March 26, 2018

How Russia and China Could Come Unhinged

Democratic triumphalism was wrong 20 years ago, but now authoritarianism may not be sustainable

We have moved from a world of ideological struggles in the 20th century to a world of geopolitical struggles in the 21st—or so goes the conventional wisdom. But technology is moving so fast that this world of geopolitical struggles will likely transform into another stage of conflict. Eurasia itself will become unhinged, as the destabilizing autocracies in Moscow and Beijing themselves become unstable.

In December 1997, I published a cover story in the Atlantic called “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” It was a time of unbridled optimism among policy elites about the triumph of democracy across the world. Contrarily, I argued that such a triumph would be short-lived and that new forms of authoritarianism would arise. My argument was based on experience on the ground as a foreign correspondent in dozens of countries, where elections had been held without institutions and middle classes being built. Now my experience as a reader and a foreign correspondent reveals to me another lesson: The authoritarian trend that I predicted over 20 years ago may also not be sustainable.

The explosions of middle-class wealth and technological advancement, often occurring under authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian systems, are putting pressure on governments to be more alert to the needs of their citizens. Russia and China most acutely represent this trend. They now face what I call the Samuel Huntington trap.

Read the full op-ed on The Wall Street Journal.