Theory of Social Maturity and the questions it raises are discussed
in Robert Kegan's influential but dense book The Evolving
Self, and expanded in his subsequent work, In Over
our Heads. Here, Dr Dombeck explains Dr Kegan's theory.]
What Kegan has to say in The Evolving Self" can
be summarised (I think) in this manner:
maturity evolves or develops in successive layers just as does
cognitive maturity, progressing from the most simple understanding
to more and more complex understandings of the social world.
simple appreciations of the social world, and of human emotions
are fundamentally inaccurate, and not a good fit for the actual
complexity of the social world, but they nevertheless represent
the best people can do at any given moment.
complex appreciations of the social world evolve into existence
as a person becomes able to appreciate stuff abstractly that
they used to appreciate only in concrete (obvious, tangible)
forms. This is to say (using Kegan's terms) that people are
initially embedded in their own subjective perspective. They
see things only from their own particular point of view and
fundamentally cannot understand what it might be like to see
themselves from another perspective other than their own. Being
unable to understand what you look like to someone else is the
essence and definition of what it means to be subjective about
yourself, for example. Being able to appreciate things from
many different perspectives is the essence of what it means
to be relatively objective.
layers of social/emotional development occurs as people become
able to finally see themselves in increasingly larger and wider
social perspective. For example, the moment I am able to understand
for the first time what another person is thinking or feeling,
I have made a sort of leap forwards out of subjectivity (me
being trapped in my own perspective) and into a view of the
world that is a little more objective. If I can understand what
someone else is thinking and feeling, I can also imagine myself
as I must look through their eyes and my self-understanding
becomes that much more objective. This sort of expanded awareness
represents an emergence from embeddedness in my own subjective
perspective and the growth of my ability to see things from
multiple perspectives at once.
process of becoming progressively less subjective as you mature,
and thus more able to appreciate the complexity of the social
world, repeats itself multiple times in a given lifespan (assuming
people do continue to mature as they age and don't simply get
stuck!). Each new layer of awareness; each expansion of perspective
that a person grows is simultaneously both more objective; offering
a better, wider perspective on the social world than did the
prior understanding), and also less objective then the understanding
that logically follows next.
Where does this
progression end? Theoretically, it ends in 'enlightenment',
wisdom or 'individuation', at any rate a state or attitude in
which everything that can be understood objectively is understood
objectively, and there is no more subjectivity to wallow in
anymore. More practically, it ends when we reach the level of
social maturity that most of or peers achieve. Few people
ever become more socially mature than the majority of their
peers - which is to say more than the editors of tabloid
Let's take a moment
to digest this. It's still somewhat dense, despite my efforts
Stages of Social Maturity
What I've just
gone over is a sort of abstracted version of Kegan's social
maturity theory without any real detail shown. Of course, it
will help to have that detail along with some some concrete
examples of what he is talking about to make this all comprehensible,
so that is what I will now try to supply.
Kegan is suggesting
that as babies grow into adults, they develop progressively
more objective and accurate appreciations of the social world
they inhabit. They do this by progressing through five or more
I-states or periods of development which he labeled as follows:
Rare amongst men is the Inter-individual state of
I-state of all is the Individuated (to use Jung's terminology).
This is not discussed by Kegan
In their beginnings,
babies are all subjective and have really no appreciation of
anything objective at all, and therefore no real self-awareness.
This is to say, at first, babies have little idea how to interpret
anything, and the only perspective they have with which to interpret
things is their own scarcely developed perspective. They can
recognise parent's faces and the like, but this sort of recognition
should not be confused with babies being able to appreciate
that parents are separate creatures with their own needs. This
key recognition doesn't occur for years.
this earliest period as Incorporative. The sense
of self is not developed at this point in time. There is no
self to speak of because there is no distinction occurring yet
between self and other. To the baby, there is not any reason
to ask the question, "who am I" because the baby's
mind is nothing more and nothing less than the experience of
its senses as it moves about. In an important sense, the baby
is embedded in its sensory experience and has no other awareness.
using their senses and reflexes a lot and thus develop mental
representations of those reflexes. At some point it occurs to
the baby that it has reflexes that it can use and senses that
it can experience. Reflex and sensation are thus the first mental
objects; the first things that are understood to be distinct
components of the self. The sense of self emerges from the knowledge
that there are things in the world that aren't self (like reflexes
and senses); things that I am not. To quote Kegan,
than literally being my reflexes, I now have them, and "I"
am something other. "I" am that which coordinates
or mediates the reflexes..."
refers to this second period of social appreciation development
as Impulsive, to suggest that the child is now embedded
in impulses - which are those things that coordinate reflexes.
The sense of self at this stage of life would be comfortable
saying something like, "hungry", or "sleepy",
being fully identified with these hungers. Though babies are
now aware that they can take action to fulfill a need, they
still are not clear that other people exist yet as independent
creatures. From the perspective of the Impulsive mind, a parent
is merely another reflex that can be brought to bear to satisfy
of what was previously subjective experience continues as development
continues. Kegan's next developmental leap is known as the Imperial
[or rather imperious] self. The child as "little
dictator" is born. In the prior impulsive self, the self
literally is nothing more and nothing less than a set of needs.
There isn't anyone "there" having those needs yet.
The needs alone are all that exists. As awareness continues
to rise, the child now starts to become aware that "it"
is the very thing that has the needs. Because the child is now
aware that it has needs (rather than is needs), it also starts
to become aware that it can consciously manipulate things to
get its needs satisfied. The impulsive child was also manipulative,
perhaps, but in a more unaware 'animal' manner. The imperial
child is not yet aware that other people have needs too. It
only knows at this stage that it has needs, and it doesn't hesitate
to express them.
period that follows next starts with the first moment when the
child comes to understand that there are actually other people
out there in the world whose needs need to be taken into account
along side their own. The appreciation of the otherness of other
people comes about, as always by a process of expanding perspectives.
