04 May 2008

Next: the War on Autocracy?

You'll be happy to hear that the terrorists cannot win. That's the conclusion of Robert Kagan, who reasons that, since Islamists want to take the world back 1,400 years, that just can't happen. It looks like simplistic reasoning, but at least Kagan isn't as alarmist about terrorism as some people. His vision of the future differs somewhat from Philip Bobbitt's. While Bobbitt worries about loose-knit "market state" terrorists, Kagan is bugged by the persistence of nation states, at least certain ones.

Kagan has published a new book called The Return of History and the End of Dreams, which was digested in a recent issue of The New Republic. He takes another kick at the dead horse that was Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis. To bring everyone up to speed, Fukuyama theorized that the end of the Cold War meant an end to any debate over the best form of economic and political organization; it was going to be liberal capitalism for everyone in the long run. Kagan only states the obvious by reminding us that this is a failed prophecy. His own neocon colors show when he declares a new great debate under way, between the forces of "democracy" and those of "autocracy."

Democracy, as you might guess, is embodied by the U.S. and the E.U., as well as Japan and India. They are the good guys. The bad guys, or at least the worst, are China and Russia. They are "autocracies." That news surprised me. I understood the word "autocracy" to refer to one-man rule on the model of an absolute monarchy, so that a Romanov tsar, for instance, was called "autocrat of all the Russias." Now Vladimir Putin may play the strongman role in Russia, but calling him an autocrat, a term also used for Joseph Stalin, seems a bit of a stretch. It's even more of a stretch to refer to the nearly faceless bureaucracy that runs China as an "autocracy," especially compared to the personality-cult days of Chairman Mao.

The way Kagan seems to see it, a country is an autocracy if it rigs the system to prevent an opposition party from taking over the government. He wants us to understand that autocracy is a kind of ideology, which he defines as follows:

The rulers of Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. They believe their large and fractious nations need order and stability to prosper. They believe that the vacillation and chaos of democracy would impoverish and shatter their nations, and in the case of Russia [under Yeltsin] that it already did so. They believe that strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to be powerful and respected in the world, capable of safeguarding and advancing their interests.

Kagan admits that there's nothing new about this. It was pretty much the Western tradition until the American and French revolutions broke out. You can actually catch a small echo of it in the words of our own Founders when they worry about the influence of "faction," which later came to be accepted as the "party system." Other countries have never rejected the idea that "faction" is illegitimate. "Faction" and "dissent" are not the same. The problem with authoritarian states is that they confuse the two, but democratic republics can also confuse dissent with "subversion" or "treason." What distinguishes the "democracies" is their willingness to allow a complete albeit peaceful turnover of the government, the replacement of bureaucracy belonging to one faction with another. The price we pay is "partisanship," the tendency to put the electoral interests of parties over a theoretically objective national interest. By contrast, authoritarian governments identify themselves completely with the state ("L'Etat, c'est moi."). Any movement that seeks to completely replace the governing apparatus is self-evidently factional and subversive. There can be dissent within the governing apparatus itself (even Leninists in principle practice "democratic centralism," permitting principled debate within the Party but forbidding dispute once a decision is reached) but if dissidents choose to work outside that apparatus they necessarily appear subversive and self-serving from the authoritarian perspective.

To differing degrees, China and Russia are authoritarian regimes. I prefer that to "autocracy," not just because I think Kagan's usage is inaccurate, but also because he uses it as a scare word a la "Islamofascism." However realistic he wants to sound, he calls regimes "autocracies" because he wants us to think of them as the enemy, if not as outright evil. He predicts that they will often prove to be enemies of the democracies and will stand in the way of democratic wars against terror when it serves their selfish national and personal interests. He also argues that they'll be enemies out of a sense of self-preservation.

Kagan seems to agree with Bobbitt that democracies cannot leave non-democratic entities alone. He previously wrote a history attempting to prove that the U.S. has always been an interventionist power, and he expects the country to keep behaving that way. The "autocracies" have responded by becoming dogmatic defenders of national sovereignty, and are "pushing back" against pressure from the democracies by supporting smaller "autocracies" like Sudan, Myanmar and Iran (the last of which no objective observer would call autocratic even by Kagan's debased standard). Thanks to the growing wealth of Russia and China, he claims, "Autocracy is making a comeback" and "a global competition [of ideas] is under way." It's an odd competition in that, to my knowledge, no one in Russia or China is arguing that "autocracy" or whatever they choose to call it should be adopted by the U.S. or the E.U. countries. Nor, to my knowledge, are the two big powers trying to replace any existing governments with "autocracies." In fact, Kagan doesn't ever accuse them of doing so. But by the mere fact of their refusing to conform with democracy as defined by the U.S., "the global competition between democratic governments and autocratic governments will become a dominating feature of the twenty-first century world."

It should be obvious by now that this competition exists only in the heads of Kagan and like-minded colleagues who can't let go of the idea of "liberating" the entire world so that no border, indeed, no door is shut to them. These are the people I described before as being unable to accept the idea that there are parts of the world where they are not welcome. They lament the plight of the poor people and suffering dissidents in these countries, but however sincere they are about that (and in most cases we shouldn't doubt them), it should also be obvious that when they demand that the rights of Americans apply in Russia or China, they're also demanding that they have rights in those countries, even to the utmost of toppling governments. There need not be any irrepressible conflict (to use an old American term) between the U.S. and the authoritarian states as long as we acknowledge that the whole world doesn't belong to "the individual," and that nations are organic realities that have interests and rights that may not always override but always must be weighed alongside the rights of "the individual." In short, if we accept the same principle that China and Russia already accept, that the internal affairs of other countries are none of our business, we'll get along with most of them much better.

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