When my former colleague Francis Fukuyama wrote about the “End of History” he was right in one respect. The harsh universal ideologies seeking to remake the world: communism, fascism, Nazism — the threats to free countries and peoples of the 20th century — were on their way out. The end of the cold war and the collapse of communism in the U.S.S.R. and eastern Europe, and its transformation in China and Vietnam into Party-led capitalism, seemed to auger an era in which the ideal of liberal, free-market democracy as the proper way to organize a modern society had no challengers.
And yet, what we have learned in the 21st century is that while everyone may desire freedom and prosperity, there are still many obstacles to moving societies toward the embrace of democratic institutions and economic freedoms.
It is worth recalling that the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, also feared it. Even though Plato was a product of Athens’ democratic tradition, he had seen popular votes for a nationalist war — the great war against Sparta — lead to Athens’ ruin. So Plato argued that societies should be led by an oligarchy of rulers chosen for their merits. His “Republic” was a republic of virtue (to use a phrase popular among later revolutionaries seeking to remake society), not a democracy!
The reasons many Greek leaders feared democracy were several: they felt that crowds make bad decisions; that the arguments within government in democracies made them weak, especially in the face of war; and that in cases of extreme internal conflicts, democracy would lead to chaos.
Such are exactly the warnings we hear today from authoritarian leaders in Russia, China, Egypt, and even Turkey. Warning that a free media will convey contradictions and lies, these leaders are seeking to shut down any free media and keep tight control of what people can read or view. Warning that political competition is chaotic, they keep tight control of who can exercise authority, run for office, and hold meetings. Warning that criticism of the government or themselves is damaging to the nation, they arrest and intimidate critics and stifle all criticism. And playing up nationalism, they argue that only a strong leader like themselves can preserve a strong nation, providing stability and prosperity (even when the latter seems unduly concentrated among their closet supporters).
So the struggle for democracy, and of democratic vs. authoritarian leaders, will go on. The arguments over democracy in theory and in practice are thousands of years old, with the conflicts with fascism, communism, and Nazism simply one round out of many in a very long battle. The latest war in which the U.S. was engaged — the war in Iraq — was not a war against communism, or even Islamic extremism (as was arguably the case in Afghanistan). It was simply a war against an authoritarian regime that was acting opportunistically to expand its reach, and to show its strength to its own people, first by invading Kuwait, then by sustaining the fiction that it was secretly working on nuclear weapons.
As we have seen with the Crimea, such episodes will continue. So the Old war — between the ideal of democracy and the practice of authoritarianism — is back. Or perhaps it never truly left. Either way, we had best recognize that democracy and freedom remain things that people throughout the world will still often have to fight for.