The child's perspective in this case expands from its own only
to later include both its own and those of other important people
around it. It is the child's increasingly sophisticated understanding
of the idea that people have needs itself which cause the leap
to occur. To quote Kegan again,
no longer am my needs (no longer the imperial I); rather I have
them. In having them I can now coordinate, or integrate, one
need system with another, and in so doing, I bring into being
that need-mediating reality which we refer to when we speak
In English then,
the interpersonal child becomes aware that "not only do
I have needs, other people do too!" This moment in time
is where conscience is born and the potential for guilt and
shame arises, as well as the potential for empathy. Prior to
this moment, these important aspects of adult mental life don't
exist except as potentials.
child is aware that other people have needs which it needs to
be taken into account if it is to best satisfy its own needs.
There is no guiding principle that helps the interpersonal child
to determine which set of needs is most important - its
own, or those of the other people. Some children will conclude
that their own needs are most important to satisfy, while others
will conclude that other's needs should be prioritised, and
some children will move back and forth between the two positions
like a crazy monkey.
As the child's
sense of self continues to develop, at some point it becomes
aware that a guiding principle can be established which helps
determine which set of needs should take precedence under particular
circumstances. This is the first moment that the child can be
said to have values, or commitments to ideas and beliefs and
principles which are larger and more permanent than its own
passing whims and fears. Kegan refers to this new realisation
of and commitment to values as the Institutional
period, noting that in this period, the child's idea of self
becomes something which can be, for the first time, described
in terms of institutionalised values, such as being honest.
"I'm an honest person. I try to be fair. I strive to be
brave." are the sorts of things an institutional mind might
say. Values, such as the Golden Rule (e.g., "Do unto others
as you would have them do unto you"), start to guide the
child's appreciation of how to be a member of the family and
of society. The moral, ethical and legal foundations of society
follow from this basic achievement of an Institutional self.
Further, children (or adults) who achieve this level of social
maturity understand the need for laws and for ethical codes
that work to govern everyone's behavior. Less socially mature
individuals won't grasp why these things are important and cannot
and should not simply be disregarded when they are inconvenient.
For many people,
social maturity seems to stop here at the Institutional stage.
Kegan himself writes that this stage is the stage of conventional
adult maturity; one that many (but certainly not all) adults
reach, and beyond which most do not progress. However, the potential
for continued development continues onwards and upwards.
The next evolution
of self understanding occurs when the child (by now probably
an adult) starts to realise that there is more than one way
of being "fair" or "honest" or "brave"
in the world. Whereas before, in the interpersonal mindset,
there is only one possible right way to interpret a social event
(e.g., in accordance with one's own value system), a newly developed
Inter-individual mindset starts to recognise a
diversity of ways that someone might act and still be acting
in accordance with a coherent value system (though not necessarily
one's own value system).
For example, let's
consider how someone with an Institutional mindset and someone
with an InterIndividual mindset might judge someone who has
become a "draft dodger" so as to avoid military duty.
There are precisely two ways that an Institutionally minded
person might look at such an action. If he or she is of the
mainstream institutional mindset, draft dodging is a non-religious
sort of heresy and a crime which should be punishable. If, on
the other hand, he or she is of a counter-cultural institutional
mindset, then judgements are reversed and draft dodging is seen
as a brave action which demonstrates individual courage in the
face of massive peer pressure to conform. An institutionally
minded person can hold one or the other of these perspectives
but not both, because he or she is literally embedded in one
or the other of those perspectives and cannot appreciate the
other except as something alien and evil.
A person who has
achieved Inter-individual social maturity is able to hold both
mainstream and counter-cultural value systems in mind at the
same time, and to see the problem of draft dodging from both
perspectives. This sort of dual-vision will appear to be the
worst kind of wishy-washiness and flip-floppery to someone stuck
in a conventional Institutional mindset and maturity level.
However, if you are following the progression of social maturity
states, and how one states' embedded subjective view becomes
something which is seem objectively alongside other points of
view as social maturity progresses, you will see that such dual-vision
is indeed the logical next step; what a more socially mature
sort of human being might look like.
Kegan thinks of
the achievement of Inter-individual social maturity, what might
be considered "post-maturity", as a dubious thing.
In a wonderful interview published by What is Enlightenment
? Magazine " and available online here, Kegan comments
on the danger that this state poses:
have to think about what it means to actually be more complex
than what yor culture is currently demanding. You have to have
a name for that, too. It's almost something beyond maturity,
and it's usually a very risky state to be in. I mean, we loved
Jesus, Socrates, and Gandhiafter we murdered them. While
they were alive, they were a tremendous pain in the ass. Jesus,
Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.these people died
relatively young. You don't often live a long life being too
far out ahead of yor culture."
I'm not going
to comment on whether or not Kegan's social maturity theory
is accurate. Whether or not it is accurate, it is still a very
useful and interesting way of thinking about how social maturity
develops. If we can agree to accept this theory as basically
correct, for a moment, a whole lot of mental problems and disorders
that are otherwise difficult to talk about suddenly start to
make some sense; start to "click into place". This
is already a rather long essay and I don't want to belabor it,
but I need to give at least one example, and to my mind there
is no better example for my purpose than Narcissistic Personality
(typically) arrogant, self-important and even grandiose people
who consider themselves special and "above the law",
lacking in empathy and compassion, willing to exploit innocents,
and who are consumed by visions of dramatic personal success
and power to which they quite passionately believe they are
entitled for no apparent reason. Narcissists use other people
if it suits their purpose to use them, and discard or attack
them if they are in the way.
Personality Disorder Symptoms
after Mark Dombeck
pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need
for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early
adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated
by five (or more) of the following:
Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates
achievements and talents, expects to be recognised as
superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success,
power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is "special"
and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate
with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration or praise.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable
expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic
compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes
advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognise or
identify with the feelings and needs of others - often
while pretending to do so as part of exploitative behaviour.
8. Is often envious of others or is smug in the
belief that others are envious of him/her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
10. Is pathologically sensitive to comment - treating
all as either inadequate praise or unacceptable criticism.
a few people who fit the narcissist mould to one degree or another.
of the personalities of most homosexual men has been arrested
at this stage, because this is the stage also of early (often
erotic) fixation. - Anthony Weir] It is generally
not at all clear what is wrong with narcissists that causes
them to act in their obnoxious fashion, so most people tend
to think of them in more simple terms, as "jerks"
or "assholes", or more simply "selfish".
Now, think for
a moment what an adult might look like who never left the Imperial
self stage of social maturity development. Keep in mind that
there are many different types of maturity and that we are only
suggesting an adult whose growth has been stunted in this particular
social-emotional manner. Other aspects of maturity (e.g., cognitive
and intellectual maturity, knowledge, and of course age) are
unaffected. That particular hypothetical adult is pretty much
going to look like a narcissist, huh? A "little dictator"
writ into adult form.
For example, the
adult narcissist lacks empathy for the same reason that the
normal imperial child lacks empathy; as an Imperially minded
individual, he cannot conceive of any perspective that has any
meaning other than his own. He or she is literally embedded
in an inadequate and inaccurate representation of social reality;
one in which only his own needs and impulses are important and
no one else is important. The existence of other human beings
with separate needs may be partially understood by such a fellow,
but there is no recognition that those other people's needs
have equivalent weight and reality to the Imperial-minded narcissists'
A similar argument
can be made to explain how to account for sociopaths; antisocial
personality disorders (who similarly lacks in empathy, guilt
and remorse for criminal actions which harm other people), and
also for the childish, immature and often reckless behavior
that is frequently displayed by otherwise normal people who
have been abusing drugs and/or alcohol since they were small
and have only recently become sober. Such people's behavior
can be made more comprehensible if you think of them as developmentally
delayed in this dimension of social-emotional maturity.
Just because we
can use Kegan's theory to explain why people act like jerks,
doesn't for a second excuse jerky behavior. or criminal behavior,
for that matter. Adult narcissists and antisocials may be akin
to little children in terms of their social maturity development,
but they are not typically retarded in other aspects of maturity.
They often have the full compliment of adult intellectual capabilities
and may even have very good social skills. They often know right
from wrong in some abstract manner even if they can't conceive
it like a more socially mature person might. They are accountable
for their actions even if they possess real handicaps that lead
them to act in unacceptable ways.
Ask any therapist
and he or she will tell you - it is quite difficult to do effective
therapy with people who have social immaturity problems. If
Kegan is right in his thinking, the reason for this would not
be that these people are fundamentally resistant to the therapy
process (which is how many therapists see the problem), but
rather in large part because they cannot comprehend the therapy
process, which is after all, very much a social process that
requires a certain level of social maturity on the part of patients
before they can benefit. It isn't enough to simply teach a set
of skills to such people, because all such people will be capable
of doing is aping those skills. They won't be able to fully
appreciate the meaning of those skills and thus generalise from
them to a more abstract (and mature) way of being with other
people. Teaching social skills might actually work for some
such people. Some people might actually learn the skills and
that will be enough to trigger their growth. However, there
ought to be a better, more direct way to make this sort of social
maturity growth occur.
question of how to help adult people become more socially mature
when they aren't, is a huge unanswered question that this theory
leaves us with. Is there a way to help the Narcissists, and
the Destructives, and the Obsessive-Compulsives, and the Unbelievably
Greedy or Competitive, and the Toxic Parents out there? What
about the rest of the people out there who are not quite at
the level of social maturity that society demands of them? Kegan
explores these questions in his subsequent book, In Over
At what stage
of social/emotional development is the United States, self-proclaimed
bastion of freedom, 'crusader' for justice and democracy - only
40 years since people of color were arrested for resisting
the terrible apartheid in the Southern States which prevented
them even from voting ?
the American male really wants is two things: he wants
to be blown by a stranger while reading a newspaper
and he wants to be fucked by his buddy when he's drunk.
Everything else is Society."
The United States has 5% of the world's
and 75% of the world's prison population.
End of the End of History
the twenty-first century will look like the nineteenth.
In the early 1990s,
optimism was understandable. The collapse of the communist empire
and the apparent embrace of democracy by Russia seemed to augur
a new era of global convergence. The great adversaries of the
Cold War suddenly shared many common goals, including a desire
for economic and political integration. Even after the political
crackdown that began in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the disturbing
signs of instability that appeared in Russia after 1993, most
Americans and Europeans believed that China and Russia were
on a path toward liberalism. Boris Yeltsin's Russia seemed committed
to the liberal model of political economy and closer integration
with the West. The Chinese government's commitment to economic
opening, it was hoped, would inevitably produce a political
opening, whether Chinese leaders wanted it or not.
was characteristic of post-Cold War thinking. In a globalised
economy, it was widely believed, nations had no choice but to
liberalise - first economically, then politically - if they
wanted to compete and to survive. As national economies approached
a certain level of per capita income, growing middle
classes would demand legal and political power, which rulers
would have to grant if they wanted their nations to prosper.
Since democratic capitalism was the only model of success for
developing societies, all societies would eventually choose
such a path. In the battle of ideas, liberalism had triumphed.
"At the end of history," as Francis Fukuyama famously
put it, "there are no serious ideological competitors
left to liberal democracy."
The economic and
ideological determinism of the early post-Cold War years produced
two broad assumptions that shaped both policies and expectations.
One was an abiding belief in the inevitability of human progress,
the belief that history moves in only one direction - a faith
conceived by post-Enlightenment capitalism and fostered by social
Darwinism, dashed by the brutality of the twentieth century,
and given new life by the fall of communism. The other was a
prescription for patience and restraint. Rather than confront
and challenge autocracies, it was better to enmesh them in the
global economy, support the rule of law and the creation of
stronger state institutions, and let the ineluctable forces
of human progress work their magic.
But the grand
expectation that the world had entered an era of convergence
has proved wrong. We have entered an age of divergence. Since
the mid-1990s, the nascent democratic transformation in Russia
has given way to what may best be described as a "czarist"
political system, in which all important decisions are taken
by one man and his powerful coterie. Vladimir Putin and his
spokesmen speak of "democracy," but they define the
term much as the Chinese do. For Putin, democracy is not about
competitive elections so much as the implementation of popular
will. The regime is democratic because the government consults
with and listens to the Russian people, discerns what they need
and want, and then attempts to give it to them. As Ivan Krastev
notes, "The Kremlin thinks not in terms of citizens' rights
but in terms of the population's needs. " Elections do
not offer a choice, but only a chance to ratify choices made
by Putin, as in the "selection" of Dmitry Medvedev
to succeed Putin as president. The legal system is a tool to
be used against political opponents. The party system has been
purged of political groups not approved by Putin. The power
apparatus around Putin controls most of the national media,
A majority of
Russians seem content with autocratic rule, at least for now.
Unlike communism, Putin's rule does not impinge much on their
personal lives, as long as they stay out of politics. Unlike
the tumultuous Russian democracy of the 1990s, the present government,
thanks to the high prices of oil and gas, has at least produced
a rising standard of living. Putin's efforts to undo the humiliating
post-Cold War settlement and restore the greatness of Russia
is popular. His political advisers believe that "avenging
the demise of the Soviet Union will keep us in power."
For Putin, there
is a symbiosis between the nature of his rule and his success
in returning Russia to "great power" status. Strength
and control at home allow Russia to be strong abroad. Strength
abroad justifies strong rule at home. Russia's growing international
clout also shields Putin's autocracy from foreign pressures.
European and American statesmen find they have a full plate
of international issues on which a strong Russia can make life
easier or harder, from energy supplies to Iran. Under the circumstances,
they are far less eager to confront the Russian government over
the fairness of its elections or the openness of its political
Putin has created
a guiding national philosophy out of the correlation between
power abroad and autocracy at home. He calls Russia a "sovereign
democracy," a term that neatly encapsulates the nation's
return to greatness, its escape from the impositions of the
West, and its adoption of an "eastern" model of democracy.
In Putin's view, only a great and powerful Russia is strong
enough to defend and advance its interests, and also strong
enough to resist foreign demands for western political reforms
that Russia neither needs nor wants. In the 1990s, Russia wielded
little influence on the world stage but opened itself wide to
the intrusions of foreign businessmen and foreign governments.
Putin wants Russia to have great influence over others around
the world while shielding itself from the influence of unwelcome
Putin looks to
China as a model, and for good reason. While the Soviet Union
collapsed and lost everything after 1989, as first Mikhail Gorbachev
and then Boris Yeltsin sued for peace with the West and invited
its meddling, Chinese leaders weathered their own crisis by
defying the West. They cracked down at home and then battened
down the hatches until the storm of Western disapproval blew
over. The results in the two great powers were instructive.
Russia by the end of the 1990s was flat on its back. China was
on its way to unprecedented economic growth, military power,
and international influence.
The Chinese learned
from the Soviet experience, too. While the democratic world
waited after Tiananmen Square for China to resume its inevitable
course upward to liberal democratic modernity, the Chinese Communist
Party leadership set about shoring up its dominance in the nation.
In recent years, despite repeated predictions in the West of
an imminent political opening, the trend has been toward consolidation
of the Chinese autocracy rather than reform. As it became clear
that the Chinese leadership had no intention of reforming itself
out of power, Western observers hoped that they might be forced
to reform despite themselves, if only to keep China on a path
of economic growth and to manage the myriad internal problems
that growth brings. But that now seems unlikely as well.
Today most economists
believe that China's remarkable growth should be sustainable
for some time to come. Keen observers of the Chinese political
system see a sufficient combination of competence and ruthlessness
on the part of the Chinese leadership to handle problems as
they arise, and a population prepared to accept autocratic government
so long as economic growth continues. As Andrew J. Nathan and
Bruce Gilley have written, the present leadership is unlikely
to "succumb to a rising tide of problems or surrender graciously
to liberal values infiltrated by means of economic globalisation."
Until events "justify taking a different attitude, the
outside world would be well advised to treat the new Chinese
leaders as if they are here to stay."
wealth and autocracy have proven compatible after all. Autocrats
learn and adjust. The autocracies of Russia and China have figured
out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political
activity. They have seen that people making money will keep
their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses
will be cut off. New wealth gives autocracies a greater ability
to control information - to monopolise television stations,
and to keep a grip on Internet traffic - often with the assistance
of foreign corporations eager to do business with them.
In the long run,
rising prosperity may well produce political liberalism, but
how long is the long run? It may be too long to have any strategic
or geo-political relevance. As the old joke goes, Germany launched
itself on a trajectory of economic modernisation in the late
nineteenth century and within six decades it became a fully
fledged democracy: the only problem was what happened in the
intervening years. So the world waits for change, but in the
meantime two of the world's largest nations, with more than
a billion and a half people and the second- and third-largest
militaries between them, now have governments committed to autocratic
rule and may be able to sustain themselves in power for the
The power and
the durability of these autocracies will shape the international
system in profound ways. The world is not about to embark on
a new ideological struggle of the kind that dominated the Cold
War. But the new era, rather than being a time of "universal
values," will be one of growing tensions and sometimes
confrontation between the forces of democracy and the forces
During the Cold
War, it was easy to forget that the struggle between liberalism
and autocracy has endured since the 'Enlightenment'. It was
the issue that divided the United States from much of Europe
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It divided
Europe itself through much of the nineteenth century and into
the twentieth. Now it is returning to dominate the geopolitics
of the twenty-first century.
over the past decade has been that when Chinese and Russian
leaders stopped believing in communism, they stopped believing
in anything. They had become pragmatists, without ideology or
belief, simply pursuing their own and their nation's interests.
