The Magazine

History's Back

Ambitious autocracies, hesitant democracies.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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One wonders whether Russia's invasion of Georgia will finally end the dreamy complacency that took hold of the world's democracies after the close of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered for many the tantalizing prospect of a new kind of international order. The fall of the Communist empire and the apparent embrace of democracy by Russia seemed to augur a new era of global convergence. Great power conflict and competition were a thing of the past. Geo-economics had replaced geopolitics. Nations that traded with one another would be bound together by their interdependence and less likely to fight one another. Increasingly commercial societies would be more liberal both at home and abroad. Their citizens would seek prosperity and comfort and abandon the atavistic passions, the struggles for honor and glory, and the tribal hatreds that had produced conflict throughout history. Ideological conflict was also a thing of the past. As Francis Fukuyama famously put it, "At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy." And if there were an autocracy or two lingering around at the end of history, this was no cause for concern. They, too, would eventually be transformed as their economies modernized.

Unfortunately, the core assumptions of the post-Cold War years have proved mistaken. The absence of great power competition, it turns out, was a brief aberration. Over the course of the 1990s, that competition reemerged as rising powers entered or reentered the field. First China, then India, set off on unprecedented bursts of economic growth, accompanied by incremental but substantial increases in military capacity, both conventional and nuclear. By the beginning of the 21st century, Japan had begun a slow economic recovery and was moving toward a more active international role both diplomatically and militarily. Then came Russia, rebounding from economic calamity to steady growth built on the export of its huge reserves of oil and natural gas.

Nor has the growth of the Chinese and Russian economies produced the political liberalization that was once thought inevitable. 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, for instance--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. In the meantime, the new economic power of the autocracies has translated into real, usable geopolitical power on the world stage. In the 1990s the liberal democracies expected that a wealthier Russia would be a more liberal Russia, at home and abroad. But historically the spread of commerce and the acquisition of wealth by nations has not necessarily produced greater global harmony. Often it has only spurred greater global competition. The hope at the end of the Cold War was that nations would pursue economic integration as an alternative to geopolitical competition, that they would seek the "soft" power of commercial engagement and economic growth as an alternative to the "hard" power of military strength or geopolitical confrontation. But nations do not need to choose. There is another paradigm--call it "rich nation, strong army," the slogan of rising Meiji Japan at the end of the 19th century--in which nations seek economic integration and adaptation of Western institutions not in order to give up the geopolitical struggle but to wage it more successfully. The Chinese have their own phrase for this: "a prosperous country and a strong army."

The rise of these two great power autocracies is reshaping the international scene. Nationalism, and the nation itself, far from being weakened by globalization, has returned with a vengeance. There are the ethnic nationalisms that continue to bubble up in the Balkans and in the former republics of the Soviet Union. But more significant is the return of great power nationalism. Instead of an imagined new world order, there are new geopolitical fault lines where the ambitions of great powers overlap and conflict and where the seismic events of the future are most likely to erupt.