In an earlier essay I noted that the preponderant nature of war had been changing over the past half century or so, from international wars between states to civil wars within states. History does not suggest that this state of affairs will continue forever. Indeed, liberal democracy faces currently two major challenges: (A) the terrorism emanating from radical Islam and (B) the renewed rise of non-democratic great powers. The first threat is the more immediate one. But, it is the lesser of the two, because it originates in stagnant and backward societies that are largely living on the economic rent from natural resources and that pose no military threat to developed societies. However, their potential use of acquired weapons of mass destruction does present a serious and growing menace. Nevertheless, it is the second threat in the form of the return of authoritarian great powers (specifically China and Russia), that is likely to be the major threat to liberal democracy’s survival in the foreseeable future.
The Recent Past
The past century has witnessed three major great power struggles (the two world wars and the Cold War) and liberal democracy emerged victorious in all three. Historians and political scientists have advanced many hypotheses (specific to each conflict) in attempts to explain this positive development. But, it would be a mistake to think that democracy prevailed because of (1) any presumed greater cooperative spirit (of alliance) among democratic regimes than among other types of regimes, or because of (2) any presumed ideological superiority (in terms of being ‘inspiring’ to the masses, or of having a ‘moral high ground’), or (3) because of any presumed inherent economic advantage of liberal democracy over political authoritarianism. No, the non-democratic capitalist adversaries of democracy (Germany and Japan), were ultimately defeated in WW2 because of their limited resource bases (being medium-sized countries), and communism failed in the 20th century because the inherent inefficiencies of communist economies prevented the Soviet Union and China from fully exploiting their vast resources and ‘catching up’ with the democratic West.
It was the emergence of the United States, as an economic and military power, that gave liberal democracy the edge in the great struggles with authoritarianism over the past century. While many factors help explain the ‘American exception’, it should be a sobering thought that history’s ‘judgment’ (by later generations) on the performance of liberal democracy would likely have been very different had there not been the U.S. factor. Just like the Greeks soured on ‘democracy’ in the wake of Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War in the 4th century BC.
Not only did liberal democracy prevail in its great trials of the 20th century, but also capitalism (as opposed to command economies) has been ascendant, particularly in the second half of the century, with greater adherence to market principles in a growing number of countries. The most important examples, of course, were: (1) the removal of ‘internal’ trade barriers attendant to the European integration process, and (2) partial economic liberalization in the world’s two largest countries, China and India, since the early 1980’s and 90’s respectively. In addition, early democratization efforts and attempts to establish genuine ‘rule of law’ in Russia (following the collapse of the Soviet Union) have failed, in large measure because high prices of natural resources have ‘enabled’ the renewed strengthening of centralized state power. As a result, the world is witnessing today the return of major authoritarian ‘capitalist’ states, particularly in China and Russia, which can represent an alternative path to ‘modernity’ for a growing number of countries elsewhere in the world. Francis Fukuyama’s famous ‘end-of-history’ hypothesis, with its implied inevitability of liberal democracy’s future dominance, is very much in doubt today.
The future is unknown. But, history provides a useful guide. The future face of geopolitics is likely going to resemble that of the past, i.e. of an intermittent – but endlessly recurring - struggle between forces of (relative) freedom and forces of (seductive) authoritarianism. That is why the contemporary return of great authoritarian powers is ominous and dangerous. It means in practice that a universal “democratic peace” will remain a pipedream.
It is (1) often argued that authoritarian/totalitarian regimes inevitably breed high levels of favoritism and unaccountability, and therefore prove to be inferior economically and militarily in the long run. It is (2) also claimed (or, rather, hoped) that authoritarian capitalist regimes will tend to democratize after passing a certain threshold of development. In a recent article in the July/August issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs, entitled The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers, the Israeli academic Azar Gat examined these and other claims. He notes that higher levels of social discipline can offset the inefficiencies of favoritism and of unaccountability, and that a transition to democracy by today’s authoritarian capitalist powers is not inevitable. Indeed, some of the differences between now and much of the past century are striking. For instance, the previous totalitarian capitalist great powers, Germany and Japan, were crushed in war and threatened by soviet power, and subsequently lent themselves to major restructuring and democratization. Also, many smaller countries that chose capitalism (and to some extent also ‘democracy’) over communism, did so in part because of the absence of a serious rival economic and political model and also because of Western liberal hegemony on the world stage. Today’s geopolitical situation is quite different. China and Russia represent a return of economically successful authoritarian capitalist powers, but they are much larger (and thus potentially much stronger) than the defeated authoritarian capitalist great powers of the previous century. The risk is real that a powerful authoritarian capitalist order is emerging in the world that “allies political elites, industrialists and the military” (writes Gat). Such an order is likely to be ‘nationalistic’ in a negative sense, i.e. in the sense that it will not favor liberal democracy and individual freedom.