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Democracy, Limited

Published: May 18, 2008

When Bill Clinton was in the twilight months of his presidency, he made a compelling case that by integrating China into the world economy we would gradually undercut the viability of its authoritarian government. It was only a matter of time, he told an audience of American and Chinese students in March 2000, before a Net-savvy, rising middle class would begin to demand its rights, because "when individuals have the power not just to dream, but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say."

Francesco Bongiorni

THE RETURN OF HISTORY AND THE END OF DREAMS

By Robert Kagan.

116 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $19.95.

 

Five years later, in his second Inaugural Address, George W. Bush added a more martial edge to the prediction that democracy was on an unstoppable tear around the world. It was only 22 months after the invasion of Iraq. Describing a grander justification for his mission, Bush declared that in a post-Iraq world it would become the mission of the United States to defeat tyranny and spread his "freedom agenda" around the world. Sovereign borders of authoritarian states, he made clear, would be no barrier.

Robert Kagan, in a brief and wonderfully argued volume on how the world has a nasty habit of spinning off in its own directions, has a message for Americans of all political stripes: Good luck with that one. The cold war may be over, he declares in "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," but anyone who thinks the result was really "the end of history" - a consensus that liberal democracy is the future - should take another look. "The world has become normal again," Kagan says in the first sentence of what is less a book than an extended essay. Deeper in, he puts his argument more plainly: "Autocracy is making a comeback."

Kagan's arguments have particular relevance these days because he is one of the few foreign policy intellectuals that Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, seems to respect. When McCain talks about assembling a "league of democracies" to get things done, that's Kagan-talk for how to deal with a world where the United Nations Security Council is "hopelessly paralyzed" and NATO is happiest parachuting into territory where there is little chance of hearing gunfire. (He treads lightly on NATO's timidity in Afghanistan but has an understandable excuse: He lives in Brussels because his wife, Victoria Nuland, a former aide to Vice President Cheney, is the American ambassador to NATO.) A scholar and regular contributor to The Washington Post's op-ed page, Kagan is the rare happy neocon these days, because he steered clear of direct participation in the Bush administration's more disastrous adventures and can now offer advice to the incoming cleanup crews.

Kagan's title, of course, is designed to tweak Francis Fukuyama and others who, in a fit of optimism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, declared not only the end to ideological struggle but "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." That belief was an underpinning of the Bush doctrine. As the White House correspondent for The New York Times for the first six years of the Bush presidency, I would be a rich man if I had collected a Russian ruble, a Chinese yuan and an Iranian rial every time I sat through a speech in which Bush brought the faithful to their feet promising a prolonged struggle to confront every regime that represses God-given rights to freedom.

Kagan barely mentions Bush - his wife's boss, after all - as he brutally dissects the argument that freedom is still on an unstoppable march. "Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible, after all," Kagan notes. "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."

In the world according to Kagan, 20 years after the cold war's end there is a new divide - just one that isn't as neat as the one defined by the Iron Curtain. European democracies and Asian democracies have joined a floating, usually pro-American coalition, tempered by their economic interests. Increasingly, they are facing off against authoritarian regimes in Russia and China that maintain ties with Iran, bail out North Korea and cozy up to dictatorships in Africa, which are happy to sell oil to countries that won't make them sit through tiresome lectures about human rights. (Of course, we cozy up to Saudi Arabia, and Bush has been pretty disciplined about hitting the mute button on his lectures about liberty when the Al-Saud family is in the room.)

On the other side, the Warsaw Pact may be gone, but a more subtle, less militarily driven grouping is rising in its place: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Russians celebrate it as an anti-NATO alliance; the Chinese see it as another vehicle, along with the cash generated by a huge trade surplus, for spreading their influence in Asia and drawing in the autocracies of central Asia. (Iran just applied for membership.) Yet it is barely on the American radar screen.

 

For Kagan, such groups are a small collection of malignant cells, slowly turning into a new form of life. "It may not come to war," he writes, "but the global competition between democratic and autocratic governments will become a dominant feature of the 21st-century world."

He may be right, but what's missing from this otherwise striking thesis is much discussion of what to do about the countries that walk both sides of the line. Pakistan is now the classic example: designated a "major non-NATO ally" by the Bush administration, it seems to take that alliance seriously on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while it flirts with the Taliban on nights and weekends.

And what of India, the world's largest democracy? It has embraced the Burmese junta and does energy deals with the Iranians. Much as during the cold war, the return of history has brought with it a return of unaligned, partially aligned and reluctantly aligned nations.

Kagan's prescription for the future is that league of democracies McCain calls for, an intellectual improvement over the short-lived "coalition of the willing" of the Bush years. To make the league harmonious, the next American president will have to deal with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the discordant notes that have made it so easy for America's opponents to mock the "freedom agenda."

But that's the easy part. Far harder is grappling with the American impulse - seen in Bosnia during the Clinton years and Iraq in the Bush years - to assert the right of the "international community" to reach deep inside national borders and oust leaders who repress their own people. No American president will want to give up that option. And the world's autocrats, including those in Moscow and Beijing, will remain deeply suspicious, as Kagan notes, that "the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow."