Why the twenty-first century will look like the nineteenth. 


In the early 1990s, optimism was understandable. The collapse of the communist empire and the apparent embrace of democracy by Russia seemed to augur a new era of global convergence. The great adversaries of the Cold War suddenly shared many common goals, including a desire for economic and political integration. Even after the political crackdown that began in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the disturbing signs of instability that appeared in Russia after 1993, most Americans and Europeans believed that China and Russia were on a path toward liberalism. Boris Yeltsin's Russia seemed committed to the liberal model of political economy and closer integration with the West. The Chinese government's commitment to economic opening, it was hoped, would inevitably produce a political opening, whether Chinese leaders wanted it or not.

Such determinism was characteristic of post-Cold War thinking. In a globalized economy, it was widely believed, nations had no choice but to liberalize--first economically, then politically--if they wanted to compete and to survive. As national economies approached a certain level of per capita income, growing middle classes would demand legal and political power, which rulers would have to grant if they wanted their nations to prosper. Since democratic capitalism was the only model of success for developing societies, all societies would eventually choose such a path. In the battle of ideas, liberalism had triumphed. "At the end of history," as Francis Fukuyama famously put it, "there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy. "

The economic and ideological determinism of the early post-Cold War years produced two broad assumptions that shaped both policies and expectations. One was an abiding belief in the inevitability of human progress, the belief that history moves in only one direction--a faith born in the Enlightenment, dashed by the brutality of the twentieth century, and given new life by the fall of communism. The other was a prescription for patience and restraint. Rather than confront and challenge autocracies, it was better to enmesh them in the global economy, support the rule of law and the creation of stronger state institutions, and let the ineluctable forces of human progress work their magic.

But the grand expectation that the world had entered an era of convergence has proved wrong. We have entered an age of divergence. Since the mid-1990s, the nascent democratic transformation in Russia has given way to what may best be described as a "czarist" political system, in which all important decisions are taken by one man and his powerful coterie. Vladimir Putin and his spokesmen speak of "democracy," but they define the term much as the Chinese do. For Putin, democracy is not about competitive elections so much as the implementation of popular will. The regime is democratic because the government consults with and listens to the Russian people, discerns what they need and want, and then attempts to give it to them. As Ivan Krastev notes, "The Kremlin thinks not in terms of citizens' rights but in terms of the population's needs. " Elections do not offer a choice, but only a chance to ratify choices made by Putin, as in the recent "selection" of Dmitry Medvedev to succeed Putin as president. The legal system is a tool to be used against political opponents. The party system has been purged of political groups not approved by Putin. The power apparatus around Putin controls most of the national media, especially television.

A majority of Russians seem content with autocratic rule, at least for now. Unlike communism, Putin's rule does not impinge much on their personal lives, as long as they stay out of politics. Unlike the tumultuous Russian democracy of the 1990s, the present government, thanks to the high prices of oil and gas, has at least produced a rising standard of living. Putin's efforts to undo the humiliating post-Cold War settlement and restore the greatness of Russia is popular. His political advisers believe that "avenging the demise of the Soviet Union will keep us in power."

For Putin, there is a symbiosis between the nature of his rule and his success in returning Russia to "great power" status. Strength and control at home allow Russia to be strong abroad. Strength abroad justifies strong rule at home. Russia's growing international clout also shields Putin's autocracy from foreign pressures. European and American statesmen find they have a full plate of international issues on which a strong Russia can make life easier or harder, from energy supplies to Iran. Under the circumstances, they are far less eager to confront the Russian government over the fairness of its elections or the openness of its political system.
Putin has created a guiding national philosophy out of the correlation between power abroad and autocracy at home. He calls Russia a "sovereign democracy," a term that neatly encapsulates the nation's return to greatness, its escape from the impositions of the West, and its adoption of an "eastern" model of democracy. In Putin's view, only a great and powerful Russia is strong enough to defend and advance its interests, and also strong enough to resist foreign demands for western political reforms that Russia neither needs nor wants. In the 1990s, Russia wielded little influence on the world stage but opened itself wide to the intrusions of foreign businessmen and foreign governments. Putin wants Russia to have great influence over others around the world while shielding itself from the influence of unwelcome global forces.

Putin looks to China as a model, and for good reason. While the Soviet Union collapsed and lost everything after 1989, as first Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin sued for peace with the West and invited its meddling, Chinese leaders weathered their own crisis by defying the West. They cracked down at home and then battened down the hatches until the storm of Western disapproval blew over. The results in the two great powers were instructive. Russia by the end of the 1990s was flat on its back. China was on its way to unprecedented economic growth, military power, and international influence.

The Chinese learned from the Soviet experience, too. While the democratic world waited after Tiananmen Square for China to resume its inevitable course upward to liberal democratic modernity, the Chinese Communist Party leadership set about shoring up its dominance in the nation. In recent years, despite repeated predictions in the West of an imminent political opening, the trend has been toward consolidation of the Chinese autocracy rather than reform. As it became clear that the Chinese leadership had no intention of reforming itself out of power, Western observers hoped that they might be forced to reform despite themselves, if only to keep China on a path of economic growth and to manage the myriad internal problems that growth brings. But that now seems unlikely as well.

Today most economists believe that China's remarkable growth should be sustainable for some time to come. Keen observers of the Chinese political system see a sufficient combination of competence and ruthlessness on the part of the Chinese leadership to handle problems as they arise, and a population prepared to accept autocratic government so long as economic growth continues. As Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley have written, the present leadership is unlikely to "succumb to a rising tide of problems or surrender graciously to liberal values infiltrated by means of economic globalization." Until events "justify taking a different attitude, the outside world would be well advised to treat the new Chinese leaders as if they are here to stay."

Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible after all. Autocrats learn and adjust. The autocracies of Russia and China have figured out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political activity. They have seen that people making money will keep their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses will be cut off. New wealth gives autocracies a greater ability to control information--to monopolize television stations, and to keep a grip on Internet traffic--often with the assistance of foreign corporations eager to do business with them.

In the long run, rising prosperity may well produce political liberalism, but how long is the long run? It may be too long to have any strategic or geopolitical relevance. As the old joke goes, Germany launched itself on a trajectory of economic modernization in the late nineteenth century and within six decades it became a fully fledged democracy: the only problem was what happened in the intervening years. So the world waits for change, but in the meantime two of the world's largest nations, with more than a billion and a half people and the second-and third-largest militaries between them, now have governments committed to autocratic rule and may be able to sustain themselves in power for the foreseeable future.

The power and the durability of these autocracies will shape the international system in profound ways. The world is not about to embark on a new ideological struggle of the kind that dominated the Cold War. But the new era, rather than being a time of "universal values," will be one of growing tensions and sometimes confrontation between the forces of democracy and the forces of autocracy.

During the Cold War, it was easy to forget that the struggle between liberalism and autocracy has endured since the Enlightenment. It was the issue that divided the United States from much of Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It divided Europe itself through much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Now it is returning to dominate the geopolitics of the twenty-first century.

The presumption over the past decade has been that when Chinese and Russian leaders stopped believing in communism, they stopped believing in anything. They had become pragmatists, without ideology or belief, simply pursuing their own and their nation's interests. But the rulers of China and Russia, like the rulers of autocracies in the past, do possess a set of beliefs that guides them in both domestic and foreign policy. It is not an all-encompassing, systematic worldview like Marxism or liberalism. But it is a comprehensive set of beliefs about government and society and the proper relationship between rulers and their people.

The rulers of Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. They believe their large and fractious nations need order and stability to prosper. They believe that the vacillation and chaos of democracy would impoverish and shatter their nations, and in the case of Russia that it already did so. They believe that strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to be powerful and respected in the world, capable of safeguarding and advancing their interests. Chinese rulers know from their nation's long and often turbulent history that political disruptions and divisions at home invite foreign interference and depredation. What the world applauded as a political opening in 1989, Chinese leaders regard as a near-fatal display of disagreement.

So the Chinese and Russian leaders are not simply autocrats. They believe in autocracy. The modern liberal mind at "the end of history" may not appreciate the attractions of this idea, or the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world; but historically speaking, Russian and Chinese rulers are in illustrious company. 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. And in the first half of the twentieth century, for every democratic power like the United States, Great Britain, and France, there was an equally strong autocratic power, in Germany, Russia, and Japan. The many smaller nations around the world were at least as likely to model themselves on the autocracies as on the democracies. Only in the past half-century has democracy gained widespread popularity around the world, and only since the 1980s, really, has it become the most common form of government.

