The Old War Returns
Most people in the western world view the end of the Cold War as the triumph of democracy. Politicians of a liberal inclination, many of whom reside in the United States, were quick to celebrate the Soviet Union’s collapse as a symbolic and pivotal moment for authoritarian regimes. Esteemed members of academia commonly associated Moscow’s destruction with the falsities prevalent in autocratic rule.
Americans and Europeans claim that Russia’s overreliance on domestic order and national unity- at the expense of individual civil liberties and the collective voice of the general population- laid the groundwork for the termination of the “evil empire.” No longer would an authoritarian belief system survive in a post-Cold War era. In order to prosper in this “new world order,” societies would be forced to open up their political and economic systems in ways similar to the western way-of-life. Interestingly enough, these beliefs only gained traction as more states around the world- South America included where dictatorships were previously the norm- embraced democratic principles.
Unfortunately, as the United States continues to dominate all dimensions of the 21st century, these overly optimistic predictions have quickly come to fruition. While it is an especially difficult prospect for a liberal democrat to admit, autocracies remain prevalent in the international system. Students and scholars of international affairs only need to look at Russia and China as primary examples of this phenomenon.
Former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has essentially taken firm control over every sector of Russian politics. National elections are nothing more than a formal process of support for the incumbent, as opposition candidates and dissidents of the regime are continually threatened with subversion and intimidation. Civil-society, one of the key aspects of western democracy, is virtually meaningless in the post-Yelstin era of Russian politics. The federal government, from the executive branch to the lower-levels of legislative power, is dominated by pro-Putin loyalists who are intent on rubber-stamping each and every Moscow initiative. In perhaps the most devastating breach of international liberalism, the judicial system in the Kremlin has transformed into a political tool used by powerful elites.
With so much clientelism and patronage going on within Russia- the same country that was supposed to reform and modernize its political system after the Soviet Union’s collapse- the hopes and dreams of the optimistic democrat are getting much more difficult to promote by the day.
China is perhaps the quintessential example of a successful autocracy in a globalized world. Since the early 1970’s, the Chinese Government has been relatively stable in the face of democratic movements and secessionist forces. Thanks to an unprecedented growth rate over the last three decades, the Chinese Communist Party has been able to take a more objective approach to the validity of democratic governance. Political activity within China continues to lay victim to government intrusion and outright violence by the state (i.e. the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the suppression of Tibetan monks).
An even greater phenomenon is the fact that authoritarian forces within China have been tolerated by a majority of the citizenry. In the words of the respected Robert Kagen, the populace is “prepared to accept autocratic government so long as economic growth continues.” Taking the projections by Golden Sachs into the picture, it appears that the Chinese Communist Party will be able to continue this economic exploitation for decades to come.
Ironically, the autocracies of Russia and China could not have survived were it not for the aggressive action undertaken by the world’s most significant democracies. While this statement seems rather contradictory, historical evidence fully supports this assumption.
U.S.-led military campaigns in Panama, Haiti, Serbia, and Iraq only serve as examples, mitigated the potential for a resilient global democratic movement. Rather than blindly surrendering to the demands of the United States and its western allies, Russian and Chinese politicians were able to use the fear of democratic intervention to further cement their countries down an autocratic path. With great effect, Moscow and Beijing now view the democratic community as dangerous to their very survival as a sovereign and independent nation-state.
Ample evidence dictates that many non-liberal leaders have perceived democratic intervention as a deliberate violation of international law, even if these campaigns were launched for a strict humanitarian purpose. With this being the case, Russia and China’s reluctance to open up their societies and reform towards the democratic spectrum should not be seen as an irrational development; for such an evolution would severely threaten their internal strength. After all, what benefits did democracy bring to Russia immediately after the Soviet Union’s dissolution…you know, besides a poor economy, lower-living standards, and a decline in international prestige?
To an American or European, all of these points may seem ridiculous and illogical. With the economic benefits associated with liberalization, how can any country continue to oppress their people for the sake of internal order and nationalism? Liberal internationalists commonly use Japan and Singapore as examples, two states that have developed some of the wealthiest economies after a democratic transformation. However valid, all of these explanations have failed to persuade dictators from making significant domestic changes. After all, if autocratic governments have been able to intensify their economies tenfold over the past decade, what incentives will prompt these leaders to modernize? So the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Undoubtedly, the persistence of autocracies around the globe are presenting democracies with a whole host of challenges and obstacles. It is now becoming more inflexible for the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain to advance their national-interests through international organizations. Russia, China, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea- all dictatorships or autocracies- have essentially formed a pact blocking democratic proposals from getting passed at the U.N. China and Russia have essentially used their veto power in the U.N. Security Council to protect the interests of other autocrats…at the frustration of the United States and Western Europe.
Iran’s nuclear capability is a case in point. Democratic governments perceive Iran’s program as a threat to global peace while autocracies view the situation in more pragmatic terms. It may be safe to conclude that Russia and China view the nuclear stalemate as yet another campaign of western coercion at the deprivation of political sovereignty.
Whatever the reasons, it is becoming increasingly clear that the post-Cold War environment that so many have hoped for is rapidly coming to a close. Democracies (led by the United States) are teaming up while autocracies (led by Russia and China) are pooling their resources together. Instead of the liberal order that was so hastily predicted, the norms and conventions of global politics are diverging at a tremendous rate.
The political and economic opening that George H.W. Bush referred to is but a part of history as the world re-enters into the traditional realm of power politics.
-Daniel R. DePetris