The world ideological climate is now more contested. After being in retreat for decades, authoritarian regimes are increasingly pushing back against liberalizing currents, as the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath have raised questions about whether democracies can deliver the goods, notes Hal Brands, Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes have meanwhile re-entered the global ideological competition in significant ways, touting the virtues of centralized control and “state capitalism,” and pushing back against Western concepts of political liberalism and human rights, he writes for The American Interest:
Even countries that are part of the U.S.-led alliance system have regressed politically. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has proclaimed the rise of the “illiberal state” as an antidote to the weaknesses of liberal democracy, and his example has gained admirers in Poland, Slovakia, and elsewhere. As a result of all this, although democracy remains robust by historical standards, the advance of electoral democracy has stalled over the past decade, and some contend that a “democratic recession” is underway.9 If history ever ended, it has restarted once more. In the realm of ideas as in the realm of geopolitics, American primacy seems less daunting than before.
“The non-military aspects of democracy promotion—from economic assistance to emerging democracies to the activities of institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy—will have a key role to play in the more competitive ideological environment that is now emerging,” argues Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (2016).
But being disciplined does require a basic sense of limits and humility. It requires recognizing the limitations of military force as a tool of political transformation in historically illiberal societies. …Sustaining American grand strategy will thus require more intensive political efforts. American leaders will need to more effectively make the case for controversial but broadly beneficial policies such as free trade. They will need to more fully articulate the underlying logic and value of alliances and other commitments whose costs are often more visible—not to say greater—than their benefits. They will need to remind Americans that their country’s leadership has helped produce an international order that is exceptional in its stability and liberalism. Not least, they will need to make the case that the costs that the country has borne in support of that order are designed to avoid the necessity of bearing vastly higher costs if the international scene returned to a more tumultuous state.