August 24, 2008


They Can Only Go So Far: The world's bullies are throwing their weight around. But history isn't on their side. (Francis Fukuyama, August 24, 2008, Washington Post)

Today's autocrats can also prove surprisingly weak when it comes to ideas and ideologies. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Mao's China were particularly dangerous because they were built on powerful ideas with potentially universal appeal, which is why we found Soviet arms and advisers showing up in places such as Nicaragua and Angola. But this sort of ideological tyrant no longer bestrides the world stage. Despite recent authoritarian advances, liberal democracy remains the strongest, most broadly appealing idea out there. Most autocrats, including Putin and Chávez, still feel that they have to conform to the outward rituals of democracy even as they gut its substance. Even China's Hu Jintao felt compelled to talk about democracy in the run-up to Beijing's Olympic Games. And Musharraf proved enough of a democrat to let himself be driven from office by the threat of impeachment.

If today's autocrats are willing to bow to democracy, they are eager to grovel to capitalism. It's hard to see how we can be entering a new cold war when China and Russia have both happily accepted the capitalist half of the partnership between capitalism and democracy. (Mao and Stalin, by contrast, pursued self-defeating, autarkic economic policies.) The Chinese Communist Party's leadership recognizes that its legitimacy depends on continued breakneck growth. In Russia, the economic motivation for embracing capitalism is much more personal: Putin and much of the Russian elite have benefited enormously from their control of natural resources and other assets.

Democracy's only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism. Indeed, one of the world's most dangerous nation-states today is Iran, run by extremist Shiite mullahs. But as Peter Bergen pointed out in these pages last week, Sunni radicalism has been remarkably ineffective in actually taking control of a nation-state, due to its propensity to devour its own potential supporters. Some disenfranchised Muslims thrill to the rantings of Osama bin Laden or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the appeal of this kind of medieval Islamism is strictly limited.

In lieu of big ideas, Russia and China are driven by nationalism, which takes quite different forms in each country.

The Applied Darwinism of the Nazis and these current iterations of nationalism/racism obviously spell trouble for internal populations but mean they can't threaten us because they're so isolated and unpopular.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2008 9:09 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus