Kupchan’s Multipolar Confusion
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in a New York Times opinion piece yesterday that the United States and Europe must learn to share the world with multiple “new forms of governance and capitalism,” and recognize that “the era of Western primacy” is coming to an end. It is certainly correct that “non-Western” developing nations are playing an increasingly important role in world diplomacy and the global economy, but the terms and categories Kupchan uses to describe this phenomenon lead him to provide some rather poor advice.
In the course of the article, he seems to identify four competing models at work in the world: (1) the “Western” model, democratic, secular, and free-market, exemplified by the countries of North America and Europe; (2) the authoritarian “state capitalist” model, embraced by China, Russia, and the “Persian Gulf sheikdoms”; (3) a new form of Islamist democracy in the Middle East; and (4) the “left-wing populism” he sees in rising powers like Brazil and India, which is secular and democratic but wary of free markets and elite-dominated political institutions.
With this framework, Kupchan does democracy a great disservice, and puts it at an artificial disadvantage.
First, he severs the United States and its European allies from the rest of the democratic world, and portrays their efforts to promote democratic governance as a domineering imposition of “Western” values. Despots and extremists of various stripes often use the same technique, applying the Western label to make democracy seem parochial and anchored to certain cultural, historical, and geographical origins. Notably, Kupchan freights the second model with no such baggage.
Second, and more importantly, he isolates specific policy positions and political philosophies that commonly coexist within, and among, healthy democracies, and freezes them into fixed governance models that supposedly compete separately on the world stage, along with authoritarianism. It is true that countries like Brazil and India often have policy disagreements with the United States, and that Washington and the European Union must sometimes do business with authoritarian states like Russia. But these groups of countries are hardly equidistant from one another in terms of core values and governance practices.
In fact, there are only two models described here: democratic and authoritarian. Both are universally applicable, but just one is universally desirable, or even acceptable. Democracies serve their people and comply with international law. Authoritarian regimes serve only their leaders and violate even their own laws.
The differences posited between Kupchan’s first and fourth models are largely ephemeral. Both are described as secular and democratic. And in practice, the embrace and application of free-market principles varies over time, from party to party, and from country to country even within “the West.” Left-wing populism, at least as defined here, is by no means alien to North America and Europe. For evidence of its presence in the United States, one has merely to turn a page or two from Kupchan’s article in the Times. He does not mention Venezuela, whose more extreme form of left-wing populism is mostly antidemocratic, but also sufficiently self-destructive to keep the country out of the upper tier of world powers.
The third model is simply too inchoate to constitute a distinct category. Kupchan links the rise of Islamism to increased democracy and “participatory politics,” but Islamism is a very broad concept. It can take shape either as an authoritarian regime like Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s, or as multiple and varied political strains within a pluralist democracy. It is still unclear whether Egypt, which Kupchan singles out as an example, will become a democracy, and it is certainly not there yet. Nevertheless, already one can see at least three competing visions of Islamist politics—ranging from liberal to fundamentalist—all of which currently exist alongside secular movements of the left and the right. While the article rightly argues that Washington should not align itself exclusively with secular parties in the region, good relations with Islamist parties need not entail an abridgement or muting of America’s democratic values, including freedom of and from religion.
The democracies of North America and Europe would be quite foolish to accept Kupchan’s depiction of several competing models of governance, rather than seeking to ally themselves with fellow democracies against the common threat of authoritarianism. They would also be unwise to swallow his suggestion that authoritarianism represents a “responsible” alternative, which can be trusted “amid an equalizing distribution of power” in the world. The regimes in Russia and China are practically defined by their systemic flouting of the rule of law and their basic lack of transparency or accountability.
Kupchan writes somewhat admiringly of authoritarian state capitalism, saying centralized control has “distinct advantages” in “today’s fast and fluid global economy.” But in a book review in the very same edition of the New York Times, Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar, seems more dubious. On China, he says that “the more appropriate worry is not that China will succeed but that it will fail.” He points out that “China’s obvious strengths cover underlying flaws and weaknesses.” Its government is “corrupt” and “rigid,” and its economy is “rife with politically imposed distortions.” Its infrastructural boom “feeds on an unsustainable diet of political cronyism and environmental depredation.” “If I had to bet on one system being in decent working order a generation from now,” he says, “it would be ours, not theirs.” From this perspective, the world’s democracies should be vigorously pushing for reform in authoritarian countries, or at least preparing for the shock of their systems’ collapse, rather than making room for them in the international arena.
The Kupchan piece says the United States should continue to “stand resolute” in defense of democracy and human rights, for instance by doing “what it can to stop indiscriminate violence of the sort unleashed by Syria’s government.” It continues, “But American leaders do their country no service when they trumpet a new American century or topple governments in the name of spreading Western values….Standing by its own values while also recognizing that there are alternative forms of responsible and responsive governance would ultimately elevate the nation’s moral authority, making it more likely that other countries would be as respectful of America’s preferences as America should be of theirs.”
The problem here is that democracy and human rights are not simply Western values or American preferences. They are global imperatives. It is our obligation as human beings to do everything possible to stop the state-led violence in Syria. The only ones who seem prepared to quarrel with this fact are despotic rulers in countries like Russia, China, and Iran, whose preferences deserve little respect.