The rulers of Russia and China are not the first to suggest that it may not be the best. 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. By providing order, by producing economic success, by holding their nations together and leading them to a position of international influence, respectability, and power, they believe that they are serving their people. Nor is it at all clear, for the moment, that the majority of people they rule in either China or Russia disagree.
If autocracies have their own set of beliefs, they also have their own set of interests. The rulers of China and Russia may indeed be pragmatic, but they are pragmatic in pursuing policies that will keep themselves in power. Putin sees no distinction between his own interests and Russia's interests. When Louis XIV remarked, "L'Etat, c'est moi," he was declaring himself the living embodiment of the French nation, asserting that his interests and France's interests were the same. When Putin declares that he has a "moral right" to continue to rule Russia, he is saying that it is in Russia's interest for him to remain in power; and just as Louis XIV could not imagine it being in the interests of France for the monarchy to perish, neither can Putin imagine it could be in Russia's interest for him to give up power. As Minxin Pei has pointed out, when Chinese leaders face the choice between economic efficiency and the preservation of power, they choose power. That is their pragmatism.

The autocrats' interest in self-preservation affects their approach to foreign policy as well. In the age of monarchy, foreign policy served the interests of the monarch. In the age of religious conflict, it served the interests of the church. In the modern era, democracies have pursued foreign policies to make the world safer for democracy. Today the autocrats pursue foreign policies aimed at making the world safe, if not for all autocracies, then at least for their own.

Russia is a prime example of how a nation's governance at home shapes its relations with the rest of the world. A democratizing Russia, and even Gorbachev's democratizing Soviet Union, took a fairly benign view of NATO and tended to have good relations with neighbors that were treading the same path toward democracy. But today Putin regards NATO as a hostile entity, calls its enlargement "a serious provocation," and asks, "Against whom is this expansion intended?" In fact, NATO is no more aggressive or provocative toward Moscow today than it was in Gorbachev's time. If anything, it is less so. NATO has become more benign, just as Russia has become more aggressive. When Russia was more democratic, Russian leaders saw their interests as intimately bound up with the liberal democratic world. Today the Russian government is suspicious of the democracies, especially those near its borders.

This is understandable. For all their growing wealth and influence, the twenty-first-century autocracies remain a minority in the world. As some Chinese scholars put it, democratic liberalism became dominant after the fall of Soviet communism and is sustained by an "international hierarchy dominated by the United States and its democratic allies," a "U.S.-centered great power group." The Chinese and Russians feel like outliers from this exclusive and powerful clique. "You western countries, you decide the rules, you give the grades, you say, 'you have been a bad boy,'" complained one Chinese official at Davos this year. Putin also complains that "we are constantly being taught about democracy."

The post-Cold War world looks very different when seen from autocratic Beijing and Moscow than it does from democratic Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, or Brussels. For the leaders in Beijing, it was not so long ago that the international democratic community, led by the United States, turned on China with a rare unity, imposing economic sanctions and even more painful diplomatic isolation after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Communist Party, according to Fei-Ling Wang, has had a "persisting sense of political insecurity ever since," a "constant fear of being singled out and targeted by the leading powers, especially the United States," and a "profound concern for the regime's survival, bordering on a sense of being under siege."

In the 1990s, the democratic world, led by the United States, toppled autocratic governments in Panama and Haiti and twice made war against Milosevic's Serbia. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), well-funded by western governments, trained opposition parties and supported electoral reforms in Central and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia. In 2000, internationally financed opposition forces and international election monitors finally brought down Milosevic. Within a year he was shipped off to The Hague, and five years later he was dead in prison.

From 2003 to 2005, western democratic countries and NGOs provided pro-western and pro-democratic parties and politicians with the financing and organizational help that allowed them to topple other autocrats in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. Europeans and Americans celebrated these revolutions and saw in them the natural unfolding of humanity's destined political evolution toward liberal democracy. But leaders in Beijing and Moscow saw these events in geopolitical terms, as western-funded, CIA-inspired coups that furthered the hegemony of America and its European allies. The upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia, Dmitri Trenin notes, "further poisoned the Russian-Western relationship" and helped to persuade the Kremlin to "complete its turnaround in foreign policy."

