The Magazine

History's Back

Ambitious autocracies, hesitant democracies.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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One of these fault lines runs along the western and southwestern frontiers of Russia. In Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and even in the Balkans, a contest for influence is under way between a resurgent Russia, on one side, and the European Union and the United States on the other. Instead of an anticipated zone of peace, western Eurasia has once again become a zone of competition, in which military power--pooh-poohed by postmodern Europeans--once again plays a role.

Unfortunately, Europe is ill-equipped to respond to a problem that it never anticipated having to face. The European Union is deeply divided about Russia, with the nations on the frontline fearful and seeking reassurance, while others like France and Germany seek accommodation with Moscow. The fact is, Europe never expected to face this kind of challenge at the end of history. This great 21st-century entity, the EU, now confronts 19th-century power, and Europe's postmodern tools of foreign policy were not designed to address more traditional geopolitical challenges. There is a real question as to whether Europe is institutionally or temperamentally able to play the kind of geopolitical games in Russia's near-abroad that Russia is willing to play.

There is some question about the United States, as well. At least some portion of American elite opinion has shifted from post-Cold War complacency, from the conviction that the world was naturally moving toward greater harmony, to despair and resignation and the belief that the United States and the world's democracies are powerless to meet the challenge of the rising great powers. Fukuyama and others counsel accommodation to Russian ambitions, on the grounds that there is now no choice. It is the post-American world. Having failed to imagine that the return of great power autocracies was possible, they now argue there is nothing to be done and the wise policy is to accommodate to this new global reality. Yet again, however, their imagination fails them. They do not see what accommodation of the great power autocracies may look like. Georgia provides a glimpse of that future.

The world may not be 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 liberal democracy and the forces of autocracy.

In fact, a global competition is under way. According to 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." Today when Russians speak of a multipolar world, they are not only talking about the redistribution of power. It is also the competition of value systems and ideas that will provide "the foundation for a multipolar world order."

International order does not rest on ideas and institutions alone. It is shaped by configurations of power. The spread of democracy in the last two decades of the 20th century was not merely the unfolding of certain ineluctable processes of economic and political development. The global shift toward liberal democracy coincided with the historical shift in the balance of power toward those nations and peoples who favored the liberal democratic idea, a shift that began with the triumph of the democratic powers over fascism in World War II and that was followed by a second triumph of the democracies over communism in the Cold War. The liberal international order that emerged after these two victories reflected the new overwhelming global balance in favor of liberal forces. But those victories were not inevitable, and they need not be lasting. Today, the reemergence of the great autocratic powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism, has weakened that order and threatens to weaken it further in the years and decades to come.

Does the United States have the strength and ability to lead the democracies again in strengthening and advancing a liberal democratic international order? Despite all the recent noise about America's relative decline, the answer is most assuredly yes. If it is true, as some claim, that the United States over the past decade suffered from excessive confidence in its power to shape the world, the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction.