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Is democracy winning?

Is the world reverting to a struggle between great powers? Or is the democratising spirit of 1989 still alive?

By Robert Kagan   May 2008

Click here to discuss the debate at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog

NO, democracy is not: Robert Kagan
YES, democracy is winning: Robert Cooper

Dear Robert Cooper
7th April 2008

As the Bush administration winds down it seems a good time to take stock of world affairs. It seems to me that the world has become “normal” again, in the sense that the great-power competition that shaped international affairs for centuries, and which seemed to have disappeared after 1989, has returned. So, too, the conflict over values and principles—between liberal democracy and autocracy—that has influenced the behaviour of nations since the Enlightenment.

The early post-cold war years offered hope for a new kind of international order, with nation states growing together or disappearing altogether, ideological conflicts melting away, cultures intermingling and increasingly free commerce and communications. Geopolitics was out; geoeconomics was in. Hard power was passé; soft power was au courant. Democratic liberalism was victorious, and the alternatives—whether communism, fascism or simple authoritarianism—seemed doomed. Russia and China were transforming themselves into market economies, something that would inevitably produce a political revolution in both countries. The great task of the post-cold war era, it was assumed, was to build an ever more perfect international system of laws and institutions.

But it hasn’t turned out that way. While the EU remains a shining example of the postmodern order, the rest of the world has not followed suit. In most places, the nation state remains as strong as ever, so too the nationalist passions and competition among nations that have shaped history. International competition among great powers has returned, with Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, the US and others vying for regional predominance. Struggles for honour, status and influence have returned as central features of the international scene. It turns out that the post-cold war moment was an aberration. History has returned.

And it has also returned in an ideological sense. Autocracy has proven compatible with rising national wealth. The rulers of Russia and China have figured out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political dissent. They have ensured that people making money keep their noses out of politics. New wealth gives autocracies a greater ability to control information—to monopolise television stations and to keep a grip on internet traffic—often with the assistance of foreign corporations.

Although there is a great desire in the liberal west to hope otherwise, autocrats and democrats have divergent interests. And although relations among nations are always conducted on many different planes—great powers co-operate in some areas while competing in others—the conflicting interests and worldviews of the democracies and the autocracies greatly determine their relations. We saw this most recently at the Nato summit in Bucharest. Despite earnest European efforts, led by Germany, to pursue an accommodating Ostpolitik towards Moscow, a clear divide emerged between the democracies of Nato and the autocracy of Russia across a range of geopolitical matters, from Kosovo to missile defence to Nato enlargement. The tension between democracy and autocracy has also been evident in the case of China. Despite a potent desire in the west to keep relations with China harmonious, the democracies have been unable to resist condemning China’s crackdown in Tibet—with unknown ramifications for China’s already suspicious view of the democracies. The old competition between liberalism and autocracy has re-emerged, with the world’s great powers lining up according to the nature of their regimes. Geographical faultlines run along Russia’s western boundaries, raising tensions over the future of Ukraine and Georgia, for instance. China worries about encirclement by what its own strategists call an “axis of democracy.”

Meanwhile, as the great powers jostle, an even more ancient struggle has erupted between radical Islamists and the modern secular cultures and powers that they believe have dominated, penetrated and polluted their Islamic world. These three struggles—great-power competition, the democracy-autocracy divide and the clash between Islamic radicalism and modernity—have combined to fracture the international system. The grand expectation that the world had entered an era of convergence has proven wrong. We have entered an age of divergence.

The assumption that the cold war was won as an inevitable consequence of the superiority of liberalism failed to recognise the contingency of events—battles won or lost, social movements successful or crushed, economic practices implemented or discarded. The spread of democracy was not merely the unfolding of certain ineluctable processes of economic and political development. The global shift towards liberal democracy coincided with the historical shift in the balance of power towards those nations who favoured it. But that shift was not inevitable, and it need not be lasting. Today, the re-emergence of the great autocratic powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism, has weakened that order and threatens to do so further in the years and decades to come. If we care about democracy and liberalism, we can’t simply sit back and wait for history to unfold. The democracies need to pull together and take a hand in shaping it.

All best
Bob

Dear Bob Kagan
10th April 2008

You think things are returning to normal. I don’t think there is any such thing. There may once have been, in the bygone society of peasant farmers. But at some moment in the past—perhaps the early Renaissance, the time of my hero Niccolò Machiavelli—men got the idea that they could be the masters of their fate and that their own efforts could change their lives. That belief has become perhaps the most powerful force in history. It has brought us economic growth, education, longer lives, not to mention plastic surgery, flush lavatories and a million other things. It has also brought political agitation and democracy. Progress is never automatic, but there are powerful forces on its side.

I agree with you that there is one constant: a struggle among people and states for influence and status. What changes is the way that struggle is played out: with rules or with violence? We are in a limbo at the moment. No one wants violence among nuclear powers, but we have not yet agreed the rules. This is the more perfect system of laws and institutions that you refer to. It is not built yet, but it remains the only intelligent way forward.

You are right that the cold war ended with the better worldview winning. But this was also the victory of better technology and a better society: one that paid more respect to the dignity of the individual. A well-run democracy and market economy will always be stronger than an authoritarian state. That’s why I believe democracy will continue to win over authoritarian systems; never inevitably, not always rapidly—after all, the cold war lasted 40 years. But in the end it will be

as is the osprey to the fish;

it takes it by sovereignty of nature

Post-cold war euphoria was indeed exaggerated. The culture of central Europe and having the EU and Nato in the neighbourhood made the transition to democracy easy. But the slower pace of democratisation elsewhere does not mean the story is over. Democracy is the dominant ideology. That is visible in the tyrants who feel the need to fake elections, like Mugabe. And meanwhile some important countries such as Indonesia and Ukraine have taken decisive steps towards democratic institutions. The authoritarian world has shrunk.

It may be that some degree of market liberalism can coexist with political autocracy; but we need more time to see if this will last. Feudalism, the most successful version of authoritarianism, survived because that world was static and legitimised by religion. I don’t see that in modern autocracies. The worst depend on force; the best on delivering endless economic growth—easiest to do in the early stages of industrialisation. But to be efficient, mature industrial capitalism needs to give everybody opportunities. It is difficult to keep this economic equality from infecting politics. And the rule of law—which is at the heart of market systems—struggles to co-exist with autocracy. A second-rate legal order will produce a second-rate economy—with reduced legitimacy. Democracy is not inevitable, but an industrial market economy is a favourable environment for it.

One reason democracy is not inevitable is that it is more difficult to organise than an authoritarian system. Autocracy, at its most primitive, just requires a loyal army. Democracy needs a political settlement. That means compromises and trust among people who are probably unused to trusting each other—different ethnic groups for example. (These sometimes find it easier to accept the authority of a third party or a dictator than of each other.) Many democracies have achieved these compromises only after civil wars—this is true of your country and mine. And there may be particular problems for very large states such as China. In Enlightenment Europe, no one believed that democracy was possible in anything larger than a city state. Building a political culture to support democracy is a long-term business. We should have sympathy for people struggling to make the compromises needed for democratic government—as in Ukraine. And we should understand that a country with a turbulent history like China will be cautious about taking big constitutional gambles.

Democracy works better because accountable government is more responsive to people’s needs, more respectful of their dignity. I am leery of making it into a “universal value.” It is contingent on a particular time and society. It may not be the final product of history, though it will serve for a while. That makes me hesitate to divide the world into two classes: the democracies and the autocracies. Democracy takes a variety of shapes and so does autocracy, from the benign in Dubai to the appalling in Burma and North Korea. And we should remember that our democratic values are rather new, in practice if not in theory: think of women, colonial subjects or the deep south.

And don’t forget that Nato has not always been an alliance of democracies. It was for a long time an anti-Soviet alliance and we took whoever had a contribution to make, democratic or not. In the same way, during the second world war we were lucky to have Stalin as an ally. When interests are serious enough, they override values. The fact that we now require new members of Nato to be democracies, admirable in its way, is also a demonstration that we are more relaxed about security and can afford to be picky. For the moment the reality is that we do not see an alliance of autocracies as a real threat. Russia has run down its military and is mostly interested in getting rich; China is in dramatic transition—we don’t know where to—but somewhere far from the closed and hostile country of the 1960s and 1970s. And neither seems to be pursuing an ideology of world domination.

Not everything is perfect and things will always go wrong. But should we not be modestly pleased with the way things have developed in the last 20 years?

Yours
Robert

Dear Robert
11th April 2008

Is the progress we have seen over the past 20 years or so the victory of ideas, or the victory of nations that uphold those ideas? I would argue it is the latter. Yes, democracies are inherently stronger over the long run. But a great deal of history can unfold in the meantime, and the long run can be decades or centuries. The road from the 15th century to the 21st was not exactly straight or smooth. There were periods of what we could call progress, followed by long periods of reaction and regression. (By the way, you are unfair to the ancient Greeks, who had the idea that they could be masters of their own fate two millennia before Machiavelli—hence the need for tragedians to warn them that they could not be.)

Nor were the last five centuries a steady upward spiral to better and better forms of social and political organisation. The dictatorships of the 20th century were far, far worse than those of the 19th century, which were marginally worse than those of the 18th. Modernity produced better and stronger democracies, but also more brutal and efficient autocracies. Today we take it on faith that the era of that kind of dictatorship is over forever, and so too the kinds of wars that characterised the last century. But should we leap to that conclusion? Wasn’t such faith just as prevalent, with more justification, at the end of the 19th century?

I don’t think the relative peace of the past two decades provides sufficient evidence that the world has changed as much as you suggest. “No one wants violence… but we have not yet agreed the rules” may be one of the great recurring phrases of the past three centuries. You are more optimistic because you live in Europe, which has agreed on the rules. But a few years ago you yourself wrote that while it was possible to play by the rules within the confines of “postmodern” Europe, in the rest of the “modern” and “pre-modern” world it remained necessary to play by the rules of the jungle. Have you changed your mind?

My concern is that your analysis takes too little account of actual historical events and the decisions people make, as opposed to broad historical trends. Was it inevitable that the democracies would prevail in the second world war? Perhaps yes, once they, particularly the US, decided to dedicate themselves fully to the struggle. But that decision was not a foregone conclusion, especially in the US. I believe in progress too, but I don’t think we can simply sit back and wait for the Darwinian (or is it Marxian?) selection of superior political-economic regimes to play itself out naturally.

The world of the past two decades has favoured democracy and a certain set of rules because the world’s strongest powers have been democracies and have established the rules that benefit their way of life. If we are now to see the rise of great-power autocracies, the balance must inevitably shift in a way that favours the democracies less and the autocracies and their rules more. And, yes, perhaps someday there will be political evolution (or revolution) in China and Russia towards our preferred mode of government and society. But in the meantime we will have to deal with the implications of these wealthy autocracies in our midst—something we did not expect to see again when the cold war ended. I suspect there will be other ways in which the world will become again all too normal.

All best
Bob

Dear Bob
11th April 2008

Well I see it this way: in the cold war the nations, led by America, won the defensive battle—in Europe through Nato. The offensive battle was won by ideas. The decision not to intervene to stop the Polish roundtable talks in 1989 came about because the Soviets no longer believed in their system politically, while economically they wanted to join ours. That was containment. We defended ourselves and our system, and waited for the other side to change. It couldn’t have been done without American energy and commitment, starting with the Marshall plan. This preserved the integrity of our system by making it function and making people believe in it. We need to defend our system today in ways I will come to later.

Communism was a more formidable foe than the autocracies of the 21st century. It offered an alternative, and it had half the intellectuals of the west behind it. What worries me for this century are the by-products of the open society—terrorism, and weakening loyalty to the state (of which radical Islam is one manifestation). We need to defend the liberal state externally, but also internally—including against overreaction to terror.

In your first letter you dismissed the thought that geoeconomics was taking over from geopolitics. I think I agree, but I’m still struck by the fact that when the Russian government talks about being strong, it seems to be thinking of Gazprom. And the big Chinese preoccupation is over securing supplies of raw materials (India’s recent summit with African leaders suggests it has similar concerns). Here we may have to defend the integrity of our system. Monopolies, from Microsoft to Gazprom, should not be allowed to dominate markets; and it should be as difficult to sell stolen companies on our stock markets as it is to sell stolen paintings in auction houses. It may not be in our power to ensure accountability of foreign governments to their people; but we should ensure that companies with access to our capital markets deliver proper accounts.

Common economic rules help create common interests. The WTO is a success story for liberalism. And China’s membership gives it a stake in the system: this is much better than the way we handled the rise of Japan. One of the big challenges this century will be to create rules to tackle climate change. This is one reason I don’t like classifying countries into hostile camps. It will not help us solve common problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation.

Common rules on security are more difficult because this is closer to the heart of sovereignty. And we will not be completely safe until we have them. (It is distressing to see some of the few treaties that exist in this area being abandoned.) Until then, I agree with you that we must be ready to defend ourselves by whatever means are necessary. The idiots who let the Roman empire go were responsible for a thousand years of misery.

Regards
Robert

Dear Robert
14th April 2008

I think we did more in the cold war than just defend ourselves and wait for the other side to change. There was an arms race, which by the 1980s the Soviets feared they could not keep pace with, hence the push for perestroika. There were the Helsinki accords, efforts to shape the discussion within the Soviet Union through radio and print media, and numerous other ways in which the west attempted to hold the Soviets up to a certain standard. These contributed to the Soviets losing faith in their system. We are not returning to a cold war today, but I don’t see why we should be any less clear about the standards we wish to see adopted by Russia and China. There will be no happy condominium between their governments and ours, no matter how many economic interests we share and no matter how hard we try to pretend that we’re all part of one international community. Even today, on an issue like Tibet, the democracies can’t help making their feelings known—and the Chinese will, once again, conclude that the west is hostile. Nor will such transnational issues as climate change avoid being infected by the geopolitical competition that has emerged among the great powers. The Chinese view western efforts to force compliance with the new “norms” as an attempt to keep China down. (So, for that matter, does India.) We cannot count on economic interdependence and mutual interests to override national sentiments and ambitions. Nor can we avoid this having a military dimension. In the case of China, it already does. Russia’s sense of itself also requires more than big oil companies.

All of which is not to say that we are in for endless war and confrontation, only that history has returned and that, as you say, we in the democracies will have to defend ourselves and our principles as they are newly challenged.

All best
Bob

Dear Bob
14th April 2008

It’s true that the arms race played a part in persuading the Soviets that their system was inferior to ours. But the cold war did have some rules, evolved by a process of trial and near miss. These reflected the common interest both sides had in avoiding a nuclear exchange. This common interest will continue with Russia and it is clear that the Chinese are not seeking confrontation, for the moment at least.

We also have important common interests in the economic sphere, in connection with climate change, non-proliferation and terrorism. On climate change, it is if anything easier to work with the Chinese than the Indians—so the democracy vs autocracy story does not apply there. I’m not talking about a condominium, but we need decent working relations with these people, and these are not helped by endless lectures on the moral superiority of our system. Since our democracies have from time to time done much harm to third-world countries, our moral authority is not all we like to think.

Like you, I want these countries to change. There are ways we can help the process, but a frontal assault is not one of them, neither is lumping together countries with different histories and problems. Change is easiest when people feel secure—it was the security which the US presence in Europe brought that solidified democratic structures here. Outside threats are always popular with tyrants who use them to slow change. You mention the role of the Helsinki accords in ending the cold war. But that process made the Soviets feel secure as it appeared to accept the status quo in Europe. Paradoxically, this lead to its overthrow.

Meanwhile, we should remember that we have not solved all our own problems with democracy: the distortions of money and media, the problem of deciding who has the right to self-determination, and voter apathy—though the last French election and your presidential campaign in the US are showing how democracy can also renew itself.

Yours
Robert

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