Futurist Shock

by Andrew Sprung

It's an uncertain world, and those who prognosticate on global trends cannot be blamed for tacking back and forth a bit. Indeed, they would be remiss not to.

Needing especially to be nimble these days is one of my favorite columnists, Gideon Rachman, who has a forthcoming book, Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety, and a January cover story in Foreign Policy (presumably a precis of the book) that question the Fukuyaman vision of a world trending inexorably toward universal democracy.  

As indicated in the book title, Rachman posits that China's rise is likely not to be "win-win" for the U.S.and the world at large.  He challenges what he sees as a series of comforting myths: that "America still leads across the board" and will continue to do so for decades; that "globalization is bending the world the way of the west" and that China will inevitably become a democracy; and that in a world in which all consequential countries are democracies, cooperation will trump conflict and mutual enrichment will result.

While Rachman's focus is not on democratization per se, his provisionally dark view of the likely path of U.S-Sino competition is founded in large part on the rueful observation that China does not look likely to democratize any time soon.  That implies a rather strong brake on the march of democracy across the globe.  Perhaps, then, there's a glint of personal irony in the title of his FT column: "Democracy is back -- how awkward." Not that the current outbreak of yearning for democracy in the Middle East undermines Rachman's "zero-sum" thesis in any substantive way -- in fact, a cornerstone of his argument is to debunk the notion that democracies are inherently cooperative with one another. But as Rachman notes that "the battle of ideas between democracy and authoritarianism is shifting once again," and that "it is ironic that the democratic movements in the Arab world broke out just as autocracy seemed to be coming back into fashion," perhaps at least a little of that irony redounds to him. 

Maybe that's why he fobs it off on a famous futurist, to whose famous thesis his forthcoming book may serve as antidote:

It is ironic that the democratic movements in the Arab world broke out just as autocracy seemed to be coming back into fashion. Francis Fukuyama, whose "end of history" thesis epitomised the democratic triumphalism of 1989, recently wrote an article for this newspaper that lauded China's ability to "make large complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well", while lamenting that American democracy "will not be much of a model to anyone if the government is divided against itself and cannot govern."

This is unfair, as Rachman omits a key part of Fukyuma's prognosis (my emphasis):

China's great historical achievement during the past two millennia has been to create high-quality centralised government, which it does much better than most of its authoritarian peers. Today, it is shifting social spending to the neglected interior, to boost consumption and to stave off a social explosion. I doubt whether its approach will work: any top-down system of accountability faces unsolvable problems of monitoring and responding to what is happening on the ground. Effective accountability can only come about through a bottom-up process, or what we know as democracy. This is not, in my view, likely to emerge soon. However, down the road, in the face of a major economic downturn, or leaders who are less competent or more corrupt, the system's fragile legitimacy could be openly challenged. Democracy's strengths are often most evident in times of adversity.

Really, nimbleness is a virtue. The world is changing fast. In the FP piece, and I presume in his forthcoming book, Rachman places a decidedly stronger bet on China's more-or-less-uninterrupted rise and the U.S.'s relative decline than he did 15 months ago, when he seemed to lay near-even odds on a significant derailment:

The government's neurotic obsession with achieving its totemic figure of 8 per cent growth a year hints at the country's continuing political fragility. Without a democratic mandate, the Communist party relies on rapid growth to keep the system stable. Somehow the country needs to make the transition to a system in which the government can draw upon alternative sources of legitimacy. Twenty years after the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist party shows no outward sign of contemplating a transition to a more democratic system. Meanwhile, the Chinese media speculate openly that social unrest could rise to dangerous levels, if economic growth slackens...

The Chinese government keeps a very careful eye on the obvious potential sources of discontent - university campuses, internet chat-rooms and the like. But if political instability does return to China, it will probably be provoked by something quite unexpected. There are still plenty of things that can go wrong, before China becomes the world's top dog.

Sounds rather like Fukuyama above, doesn't it? Rachman's more recent look forward in the FP article does not contradict this, but the emphasis shifts:

In a nuclear age, China is unlikely to get sucked into a world war, so it will not face turbulence and disorder on remotely the scale Germany did in the 20th century. And whatever economic and political difficulties it does experience will not be enough to stop the country's rise to great-power status. Sheer size and economic momentum mean that the Chinese juggernaut will keep rolling forward, no matter what obstacles lie in its path.

And with regard to democracy, Rachman would have us note that that train is operating some decades late:

In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, few Western analysts would have believed that 20 years later China would still be a one-party state -- and that its economy would also still be growing at phenomenal rates. The common (and comforting) Western assumption was that China would have to choose between political liberalization and economic failure. Surely a tightly controlled one-party state could not succeed in the era of cell phones and the World Wide Web? As Clinton put it during a visit to China in 1998, "In this global information age, when economic success is built on ideas, personal freedom is ... essential to the greatness of any modern nation."

In fact, China managed to combine censorship and one-party rule with continuing economic success over the following decade. The confrontation between the Chinese government and Google in 2010 was instructive. Google, that icon of the digital era, threatened to withdraw from China in protest at censorship, but it eventually backed down in return for token concessions. It is now entirely conceivable that when China becomes the world's largest economy -- let us say in 2027 -- it will still be a one-party state run by the Communist Party.

Maybe. But who ever put a clock on The End of History?

P.S. For those with boundless appetite for this sort of thing, a more direct response to Rachman's FP article is here.

Andrew Sprung, a media consultant and student of rhetoric, blogs at xpostfactoid.com

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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