The paradox of the new world order emerging from the recession is that the global spread of democracy and capitalism marks “the end of the West” as a political actor, writes Ivan Krastev. The reluctance of newly emerging democracies to promote democracy is an indicator that the nature of political regimes will be an unreliable predictor of geopolitical alliances, he argues in this extract from an article in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review. The current global political landscape is defined by the blurred borders between democracies and authoritarian capitalism, rather than the triumph of democracy or the resurgence of authoritarianism, while a passing glance at China, India, Russia, and the Muslim world makes clear that ethnic nationalism and religion are major ideological driving forces shaping global politics.
A decade ago, Washington’s power was best demonstrated by its capacity to shape the choices of others, making world politics look like a contest of who imitates America best — its economic model, educational institutions, and entertainment industry. Today America’s power is manifested not by its capacity to capture the imagination of others but by Washington’s capacity to load its problems on others.
The newly-found weakness of the U.S. is not only in the imagination of the declinists but in the erosion of America’s economic power, the declining social mobility in American society, and the citizens’ loss of trust in American institutions. The crisis that American society is going through is not unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean that this time it cannot end up differently. Robert Kagan is right to argue that America cannot turn its back on the world and its problems, but it is also unrealistic to believe that America’s reputation will not be hurt by the way others view the performance of the American economic and political system. Falling in love with the idea that American power is in decline presents a clear and present danger for American society. But the denial of America’s visible loss of influence cannot be the alternative to decline.
Kagan envisions international liberal order as a post-Soviet world disciplined by the moral clarity of the Cold War ideological confrontation between freedom and tyranny and dominated by a single power: the United States. He believes in a world divided between the league of democracies and the axis of autocracies. But could the Cold War’s ideological frame be preserved in the world of global capitalism, where money, technologies, and ideas are changing hands every minute? In a world in which the sons and daughters of authoritarian leaders are studying and living in the West, in which the money of authoritarian governments is managed by Western bankers, in which American voting machines are most likely manufactured in China?
Between 1917 and 1989, ideologies replaced national passions at the center of world politics. But this very exceptional period ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War was a blessing for the West because it left capitalism and democracy without an alternative, but it was also a curse because it forced the alternatives to democracy and capitalism to mutate (taking the forms of democratic or market institutions) and because it profoundly changed the relations between the elites and societies.
The Cold War was a time when the democratic West successfully dismantled the borders between social classes while strengthening and successfully defending the borders between the states — and in particular between free nations and communist dictatorships. In the days of the Cold War, political and business elites haunted by the specter of the communist takeover were actively cooperating with the society at large, exposing themselves to the constraints of democratic politics. In the past two decades, however, the reverse is the trend.
The borders between states are gradually losing their importance while the borders between social classes have become much more difficult to cross. Globalization dramatically increased the number of middle-class people in the world, but it has eroded the foundations of the middle-class societies that were the distinctive feature of the Cold War West. Social inequality has increased in most Western democracies, and social mobility has declined.
What many of the European critics of American power have discovered is that a world order built on seemingly unassailable American power was the one most hospitable to the European project. It was America’s global hegemony that enabled the European Union to emerge on the world stage as an attractive power in the first place.
American hegemony made room for the European Union to experiment with being an unconventional, non-nation-state actor and freed it to concentrate on its internal scope and institutional architecture. America’s security umbrella, not least, allowed the European Union to become a global power without needing to become a military one. But while Europeans are nostalgic for the American world of yesterday, they do not believe that this is the world of tomorrow. Europeans have also lost their conviction that the eu is the governance model for the world to come.
A decade ago, European public opinion assumed that globalization would prompt the decline of states as key international actors and nationalism as a seminal political motivator. But what until just yesterday seemed universally applicable begins to look exceptional today. Even a passing glance at China, India, and Russia, not to speak of the vast reaches of the Muslim world, makes clear that both ethnic nationalism and religion are back as major ideological driving forces shaping global politics. Post-modernism, post-nationalism, and secularism are making Europe different from the rest of the world, not making the rest of the world more like Europe.
What makes Kagan an optimist is his conviction that “the present world order — characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current global crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers — reflects American principles and preferences and was built and preserved by American power . . . If America’s power declines, this world order will decline with it.” In short, America is not in decline because the world cannot afford it. The very survival of the liberal international order is a proof of America’s strength.
It is true that the determinism of the pessimists who have already accepted America’s decline as inevitable is not much different from the determinism of the optimists who two decades ago endorsed the idea of the end of history. But while it is wrong to bet on America’s decline, it is fair to observe that nothing seems further from America in the 1990s than America today. In the past decade, America’s global influence has suffered substantial setbacks. America has experienced the limits of hard power and the erosion of soft power.
Newly emerging democratic powers like India and Brazil are very reluctant to make democracy promotion the center of their foreign policy decision-making. Old-fashioned ideas of national interest, but also postcolonial solidarities, seem much better predicators for the foreign policy rationale of the new democratic powers.
So the world of tomorrow is unlikely to be disciplined by the Cold War corset. It is not only that the new democratic powers are unenthusiastic about making democracy promotion the defining feature of their international behavior, but also the fact that some of the recent democratic explosions in the world are likely to end with the establishment of illiberal and anti-Western regimes unattractive to American and European publics.
China is a rising global power, but China is not the ideological “other” Kagan hopes for. The citizens of the democratic West do not see the world of authoritarian capitalism as a threat similar to the Soviet one. The Soviet Union was not simply a nondemocratic power. It was a hostile political universe. It was a power with the ambition to conquer the world and to remake it in its own way. None of the current spoilers in international politics has this combination of ideological vision and military and political power.
The paradox of the new world order emerging out of the ongoing recession is that the global spread of democracy and capitalism, instead of signaling “the end of history,” marked “the end of the West” as a political actor constructed in the days of the Cold War. In the decades to come the nature of the political regimes will be an unreliable predictor for the geopolitical alliances to emerge; and it is the blurring borders between democracies and authoritarian capitalism, rather than the triumph of democracy or the resurgence of authoritarianism, that defines the global political landscape.
So this is the paradoxical nature of our new world — the spread of democracy and capitalism makes it more difficult if not impossible to build lasting value-based coalitions. At the same time, it makes it possible for the international liberal order to survive even in the case that the West’s power declines and the powers of authoritarian capitalism enjoy a temporary rise.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is a member of the board of the European Council on Foreign Relations.