After the Wall: A Debate Over Democracy's Reach

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To many observers, the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, symbolized the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets over their last serious ideological rival.

Two decades and one financial crisis later, a new debate is growing over whether that assessment was premature.

Some Western thinkers now argue that democracy is in a new competition with unexpectedly robust authoritarian regimes over which form of government can better deliver prosperity, security and national strength.

Critics of that view argue that democracy has far better serviced the needs of people and greatly boosted living standards through much of Central and Eastern Europe. They add that it remains to be seen whether autocrats anywhere can satisfy people's aspirations in the long run.

In the summer of 1989, American political economist Francis Fukuyama foresaw the "End of History" in a landmark essay, meaning that no credible alternative had survived to political and economic liberty as practiced in the U.S. and Western Europe. All that remained, he argued, was for other countries to catch up.

Today, history is back, according to writers such as Israeli military historian Azar Gat. In his new book, "Victorious and Vulnerable," he says that although democracy is the most benign system in history, it will have to demonstrate its advantages all over again in the face of its latest rival: authoritarian capitalism, as practiced by self-confident powers such as China and Russia.

In retrospect, 1989 led to the near-universal adoption of capitalism, but the same can't be said of democracy.

Indeed, by switching from Communist economics to capitalism -- albeit a state-controlled kind that Adam Smith wouldn't recognize -- China and Russia have adopted "a far more efficient brand of authoritarianism" than they had during the Cold War, says Prof. Gat.

Other political scientists say it is too early to tell whether the two powers really represent an alternative path of development to the West.

"It is by no means certain that China can maintain its existing structure of power," says Niall Ferguson, an economic historian who teaches at Harvard Business School.

What's more, today's Russia may be growing more assertive, but it's still a far weaker power than the Soviet Union that preceded it, while two of the major emerging economies -- India and Brazil -- are in the democratic camp, Prof. Ferguson points out.

Part of the recent strength of autocratic rulers in Russia, Iran and Venezuela derived from high oil prices, says Tom Carothers, head of the democracy project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But when commodity prices go down, they hurt," he says.

Liberal democracy remains the system that's best suited to protecting individual rights, says Mr. Carothers: "People don't like to be mistreated by their government."...

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