Think of two significant trend lines in the world today, writes Brookings analyst Robert Kagan. One is the increasing ambition and activism of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China. The other is the declining confidence, capacity, and will of the democratic world, and especially of the United States, to maintain the dominant position it has held in the international system since 1945, he writes for Foreign Policy:
As those two lines move closer, as the declining will and capacity of the United States and its allies to maintain the present world order meet the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers to change it, we will reach the moment at which the existing order collapses and the world descends into a phase of brutal anarchy, as it has three times in the past two centuries. The cost of that descent, in lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope, will be staggering.
Both Beijing and Moscow seek to redress what they regard as an unfair distribution of power, influence, and honor in the U.S.-led postwar global order. As autocracies, both feel threatened by the dominant democratic powers in the international system and by the democracies on their borders.
As Democracy Wavers, Will Authoritarians Fill the Void?
Until recently, Russia and China had added layer upon layer of repression as a largely defensive mechanism to prevent their own citizens from forming political oppositions or challenging the official justifications for one-man or one-party rule, notes Arch Puddington, Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House. In 2016, the gloves came off. While both countries continued to perfect the apparatus of domestic control, they also moved more aggressively to challenge democracy outside their borders, he writes:
It is no longer adequate to argue that repression is a sign of weakness, and that repressive regimes are therefore destined to collapse under their own internal contradictions. Today’s authoritarian powers have fine-tuned the art of political control to minimize violence or mass persecution. They have grown sufficiently self-assured to claim the superiority of their systems. Eleven years of decline in global democracy should be enough to trigger alarm bells in societies where freedom in cherished.As Democracy Wavers, Will Authoritarians Fill the Void?
“The growth and vibrancy of democratic government in the two decades following the collapse of Soviet communism posed a continual threat to the ability of rulers in Beijing and Moscow to maintain control, and since the end of the Cold War they have regarded every advance of democratic institutions — especially the geographical advance of liberal democracies close to their borders — as an existential threat. That’s for good reason,” adds Kagan, a contributor to Democracy in Decline?, a book from the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Journal of Democracy :
Autocratic powers since the days of Klemens von Metternich have always feared the contagion of liberalism. The mere existence of democracies on their borders, the global free flow of information they cannot control, the dangerous connection between free market capitalism and political freedom — all pose a threat to rulers who depend on keeping restive forces in their own countries in check. The continual challenge to the legitimacy of their rule posed by the U.S.-supported democratic order has therefore naturally made them hostile both to that order and to the United States.
“The present system has depended not only on American power but on coherence and unity at the heart of the democratic world. The United States has had to play its part as the principal guarantor of the order, especially in the military and strategic realm, but the order’s ideological and economic core — the democracies of Europe and East Asia and the Pacific — has also had to remain relatively healthy and confident,” Kagan suggests:
In recent years, both pillars have been shaken. The democratic order has weakened and fractured at its core. Difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, and a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism have together produced a crisis of confidence not only in the democracies but in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project elevated universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and to the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism, an increasing focus on the Other in all societies, and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We are witnessing the opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” History is returning with a vengeance and with it all the darker aspects of the human soul, including, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of confusion and incoherence.