But the rulers of China and Russia, like the rulers of autocracies
in the past, do possess a set of beliefs that guides them in
both domestic and foreign policy. It is not an all-encompassing,
systematic worldview like Marxism or liberalism. But it is a
comprehensive set of beliefs about government and society and
the proper relationship between rulers and their people.
The rulers of
Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central
government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system.
They believe their large and fractious nations need order and
stability to prosper. They believe that the vacillation and
chaos of democracy would impoverish and shatter their nations,
and in the case of Russia that it already did so. They believe
that strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to
be powerful and respected in the world, capable of safeguarding
and advancing their interests. Chinese rulers know from their
nation's long and often turbulent history that political disruptions
and divisions at home invite foreign interference and depredation.
What the world applauded as a political opening in 1989, Chinese
leaders regard as a near-fatal display of disagreement.
So the Chinese
and Russian leaders are not simply autocrats. They believe in
autocracy. The modern liberal mind at "the end of history"
may not appreciate the attractions of this idea, or the enduring
appeal of autocracy in this globalised world; but historically
speaking, Russian and Chinese rulers are in illustrious company.
The European monarchs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth
centuries were thoroughly convinced, as a matter of political
philosophy, of the superiority of their form of government.
Along with Plato, Aristotle, and every other great thinker prior
to the eighteenth century, they regarded democracy as the rule
of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob. And in the first
half of the twentieth century, for every democratic power like
the United States, Great Britain, and France, there was an equally
strong autocratic power, in Germany, Russia, and Japan. The
many smaller nations around the world were at least as likely
to model themselves on the autocracies as on the democracies.
Only in the past half-century has democracy gained widespread
popularity around the world, and only since the 1980s, really,
has it become the most common form of government.
The rulers of
Russia and China are not the first to suggest that it may not
be the best. It is often claimed that the autocrats in Moscow
and Beijing are interested only in lining their pockets - that
the Chinese leaders are just kleptocrats and that the Kremlin
is "Russia, Inc." Of course the rulers of China and
Russia look out for themselves, enjoying power for its own sake
and also for the wealth and luxuries it brings. But so did many
great kings, emperors, and popes in the past. People who wield
power like to wield power, and it usually makes them rich. But
they usually believe also that they are wielding it in the service
of a higher cause. By providing order, by producing economic
success, by holding their nations together and leading them
to a position of international influence, respectability, and
power, they believe that they are serving their people. Nor
is it at all clear, for the moment, that the majority of people
they rule in either China or Russia disagree.
have their own set of beliefs, they also have their own set
of interests. The rulers of China and Russia may indeed be pragmatic,
but they are pragmatic in pursuing policies that will keep themselves
in power. Putin sees no distinction between his own interests
and Russia's interests. When Louis XIV remarked, "L'Etat,
c'est moi," he was declaring himself the living embodiment
of the French nation, asserting that his interests and France's
interests were the same. When Putin declares that he has a "moral
right" to continue to rule Russia, he is saying that it
is in Russia's interest for him to remain in power; and just
as Louis XIV could not imagine it being in the interests of
France for the monarchy to perish, neither can Putin imagine
it could be in Russia's interest for him to give up power. As
Minxin Pei has pointed out, when Chinese leaders face the choice
between economic efficiency and the preservation of power, they
choose power. That is their pragmatism.
interest in self-preservation affects their approach to foreign
policy as well. In the age of monarchy, foreign policy served
the interests of the monarch. In the age of religious conflict,
it served the interests of the church. In the modern era, democracies
have pursued foreign policies to make the world safer for democracy.
Today the autocrats pursue foreign policies aimed at making
the world safe, if not for all autocracies, then at least for
Russia is a prime
example of how a nation's governance at home shapes its relations
with the rest of the world. A democratizing Russia, and even
Gorbachev's democratizing Soviet Union, took a fairly benign
view of NATO and tended to have good relations with neighbors
that were treading the same path toward democracy. But today
Putin regards NATO as a hostile entity, calls its enlargement
"a serious provocation," and asks, "Against whom
is this expansion intended?" In fact, NATO is no more aggressive
or provocative toward Moscow today than it was in Gorbachev's
time. If anything, it is less so. NATO has become more benign,
just as Russia has become more aggressive. When Russia was more
democratic, Russian leaders saw their interests as intimately
bound up with the liberal democratic world. Today the Russian
government is suspicious of the democracies, especially those
near its borders.
This is understandable.
For all their growing wealth and influence, the twenty-first-century
autocracies remain a minority in the world. As some Chinese
scholars put it, democratic liberalism became dominant after
the fall of Soviet communism and is sustained by an "international
hierarchy dominated by the United States and its democratic
allies," a "U.S.-centered great power group."
The Chinese and Russians feel like outliers from this exclusive
and powerful clique. "You western countries, you decide
the rules, you give the grades, you say, 'you have been a bad
boy,'" complained one Chinese official at Davos this year.
Putin also complains that "we are constantly being taught
War world looks very different when seen from autocratic Beijing
and Moscow than it does from democratic Washington, London,
Paris, Berlin, or Brussels. For the leaders in Beijing, it was
not so long ago that the international democratic community,
led by the United States, turned on China with a rare unity,
imposing economic sanctions and even more painful diplomatic
isolation after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The Chinese
Communist Party, according to Fei-Ling Wang, has had a "persisting
sense of political insecurity ever since," a "constant
fear of being singled out and targeted by the leading powers,
especially the United States," and a "profound concern
for the regime's survival, bordering on a sense of being under
In the 1990s,
the democratic world, led by the United States, toppled autocratic
governments in Panama and Haiti and twice made war against Milosevic's
Serbia. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs),
well-funded by western governments, trained opposition parties
and supported electoral reforms in Central and Eastern Europe
and in Central Asia. In 2000, internationally financed opposition
forces and international election monitors finally brought down
Milosevic. Within a year he was shipped off to The Hague, and
five years later he was dead in prison.
From 2003 to 2005,
western democratic countries and NGOs provided pro-western and
pro-democratic parties and politicians with the financing and
organizational help that allowed them to topple other autocrats
in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. Europeans and Americans
celebrated these revolutions and saw in them the natural unfolding
of humanity's destined political evolution toward liberal democracy.
But leaders in Beijing and Moscow saw these events in geopolitical
terms, as western-funded, CIA-inspired coups that furthered
the hegemony of America and its European allies. The upheavals
in Ukraine and Georgia, Dmitri Trenin notes, "further poisoned
the Russian-Western relationship" and helped to persuade
the Kremlin to "complete its turnaround in foreign policy."
The color revolutions
worried Putin not only because they checked his regional ambitions,
but also because he feared that the examples of Ukraine and
Georgia could be repeated in Russia. They convinced him by 2006
to control, restrict, and in some cases close down the activities
of international NGOs. Even today he warns against the "jackals"
in Russia who "got a crash course from foreign experts,
got trained in neighboring republics and will try here now."
His worries may seem absurd or disingenuous, but they are not
misplaced. In the post-Cold War era, a triumphant liberalism
has sought to expand its triumph by establishing as an international
principle the right of the "international community"
to intervene against sovereign states that abuse the rights
of their people. International NGOs interfere in domestic politics;
international organizations like the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe monitor and pass judgment on elections;
international legal experts talk about modifying international
law to include such novel concepts as "the responsibility
to protect" or a "voluntary sovereignty waiver."
In theory, these
innovations apply to everyone. In practice, they chiefly provide
democratic nations the right to intervene in the affairs of
non-democratic nations. Unfortunately for China, Russia, and
other autocracies, this is one area where there is no great
transatlantic divide. The United States, though traditionally
jealous of its own sovereignty, has always been ready to interfere
in the internal affairs of other nations. The nations of Europe,
once the great proponents (in theory) of the Westphalian order
of inviolable state sovereignty, have now reversed course and
produced a system, as Robert Cooper has observed, of constant
"mutual interference in each other's domestic affairs,
right down to beer and sausages." This has become one of
the great schisms in the international system dividing the democratic
world and the autocracies. For three centuries, international
law, with its strictures against interference in the internal
affairs of nations, has tended to protect autocracies. Now the
democratic world is in the process of removing that protection,
while the autocrats rush to defend the principle of sovereign
For this reason,
the war in Kosovo in 1999 was a more dramatic and disturbing
turning point for Russia and China than was the Iraq war of
2003. Both nations opposed NATO's intervention, and not only
because China's embassy was bombed by an American warplane and
Russia's distant Slavic cousins in Serbia were on the receiving
end of the NATO air campaign. When Russia threatened to block
military action at the U.N. Security Council, NATO simply sidestepped
the United Nations and took it upon itself to authorise action,
thus negating one of Russia's few tools of international influence.
From Moscow's perspective, it was a clear violation of international
law, not only because the war lacked a U.N. imprimatur but because
it was an intervention into a sovereign nation that had committed
no external aggression. To the Chinese, it was just "liberal
hegemonism." Years later Putin was still insisting that
the western nations "leave behind this disdain for international
law" and not attempt to "substitute NATO or the EU
for the U.N."
The Russians and
the Chinese were in good company. At the time, no less an authority
than Henry Kissinger warned that "the abrupt abandonment
of the concept of national sovereignty" risked a world
unmoored from any notion of international legal order. The United
States, of course, paid this little heed: it had intervened
and overthrown sovereign governments dozens of times throughout
its history. But even postmodern Europe set aside legal niceties
in the interest of what it regarded as a higher Enlightenment
morality. As Robert Cooper puts it, Europe was driven to act
by "the collective memory of the Holocaust and the streams
of displaced people created by extreme nationalism in the Second
World War." This "common historical experience"
provided all the justification necessary. Kissinger warned that
in a world of "competing truths, " such a doctrine
risked chaos. Cooper responded that postmodern Europe was "no
longer a zone of competing truths."
But the conflict
between international law and liberal morality is one that the
democracies have not been able to finesse. As Chinese officials
asked at the time of Tiananmen Square and have continued to
ask, "What right does the U. S. government have to ...
flagrantly interfere in China's internal affairs?" What
right, indeed? Only the liberal creed grants the right - the
belief that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable
rights that must not be abridged by governments; that governments
derive their power and legitimacy only from the consent of the
governed and have a duty to protect their citizens' right to
life, liberty, and property. To those who share this liberal
faith, foreign policies and even wars that defend these principles,
as in Kosovo, can be right even if established international
law says they are wrong. But to the Chinese, the Russians, and
others who do not share this worldview, the United States and
its democratic allies succeed in imposing their views on others
not because they are right but only because they are powerful
enough to do so. To non-liberals, the international liberal
order is not progress. It is oppression.
This is more than
a dispute over theory and the niceties of international jurisprudence.
It concerns the fundamental legitimacy of governments, which
for autocrats can be a matter of life and death. China's rulers
have not forgotten that if the democratic world had had its
way in 1989, they would now be out of office, possibly imprisoned
or worse. Putin complains that "we are seeing a greater
and greater disdain for the basic principles of international
law," and he does not mean just the illegal use of force
but also the imposition of "economic, political, cultural
and educational policies." He decries the way "independent
legal norms" are being re-shaped to conform to "one
state's legal system," that of the western democracies,
and the way international institutions such as the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe have become "vulgar
instruments" in the hands of the democracies. As a result,
Putin exclaims, "no one feels safe! Because no one can
feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect
The western democracies
would deny any such intention, but Putin, like the leaders of
China, is right to worry. American and European policymakers
constantly say they want Russia and China to integrate themselves
into the international liberal democratic order, but it is not
surprising if Russian and Chinese leaders are wary. How can
autocrats enter the liberal international order without succumbing
to the forces of liberalism?
Afraid of the
answer, the autocracies are understandably pushing back, and
with some effect. Rather than accepting the new principles of
diminished sovereignty and weakened international protection
for autocrats, Russia and China are promoting an international
order that places a high value on national sovereignty and can
protect autocratic governments from foreign interference.
And they are succeeding.
Autocracy is making a comeback. Changes in the ideological complexion
of the most influential world powers have always had some effect
on the choices made by leaders in smaller nations. Fascism was
in vogue in Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s partly because
it seemed successful in Italy, Germany, and Spain. Communism
spread in the Third World in the 1960s and the 1970s not so
much because the Soviet Union worked hard to spread it, but
because government opponents fought their rebellions under the
banner of Marxism-Leninism and then enlisted the aid of Moscow.
When communism died in Moscow, communist rebellions around the
world became few and far between. And if the rising power of
the world's democracies in the late years of the Cold War, culminating
in their almost total victory after 1989, contributed to the
wave of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s, it is logical
to expect that the rise of two powerful autocracies should shift
the balance back again.
It is a mistake
to believe that autocracy has no international appeal. Thanks
to decades of remarkable growth, the Chinese today can argue
that their model of economic development, which combines an
increasingly open economy with a closed political system, can
be a successful option for development in many nations. It certainly
offers a model for successful autocracy, a template for creating
wealth and stability without having to give way to political
liberalization. Russia's model of "sovereign democracy"
is attractive among the autocrats of Central Asia. Some Europeans
worry that Russia is "emerging as an ideological alternative
to the EU that offers a different approach to sovereignty, power
and world order." In the 1980s and 1990s, the autocratic
model seemed like a losing proposition as dictatorships of both
right and left fell before the liberal tide. Today, thanks to
the success of China and Russia, it looks like a better bet.
China and Russia
may no longer actively export an ideology, but they do offer
autocrats somewhere to run when the democracies turn hostile.
When Iran's relations with Europe plummeted in the 1990s after
its clerics issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie,
the influential Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani made
a point of noting how much easier it is to maintain good relations
with a nation like China. When the dictator of Uzbekistan came
under criticism in 2005 from the administration of George W.
Bush for violently suppressing an opposition rally, he responded
by joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and moving
closer to Moscow. The Chinese provide unfettered aid to dictatorships
in Asia and Africa, undermining the efforts of the "international
community" to press for reforms - which in practical terms
often means 'régime-change' - in countries such as Burma
and Zimbabwe. Americans and Europeans may grumble, but autocracies
are not in the business of overthrowing other autocrats at the
democratic world's insistence. The Chinese, who used deadly
force to crack down on student demonstrators not so long ago,
will hardly help the West remove a government in Burma for doing
the same thing. Nor will they impose conditions on aid to African
nations to demand political and institutional reforms they have
no intention of carrying out in China.
may chide Burma's rulers, and they may urge the Sudanese government
to find some solution to the Sudan conflict. Moscow may at times
distance itself from Iran. But the rulers in Rangoon, Khartoum,
Pyongyang, and Tehran know that their best protectors - and
in the last resort, their only protectors - in a generally hostile
world are to be found in Beijing and Moscow. One wonders how
much Beijing officials can chastise Burmese generals for crushing
Buddhist monks' protests when the Chinese are themselves crushing
Buddhist monks in Tibet. In the great schism between democracy
and autocracy, the autocrats share common interests and a common
view of international order. As China's Li Peng told Iran's
Rafsanjani, China and Iran are united by a common desire to
build a world order in which "the selection of whatever
social system by a country is the affair of the people of that
In fact, a global
competition is under way. According to Sergei Lavrov, Russia's
foreign minister, "For the first time in many years, a
real competitive environment has emerged on the market of ideas"
between different "value systems and development models."
And the good news, from the Russian point of view, is that "the
West is losing its monopoly on the globalisation process."
Today when Russians speak of a multipolar world, they are not
only talking about the redistribution of power. It is also the
competition of value systems and ideas that will provide "the
foundation for a multipolar world order."
This comes as
a surprise to a democratic world that believed such competition
ended when the Berlin Wall fell. The world's democracies do
not regard their own efforts to support democracy and Enlightenment
principles abroad as an aspect of a geopolitical competition,
because they do not see "competing truths," only "universal
values." As a result, they are not always conscious of
how they use their wealth and power to push others to accept
their values and their principles.
In their own international
institutions and alliances, they demand strict fidelity to liberal
democratic principles. Before opening their doors to new members
and providing the vast benefits that membership offers in terms
of wealth and security, they demand that nations that want to
enter the EU or NATO open up their economies and political systems.
When the Georgian president called a state of emergency at the
end of 2007, he damaged Georgia's chances of entering NATO and
the EU anytime soon. As a result, Georgia may now live precariously
in the nether region between Russian autocracy and European
liberalism. Eventually, if the democracies turn their backs
on Georgia, it may have no choice but to accommodate Moscow.
Again, this competition
is not the Cold War redux. It is more like the nineteenth century
redux. In the nineteenth century, the absolutist rulers
of Russia and Austria shored up fellow autocracies in post-revolutionary
France and used force to suppress liberal rebellions in Germany,
Poland, Italy, and Spain. Palmerston's Britain used British
power to aid liberals on the continent; the United States cheered
on liberal revolutions in Hungary and Germany and expressed
outrage when Russian troops suppressed liberal forces in Poland.
Today Ukraine has already been a battleground between forces
supported by the West and forces supported by Russia, and it
could well be a battleground again in the future. Georgia could
be another. It is worth contemplating what the world would look
like, what Europe would look like, if democratic movements in
Ukraine and Georgia failed or were forcefully suppressed, and
the two nations became autocracies with close ties to Moscow.
