Global spread of democracy comes under challenge

The Rise of Authoritarian Capitalism

A fusion of autocratic politics and state-guided capitalism has emerged as the leading challenge to international spread of democratic values.

Brahma Chellaney
The Economic Times
Has the global spread of democracy run out of steam? For long, democracy and free markets were touted as the twin answer to most ills. But while free-market tenets have come under strain in the present international financial crisis, with the very countries that espoused the self-regulating power of markets taking the lead to embrace principles of financial socialism to bail out their troubled corporate colossuses, the spread of democracy is encountering increasingly strong headwinds.

Between 1988 and 1990, as the Cold War was winding down, pro-democracy protests broke out in several parts of the world — from China and Burma to Eastern Europe. The protests helped spread political freedoms in Eastern Europe and inspired popular movements elsewhere that overturned dictatorships in countries as disparate as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Chile. After the Soviet disintegration, even Russia emerged as a credible candidate for democratic reform.

The overthrow of a number of totalitarian or autocratic regimes did shift the global balance of power in favour of the forces of democracy. But not all the pro-democracy movements were successful. And the subsequent “colour revolutions” only instilled greater caution among the surviving authoritarian regimes, prompting them to set up countermeasures to foreign-inspired democratisation initiatives.

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of democracy unmistakably has stalled. Democracy may have become the norm in much of Europe, but in the world’s largest and most densely populated continent, Asia, only a small minority of states are true democracies, despite the eastward movement of global power and influence. The strategy to use market forces to open up tightly centralised political systems hasn’t worked in multiple cases in Asia — the pivot of global strategic change.

Political homogeneity may be as inharmonious with economic advance as the parallel pursuit of market capitalism and political autocracy. But where authoritarianism is deeply entrenched, a marketplace of goods and services simply does not allow a marketplace of political ideas.

In fact, one such model distinctly has emerged stronger. China is now the world’s largest and oldest autocracy, with leadership there now preparing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. To help glorify the communist revolution, the leadership has planned a mammoth military parade — the largest ever — along with a repeat of some of the Beijing Olympics glitz at the October 1 anniversary. Those Olympic-style celebrations will serve as a double reminder: China has not only weathered the international democratisation push, but also has emerged as a potential peer rival to America. Today there is talk of even a US-China diarchy — a G-2 — ruling the world.

China’s spectacular rise as a global power in just one generation under authoritarian rule represents the first direct challenge to liberal democracy since the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Through its remarkable success story, China advertises that authoritarianism is a more rapid and smoother way to prosperity and stability than the tumult of electoral politics. Freedom advocates in existing autocracies may be inspired and energised by the international success stories of democratic transition. But the regimes that employ brute power and censorship to subdue dissidence clearly draw encouragement from the China model.

Then there is the spectre of democracy in retreat, highlighted by the developments in Russia and the regressive path of some of the “colour revolutions,” not to mention Central America’s first military coup since the end of the Cold War in Honduras. The “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan has turned sour in the face of rigged elections, assassination of rivals and growing influence of organised crime. Georgia’s “rose revolution” also has wilted under President Mikheil Saakashvili’s increasing despotism.

In Russia, government control has been extended to large swaths of the economy and the political opposition systematically undermined without reopening Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago. Such centralisation, though, is no different than in, say, Singapore and Malaysia, including the domination of one political party, the absence of diversified media, limits on public demonstrations and the writ of security services. But in contrast to Russia, Singapore and Malaysia have largely insulated themselves from official US criticism by serving western interests.

China, for its part, has stayed abreast with technological innovations to help deny dissidents the latest means to denounce injustice. The widespread use of Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging and cellular phones by Iranian protesters cannot be emulated by Chinese dissidents because Beijing employs cyberpolice to regulate websites, patrol cybercafés, monitor cellphone text messaging and track down internet activists. And unlike Iran’s clerically controlled democracy, China holds no elections to elect its leaders, not even sham elections.

More broadly, the US occupation of Iraq under the garb of spreading democracy as well as excesses like Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA detention camps overseas had the effect of undermining the credibility of democratic values by presenting them as a geopolitical tool. Today, liberal democratic norms, far from becoming universal, have come under attack at a time when a qualitative reordering of global power is empowering non-western economies. That raises the possibility that, in the coming decades, economies driven by a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism could gain the upper hand.

A divide centred on political values will carry major geopolitical implications because, as modern history attests, regime character can impede observance of global norms and rules. Even if democratic governments are not more wedded to peace than autocracies, it is well established that democracies rarely go to war with each other. Today, the main challenge to the global spread of democracy comes from the model blending political authoritarianism and state-steered capitalism together. What if such authoritarian capitalism becomes the face of the future in large parts of the world?

The author is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.

(c) The Economic Times: September 17, 2009

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