Monday, August 25, 2008

"The death of 1989"

It's the not the return of the Cold War, not by a long shot. But the wave of democratization, market opening, and globalization that began at the end of 1970s is definitely over. It reached its peak in 1989, with the fall of the Soviet bloc, but continued until the end of the 1990s, with the fall of Milosevic in 2000. But the last eight years have seen a strong reversal of the trend, which goes to show: positive trends can draw on powerful forces, but positive outcomes are far from inevitable. They require sound policies, leadership, and persistence. They're not part of some automatic unfolding of history.*

There's no ideology or coherent political system that ties these resurgent anti-liberal countries together. They're simply autocracies that learned to adapt and avoid the fate of, say, the Soviet Union, Serbia, or Iraq. (What's happening now in Georgia is best thought of as a cousin of what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s -- except the analogue of Serbia, Russia, is winning.) The most sophisticated of these autocracies have learned to smooth-talk their way with skillful twisting of Western concepts and language. Having nuclear weapons helps. But the main common factor among all of them is state monopoly control of increasingly valuable oil and natural gas resources. Already familiar from the corrupt petro-dictatorships of the Middle East, Venezuela, and west Africa, such countries feature the "strong state, weak society" model. The government frees itself from dependency on tax revenue by seizing control of valuable natural resources sold mainly to foreigners. Most other valuable economic activity is controlled by the state as well, not motivated by socialist ideologies, but by simple cronyism and gangsterism. The rest of society and economy go into sharp decline. Russia, in many respects, is the most advanced case of these trends.

We won't be hearing talk of "World War V," I hope. But the common denominator of energy monopoly in a world of sharply rising demand for energy will, I expect, stimulate energy-consuming countries to develop a common strategy to moderate demand and look for alternatives to fossil fuels exported from the petro-dictatorships. Such a strategy is certainly overdue. We also need to step back from our casually reckless adherence to the globalization paradigm and concentrate on repair and defense of existing democracies.

And one more point: the progress and retreat of political democratization, social and economic liberalization, and globalization go hand in hand, contrary to a certain piece of fashionable claptrap now making the rounds on the left.

POSTSCRIPT: Some fine reporting, as always, from Michael Totten. Also, thoughts from Paul Berman, who has rightly declared the "death of 1989."
* The developments of the last decade have discredited not only the naive arguments of economic determinists (prosperity leads automatically to political liberalization), but the European post-historical fantasy of "soft power." The "end of history" has, well, ended. It didn't die all at once, but in stages: the rise of al Qa'eda and the 9/11 attacks, the return of Russia and China as great powers, the sharp rise in commodity prices, and so on.

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