The current geopolitical situation is characterized by a resurgence of the former great powers. The concept of the – mainly European and American – democracy is called into question by the successes of the autocratic regimes like China and Russia. Robert Kagan, foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, already started in 2003 a broad discussion with his book „Of Paradise and Power. America and Europe in the New World Order“. Now he presents with „The Return of History“ an essay that deals intensively with the conflict between democracy and autocracy. Thereby, he questiones the legitimacy of the hegemony of the United States as well as the domination of the democratic model itself.
The end of the political primacy
On the basis of the three paradigms of the diplomatic and political influence, military strength and above all the economic power, the author analyzes the countries Russia, China, Japan, India and Iran regarding their hegemony demands. He shows that the faith in political opening through economic recovery turned out to be false and how the primacy of politics over economy gets lost step by step. “Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible. Autocrats learn and adjust. The Russian and Chinese autocracies have figured out how one can authorize a free market economy and simultaneously suppressing political activity. They have understood that people who make money, stay out of politics, especially when they know that an intervention will let them suffer.“
While the resurgence of the great powers and the conflict between democracies and autocracies seems to be problematic for the author, he sees no long-term problem in the global Islamism. Although these tendencies must be clearly countered at the political level, Islamism will be defeated by modernity, because of Islam’s backward-looking focus on its tradition. Correspondingly short, it is only the topic on a few pages. Similarly tight is the chapter on the hegemony of Iran, which leads to the conclusion, that Robert Kagan sees in the Islamic Republic only little danger.
Is democracy an end-of-range model?
In the political debate the discussion of a possible end of democracy increases. Above all, Colin Crouch developed in „Post Democracy“ a concept, that sees democracy influenced by other factors, particularly the expansion of the capitalistic principle of proftablility to non-economic areas. But this implicitly still assumes that democracy is the right form of society and its disappearance a negative trend.
Robert Kagan now carefully dares to take a more open perspective, and, given the political reality to question democracy as such. Between the lines of his book you can read the question of whether democracy is not only a Eurocentric and U.S. policy model. From the perspective of China and Russia are the American democratization efforts in the former Soviet states, the Balkans and the Middle East, first of all U.S. expansionism in their own areas of hegemony. The great powers suddenly identify the interference in the politics of other countries illegal, because it contradicts their own interests. „This is one of the great schisms in the international system, which divide the democratic world and the autocracies. For three centuries was the law of nations, which regarded any interference in the internal affairs of other nations as inadmissible, but rather on the side of autocracies. Now the democratic world is about to reverse this protection, while autocracies will rush to defend the principle of the inviolability of national sovereignty.“ One of the examples of Kagan, is the NATO-led overthrow of Serbia, Russia tried to prevent.
In general, the author here touches on a moral paradox of the democratic social order, which is difficult to solve. To get or preserve democracy and its value system, undemocratic means are often necessary. Regarding foreign affairs, this usually means the use of military force, on the domestic front, the demarcation between freedom of the citizens and security of the state. Here it can be difficult to deal with individuals or groups who see their own values higher than the system of democratic principles. Tolerance and freedom the democratic state can only grant those social and religious groups who practice this principle of freedom also internal.
In the foreign affairs the liberal creed, that every person ascribes equal rights, which may be curtailed by any state, legitimates democracies, to interfere politically, economically and – if needed – militarily in the internal affairs of other states. But this is just under the premise that only democracies get these rights. Thus we Europeans and the Americans put democracy above of all other forms of government. But countries such as Russia or China, see democracy mere as one of the possible forms of government, and for nationalistic reasons they prefer autocracy. And even if these two great powers pursue not an ideological dissemination of autocracy, they offer protection and support to other autocracies. Whether this is now China’s influence in Africa and Asia, or particularly Russias patronage of the Islamic regime in Iran. With the growing economic power of Russia and China, the West has not only lost its monopoly of globalization, the two autocracies also ideologically become more role models.
Democracy in the empirical and normative comparison
The book is not especially innovative in its presentation of the political conditions, let alone that it creates new facts. His introductory narration of historical facts shows the generous, in global politics experienced storyteller, allowing also the political laymen to understand the following discussion. Robert Kagan is fundamental – despite his normative affirmation of democratic values – in his questioning of even these values because of the current geopolitical situation. This provides an approach that deprives democracy of its formal sanctity, then historicizes it and forces it into an empirical comparison with other forms of government. The question appears, if we can expect a country to democratize, if the autocracy is working well for the national interests, notably the economy and is accepted by most of the population, because of rising living standards?
Of course, normatively one wants to answer this question in the affirmative. But empirically, other factors must be considered. Thus, the mostly from outside established democratic elections in the Middle East and the states of North Africa, almost always led to a rise of Islamic fundamentalists. The last time this became clear in the electoral victory of the radical Islamic Hamas in the Palestinian autonomous areas. So, should the United States and other democracies encourage democratization in the Middle East? Robert Kagan sees the answer in turning around the question: „Should the U.S. support autocratic governments in the Middle East? This is, after all the alternative. There is no neutral stance on these issues.“ That what we call a Realpolitik, the cooperation with autocracies, is therefore certainly needed. But we always have to apply pressure toward democratization and liberalization, states the author.
But we should consider in the juxtaposition of democratic and autocratic regimes even more circumstances. From a historical perspective, the forms of government of the great powers always have been role models. Whether this was the fascist nationalism in its expression of the German Empire, the communism of the Soviet Union or the current autocracies in China and Russia. They always have been and will be emulated by smaller or in world politics less important countries in order to obtain the support of the big ones. Whether the European democracies and the wave of democratization in the 1990s, are just a temporary model in a continuous timeline, or whether democracy is the most advanced form of government and thus the ultimate level of political participation and decision-making, is the crucial question.
„The great fallacy of our times is the belief that a liberal international order is based on the triumph of ideas and on the natural unfolding of human progress.“ progress is neither inevitable, as the natural democratization of all countries. The examples of Russia and China show that rising wealth is not necessarily associated with political freedom.
Must we thus deny the ideological – or rather moral – superiority of democracy and see it therefore justified in geopolitical competition with the autocracies? Then of course we also have to criticize the hegemony of the United States, which brings us back to the question at the beginning. The alternative, a multipolar world order, also appears fair from a democratic perspective, however, involves much more danger. „A large part of the world tolerats the geopolitical preeminence of the United States not only, but they willingly support – not because people love America, but because they know that the U.S. will protect them against enemies who are more worrying.“ Most countries should therefore prefer the compromise of the superpower United States. For its withdrawal would only shift the power to other interested parties.
Robert Kagan: The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Knopf 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0307269232 , 19.95 $ (14.99 €); German translation: Die Demokratie und ihre Feinde. Wer gestaltet die neue Weltordnung?, Siedler, 2008, ISBN-13: 9783886808908 , 16.95 €
Robert Kagan: Of Paradise and Power. America and Europe in the New World Order, Vintage Books 2004, ISBN-13: 9781400034185 , 13 $ (9.99 €); German translation: Macht und Ohnmacht. Amerika und Europa in der neuen Weltordnung, Siedler Verlag 2003, ISBN-13: 9783886807949 , 16 €
This review is a tranlation of the German one at BuchTest, therefore the quotes are back-translations from the German book and not necessary identical with the original.