The End of the End of History

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in The New Republic about a changing world in which Russia and China are proving that autocratic rule is a viable model for economic growth. Kagan is not the first to posit such a theory: Gideon Rachman wrote an article in the Financial Times earlier this year about how the two countries are disproving a widely-held belief in the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union that economic freedom will necessarily lead to political freedom. (Also see this earlier CDT post.)

It’s becoming more and more obvious — after recent elections in Russia in which President Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev won a landslide victory, and recent crackdowns on protests in and around Tibet — that the world has entered, what Kagan calls, an “era of divergence” away from liberal democracy.

As a result of “the end of the end of history” — a reference to Francis Fukuyama’s statement in the summer of 1989 that “At the end of history there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy” — Kagan argues that in the new world order autocratic governments will work in tandem with one another to protect their own interests; and more countries will adopt autocratic forms of government. (For more on this, see China and Russia: The Gendarmes of Eurasia.)

However, Kagan does not just blindly condemn Russia and China as autocracies in his lengthy article, he explains what he sees as their rationale behind choosing autocracy over democracy, and finds a parallel for that choice in the history of western political thought:

The rulers of Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. …

So the Chinese and Russian leaders are not simply autocrats. They believe in autocracy. … The European monarchs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were thoroughly convinced, as a matter of political philosophy, of the superiority of their form of government. Along with Plato, Aristotle, and every other great thinker prior to the eighteenth century, they regarded democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob. …

It is often claimed that the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing are interested only in lining their pockets–that the Chinese leaders are just kleptocrats and that the Kremlin is “Russia, Inc.” Of course the rulers of China and Russia look out for themselves, enjoying power for its own sake and also for the wealth and luxuries it brings. But so did many great kings, emperors, and popes in the past. People who wield power like to wield power, and it usually makes them rich. But they usually believe also that they are wielding it in the service of a higher cause. …

Still, Kagan’s overarching thesis is that autocracy is bad and ought to be rooted out:

Now the re-emergence of the great autocratic powers … has weakened that order [the liberal democratic one], and threatens to weaken it further in the years and decades to come. The world’s democracies need to begin thinking about how they can protect their interests and advance their principles in a world in which these are, once again, powerfully contested.


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