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Robert Kagan

The World Divided Between Autocracy and Democracy

Robert Kagan

Ever since the age of Enlightenment, there has been an enduring battle between the forces of liberalism against those of autocracy. Contrary to what liberals claimed, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not result in a peaceful world order without any ideological conflicts. Instead, a perpetual struggle by Islamic fundamentalists against the West and the forces of modernisation and capitalism seemingly replaced the East-West antagonism. Yet, even today, Chinese and Russian leaders, modelling themselves on European monarchs in the 17th, 18th and 19th Century, consider autocracy as the most suited form of government to secure internal stability and wealth. Thus, only a strong central government is seen as being capable of preventing their countries from descending into chaos. Not considering democracy the answer, these leaders believe to be serving the best interest of their peoples by clinging to their power the way they do.

This re-emergence of autocracy has important implications for American foreign policy and the international system as a whole. The term “international community” has become meaningless, given that the term suggests a non-existing agreement on international norms or convictions. This lack of a foundation of common understanding was revealed most obviously in the war over Kosovo, which finally separated the liberal West from both Russia and China. Likewise, the UN security council appears once again paralysed, being clearly divided between autocracies and democracies. Thus, while the latter consistently calls for sanctions and punitive actions against Iran, North Korea, Sudan and other autocracies, the former just as systematically defies and attempts to weaken the effect of such actions. With tensions rising, there will be a tendency towards solidarity between the world’s democracies. The growing rift between autocratic Russia and China on the one hand, and the liberal democracies on the other, provides new opportunities for transatlantic relations.

Not able to count on the support of Russia or China, the US should strengthen co-operation between democracies by, setting up new international institutions or a league of democratic states. The latter ought to reflect and enhance the shared principles and goals of democracies around the world. That way Asian democracies, like Japan, Australia or India, could get more involved with their European counterparts, since until now they have had little to do with each other outside the domains of trade and finance. In addition, such an institution could also serve as a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address common issues of concern, hence breaking the deadlock the UN has found itself in.

Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund

The summary above was prepared by Benjamin Schoo of the Atlantic Community editorial team from Robert Kagan’s “The world divides…and democracy is at bay” in The Times.

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