After the Cold War, the West had assumed the contest of ideologies had been settled and that the last man had emerged. Political liberalism was victorious and non-democratic regimes were on “the wrong side of history,” as President Bill Clinton told the Chinese. The world seemed to agree as it experienced the third democratic wave. It was expected that alternatives to open markets, democracy, and individual human rights would not be welcomed but imposed.
Yet, in 2018, this is no longer true as both China and Russia offer alternative political models which are both gaining appeal around of the world.
What does Russia offer? Mostly a response to the social costs of liberalism. The cultural consequences of open markets and respecting civil liberties are not welcomed by all of society. The multiculturalism which results from respecting individual rights often challenges the traditional foundations of society. What Russia offers is a model to confronts these trends. Under Putin, Russia is the defender of “the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life” against those that “revise their moral values and ethical norms.” To pursue these goals, Russia offers a semi-autocratic state with leadership not subject to the rule of law or a critical press. In place of a rule bound, consensus driven executive, Russia offers a democratically elected leader yet one not obligated to respect individual rights. Once in power, the majority can impose what it wants on the non-majority. Such a model is usually referred to as illiberal democracy and is arguably the most powerful political trend in the Western world at the moment, recently planting roots in Poland and Hungary.
What China offers is something similar in spirit but with different motives. While Russia promotes a democratically elected head of state tasked to combat the erosion of traditional values, China offers an authoritarian political model responsible for economic growth. The common narrative that emerged after 1989 was that economic development was only possible when state interference was minimal. Free trade, private property, and democratic participation were all thought to be essential ingredients for a healthy economy. China demonstrated that this isn’t entirely true and that an alternative path exists, consisting of state own industries, politically controlled capital, and deep participation in the global supply chain. The political component of this model is an autocratic state with strict one-party political rule. Human rights are not respected nor is public criticism tolerated, and democracy is out of the question.
And the China model has its fans. Before his death in 2012, Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi routinely lauded the Chinese growth model and stated he sought to imitate it in Ethiopia. It is obvious why the ruling elites in Africa and Central America find such a model appealing. They get the economic growth but are also allowed to retain their positions of power. But there is a good amount of admiration for the China model among the governed as well. In 2017, Canadians viewed China more favorable than the United States by 5 percentage points. While it does not offer human rights or political participation, the China model is appealing because experiments with democracy and free markets have failed in other parts of the world. According to the World Bank, in 1980, the gdp per person in the worlds largest democracy (India) was 263 dollars. China’s was 194. In 2016, India has a gdp per person of 1,709 and China 8,123. You can see why there is no “India model.” Many view free markets as chaotic and the democratic process slow and inept. Such beliefs were confirmed by the financial crisis of 2007 and chronic political gridlock in America. Not only did China’s economy grow during the great recession, but they have maintained a relatively high degree of social and class cohesion in the process (albeit with a steep cost to human freedom).
What are China and Russia motivated by? They want deference from their neighbors and it is expected that states that share their politics will be more likely to do this. Some of the desire for deference is security driven and some by prestige, but either way, the West should allow it to occur. The principal reason why the Putin model is so popular is because of liberalism overextending itself. The more that Brussels and D.C. pushed their politics into Eastern Europe the more appealing the Putin model became. While not ideal from a human rights perspective, it would be better to find a compromise with the reactionary elements than stubbornly impose on them values they do not want. In regard to the China model, the United States should want to know if alternatives to the Washington Consensus are available. The traditional path to growth has not worked everywhere, as observed with Argentina in the 2000s. Unlike the Western model which is highly ideological, the China model is flexible and pragmatic, and could perhaps better suit the needs of a developing country than Western orthodoxy. Frankly, what the West should do is act more Western, and allow the market place of ideas to determine which model is more suitable for developing countries.