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The global defeat of democracy: a scenario
(This is the first part of a larger essay developing my thinking on international politics today. The whole piece should serve as a backdrop to some more specific ideas on culture that I hope to work out next year. I’ve written other newsletters on democracy:
I’ll update this piece with links to the rest of this essay, once it is written.)
A new conflict is developing between Western democracies and non-Western autocracies. I think the democracies are likely to lose it.
Scientists distinguish between predictions and scenarios. Predictions are what you think will happen. Scenarios, like the ones climate modellers use, represent what will happen “if”. Climate models have a (relatively!) simple lever to change scenarios: how much greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. I don’t think there is any single, simple lever to improve democracy’s chances. Doing so will require the skills of politics: virtù to seize the kairos, the moment of opportunity. So what I outline below is more like a probabilistic prediction, or simply a warning.
To put my cards on the table, I write as a critical friend of democracy. I value not democracy itself but liberalism, a system of individual rights and freedoms. But democracy has traditionally been thought of as necessary for the long-run survival of liberalism — like a nest which keeps the egg of liberalism safe. On the other hand, democracy can also threaten liberal values, and that is clearly an issue today in the form of populists like Trump.
Actually Existing Democracies are pretty good places to live, and many of them have had some kind of democratic institutions for centuries. I am attached to these institutions and want them to succeed. But if they are incompatible with liberalism, then liberalism is more important.
Most people don’t see it that way. There is a lot of cheerleading for democracy, and not much for liberalism, which is disliked by a wide assortment of odd lots on the right and the left. One reason is that democracy is more concrete than liberalism. Democracy is a political system: it states who is in charge. Liberalism is not a system, but a set of qualities — there have been illiberal democracies and liberal autocracies. Many of those qualities, like the existence of the rule of law, are quite subtle. A country may have a large corpus of law, but if judges are venal or under the thumb of the executive, then there is no rule of law. In the same way, free speech may be written explicitly into a constitution, or it may be supported by a culture that recognizes its importance. Liberalism is hard to recognize and cheer for. Also, unlike democracy, it does not empower anyone — it is, almost by definition, a set of curbs on power. (Democracies have politicians, whose power depends on democracy’s continuance; so self-interest makes them loyal to it.) For these reasons liberalism is not often recognized as important. This makes it vulnerable. In theory, liberalism can exist without democracy, and it has done so in practice in some times and places. But if democracy loses this global conflict, liberalism is likely to be a casualty, especially because its opponents are neither liberal nor democratic.
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The struggle between democracy and its opponents does not exist by chance or ill-will. It reflects deep conflicts of interest. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — call them the CRINKlies — want to change the international system in their favour. The West wants to keep the system that favours it. Any international system of rules favours some countries more than others. Since 1990 the US has been the world’s policeman. It and its allies got some benefits from that. Now its commitment to that is weakening, and others are auditioning for the job. We are moving into a “multipolar world”. That does not mean nice, peaceful pluralism. It means conflict.
What do I mean by defeat? There may be a hot war between America and China and their respective allies. If so, we will all lose. More likely there will be a new Cold War, featuring ideological competition, subversion, proxy wars and economic conflict as each side tries to expand its set of trading partners.
Defeat in a Cold War doesn’t have to come suddenly, the way the USSR lost in 1989 and 1990. It can be more gradual. Emerging democracies may settle in the non-democratic camp. People may migrate from democracies like Pakistan to non-democracies like Dubai. Non-democracies may become richer and democracies relatively poorer. The autocratic camp may peel off some countries into its Asia-centric trade network, leaving Western Europe and North America as a rump. Democracy may lose its moral lustre and international prestige. It may seem like not the end of history, but a wrong turning into a backwater.
In particular, while the Warsaw Pact communist dictatorships imploded in spectacular revolutions, it’s intrinsically less likely that democracies will go the same way. When dictators lose legitimacy, people take to the streets. Democratic elections exist so as to make taking to the streets unnecessary. Cynical, apathetic, deluded or authoritarian electorates can simply vote for leaders who hollow out democracy from the inside. Democracy may become a “dignified” rather than an “efficient” institution, in the phrase of Walter Bagehot — a jolly piece of pageantry:
(It's interesting what happened to the Republic of Lucca. Remember how Hobbes skewered it in the 17th century? By the time he wrote, his contempt was surely a commonplace rather than a shocking revelation.1 While actual republican participation declined and elected positions became politically irrelevant, the show of democracy was encouraged by songs and operas celebrating republican history and the virtù of famed citizens. Participatory politics became a cosy sort of tradition.)
A defeat of democracy also doesn’t have to mean the defeat of the democratic camp. It’s easy to imagine China having more enemies than friends, especially considering that India is naturally its geopolitical rival and is likely to plump for “us” in the end. The stronger side may well win. But the Western camp contains many non-democracies or partial democracies, notably Turkey, Saudia Arabia and again India. In the first Cold War such actors were known as “our bastards”, a phrase which acknowledged an uncomfortable reality, but preserved democratic dominance. Now, it is much less obvious who belongs to whom. All those three countries are clearly too powerful to be treated as clients.
So one possibility is that the democratic camp wins but democracy itself is a casualty. After all, in conflict, centralized leadership is often an advantage, so all sides may become less democratic. Democratic leaders may copy authoritarian techniques. Meanwhile, the weaknesses of democracy may continue to nibble at democratic institutions, irrespective of the international situation.
In future parts, I’ll detail those weaknesses, which were already endemic as democracy entered the ring in the 2020s:
This will make the case that democracy is seriously at risk, and that we are not facing a simple rerun of the Cold War, where we are guaranteed to emerge as victors.
Tell me what you think in the comments.
I also write Lapwing, a more intimate newsletter about my family history.
Hobbes may have copied this meme from an earlier Italian historian. “Rinuccini… condemned [the Medici] as tyrants, telling us that ‘the fine words and the golden letters’, in which the word liberty was inscribed on one of Florence's banners symbolizing its famous love of freedom, ‘clash with the facts’.” Brown 2004, “Rethinking the Renaissance in the aftermath of Italy’s crisis”.