“History, it seems, is back, and not so obviously on our side.” So writes the thoughtful Bill Keller in today’s New York Times. And who could disagree? At this moment, Russian tanks are occupying helpless Georgia, China is putting on awesome displays of national prowess at the Olympics, Iran is defiantly enriching uranium and testing long-range missiles. The world’s hardline states are banding together, and the West is split, dismayed and disheartened. As the Financial Times’s Chrystia Freeland wrote last Tuesday, “We have entered the Age of Authoritarianism.”
In that age, the dominant narrative is that “the sole superpower” is in decline. Other nations will, if not take our place as hegemon, marginalize us. Nobody calls this period “the Second American century.” It belongs to China, maybe Asia. Or as Freeland argues, the tone in this era will be set by resurgent authoritarians.
Perhaps. We are, as analysts recognize, at one of those junctures in history, a period of discontinuous change. Yet the time we are entering will not necessarily be dominated by autocrats. Yes, dictators this month have seized initiative, dominated headlines, and put the West on the defensive, but history never travels in straight lines.
Authoritarianism has flourished in recent years because the Western democracies have let it. Worse, we have abetted the rise of hardline states in the hopes that, as they integrated themselves into the international system, they would become enmeshed in it and change for the better. That generous approach, of course, would be the right one to take if history in fact had ended, as the now-notorious Francis Fukuyama argued in his then-influential 1989 essay. Yet as we watch events unfold, it is becoming increasingly obvious that our indulgent approach has failed because the authoritarians are now using new-found strength to reorder the world by force and coercion.
Fortunately, the democracies will adjust their course. The invasion of Georgia, for instance, will inevitably lead to first a reassessment of Russia policy, then a questioning of the theory of engagement, and finally to a renewal of commitment to ideals.
So, yes, the world is changing. We are entering an age of extended turbulence and conflict. Yet it will not be the Age of Authoritarianism as long as citizens in free societies defend fundamental principles, as they must and as they will.