|Is this the age of the autocrat?
* Francis Fukuyama
* August 28, 2008
ARE WE entering the age of the autocrat? It's certainly tempting to think so after watching Russia's recent clobbering of Georgia. That invasion clearly marks a new phase in world politics, but it's a mistake to think that the future belongs to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and his fellow despots.
I'm particularly interested in trying to discern the shape of the new international moment, because in 1989 I wrote The End of History?, which argued that liberal ideas had conclusively triumphed at the end of the Cold War. But today, US dominance of the world system is slipping; Russia and China offer themselves as models, showing off a combination of authoritarianism and modernisation that offers a clear challenge to liberal democracy. They seem to have plenty of imitators.
Although General Pervez Musharraf finally agreed last week to step down as president of Pakistan, the country has been ruled dictatorially since 1999. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe refuses to give way despite having lost an election. In the Andean region of Latin America, democratic freedoms are being eroded by populist, democratically elected presidents such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Take all this together, and various writers have suggested that we are now witnessing a return to the Cold War, the return of history or, at a minimum, a return to a 19th-century world of clashing great powers.
Not so fast. We are certainly moving into what has been called a "post-American" world. But while bullies can still throw their weight around, democracy and capitalism still have no real competitors. The facile historical analogies to earlier eras imply that "authoritarian government" constitutes a clearly defined type of regime — one that's aggressive abroad, abusive at home and inevitably dangerous to world order. In fact, today's authoritarian governments have little in common, save their lack of democratic institutions. Few have the combination of brawn, cohesion and ideas required to truly dominate the global system, and none dreams of overthrowing the globalised economy.
There's a big difference between those who run strong, coherent states and those who preside over weak, incompetent or corrupt ones. Musharraf was able to rule Pakistan for almost a decade only because the Pakistani army, his base of support, is the most cohesive institution in a state that's otherwise a basket case. Zimbabwe is in even worse shape, with Mugabe presiding over horrific economic collapse.
Today's autocrats can also prove surprisingly weak when it comes to ideas and ideologies. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Mao's China were particularly dangerous because they were built on powerful ideas with potentially universal appeal, which is why we found Soviet arms and advisers showing up in places such as Nicaragua and Angola. But this sort of ideological tyrant no longer bestrides the world stage.
Despite recent authoritarian advances, liberal democracy remains the strongest, most broadly appealing idea out there. Most autocrats, including Putin and Chavez, still feel that they have to conform to the outward rituals of democracy even as they gut its substance. Even China's Hu Jintao felt compelled to talk about democracy in the run-up to Beijing's Olympic Games. And Musharraf proved enough of a democrat to let himself be driven from office by the threat of impeachment.
If today's autocrats are willing to bow to democracy, they are eager to grovel to capitalism. It's hard to see how we can be entering a new Cold War when China and Russia have both happily accepted the capitalist half of the partnership between capitalism and democracy. (Mao and Stalin, by contrast, pursued self-defeating, autarkic economic policies.) The Chinese Communist Party's leadership recognises that its legitimacy depends on continued breakneck growth. In Russia, the economic motivation for embracing capitalism is much more personal: Putin and much of the Russian elite have benefited enormously from their control of natural resources and other assets.
Democracy's only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism. Indeed, one of the world's most dangerous nation-states today is Iran, run by extremist Shiite mullahs. But Sunni radicalism has been remarkably ineffective in actually taking control of a nation-state, due to its propensity to devour its own potential supporters.
In lieu of big ideas, Russia and China are driven by nationalism, which takes quite different forms in each country. Today's Russia is still very different from the former Soviet Union. Putin has been called a modern-day tsar, which is far closer to the mark than misguided comparisons to Stalin or Hitler. Tsarist Russia was a great power with limited ambitions that became an integrated member of the European state system of the 18th and 19th centuries even as it crushed the weak states on its border