The Myth of the Autocratic Revival

Why Liberal Democracy Will Prevail

Courtesy Reuters

After two decades of post-Cold War liberal triumph, U.S. foreign policy is being challenged by the return of an old antiliberal vision. According to this vision, the world is not marching toward universal liberal democracy and "the end of history." Rather, it is polarizing into different camps and entering an era of rivalry between Western liberal states and dangerous autocracies, most notably China and Russia. Unlike the autocracies that failed so spectacularly in the twentieth century, today's autocracies are said to be not only compatible with capitalist success but also representative of a rival form of capitalism. And their presence in the international system supposedly foreshadows growing competition and conflict and is dangerously undermining the prospect of global cooperation.

Several recent developments seem to support this emerging view. Democratic transitions have stalled and reversed. In China, the Communist Party dictatorship has weathered domestic challenges while presiding over decades of rapid economic growth and capitalist modernization. Rising oil prices have empowered autocratic regimes. In Russia, Vladimir Putin's government rolled back democratic gains and became increasingly autocratic. At the same time, relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated from the near amity of the early post-Cold War era, and China and the West remain divided over Taiwan, human rights, and oil access. Meanwhile, much less powerful autocratic states, such as Venezuela and Iran, are destabilizing their regions. There even appear to be signs that these autocratic states are making common cause against the liberal Western states, with nascent alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The United Nations, and particularly the Security Council, has returned to the paralysis of the Cold War. In this view, the liberal West faces a bleak future.

The new prophets of autocratic revival draw important foreign policy implications from their thesis. One of the most forceful exponents of this new view, Robert Kagan, insists that it is time for the United States and the other liberal democracies to abandon their expectations of global convergence and cooperation.

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