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Which Way Is History Marching?

Debating the Authoritarian Revival

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Azar Gat

Two recent articles in these pages -- "The Myth of the Autocratic Revival" (January/February 2009) and "How Development Leads to Democracy" (March/April 2009) -- have taken issue with my July/August 2007 essay, "The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers." In the first, Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry dispute my argument that the authoritarian capitalist great powers Germany and Japan were defeated in both world wars largely because of contingent factors rather than structural inefficiencies. As I have argued, these countries were too small in comparison to the United States. With respect to the challenge posed by China and Russia, Deudney and Ikenberry insist that developed nondemocratic capitalist societies will not be viable in the long run.

They restate modernization theory -- most recently amplified by the political scientists Francis Fukuyama and Michael Mandelbaum -- according to which there is only one sustainable route to modernity: the liberal democratic path. Seen in this light, those countries unfortunate enough to have strayed from the path originally taken by the United Kingdom and the United States eventually must converge on the road to liberalism, either because they are inferior to democracies in terms of power or because their intractable internal contradictions will eventually usher in democratic transformation. Liberal democracy is presumed to possess intrinsic advantages, a presumption that confers an air of inevitability on the past as well as on the future. If "world history is the world's court," as Hegel put it, then history's verdict is clear. But is it really? Or might the owl of Minerva, due to its current flight path, be encountering optical illusions?


Deudney and Ikenberry believe -- like Hegel -- that accidents happen to those who are accident-prone. They insist that Germany and Japan were defeated in World War II due to their deep-seated structural problems. It is true that Germany suffered from a critical production failure in 1940-42, but this was remedied from 1942 on. In World War I, it had experienced no similar failure. Nor did Japan's industrial war machine suffer extraordinary failure in World War II. In both world wars, the nondemocratic capitalist great powers performed great feats and initially won shattering victories. On the other side, the democracies repeatedly blundered: they were dangerously late in rising to the challenge; their armed forces, particularly during the 1930s, were ill prepared; their initial defeats were potentially catastrophic; and their conduct thereafter was not free of serious errors.

Contrary to the comforting notion that the democratic system eventually proved superior, the reason for Germany's and Japan's defeats lies in the fact that the two countries were simply smaller than their adversaries and less tolerant of failure. For Germany to have broken out of its limited territorial confines and fatally crippled the superior coalition assembled against it in either of the world wars, it would have needed a consecutive string of major successes. Indeed, it came remarkably close to achieving that goal in both world wars. By contrast, the colossal power of the United States meant that the democracies were able to sustain catastrophic failures -- such as the loss of Russia as an ally in World War I and the fall of France and the destruction of the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in World War II -- and still recover.

Thus, without the United States as their ally, France and the United Kingdom would probably have lost to Germany in both world wars. The remainder of the twentieth century would have been very different, and political scientists would have had a far less rosy story to tell about democracy. The constructed grand narrative of the twentieth century would have emphasized the superior cohesiveness of authoritarian regimes, not the triumph of freedom. For grand narratives, like history, are written by the victors.

Reading Deudney and Ikenberry, it seems that the victory of liberal democracy was virtually inevitable. But in order to make this claim, one must assume that the rise of a huge liberal democratic United States as the paramount political power of the twentieth century was preordained -- and that it could only have emerged and evolved in the form that it did (founded on a vast and sparsely populated continent by Englishmen who subsequently achieved independence and unity and then retained this unity after a civil war). Moreover, one would have to assume that there was no way Germany could have won either of the world wars in Europe and that if it had, a victorious Reich (and a victorious imperial Japan) would have inevitably liberalized in due course. None of these assumptions is plausible.


Since 1945, nondemocratic capitalist great powers have been absent from the international system, but the recent meteoric rise of China has broken that pattern. Unlike Germany and Japan in the past, China today has the world's largest population, and it is experiencing such spectacular economic growth that it is projected to close the economic gap with the developed world within a generation or two.

Addressing the rise of China, Deudney and Ikenberry repeat the claim that nondemocratic regimes are necessarily ridden with corruption and cronyism, and so their development is bound to stall once they reach a certain level of growth. But as former U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan has noted, Singapore -- a nondemocratic state with a first-class economy -- is one of the least corrupt states in the world. The same was true of imperial Germany and its Prussian predecessor. It has become an axiom that corruption is inevitable in the absence of democratic transparency and accountability. Yet Prussian-German bureaucracy was renowned for its efficiency and clean hands and was put forward as an ideal type by Max Weber. The secret of these model cases lies in the bureaucracy's high social status, strong ethics of duty and public service, and, in Singapore, high pay. China today suffers from pervasive corruption, and it remains to be seen whether its neo-Mandarin rulers can eventually succeed in establishing similar standards.

It is widely argued that the rule of law is essential for an advanced capitalist economy to function and that nondemocratic countries lacking it are at a disadvantage. This argument ignores the fact that Germany was semiauthoritarian until 1918 and yet the rule of law prevailed and a first-class capitalist economy flourished. The same was true of Japan before 1945 and is true of Singapore today.

Although the pure economic argument turns out to be less clear-cut than many believe, proponents of democratic inevitability still contend that sociopolitical transformation generated by economic development eventually leads to democratization. It is widely believed that economic and social development create pressures for democratization that authoritarian state structures cannot contain. Michael Mandelbaum, for example, argues in his book Democracy's Good Name that capitalism is synonymous with individual choice. People who are accustomed to exercising free choice in their personal lives can be expected to demand the same right in the political sphere. Thus, nondemocratic capitalist regimes suffer from an internal contradiction that makes them prone to implosion.

This argument appears very convincing until one remembers that the world is full of contradictions and tensions that do not necessarily lead to implosion. Market democracies themselves have always been plagued by the contradiction between the great economic inequality generated by capitalism (which also biases the democratic political process) and democracy's egalitarian drive. This tension was so stark that socialists throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century regarded it as an irreconcilable contradiction certain to doom capitalist democracy, leading them to argue that socialism -- economic democratization -- was the inevitable wave of the future. In the meantime, some of this inherent tension has been alleviated by the welfare state in the democratic capitalist countries, although it always remains very close to the surface, occasionally bursting out in anticapitalist demonstrations and other forms of protest.


In their article "How Development Leads to Democracy," Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel offer a value-centered version of modernization theory, based on their important comprehensive surveys of world values. They document clear differences between low- and high-income societies due to shifts from the "survival values" of traditional societies to the individualistic "self-expression values" of more affluent societies. Based on the experience of the twentieth century, Inglehart and Welzel argue that such a transformation of values lays the groundwork for democratization. But like other varieties of modernization theory, their argument overlooks the more fundamental question: Are liberal values an inevitable, universal product of industrialization and greater affluence, or has this particular set of values itself been decisively shaped by the overwhelming political, economic, and cultural liberal hegemony that the United States and western Europe have exercised since the defeat of the nondemocratic capitalist great powers in the first half of the twentieth century?

Inglehart and Welzel stress the persistence of different cultural traditions and significant cultural variations even among societies that have undergone modernization. Indeed, in East Asia, the world's most populous and fastest-developing region, long-standing cultural traditions emphasize community, social order, and social harmony -- but they do not impede growth. Whether an alternative path to modernity will emerge there and prove viable remains to be seen.

Inglehart and Welzel are careful to note that the democratization process is not deterministic but probabilistic. Nevertheless, they leave the strong impression that all that is necessary for it to take its course is time. Undeniably, there is a strong propensity for industrial capitalist society and liberal democracy to be associated with each other, and this propensity is largely responsible for the spread and success of the liberal democratic model over the past two centuries. Even a strong propensity, however, is just that; whether it triumphs over competing propensities depends on circumstances, countervailing forces, contingent events, and other imponderables.


When it comes to the question of how to deal with a nondemocratic superpower China in the international arena, Deudney and Ikenberry, as well as Inglehart and Welzel, exhibit undiluted liberal internationalist optimism.

China's free access to the global economy is fueling its massive growth, thereby strengthening the country as a potential rival to the United States -- a problem for the United States not unlike that encountered by the free-trading British Empire when it faced other industrializing great powers in the late nineteenth century. According to Inglehart and Welzel, there is little to worry about, because rapid development will only quicken China's democratization. But it was the United Kingdom's great fortune -- and liberal democracy's -- that its hegemonic status fell into the hands of another liberal democracy, the United States, rather than into those of nondemocratic Germany and Japan, whose future trajectories remained uncertain at best.

The liberal democratic countries could have made China's access to the global economy conditional on democratization, but it is doubtful that such a linkage would have been feasible or desirable. After all, China's economic growth has benefited other nations and has made the developed countries -- and the United States in particular -- as dependent on China as China is dependent on them. Furthermore, economic development and interdependence in themselves -- in addition to democracy -- are a major force for peace. Democracies' ability to promote internal democratization in countries much smaller and weaker than China has been very limited, and putting pressure on China could backfire, souring relations with China and diverting its development to a more militant and hostile path.

Deudney and Ikenberry suggest that China's admission into the institutions of the liberal international order established after World War II and the Cold War will oblige the country to transform and conform to that order. But large players are unlikely to accept the existing order as it is, and their entrance into the system is as likely to change it as to change them.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a case in point. It was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, in the aftermath of the Nazi horrors and at the high point of liberal hegemony. Yet the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Council that replaced it, has long been dominated by China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia and has a clear illiberal majority and record. Today, more countries vote with China than with the United States and Europe on human rights issues in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Critics argue that unlike liberalism, nondemocratic capitalist systems have no universal message to offer the world, nothing attractive to sell that people can aspire to, and hence no "soft power" for winning over hearts and minds. But there is a flip side to the universalist coin: many find liberal universalism dogmatic, intrusive, and even oppressive. Resistance to the unipolar world is a reaction not just to the power of the United States but also to the dominance of human rights liberalism. There is a deep and widespread resentment in non-Western societies of being lectured to by the West and of the need to justify themselves according to the standards of a hegemonic liberal morality that preaches individualism to societies that value community as a greater good.

Compared to other historical regimes, the global liberal order is in many ways benign, welcoming, and based on mutual prosperity. It is natural for people in the West to believe that everybody else would want to join it. And yet both Germany and Japan had to be pulverized before they could be made to join the liberal order.

Today, nondemocratic capitalist China offers not only a policy of noninterference but also support for state sovereignty, group values, and ideological pluralism within the international system. These are attractive not only to governments but also to peoples, as an alternative to U.S. and Western dominance and as a counterforce to the sweeping, blind forces of globalization. A message need not be formulated in universalistic terms to have a broader appeal, as the great attraction of fascism during the 1920s and 1930s demonstrated.

It is possible that democracy's twentieth-century triumphs have already spread the liberal democratic model so far and so deep that the renewed challenge from the nondemocratic capitalist great powers has come too late. But the opposite is also possible. A less teleological and triumphalist reading of twentieth-century history should help guard against the illusion that anybody can read the future like an open book. The democratization of China and Russia and the ultimate triumph of democracy are far from preordained.


Nothing is inevitable in history except, perhaps, that proponents of liberal theories of democratization and modernization will be branded as deterministic, "end of history" thinkers. Azar Gat's main complaint is that we hold the view that history is preordained and unilinear. We do not.

The heart of Gat's argument is that the vastly greater size of the United States was more decisive than its political system in leading it to victory over its authoritarian adversaries in World War II. Size does matter, but the size of the United States is not the simple, brute contingent  fact that Gat portrays; rather, it is intimately related to U.S. political arrangements.

Both liberals and their critics often forget that the problem of small size and its implications for the security of "republics" -- as free societies were known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- was a central topic of early modern political thought. Prior to the founding of the United States, it was universally believed that republics could only be small and hence were destined to be chronically insecure. The United States was seen as a decisive breakthrough because its innovative federal union allowed political freedom to exist in a large country to an extent never before thought possible.

This transformation was widely noted by theorists, commentators, and politicians during the nineteenth century. Indeed, many leading Britons supported the historian Sir John Seeley's famous call for the United Kingdom to follow the U.S. example and establish an "imperial federation" among its white settler colonies. The importance of political union in expanding a nation's size underscores the more general fact that democracies and international groupings of democracies are based on consensual agreements that help aggregate geopolitical power.

As for Gat's examples of authoritarian success, he is right that Second Reich Germany was not corrupt: it benefited from the rule of law and was a leading capitalist economy. However, it also had multiparty competitive elections for parliament and a robust free press, making it at best an ambiguous example of authoritarian competence. Gat's reference to Singapore's authoritarian accomplishments cannot matter much if state size is as important as he claims: the country of Singapore is smaller than the city of Berlin.


When it comes to World War I and World War II, Gat reminds us about what few would dispute: that the democratic great powers made some mistakes and their authoritarian rivals achieved some successes. Gat does not, however, directly engage our key point: that the illiberal regime types of the Axis states hindered the effective formulation of grand strategy.

Gat correctly observes that Germany could have achieved considerable expansion in World War II. But given the daunting odds Germany faced -- particularly on the global battlefield -- the fact that Adolf Hitler launched an open-ended campaign of aggression against a coalition of states vastly larger and more powerful than his own must be seen as one of the most profound grand strategic blunders of the war. Hitler, like Japan's leaders, believed that democracies would be weak because they were democracies -- a view that privileged ideological propaganda over the actual historical record of democracies' wartime successes.

Hitler, sitting atop a ruthless dictatorship, lived in a closed information system where his often ill-informed views were left unchallenged. By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill presided over systems with open debate, competitive elections, and a free press, all of which winnowed the good ideas from the bad. Mistakes for Germany and Japan were indeed catastrophic both because of their smaller size and because of the implausibility of the mission they had undertaken.


Gat concedes that China -- his primary example of authoritarian success -- is plagued by corruption. Indeed, it is difficult to envision how China could overcome these problems, as well as address a range of daunting domestic challenges -- environmental degradation, an aging population, the difficulty of maintaining public health -- without major reforms and new accountability structures that would push it in a more democratic direction. The liberal fear is not that China will get too rich too soon but that it will not get rich enough soon enough to pull its vast and overwhelmingly poor population into middle-class prosperity -- particularly given the tightening constraints it faces.

Finally, Gat argues that China might become a recalcitrant or even revisionist state that challenges the U.S.-led liberal international order from within. Gat -- and the historian Robert Kagan, whom we also criticize in our piece -- fails to appreciate the important role that this liberal international order plays in providing benefits to all states, especially capitalist trading states. China has been a major beneficiary of this order, and in many ways its foreign policy practices have already evolved in fairly radical ways from its Maoist-communist days in order to gain access to it. Furthermore, China has important incentives to increase its participation in this loosely rule-based order. After all, this order respects state sovereignty while providing a variety of services and protections for states operating within it. For China to play a role commensurate with its stakes in the system, the institutions will have to -- and should -- give China a greater role in their governance.


It is unlikely that democratic states will be superior at addressing all the emerging problems that all societies will face in the twenty-first century. We do think, however, that there are strong reasons to believe in the generally superior adaptability of liberal democratic regimes. These expectations build on a track record of at least a century of liberal states reconfiguring themselves, often quickly and dramatically, in response to systemic breakdowns and emerging threats.
Looking to the future, Gat's vision is remarkably devoid of reference to the myriad growing problems associated with globalization: rising interdependence, the growing mobility of labor, and environmental deterioration being just a few. Both theory and history suggest that liberal democratic states and the liberal international order are best equipped to grapple with these problems and seize the opportunities ahead.


Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization is one of the most insightful interpretations of history we have read in the past decade. It is therefore surprising that Gat seems to have misread our work on modernization and democracy. Despite a passing comment that our analysis is probabilistic, Gat attributes a simplistically deterministic view to it. From his title to his conclusion, he implies that we hold the victory of democracy to be preordained.

In fact, our article explicitly rejects such deterministic assumptions. Its opening paragraph notes the recent retreat of democracy in many countries, and then its second paragraph states that "although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place." This tone continues to our article's final page, where we argue that democratic institutions will not emerge in China or Iran so long as the current regimes continue to control the security forces but that popular pressure for political liberalization is growing in these countries and long-term repression will hinder the emergence of successful knowledge societies in them.

Clearly, we do not view democracy's victory as preordained. We do, however, hold that modernization is conducive to democracy -- and that the emergence of a knowledge society makes successful democratization increasingly probable. Knowledge societies bring high levels of existential security, which in turn lead to a growing emphasis on self-expression values. Likewise, the experience of thinking for oneself in one's daily work tends to spill over into the political realm. Democracy and a knowledge society are therefore mutually reinforcing: a knowledge society functions best with the free information flows and the nonhierarchical organizational structure of democracy.

Industrialization, urbanization, and mass literacy transform illiterate peasants into relevant political actors. This can lead to fascism, communism, or representative democracy, as the sociologist Barrington Moore pointed out long ago. But the rise of postindustrial society is linked with specific changes in social structure and mass values that make democracy increasingly likely, and the functional requisites of a successful knowledge society make democratic institutions almost mandatory.

Gat seems to have missed this crucial distinction, assuming instead that our revised version of modernization theory implies that any highly industrialized society must be democratic. Thus, he cites China's spectacularly rapid industrialization as proof that authoritarian institutions are perfectly compatible with economic development. They are -- at China's current stage of development as a rapidly industrializing but still largely agrarian society. (The Soviet Union also experienced much more rapid economic growth than the West during the 1930s and then again during the 1950s and 1960s.)

Gat believes that democracy does not have a competitive advantage over authoritarian systems, contending that fascism might have triumphed if Germany and Japan had possessed an industrial base equivalent to that of the United States during World War II. This argument is interesting, but it overlooks the crucial distinction between industrial societies and postindustrial societies, which emerged well after 1945.

Authoritarian regimes can be quite effective at promoting rapid industrialization so long as that industrialization is largely dependent on massive inputs and marching large numbers of disciplined workers to the factories. As long as authoritarian regimes are importing technology that was developed abroad, they can play catch-up even faster than democratic ones. Thus, by 1980 the Soviet Union was producing more steel, concrete, and electricity than the United States. (It also had a substantially larger population.) The Soviet Union had a larger industrial base than the United States and hence, by Gat's standard, should have won the Cold War. But it was unable to compete in the realm of high technology, which had become crucial to military power. Its inability to do so, coupled with internal demoralization, led to its collapse. A successful knowledge society requires open communication flows and an innovative and autonomous work force; for China to attain these will require substantial liberalization.

Unlike China, virtually all postindustrial societies have democratized. Singapore is the one striking exception, illustrating the fact that sociopolitical development does not follow iron laws. For several decades, Singapore enjoyed the world's highest economic growth rate, attaining a high level of prosperity, which helped legitimate continued authoritarian rule, just as a high level of prosperity once did in South Korea and Taiwan. (Singapore's exceptionally efficient and corruption-free civil service helped as well.) But Singapore is not immune to liberalizing pressures. It already has relatively high levels of civil liberties, and in the long run, we would expect growing mass pressures for political liberalization to emerge.

Rising educational levels and employment in the knowledge sector make people increasingly articulate and accustomed to thinking for themselves. And as empirical data from the World Values Survey and the European Values Study demonstrate, rising levels of existential security bring value changes in which people give increasingly high priority to free choice and self-expression. Both changes bring growing demands for democracy. This is why the correlation between a country's level of self-expression values and its level of effective democracy is astonishingly strong.

Industrialization is conducive to modern democracy. Surprising as it may seem, Gat himself endorses this half of our interpretation in his brilliant book, War in Human Civilization, in which he argues that both democracy and the democratic peace phenomenon are largely consequences of modernization. But in his response to our Foreign Affairs article, Gat overlooks the fact that modern societies are not all alike. Industrialization makes modern democracy possible, and it also makes possible authoritarian forms of mass mobilization; the emergence of postindustrial society makes the democratic alternative increasingly probable.

Each major surge of democracy has been followed by a decline that led many people to believe that the spread of democracy had ended. The wave of democratization that followed World War II led to widespread expectations that the emerging nations would become democratic as well. By the 1970s, these expectations had been dashed and a bureaucratic authoritarianism thesis emerged, holding that democracy was unlikely to emerge in Latin America. Subsequently, South Korea and Taiwan were held up as proof that high levels of economic development are fully compatible with authoritarian regimes. Yet both countries have since become democracies. In a 1984 Political Science Quarterly article, the political scientist Samuel Huntington doubted whether more countries would become democratic, but he also argued that Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland had attained high enough levels of socioeconomic modernization that they would already be democracies were it not for the threat of Soviet military intervention. That threat was withdrawn in 1988, and within two years, all three nations had democratized -- partly in response to growing popular pressure.

We would certainly not claim that democracy is preordained, and we cannot imagine where Gat got the idea that we think we "can read the future like an open book." But we do claim that democratic systems have a competitive advantage when it comes to building successful knowledge societies -- which is increasingly crucial for achieving economic and political power.

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