Authoritarian Powers in the Age of America First
PICKS OF THE WEEK
“The Authoritarian Challenge: China, Russia and the Threat to the Liberal International Order” | Aaron L. Friedberg
“Making China Great Again” | The New Yorker
“The Rise and Rise of Viktor Orban” | The Financial Times
“A Sober Trump Reassures the Davos Elite” | The New York Times
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Western policy elites—basking in the glow of their perceived success—came to believe that the liberal international order had scored a lasting victory over humanity’s more retrograde autarchic impulses. The political theorist Francis Fukuyuma, in his oft-quoted (yet seldom understood) book entitled “The End of History and the Last Man,” predicted that liberal democracy, shorn of its most potent ideational competitor in the form of Soviet communism, would eventually assert its moral authority as the dominant political system on the planet. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that these forecasts were—if not erroneous—at least gravely premature. As Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg reminds us in a recent study on the evolving authoritarian challenge, “illiberal, undemocratic regimes have not become extinct; instead they have adapted and evolved, learning to survive and even to thrive in the open global system that the democracies created for themselves in the wake of World War II. From weak and vulnerable fledglings, the nationalist capitalist authoritarians have grown in strength and confidence to the point where they now pose a deadly threat to the continued existence of that system.”
The U.S.’s two main authoritarian rivals, Russia and China, do not seek so much to overturn the entire existing system, notes Friedberg, but rather to “take maximum advantage of the opportunities that the current order provided while defending themselves as best they can against the dangers that it poses.” He adds that, “In addition to hardening their own societies against subversion, deterring intervention, pushing outwards around their peripheries, and seeking to slow the formation of counterbalancing coalitions, both Moscow and Beijing have also set about to build new multilateral mechanisms of various kinds that they believe will help ensure the survival of their illiberal regimes. These structures are regional rather than global in scope, but they have already begun to extend across much of Eurasia and could eventually provide the foundation for an integrated authoritarian subsystem, nested within the larger liberal international order.”
The dangers of such a parasitic subsystem emerging have been compounded by the ideological proclivities of the current U.S. President, and his deeply ambivalent attitude toward free trade, democracy promotion, and traditional alliance structures. In a particularly insightful piece of long form reporting, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos gives a detailed rundown of how China’s strategic elites are adapting to this shift in American politics, and in Washington’s attitude vis a vis the outside world. He reminds us that the Trump Administration’s immediate decision to unilaterally withdraw from the TPP constitutes, without a doubt, one of the US’s biggest self-inflicted wound in Asia since the Vietnam War, and—in a rather memorable turn of phrase—states that while, “Barack Obama’s foreign policy was characterized as leading from behind, Trump’s doctrine may come to be understood as retreating from the front.” For decades, Osnos notes, Chinese leaders had been planning for a momentous shift in the balance of power, one that would propel China into a position where it could sell itself as a global counter-model to Western-style liberalism. In one of the more interesting quotes in a piece festooned with them, one Chinese academic professes that China’s ultimate goal has always been to “break the Western moral advantage,” which “identifies good and bad political systems.” Under Trump, some have come to fret that this shift may be occurring a little bit faster than they would have liked. Even the most jingoistic strategic commentators in Beijing recognize that their country—despite its impressive military, economic and technological advances—is not yet willing, or indeed prepared to take on the heavy mantle of global leadership. As Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University wryly remarks at the close of the article, the change embodied by Trump has happened too fast for even them “to digest.”
In a similarly stellar example of long form reporting, Neil Buckley and Andrew Byrne recently published a fascinating profile of Viktor Orban, the power-mad prime minister of Hungary, in the Financial Times. In so doing, they provide a useful reminder that forces of illiberalism are not only ascendant in Asia or beyond the Urals, but also at the very heart of the European Union itself. Orban’s own journey—from democratic activist to authoritarian populist and Trump aficionado—also serves as a perfect metaphor, in many ways, of “how the historic transition to democracy in the continent’s east—which had seemed irreversible a decade ago, after 10 former communist countries had joined the EU—is starting to unravel, posing a threat to the EU’s values, perhaps even its future.” As Orban’s Hungary increasingly seeks to makes common cause with other “hybrid” or “illiberal” democracies in Central and Eastern Europe—such as Poland—the EU will need to provide a viable ideological counter-offensive, and perhaps even take some more punitive measures, in response to this assault on its own values.
Meanwhile, President Trump gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos which the New York Times’s Pete Baker described as “relatively sober” and “restrained.” While the 45th President did call for greater fairness and reciprocity in international trade, he also sought to reassure an audience that in another setting and context he might have lambasted as “globalists” that “America First did not mean America Alone,” and that an economically vibrant United States remained eager to attract foreign investments. The relatively moderate tone of his speech may also be attributed to the fact that it was largely written by Gary Cohn, his centrist National Economic Advisor, and not an incendiary reactionary such as Stephen Miller. That said, things degenerated somewhat during the Q and A, when the American President reiterated his longstanding critiques of the press. According to various accounts, this was met by boos and hissing from the audience.