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Democracy versus autocracy
In the three decades after World War II, amid the breakup of the European empires in Asia and Africa, dozens of new countries faced a choice in establishing their systems of political economy. One alternative was the capitalist, democratic system of the United States and the West. The other was the socialist, autocratic system of the Soviet Union and China.
Each side touted its system's virtues. Americans claimed that their combination of capitalism and democracy afforded the greatest scope for individual freedom, with capitalism maximizing freedom in the economic realm and democracy freedom in the political realm. Americans also boasted that the United States was the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
The Soviets countered that American wealth had required centuries to accumulate and was built on the backs of African slaves, indentured servants of various races and sundry other oppressed peoples. American freedom was a myth for any not in the small capitalist elite. By contrast, Soviet socialism treated all equally and, in the short space of a few decades, had lifted Russia from poverty to superpower status.
For most of the world, the essence of the Cold War was this ideological struggle. The arsenals of America and the Soviet Union targeted each other, but the ideas of the two countries targeted humanity at large.
Many of the new countries preferred not to choose. They sought a third way, a path between the American system and the Soviet system. The term "third world" was applied to this non-aligned group. India was the largest country of this non-bloc bloc, but the concept of non-alignment took hold across much of Asia and Africa and in parts of Latin America.
The American system won the Cold War when the Soviet system collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even Russia and China appeared convinced that capitalism was the path forward. Mass privatization of formerly public assets in Russia gave rise to the crony capitalism that characterizes that country today. Market reforms in China produced the most rapid extended period of economic growth in any large country in human history.
The conversion to capitalism in Russia was accompanied by a conversion to democracy. Or so it seemed at the time. In fact, democracy never took deep root, and the autocracy of Vladimir Putin began to emerge a mere decade after the demise of the old Soviet system.
Democracy never did emerge in China, although Western theorists kept hoping it would, as a consequence of the growth of a Chinese middle class. If anything, China under Xi Jinping is moving in the opposite, anti-democratic direction.
President Joe Biden has reported a conversation with President Xi in which the latter declared that autocracy was better suited than democracy to the challenges of the 21st century. "Game on," Xi seemed to be saying. Let the better system win.
Whether this constituted a new Cold War was for the IR theorists to debate. For Americans the challenge was to demonstrate that America's capitalist democracy could live up to all the good things Americans had been saying about it for more than a century. Capitalism took a serious hit in the financial fiasco of 2008 and after. It eventually recovered, but the unprecedented inequality in wealth and power it was producing left fewer and fewer people to sing its praises.
American democracy looked even worse. The killing of George Floyd symbolized enduring inequalities in treatment of different racial groups. The political wars over masking and vaccination amid the covid pandemic called into serious doubt America's ability to apply reason and science to basic matters of public life. The refusal of ousted President Donald Trump and his many followers to accept the results of the 2020 election boded ill for future elections. A new spate of mass shootings underlined the failure of American democracy to accomplish the most fundamental task of governance: providing domestic safety—for school children, of all people.
President Biden apparently told President Xi that he was wrong—that democracy is the wave of the future. Having devoted his career to public service, Biden almost certainly believes this.
Unfortunately, Biden isn't the one who needs convincing. The world is watching. People in other countries will make their own choices. At the moment, the choice America offers isn't particularly attractive.
To be sure, people aren’t risking their lives to get into China the way they are to get into the United States. By that measure, the American system still has substantial appeal. But migrants, though large in absolute numbers, remain a small proportion of the overall human population. The more important question is whether people who remain in other countries will want to model their systems on America's.
Suppose a referendum could be held in each country around the world, and the question was: Would you rather have America's system and performance over the last forty years, or China's?
I don't know how the votes would fall. No one does. It perhaps goes without saying that autocratic regimes like China's would never allow such a referendum. But then neither does America's democratic system, as currently configured.
I suspect that comparatively wealthy countries, most of which have systems more or less like America's, would vote to stick with those systems. Poorer countries, by contrast, might value economic growth over political liberties.
Game on, indeed.