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25 Years Later, Still No “End of History”

Global democracy has not fared well in the past five years. While the Arab uprisings have led to civil war and military rule, countries like Turkey, Russia and Venezuela are veering towards authoritarian rule. The world’s rising power, China, has found success with a one-party state.

These developments seem to question the optimism of proponents of liberal democracy following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 – most famously that of Francis Fukuyama.

Almost exactly 25 years ago, the U.S. political scientist published an infamous essay titled “The End of History?” in which he declared the final triumph of liberal democracy. In his own words:

“I argued that History (in the grand philosophical sense) was turning out very differently from what thinkers on the left had imagined. The process of economic and political modernization was leading not to communism, as the Marxists had asserted and the Soviet Union had avowed, but to some form of liberal democracy and a market economy. History, I wrote, appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight.”

Now Fukuyama has published an essay in The Wall Street Journal revisiting his initial argument. And, perhaps not surprisingly, he finds that he was right and democracy still stands largely uncontested.

There may still be authoritarian regimes and some democracies are crumbling, but decades ago things were much worse, he argues. More importantly, he writes:

“In the realm of ideas, moreover, liberal democracy still doesn’t have any real competitors. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the ayatollahs’ Iran pay homage to democratic ideals even as they trample them in practice. Why else bother to hold sham referendums on “self-determination” in eastern Ukraine? Some radicals in the Middle East may dream of restoring an Islamist caliphate, but this isn’t the choice of the vast majority of people living in Muslim countries.”

China’s model isn’t a real alternative either, according to Fukuyama, because its cleptocratic tendencies will inevitably cause discontent. Since liberal democracy still has no ideological rival on a global scale, Fukuyama concludes that his “end of history” hypothesis still stands.

But does it? A different look at the past centuries and millennia suggests that the spread of liberal democracy may be historical accident, rather than the culmination of history, and could be reversed sooner than we may like.

In the paragraphs below I will argue that the largely uncontested spread of democracy is the result of an unprecedented period of peace in large parts of the world. Once the global powers go to war again, as they seem likely to do at some point, democracy could easily find itself on the defensive.

Historically, democracies have gone in decline not because other political models offered a higher quality of life, but because authoritarianism proved to be more efficient at warfare.

The ancient Athenian democracy collapsed because the strictly hierarchical model of Sparta was better at mobilizing resources for war, beating Athens in the Peleponnesian War and ending its hegemony. Rome’s patrician republic fell and made way for monarchy because its collective leadership model was inferior in warfare to Julius Caesar’s charismatic dictatorship.

There is a reason why all the world’s armies have hierarchical leaderships under the dictatorship of a general, rather than a democratic decision-making process: authoritarianism and coercion are simply better at making people risk their lives and kill others, as well as mobilizing resources in wartime.

World War II is another prime example. The war is generally regarded as a victory for democracy, but that is only partially true. Nazi Germany army was far superior than that of similarly sized France and had the Western world on the brink of defeat, largely because of a level of propaganda, coercion and national mobilization only possible under authoritarian rule. Moreover, it was defeated first and foremost by the Soviet Union, another state that used its authoritarian model and tremendous coercion to secure victory.

As long as countries are peaceful and compete only on an economic stage, liberal democracy may not have any serious ideological rivals. But history shows that during times of prolonged warfare authoritarian regimes tend to have an advantage, while democracies go in decline.

This brings me back to the present and Fukuyama’s argument. The triumph of liberal democracy after 1989 has coincided with the longest period of peace between major world powers in the past centuries.

Some political scientists argue that this period of peace is the results of the spread of liberal democracy, since prosperous democracies are less likely to go to war with each other. But this is at best part of the explanation.

In essence, peace between major powers has been so long lasting because of war weariness after World War II (the founding of the EU is the most notable example), because of the threat of mutual assured destruction through nuclear bombs and because of U.S. hegemony in large parts of the world until 1989 and virtually everywhere after.

But as China’s military and economic rise threatens U.S. hegemony, war between world powers has suddenly become a possibility again – albeit a distant one. Consider the territorial disputes in the East China, where China has vowed to assert its claims and the U.S. has vowed to defend its ally Japan.

There seems to be a growing number of historians and political scientists who argue that a third world war is becoming increasingly likely.

If war does break out between superpowers, history shows that democracy may well lose its global, ideological edge in the face of ruthless authoritarian militarism. What if an authoritarian China proves exceptionally adept at mobilizing resources for war, defeating Japan as easily as Nazi Germany defeated France in 1940? Other countries will get the message, and may conclude that they have to revert to authoritarian methods themselves if they want to survive in a military struggle.

This scenario is of course speculation, and it may well be that global democracy can survive another world war. But my point is that we need to consider the exceptional circumstances under which democracy has triumphed post-1989, and that these circumstances can change from one day to another. It has happened before.

 

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The Ukraine Crisis Could End Globalization

Remember The Economist’s claim that our era of largely peaceful globalization could come to an end? Four months into the new year, the similarities between 2014 and 1914 have become a bit more obvious.

The magazine was wrong to assume that old-school geopolitics would make its return in East Asia, where disputes over maritime borders could still lead to war. Instead it was Ukraine – the site of the 20th century’s most horrific violence – that cast doubt on the stability of our current world order.

Brookings fellow Thomas Wright recently wrote an article that convincingly explains how much of a threat Russia’s annexation of Crimea is to globalization.

The annexation and following sanctions against Russia brought the world “to the cusp of a period of de-globalization,” he writes.

“The logical response to the prospect of economic warfare is for states and major companies to hedge against the risk of vulnerabilities created by interdependence. They will adopt a strategic approach to integration—pursuing it where it works to their benefit, but stepping away from it when it exposes them to potential actions by a hostile government. This will be a sea change in international economic policy and U.S. grand strategy more generally.”

This selective approach to interdependence would differ sharply from previous decades, when countries strove to participate in the global market as much as possible. Wright argues that this “sea change” would have happened anyway, even if Russia hadn’t invaded Crimea:

 “Globalization was always especially vulnerable to geopolitical shocks. The great power comity of 1991 to 2008 was never going to be permanent. It is perhaps better that this realization comes in a stand-off with Russia, the world’s eighth largest economy and one that has already been distancing itself from the global economy, than a crisis involving China, the second largest economy, which could do real damage to the United States and its allies.”

In theory, a more selective approach to globalization could lead to a boom in protectionism across the world. This is exactly what happened after 1914, when geopolitical disputes ended decades of unfettered globalization and ushered in an era of closed-off national markets and recurring economic crises.

But Wright is optimistic that history won’t repeat itself in this case. He argues that countries will seek to diversify trade rather than not trade at all, which will give them more security without having to resort to protectionism.

“Major powers will identify areas where interdependence creates a real strategic vulnerability—especially on finance, energy, and cyber—and reduce them gradually over time. Rather than erecting barriers, diversification could achieve the same effect with much less cost.  As they look to deter Russia, the United States and Europe should also be cognizant about the precedent they are setting.”

 (…)

 “Done right, a more strategic approach to integration and international order can put interdependence and globalization on more stable footing, which will serve the world well as it faces what could become a competitive and volatile couple of decades.”

Let’s hope he is right. But history – and Putin’s current foreign policy – show that governments often don’t act as rationally as we would like.

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Putin’s foreign policy is scarily similar to Stalin’s

Here’s another post I wrote for the World Policy Journal’s blog:

Angela Merkel is right: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is living in another world. But what world exactly is this? As the Crimean crisis drags on, it is becoming clear that Putin’s thinking is somehow stuck in 1930s Europe. Replace Putin with Stalin and you get a good sense of what Russia’s leader is doing and, more importantly, how he can be stopped.

Much has been written about how the Soviet Union shaped Putin’s thinking. To him, Russia’s immediate past is not just a tool to foster patriotism. It is a model he is hoping to emulate.

Putin has long tried to recreate Soviet greatness by invading neighbors (think Georgia 2008) and building a Eurasian economic union. Along the way, he has also adopted a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to his Soviet predecessors.

In fact, he invaded Crimea for much the same reasons that Stalin invaded eastern Poland in 1939. Comparing the two invasions not only helps us make sense of a complicated situation, but it also offers clues on how Putin’s expansionism can eventually be defeated

After storming the winter palace in 1917, the Bolshevik leaders set out to export communism across the globe. They founded the latest Communist International and supported socialist movements in a number of foreign countries.

But the world revolution never happened. Instead, fascist takeovers in Italy (Mussolini), Germany (Hitler) and Spain (Franco) left the Soviet Union increasingly isolated. This presented its leaders with a monumental conundrum: how could a system whose success seemed to depend on world revolution survive alone amid a hostile world? Stalin, who assumed power in the late 1920s, found an answer. He called it “socialism in one country” – a maxim first put forth in 1924 and then gradually adapted.

Instead of trying in vain to subvert other countries, Stalin argued, the Soviet Union should focus on securing its borders and becoming autarkic. Its best shot at growing more powerful was rapid industrialization at home and gradual growth by annexing territories at its borders.

This philosophy culminated in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany shocked the world by pledging mutual non-aggression. A secret clause divided Poland up between the two states.

Contemporaries saw the pact and eventual Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and Moldova as a sign of Soviet strength. They were wrong. By agreeing to the pact the pact, Stalin gained some territory east of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but he also gave up all hope of turning Poland or Germany communist – a hope that had all but faded anyway. The treaty was an acknowledgement of his failure to export the Bolshevik revolution.

Eventually, this failure doomed the Soviet project. Stalin’s autarkic model worked more or less for a few decades, and he won over a number of satellites in Eastern Europe. But the world’s largest economies remained capitalist, and the Soviet Union became more or less isolated from a growing world market. This isolation bred stagnation, decline, and then collapse.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Stalin’s autarkic vision was doomed to failure. We can apply this lesson to Putin’s invasion of Crimea.

Putin is no communist, and never wanted to export a revolution. But much like Stalin, his system depends on gaining allies abroad. While Stalin wanted to turn Western European states communist – and then into Soviet satellites – Putin has been working hard at winning over post-Soviet countries.

Surrounded by what he perceives to be a hostile West, Putin’s vision of a powerful Russia centers on the Eurasian Union. So far the economic union set to launch in 2015 only includes Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Drawing Ukraine into the club was meant to be Putin’s ultimate triumph. After Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych ditched the EU and signed an economic-cooperation agreement with Moscow last fall, it seemed like he had succeeded.

Then protesters chased Yanukovych out of the country, and Putin saw his ideal of Eurasian greatness fall to pieces. Much like Stalin in the 1930s had to accept that Germany wouldn’t become a communist satellite, Putin today understands that Ukraine has fallen out of his orbit for the foreseeable future. He can still exert economic pressure, but a new pro-European government in Kiev will never join his Eurasian Union.

It appears Putin drew the same conclusion Stalin had drawn 80 years earlier: if he couldn’t have it all, he should at least take what he could get. So he invaded Crimea.

Most Western observers have interpreted the invasion as a sign of Putin’s strength. It is in fact a sign of his weakness. By invading Crimea, he may have won some territory, but he also acknowledged that his Ukrainian policy has failed. There is virtually no chance following the invasion that Ukraine will seek closer ties to Moscow anytime soon. Instead, the country is likely to turn west–as it already has.

Like Stalin in the 1930s, Putin has given up an increasingly elusive hope for allies abroad in exchange for modest territorial gains. By doing so, he chose isolation: call it “Putinism in one country.” Even if Russia avoids sanctions, it is now far less likely to attract much-needed foreign investment and has scared off its neighbors, including Ukraine.

Understanding this weakness should guide any Western response to the Crimean crisis. We know from Soviet history that choosing isolation is unlikely to succeed, no matter how many tanks or how much natural gas you have.

Instead of rushing to punish Russia, the West should just let Putinism defeat itself. Investors fleeing Russia in the wake of the invasion have already cost the country dearly.

The U.S. and EU should support Ukraine and other post-Soviet states fed up with Putin, drawing them closer to the West. An already weakened Putin will be left with nothing but a peninsula and the isolation he chose. It will breed stagnation, decline, and eventual collapse.

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What if Ukraine had nukes?

Ukraine is caught in a struggle between the E.U. and Russia over influence in Eastern Europe. The E.U. is vocally supporting the protesters, who  demand that President Yanukovich sign an association agreement with the E.U., echoing pro-European demands of the Orange Revolution of 2004. Russia, on the other hand, has granted Ukraine loans and cheap gas in order to keep the country in its own economic and political sphere of influence. This struggle over influence has led to significant tension between Moscow and Brussels.

Now imagine how much higher tensions would be if Ukraine had nuclear weapons.

As Steven Pfifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, points out in an article for the Brookings Institution, Ukraine could well have become a nuclear power. The young country inherited “176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 44 strategic bombers and some 1900 strategic nuclear warheads” from the Soviet Union. Luckily it agreed to surrender all its nuclear capabilities in the Tripartite Agreement of 1994. It would have been extremely expensive for Ukraine to keep its nuclear weapons anyway – but not impossible. Had Ukraine’s leadership chosen a different course, Pfifer writes, consequences could have been catastrophic:

“Had Ukraine tried to hold on to a nuclear arsenal, the last 20 years would have seen a very different history. It is hard to imagine the very positive developments that took place in U.S.-Ukrainian relations in the mid-1990s—greatly expanded reform assistance, frequent summit meetings, the establishment of a strategic partnership and the creation of the U.S.-Ukraine Binational Commission, chaired by Vice President Al Gore and President Leonid Kuchma—had Kyiv held on to nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons also would have thwarted the development of Ukraine’s relations with Europe. NATO would not have agreed to a “distinctive” NATO-Ukraine partnership or a NATO-Ukraine Council in 1997, and Kyiv would have had little reason to expect much from the European Union.

Moreover, no issue between Moscow and Kyiv would have proven more contentious. Had the Russians believed that Ukraine would seriously try to keep nuclear arms, they would have resorted to all kinds of diplomatic, political, economic and other pressure to force a change of policy course.  If—or when—the issue boiled over into a full-fledged crisis, the Ukrainians would have faced Russia alone, with no international support whatsoever.”

In 2014, a Ukrainian nuclear arsenal would have substantially raised the stakes in the Russian-European power struggle over Eastern Europe. Russia would certainly be more anxious over the possibility of losing Ukraine to the West, and perhaps more willing to intervene in its neighbor’s affairs. Nuclear weapons are often said to guarantee a country’s independence. But in Ukraine’s case, the opposite seems true.

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