The color revolutions worried Putin not only because they checked his regional ambitions, but also because he feared that the examples of Ukraine and Georgia could be repeated in Russia. They convinced him by 2006 to control, restrict, and in some cases close down the activities of international NGOs. Even today he warns against the "jackals" in Russia who "got a crash course from foreign experts, got trained in neighboring republics and will try here now." His worries may seem absurd or disingenuous, but they are not misplaced. In the post-Cold War era, a triumphant liberalism has sought to expand its triumph by establishing as an international principle the right of the "international community" to intervene against sovereign states that abuse the rights of their people. International NGOs interfere in domestic politics; international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor and pass judgment on elections; international legal experts talk about modifying international law to include such novel concepts as "the responsibility to protect" or a "voluntary sovereignty waiver."

In theory, these innovations apply to everyone. In practice, they chiefly provide democratic nations the right to intervene in the affairs of non-democratic nations. Unfortunately for China, Russia, and other autocracies, this is one area where there is no great transatlantic divide. The United States, though traditionally jealous of its own sovereignty, has always been ready to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. The nations of Europe, once the great proponents (in theory) of the Westphalian order of inviolable state sovereignty, have now reversed course and produced a system, as Robert Cooper has observed, of constant "mutual interference in each other's domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages." This has become one of the great schisms in the international system dividing the democratic world and the autocracies. For three centuries, international law, with its strictures against interference in the internal affairs of nations, has tended to protect autocracies. Now the democratic world is in the process of removing that protection, while the autocrats rush to defend the principle of sovereign inviolability.

For this reason, the war in Kosovo in 1999 was a more dramatic and disturbing turning point for Russia and China than was the Iraq war of 2003. Both nations opposed NATO's intervention, and not only because China's embassy was bombed by an American warplane and Russia's distant Slavic cousins in Serbia were on the receiving end of the NATO air campaign. When Russia threatened to block military action at the U.N. Security Council, NATO simply sidestepped the United Nations and took it upon itself to authorize action, thus negating one of Russia's few tools of international influence. From Moscow's perspective, it was a clear violation of international law, not only because the war lacked a U.N. imprimatur but because it was an intervention into a sovereign nation that had committed no external aggression. To the Chinese, it was just "liberal hegemonism." Years later Putin was still insisting that the western nations "leave behind this disdain for international law" and not attempt to "substitute NATO or the EU for the U.N."

The Russians and the Chinese were in good company. At the time, no less an authority than Henry Kissinger warned that "the abrupt abandonment of the concept of national sovereignty" risked a world unmoored from any notion of international legal order. The United States, of course, paid this little heed: it had intervened and overthrown sovereign governments dozens of times throughout its history. But even postmodern Europe set aside legal niceties in the interest of what it regarded as a higher Enlightenment morality. As Robert Cooper puts it, Europe was driven to act by "the collective memory of the Holocaust and the streams of displaced people created by extreme nationalism in the Second World War." This "common historical experience" provided all the justification necessary. Kissinger warned that in a world of "competing truths, " such a doctrine risked chaos. Cooper responded that postmodern Europe was "no longer a zone of competing truths."

But the conflict between international law and liberal morality is one that the democracies have not been able to finesse. As Chinese officials asked at the time of Tiananmen Square and have continued to ask, "What right does the U. S. government have to ... flagrantly interfere in China's internal affairs?" What right, indeed? Only the liberal creed grants the right--the belief that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights that must not be abridged by governments; that governments derive their power and legitimacy only from the consent of the governed and have a duty to protect their citizens' right to life, liberty, and property. To those who share this liberal faith, foreign policies and even wars that defend these principles, as in Kosovo, can be right even if established international law says they are wrong. But to the Chinese, the Russians, and others who do not share this worldview, the United States and its democratic allies succeed in imposing their views on others not because they are right but only because they are powerful enough to do so. To non-liberals, the international liberal order is not progress. It is oppression.

This is more than a dispute over theory and the niceties of international jurisprudence. It concerns the fundamental legitimacy of governments, which for autocrats can be a matter of life and death. China's rulers have not forgotten that if the democratic world had had its way in 1989, they would now be out of office, possibly imprisoned or worse. Putin complains that "we are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law," and he does not mean just the illegal use of force but also the imposition of "economic, political, cultural and educational policies." He decries the way "independent legal norms" are being re-shaped to conform to "one state's legal system," that of the western democracies, and the way international institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have become "vulgar instruments" in the hands of the democracies. As a result, Putin exclaims, "no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them."

The western democracies would deny any such intention, but Putin, like the leaders of China, is right to worry. American and European policymakers constantly say they want Russia and China to integrate themselves into the international liberal democratic order, but it is not surprising if Russian and Chinese leaders are wary. How can autocrats enter the liberal international order without succumbing to the forces of liberalism?

Afraid of the answer, the autocracies are understandably pushing back, and with some effect. Rather than accepting the new principles of diminished sovereignty and weakened international protection for autocrats, Russia and China are promoting an international order that places a high value on national sovereignty and can protect autocratic governments from foreign interference.

And they are succeeding. Autocracy is making a comeback. Changes in the ideological complexion of the most influential world powers have always had some effect on the choices made by leaders in smaller nations. Fascism was in vogue in Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s partly because it seemed successful in Italy, Germany, and Spain. Communism spread in the Third World in the 1960s and the 1970s not so much because the Soviet Union worked hard to spread it, but because government opponents fought their rebellions under the banner of Marxism-Leninism and then enlisted the aid of Moscow. When communism died in Moscow, communist rebellions around the world became few and far between. And if the rising power of the world's democracies in the late years of the Cold War, culminating in their almost total victory after 1989, contributed to the wave of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s, it is logical to expect that the rise of two powerful autocracies should shift the balance back again.

It is a mistake to believe that autocracy has no international appeal. Thanks to decades of remarkable growth, the Chinese today can argue that their model of economic development, which combines an increasingly open economy with a closed political system, can be a successful option for development in many nations. It certainly offers a model for successful autocracy, a template for creating wealth and stability without having to give way to political liberalization. Russia's model of "sovereign democracy" is attractive among the autocrats of Central Asia. Some Europeans worry that Russia is "emerging as an ideological alternative to the EU that offers a different approach to sovereignty, power and world order." In the 1980s and 1990s, the autocratic model seemed like a losing proposition as dictatorships of both right and left fell before the liberal tide. Today, thanks to the success of China and Russia, it looks like a better bet.

China and Russia may no longer actively export an ideology, but they do offer autocrats somewhere to run when the democracies turn hostile. When Iran's relations with Europe plummeted in the 1990s after its clerics issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, the influential Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani made a point of noting how much easier it is to maintain good relations with a nation like China. When the dictator of Uzbekistan came under criticism in 2005 from the administration of George W. Bush for violently suppressing an opposition rally, he responded by joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and moving closer to Moscow. The Chinese provide unfettered aid to dictatorships in Asia and Africa, undermining the efforts of the "international community" to press for reforms--which in practical terms often means regime change--in countries such as Burma and Zimbabwe. Americans and Europeans may grumble, but autocracies are not in the business of overthrowing other autocrats at the democratic world's insistence. The Chinese, who used deadly force to crack down on student demonstrators not so long ago, will hardly help the West remove a government in Burma for doing the same thing. Nor will they impose conditions on aid to African nations to demand political and institutional reforms they have no intention of carrying out in China.

Chinese officials may chide Burma's rulers, and they may urge the Sudanese government to find some solution to the Sudan conflict. Moscow may at times distance itself from Iran. But the rulers in Rangoon, Khartoum, Pyongyang, and Tehran know that their best protectors--and in the last resort, their only protectors--in a generally hostile world are to be found in Beijing and Moscow. One wonders how much Beijing officials can chastise Burmese generals for crushing Buddhist monks' protests when the Chinese are themselves crushing Buddhist monks in Tibet. In the great schism between democracy and autocracy, the autocrats share common interests and a common view of international order. As China's Li Peng told Iran's Rafsanjani, China and Iran are united by a common desire to build a world order in which "the selection of whatever social system by a country is the affair of the people of that country."
In fact, a global competition is under way. According to Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, "For the first time in many years, a real competitive environment has emerged on the market of ideas" between different "value systems and development models." And the good news, from the Russian point of view, is that "the West is losing its monopoly on the globalization process."