With Russia strolling about Georgia, Zimbabwe going nuts, Bush detaining POWs off our territory so they won’t be allowed basic America rights to trial, and China celebrating repression, censorship and genocide with the world’s cheery cooperation, it’s safe to say (at least here in the US, where freedom of the press has survived eight years of Bush) that Authoritarianism has made a comeback.
Writing in The Financial Times last week, Chrystia Freeland recalled Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History?,” which trumpeted the definitive triumph of liberal democracy. The great nightmare tyrannies of last century — the Evil Empire, Red China — had been left behind by those inseparable twins, freedom and prosperity. Civilization had chosen, and it chose us.
So much for that thesis. Surveying the Russian military rout of neighboring Georgia and the spectacle of China’s Olympics, Ms. Freeland, editor of The Financial Times’s American edition and a journalist who started her career covering Russia and Ukraine, proclaimed that a new Age of Authoritarianism was upon us.
If it is not yet an age, it is at least a season: Springtime for autocrats, and not just the minor-league monsters of Zimbabwe and the like, but the giant regimes that seemed so surely bound for the ash heap in 1989.
The Chinese have made their Olympics an exultant display of athletic prowess and global prestige without having to temper their impulse to suppress and control. From the dazzling locksteps of that opening ceremony, to the kowtowing international V.I.P.’s, to the carefully policed absence of protest, this was an Olympics largely free of democratic mess.
Individualism has been confined between lane markers. The pre-Olympics promises that attention would be paid to international norms of behavior went unredeemed. The New York Times’s Andrew Jacobs followed one citizen who decided to take up the government’s Olympic offer of designated protest zones for aggrieved parties who had filed the proper paperwork. Zhang Wei applied for the requisite license and was promptly arrested for “disturbing social order.” Take that, International Olympic Committee.
The striking thing about Russia’s subjugation of uppity Georgia was not the ease or audacity but the swagger of it. This was not just about a couple of obscure border enclaves, nor even, really, about Georgia. This was existential payback.
It turns out that if 1989 was an end — the end of the Wall, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire, if not in fact the end of history — it was also a beginning.
It gave birth to a bitter resentment in the humiliated soul of Russia, and no one nursed the grudge so fiercely as Vladimir V. Putin. He watched the empire he had spied for disbanded. He endured the belittling lectures of a rich and self-righteous West. He watched the United States charm away his neighbors, invade his allies in Iraq, and, in his view, play God with the political map of Europe.
Mr. Putin is, in this sense of grievance, a man of his people, as visitors to the New York Times Web site can see in the sampling of breast-beating commentary from Russian bloggers. It is safe to assume that Mr. Putin’s already stratospheric popularity at home has grown to Phelpsian proportions, not least among the long-suffering military.
In China, 1989 was the year that a spark of liberal aspiration flickered on Tiananmen Square, and was decisively extinguished. That was another beginning, or at least a renewal: of Chinese resolve. In May of that year, in the midst of the Tiananmen euphoria, Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited Beijing, and two visions of a new communism stared each other in the face.
The protesters on the Chinese pavilion held banners welcoming Mr. Gorbachev as a champion of the greater freedom they sought. Meanwhile, the visiting Russian delegation marveled at the abundance in Chinese stores, the bounty of a policy that chose economic liberalization without political dissent.
The Chinese and Russians scorned each other’s neo-Communist models, but in some ways they have evolved toward one another. Both countries now tolerate a measure of entrepreneurship and social license, as long as neither threatens the dominion of the state. Both countries have calculated that you can buy a measure of domestic stability if you combine a little opportunity with an appeal to national pride. (The Chinese “street” felt no more sympathy for restive Tibetans than the Russian blogosphere felt for Georgia.) And both have discovered that if you are rich the world is less likely to get in your way.
President Bush was mocked from both sides for his seeming impotence. Neoconservatives were appalled by photos of President Bush sharing a laugh with Mr. Putin in Beijing while Russian armor gathered at the Georgian border. For a president who has made the export of democracy his signature doctrine, that looked to the stand-tough crowd like a “Pet Goat” moment.
Others argued that this was a crisis Mr. Bush tacitly encouraged by talking up Georgia’s rambunctious president as a friend and NATO candidate. By midweek, possibly goaded by the wailing of neoconservatives and the aggressively anti-Putin rhetoric of Senator John McCain, Mr. Bush had abruptly amped up his opprobrium and dispatched an American airlift of humanitarian aid. And by the weekend there was a cold war chill in the air.
But Mr. Bush’s predicament is not just his. The question of how to deal with these reinvigorated autocracies bedevils the Europeans and will surely rank high among the legacy issues that confound Mr. Bush’s successor.
This time it is not — or not yet — the threat of nuclear apocalypse that limits the West’s options toward our emboldened Eastern rivals. The Chinese, in fact, are acting as if they have gotten past the saber-rattling stage of emerging-power status; they lavish diplomacy on Taiwan and Japan, and deploy the might of capital instead. The Russians may be in a more adolescent, table-pounding stage of development, but Mr. Putin, too, prefers to work the economic levers, bullying with petroleum.
The United States, meanwhile, is mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, estranged from much of the world, and bled by serial economic crises.
History, it seems, is back, and not so obviously on our side.
Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, covered the last years of the Soviet Union for the newspaper. For photos and related articles, click here.
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