Is the conviction that liberal market democracies are best placed to deliver freedom, security and prosperity – widespread after 1945, apparently confirmed after 1989 – being tested?
“The scariest aspect of the current political-economic crisis is that it tests this faith in democratic governance,” writes The Washington Post’s David Ignatius.
With the world’s leading democracies mired in economic crisis, some commentators fear that high-performing or resource-rich authoritarian regimes could benefit.
All of the options for resolving Europe’s financial crisis “involve momentous political, economic and technical uncertainties,” notes economist Robert Samuelson.
“What if the crisis spreads from Italy to Belgium or France? Would China contemplate bailing out Europe?” he asks. “If it did, there would be a stunning transfer of geopolitical power and prestige to China.”
But China faces serious legitimacy problems of its own, writes Stratfor’s George Friedman.
“The United States has substantial political legitimacy to draw on. Europe has less but its constituent nations are strong. China’s Communist Party is a formidable entity but it is no longer dealing with a financial crisis,” he writes. “It is dealing with a political crisis over the manner in which the political elite has managed the financial crisis.”
The elites in each society are being delegitimized, but with no coherent alterative, the impact of the crises will vary. “In the United States this would lead to paralysis. In Europe it would lead to a devolution to the nation-state. In China it would lead to regional fragmentation and conflict,” he concludes.
The last decade witnessed a stunning reversal in the fortunes of the world’s leading democracy notes Michael Cox, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.
“When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, its position in the world seemed completely unassailable,” he writes in an analysis for Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy institute.
Having defeated the political threat from Soviet communism and experienced one of the more successful economic spells in its 200 year history, the US appeared to have disproved the predictions of declinist commentators like Paul Kennedy.
“Nothing is predetermined,” Cox writes, noting that the US still retains that “rare combination of hard and soft power” and “remains the only serious power ….. with true global reach.” But, he suggests, the declinists may be proved right after all.
The financial stringency arising from the economic crisis will inevitably have an impact on foreign policy, analysts suggest, including the curtailing of idealistic projects of humanitarian intervention, nation-building and democracy promotion.
“We need to focus on making the right interventions, not forswearing them completely,” according to a new analysis. “In practice, this means a more substantial focus on East Asia and the serious security challenges there and less emphasis on the Middle East.”
Washington should only intervene in the Arab world to secure “concrete objectives such as protecting the free flow of oil from the region, preventing terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, and forestalling or, if necessary, containing nuclear proliferation as opposed to the more idealistic aspirations to transform the region’s societies.”
The US can simply no longer afford an assertive and idealistic foreign-policy it has pursued throughout the several decades since World War II, claims Michael Mandelbaum in The Frugal Superpower.
“In foreign affairs as in economic policy, the watchword was ‘more.’ That era has ended,” he writes. “The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the twenty-first century and beyond will be ‘less.’ ”
With US public opinion showing signs of isolationism and a marked reluctance to promote democracy overseas, the rest of the world will suffer from its withdrawal, Mandelbaum claims.
“Because what the United States does beyond its borders is, on the whole, extremely constructive, everyone, not only Americans, has a great deal to lose from a reduction in American power.”
But Georgetown University professor Robert J. Lieber observes that “America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated—by condescending French and British statesmen in the nineteenth century, by German, Japanese, and Soviet militarists in the twentieth, and by homegrown prophets of doom today:”
In the end, then, this country’s structural advantages matter much more than economic cycles, trade imbalances, or surging and receding tides of anti-Americanism. These advantages include America’s size, wealth, human and material resources, military strength, competitiveness, and liberal political and economic traditions, but also a remarkable flexibility, dynamism, and capacity for reinvention. Neither the rise of important regional powers, nor a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weaknesses seem likely to negate these advantages in ways the declinists anticipate, often with a fervor that makes their diagnoses and prescriptions resemble a species of wish fulfillment.
The US certainly faces profound challenges in an increasingly volatile world, notes Walter Russell Mead.
“This tsunami of change affects every society—and turbulent politics in so many countries make for a turbulent international environment. Managing, mastering and surviving change: These are the primary tasks of every ruler and polity,” he writes.
“The 19th century was more tumultuous than its predecessor; the 20th was more tumultuous still, and the 21st will be the fastest, most exhilarating and most dangerous ride the world has ever seen,” says Mead, a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College and editor-at-large of the American Interest.”Everybody is going to feel the stress, but the United States of America is better placed to surf this transformation than any other country. Change is our home field. It is who we are and what we do.”
Similarly, as the Journal of Democracy’s Marc Plattner has noted – while the sustainability of authoritarian capitalism is yet to be established, liberal democracies have demonstrated the resilience and institutional flexibility required to withstand economic and other crises.