We’ve heard about the new authoritarianism, the rise of the rest, the reputed appeal of the China model, and other challenges to the liberal democratic idea. But is it really the case that the world’s leading democracy “is in an advanced state of cultural decadence” and “has more in common with a failed state than a democracy.”
Heard it all before, says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international Affairs at Georgetown University. The celebrated political scientist Samuel Huntington identified five spells of contemporary declinism, he notes: in 1957–58 after the Soviets launched Sputnik; in 1969–71 when President Richard M. Nixon dropped the gold standard; in 1973–74, with the Yom Kippur War and subsequent oil shock; in the late 1970s after Vietnam, Watergate, and renewed Soviet aggression; and in 1987, with massive budget and trade deficits, the rise of Japan, and the October stock market crash.
Yet, the decade ended not with the demise of the US,” he observes, “but with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and an emerging consensus about American primacy and unipolarity.”
The difference this time around, analysts suggest, is the rise of China which represents a more serious economic threat than Japan did in the 1980s and a more compelling political alternative that the Soviet Union. But China also carries systemic vulnerabilities, says Lieber, including profound demographic, environmental and economic challenges.
“In addition, it remains far from certain that the political model of authoritarian rule employed by the Communist Party can be sustained, especially as China’s population becomes more educated and increases its access to independent sources of information,” writes Lieber, “Widespread official corruption is a source of growing resentment. An economic crisis could trigger serious political unrest, and the legitimacy of Communist Party rule could be shaken.”
Warnings of the demise of democracy are a hardy perennial for Western commentators, but there does appear to be a looming battle of ideas between democracy and authoritarianism. With the waning of the Third Wave of democracy, a backlash against free trade, globalization and democracy promotion itself “is entirely possible – maybe even likely,” according to Gideon Rachman’s recently-published Zero-Sum World: Politics, Power and Prosperity after the Crash.
Yet, as the Journal of Democracy’s Marc Plattner has noted – the sustainability of authoritarian capitalism is yet to be established, while liberal democracies have demonstrated the political resilience and institutional flexibility to withstand economic and other crises. What’s more, the Community of Democracies is finally getting its act together, we heard this week, with a newfound assertiveness that contests the notion that democracy is losing its global appeal and credibility.
Similarly, Lieber notes, the United States “retains far more power resources than any of its potential challengers [and] possesses an enormous advantage in its flexibility and adaptability, and while its sometimes dysfunctional democratic political system is much criticized, throughout its history it has ultimately shown itself able to act in response to crises.”
He concludes: America’s core problems, especially those of deficit and debt, are manageable provided there is the political will to tackle them. Matters of policy, public choice, and leadership are critical, but there is nothing inherent in its domestic society or in the international arena that precludes the US from continuing to play a leading world role.