Which Way Is History Marching?

Debating the Authoritarian Revival

Actors dressed as Red Army soldiers perform at a gala show to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

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,

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