Has the global spread of democracy run out of steam? For long, but especially since the end of the Cold War, democracy and free markets were touted as the twin answers to most ills. But while free-market tenets have come under strain in the present international financial crisis, with the very countries that espoused the self-regulating power of markets taking the lead to embrace principles of financial socialism to bail out their troubled corporate colossals, the spread of democracy is encountering increasingly strong head winds.
The strong-arm tactics Iranian authorities recently employed to quell demonstrations challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election were no different than the use of state power by Burma’s junta to suppress monk-led protests nearly two years ago. If there was any expectation of a “green revolution” in Iran or a “saffron revolution” in Burma, that hope lies crushed, at least for the time being. Indeed, the demonstrations that broke out in Iran represented not a democratic uprising but a struggle for ascendancy among those empowered by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Between 1988 and 1990, as the Cold War was winding down, prodemocracy protests broke out in several parts of the world — from China and Burma to Eastern Europe. The protests helped spread political freedoms in Eastern Europe and inspired popular movements elsewhere that overturned dictatorships in countries as disparate as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Chile. After the Soviet disintegration, even Russia emerged as a credible candidate for democratic reform.
The overthrow of a number of totalitarian or autocratic regimes helped shift the global balance of power in favor of the forces of democracy. But not all the prodemocracy movements were successful. And the “color revolutions” only instilled greater caution among surviving authoritarian regimes, prompting them to set up countermeasures to foreign-inspired democratization initiatives. As the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall nears, it is evident that the spread of democracy has stalled.
Democracy may have become the norm in much of Europe, but in the world’s largest and most densely populated continent, Asia, only a small minority of states are true democracies, despite the eastward movement of power and influence. The strategy to use market forces to open up tightly centralized political systems hasn’t worked in multiple cases in Asia — the pivot of global strategic change.
Political homogeneity may be as incongruous as the parallel pursuit of market capitalism and political autocracy. But where authoritarianism is deeply entrenched, a marketplace of goods and services does not allow a marketplace of political ideas.
In fact, one autocracy distinctly has emerged stronger and wealthier. That autocracy — China — is the world’s largest and oldest, with its leadership now preparing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. To help glorify the communist revolution, the leadership has planned a mammoth military parade — the largest ever — along with a repeat of some of the Beijing Olympics glitz at the Oct. 1 anniversary.
Those Olympic-style celebrations would serve as a double reminder: China has not only weathered the international democratization push, but also has emerged as a potential peer rival to America. Today there is talk of even a U.S.-China diarchy — a G-2 — ruling the world.
China’s spectacular rise as a global power in just one generation under authoritarian rule represents the first direct challenge to liberal democracy since the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Through its remarkable success story, China advertises that authoritarianism is a more rapid and smoother way to prosperity and stability than the tumult of electoral politics.
Freedom advocates in autocracies may be inspired and energized by the international success stories of democratic transition. But the regimes that employ brute power and censorship to subdue protests and dissidence draw encouragement from the China model.
Then there is the specter of democracy in retreat, highlighted by the developments in Russia and the regressive path of some of the color revolutions, not to mention Central America’s first military coup since the end of the Cold War in Honduras. The “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan has turned sour in the face of flawed elections, assassination of political rivals and growing influence of organized crime. Georgia’s “rose revolution” also has wilted under President Mikheil Saakashvili’s increasing despotism.
In Russia, the political system has moved toward greater centralized control and limits on civil liberties. This mirrors the centralization in a number of Asian states, with some practicing soft authoritarianism and the others hard authoritarianism.
China, still in the “hard authoritarianism” category, has stayed abreast with technological innovations to help deny protesters the latest means to denounce injustice. The widespread use of Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging and cellular phones by Iranian protesters cannot be emulated by Chinese dissidents because Beijing employs cyber police to regulate Web sites, patrol cyber cafes, monitor cellular phone text messaging and track down Internet activists. And at the first sign of trouble in Tibet or Xinjiang, authorities cut off Internet and SMS services there. But after the 2008 Tibetan uprising, 2009 is becoming the year of the Uighur revolt, threatening to mar China’s Oct. 1 fiesta. Unlike Iran’s clerically controlled democracy, China holds no elections to elect its leaders, not even sham elections.
More broadly, the U.S. occupation of Iraq under the garb of spreading democracy as well as excesses like Guantanamo Bay and illegal CIA detention camps overseas had the effect of undermining the credibility of democratic values by turning them into geopolitical tactics.
The point is that liberal democratic norms, far from becoming universal, have come under attack at a time when a qualitative reordering of global power is empowering non-Western economies. That raises the possibility that, in the coming decades, economies driven by a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism could gain the upper hand.
A divide centered on political values will carry major implications for international relations because, as modern history attests, regime character can impede observance of global norms and rules. And even if democratic governments are not more wedded to peace than autocracies, it is well established that democracies rarely go to war with each other. Today, the main challenge to the global spread of democracy comes from the model blending political authoritarianism and state-steered capitalism together.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins).