The return of Authoritarian Capitalists
Today’s global liberal democratic order faces a significant challenge from the rise of nondemocratic great powers – the West’s old Cold War rivals, China and Russia, now operating under “authoritarian capitalist” rather than Communist regimes.
The category is not new – authoritarian capitalist great powers played a leading role in the international system up until 1945.
But they have been largely absent since then. The liberal democratic camp defeated its authoritarian, Fascist and Communist rivals alike in all of the three major great-power struggles of the 20th century – the two world wars and the Cold War.
It is tempting to trace this outcome to the special traits and intrinsic advantages of liberal democracy. But the reasons for the liberal democracies’ victories were different for each type of adversary.
The Soviet Union failed because its economic systems limited it. But the nondemocratic capitalist great powers, Germany and Japan, were defeated in war fundamentally because they were medium-sized countries with limited resource bases.
Thus contingency, not inherent advantages of liberal democracy, played a decisive role in tipping the balance against the non-democratic capitalist powers and in favor of the democracies.
The most decisive element of contingency was the United States.
Because of its continental size, no less than its democratic-capitalist system, the power of the United States consistently surpassed that of the next two strongest states combined throughout the 20th century, and this decisively tilted the global balance of power in favor of whichever side Washington was on.
So if any factor gave the liberal democracies their edge, it was above all the existence of the United States rather than any inherent advantage. In fact, had it not been for the United States, liberal democracy may well have lost the great struggles of the 20th century.
This is a sobering thought that is often overlooked in studies of the spread of democracy in the 20th century, and it makes the world today appear much more contingent and tenuous than linear theories of development suggest.
This is especially true in light of the recent emergence of nondemocratic powers, above all booming, authoritarian, capitalist China. Russia, too, is retreating from its post-Communist liberalism and assuming an increasingly authoritarian character as its economic clout grows.
Some believe these countries could ultimately become liberal democracies through a combination of internal development, increasing affluence and outside influence.
Alternatively, they may have enough weight to create a new non-democratic but economically advanced Second World. They could establish a powerful authoritarian-capitalist order that allies political elites, industrialists and the military; that is nationalist in orientation; and that participates in the global economy on its own terms, as imperial Germany and imperial Japan did.
By shifting from Communist command economy to capitalism, China and Russia have switched to a far more efficient brand of authoritarianism. Although the rise of these authoritarian capitalist great powers would not necessarily lead to a non-democratic hegemony or war, it might imply that the near-total dominance of liberal democracy since the Soviet Union’s collapse will be short-lived and that a universal “democratic peace” is still far off.
Beijing and Moscow and their future followers might well become antagonists of the democratic countries – with all the potential for insecurity and conflict that this entails- while holding considerably more power than any of the democracies’ past rivals ever did by virtue of being both large and capitalist.
The most important counterweight remains the United States. For all the criticism leveled against it, the United States and its alliance with Europe stands as the single most important hope for the future of liberal democracy.
As it was during the 20th century, the United States remains the greatest guarantee that liberal democracy will not be thrown on the defensive and relegated to a vulnerable position on the periphery of the international system.
Azar Gat is professor of national security at Tel Aviv University and the author of “War in Human Civilization.” A longer version of this article appears in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.
Azar Gat 是特拉维夫大学国家安全教授，《人类文明进程中的战争》的作者。本文的更长版本刊载于7/8月的《外交事务》（Foreign Affairs）杂志。