Column: Why democracy can still be a hard sell

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the Victory Day military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) ap — Mikhail Metzel

  • Navy school cadets march during the Victory Day military parade at the Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) Dmitri Lovetsky

  • Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

For the Valley News
Published: 5/15/2022 6:12:04 AM
Modified: 5/15/2022 6:10:16 AM

Russia under Vladimir Putin has been trying to regain the Soviet Union’s past imperialist glory by launching a most brutal aggression to reclaim Ukraine as its territory. In his Victory Day Speech on Monday, Putin said, “Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space … These are our comrades, relatives, among whom are not only colleagues, friends and former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties.” Hence the justification for launching a “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine from “neo-Nazis.” China has similar claims about Taiwan.

Nationalistic authoritarianism, exemplified by Russia and China, is a powerful alternative to democracy as a political organizing principle. Its seductive appeal, based on maintaining social order, national culture and prospects for rapid economic growth, is widespread.

In response, spreading democracy is a worthy goal, but the United States faces complex challenges in an interdependent world, challenges that are compelling policymakers, both Democrat and Republican, to act as pragmatic idealists. President Joe Biden has been gradually moving in this direction as he considers global threats: neo-imperialism, failing states, soaring oil prices, nuclear weapons proliferation and environmental degradation. Forming a league of democracies, as many liberal scholars have talked about, is not enough to solve global problems.

Consider the present actualities. China has been growing at a rate of 8-9% for the past three decades or so and has become a powerful economic and military force — a nascent superpower’s challenge to America and the West’s liberal democratic order established after the end of World War II.

Since authoritarian rule has not held back China from growing at a dizzying rate, it is quite sensible to ask: How could China do so much in such a short time without freedom and civil liberties?

Despite what happened in Hong Kong recently and the 1989 Tiananmen Square spectacular protests and massacre, China’s massive middle class — more than 700 million people — has grown rich and prosperous under the Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule. It does not care for freedom and democracy. But even if this large section of Chinese society is content with the status quo, the United States has no choice but to deal with China for economic and diplomatic reasons.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a Japanese-American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, exulted that the collapse was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The end of communism brought about a sense of grand illusion: This is the final triumph of democracy. The irrational exuberance did not last long, however.

Freedom did not blossom in Russia after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Nor did it happen in China despite rapid economic growth and broadening prosperity under state-controlled market capitalism couched in fervid nationalism. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is about imperialistic nationalism, not about democracy and freedom. It is a giant step for China thriving under authoritarianism, not a new chapter on freedom and democracy.  

In fact, worldwide authoritarianism has increased. China has not ceased to be a threat despite its economic growth being limited by the search for energy and other raw materials; foreign direct investment; and exports, especially to Europe and the United States.

Today China, paradoxically, is the United States’ biggest foreign lender; and so, no wonder, human rights have ceased to be an issue in the United States-China relations. Whenever U.S. trade officials visit China, they seldom mention democracy or human rights. And for China, consumption and manufacturing are more important than political freedom.

The Arab Spring was a flash in the pan. Democracy has not been rising in the Arab world, where authoritarianism holds a mighty sway. Among the United States, Saudi Arabia and other seemingly pro-American Arab countries in the region where Islamic fundamentalism still has a large appeal, human rights and freedom are never a hot-button issue.

The United States, therefore, cannot give up on a policy of realpolitik for dealing with nondemocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, regardless of its idealistic fervor of spreading freedom and democracy universally. There is no gainsaying the fact the United States remains vulnerable to disinformation and terrorism so long as authoritarianism and hate ideology prevail abroad. For which, some experts believe, there’s no other solution except to expand democratic forms of government and freedom. But the United States cannot bulldoze democracy into any country.  

The narrative of democracy must include economic aid, including preferential trade for poor countries that have been making valiant efforts to grow economically and to fight domestic terrorism and threats of foreign aggression.

Instead of looking toward China or Russia as a model, these countries should look to the United States. This is the biggest challenge for U.S. international diplomacy today. Rebuilding Ukraine after the Russian guns are silenced and enabling it to become a member of the European Union would create hope for democracy.

Narain Batra, of Hartford, is the author of The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and most recently, India In A New Key: 75 Years of Freedom and Democracy. He teaches global corporate diplomacy at Norwich University’s graduate college. Contact him: @NDBatra

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