Chinese prosperity, back at the beginning of the last decade (remember the bitter argument in May 2000, about giving China most-favored-nation trade status?) before we started talking about terrorist threats. There is something reassuring about the regularity with which China returns to the center of international attention, decade after decade -- as well as the regularity with which we are distracted by something else.

Maybe the Teens will be different. Happy New Year.

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