It is worth considering what the effect would be in East Asia
if China used force to quash a democratic system in Taiwan and
instal a friendlier autocracy in its place.
The global competition
between democratic governments and autocratic governments will
become a dominant feature of the twenty-first-century world.
The great powers are increasingly choosing sides and identifying
themselves with one camp or the other. India, which during the
Cold War was proudly neutral or even pro-Soviet, has begun to
identify itself as part of the democratic West. Japan in recent
years has also gone out of its way to position itself as a democratic
great power, sharing common values with other Asian democracies
but also with non-Asian democracies. For both Japan and India
the desire to be part of the democratic world is genuine, but
it is also part of a geopolitical calculation - a way of cementing
solidarity with other great powers that can be helpful in their
strategic competition with autocratic China.
There is no perfect
symmetry in international affairs. The twin realities of the
present era - great power competition and the contest between
democracy and autocracy - will not always produce the same alignments.
Democratic India in its geopolitical competition with autocratic
China supports the Burmese dictatorship in order to deny Beijing
a strategic advantage. India's diplomats enjoy playing the other
great powers against each other, sometimes warming to Russia,
sometimes to China. Democratic Greece and Cyprus pursue close
relations with Russia partly out of cultural solidarity with
Eastern Orthodox cousins, but more out of economic interest.
The United States has long allied itself with Arab dictatorships
for strategic and economic reasons, as well as to successive
military rulers in Pakistan. As in the Cold War, strategic and
economic considerations, as well as cultural affinities, may
often cut against ideology.
But in today's
world, a nation's form of government, not its "civilization"
or its geographical location, may be the best predictor of its
geopolitical alignment. Asian democracies today line up with
European democracies against Asian autocracies. Chinese observers
see a "V-shaped belt" of pro-American democratic powers
"stretching from Northeast to Central Asia." When
the navies of India, the United States, Japan, Australia, and
Singapore exercised in the Bay of Bengal last year, Chinese
and other observers referred to it as the "axis of democracy."
Japan's prime minister spoke of an "Asian arc of freedom
and prosperity" stretching from Japan to Indonesia to India.
Russian officials profess to be "alarmed" that NATO
and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
are "reproducing a bloc policy" not unlike that of
the Cold War era, but the Russians themselves refer to the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization as an "anti-NATO" alliance
and a "Warsaw Pact 2." When the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization met last year, it brought together five autocracies
- China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan - as
well as Iran. When the ASEAN nations attempted to address the
problem of Burma last year, the organization split down the
middle, with democratic nations like the Philippines and Indonesia,
backed by Japan, seeking to put pressure on Burma, and the autocracies
of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, backed by China, seeking to
avoid setting a precedent that could come back to haunt them
The global divisions
between the club of autocrats and the axis of democracy have
broad implications for the international system. Is it possible
any longer to speak of an "international community"?
The term implies agreement on international norms of behavior,
an international morality, even an international conscience.
But today the world's major powers lack such a common understanding.
On the large strategic questions, such as whether to intervene
or to impose sanctions or to attempt to isolate nations diplomatically,
there is no longer an international community to be summoned
or led. This was exposed most blatantly in the war over Kosovo,
which divided the democratic West from both Russia and China,
and from many other nonEuropean autocracies. Today it is apparent
on the issues of Darfur, Iran, and Burma.
One would imagine
that on such transnational issues as disease, poverty, and climate
change the great powers ought to be able to work together despite
their diverging interests and worldviews. But even here their
differences complicate matters. Disputes between the democracies
and China over how and whether to condition aid to poor countries
in Africa affect the struggle against poverty. Geopolitical
calculations affect international negotiations over the best
response to climate change. The Chinese, along with the Indians,
believe the advanced industrial nations of the West, having
reached their present heights after decades of polluting the
air and emitting unconscionable levels of greenhouse gases,
now want to deny others the right to grow in the same way. Beijing
suspects a western attempt to restrict China's growth and to
slow its emergence as a competitive great power. Similarly,
the nuclear nonproliferation regime will continue to suffer
as the clashing interests of great powers and differing forms
of government overwhelm what might otherwise be their common
interests in preventing other nations from obtaining nuclear
weapons. Russia and China have run interference for Iran. The
United States has run interference for India, in order to enlist
New Delhi's help in the strategic competition with China.
The demise of
the international community is most clearly on display at the
U.N. Security Council, which, after a brief post-Cold War awakening,
is slipping back into its long coma. The artful diplomacy of
France and the tactical caution of China for a while obscured
the fact that on most major issues the Security Council has
been sharply divided between the autocracies and the democracies,
with the latter systematically pressing for sanctions and other
punitive actions against autocracies in Iran, North Korea, Sudan,
and Burma, and the former just as systematically resisting and
attempting to weaken the effect of such actions. This rut will
only deepen in the coming years.
Calls for a new
"concert" of nations including Russia, China, the
United States, Europe, and other great powers are unlikely to
be successful. The early-nineteenth-century Concert of Europe
operated under the umbrella of a common morality and shared
principles of government. It aimed not only at the preservation
of a European peace but also, and more important, at the maintenance
of a monarchical and aristocratic order against the liberal
and radical challenges presented by the French and American
revolutions and their echoes in Germany, Italy, and Poland.
The concert gradually broke down under the strains of popular
nationalism, fueled in part by the rise of revolutionary liberalism.
The great power concert that Franklin Roosevelt established
at the U.N. Security Council similarly foundered on ideological
And now, once
more, there is little sense of shared morality and common values
among the great powers. Instead there is suspicion and growing
hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies
that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their
overthrow. Any concert among these states would be built on
a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.
Can these disagreements
be overcome by expanding trade ties and growing economic interdependence
in this ever more globalised world? Clearly economic ties can
help to check tendencies toward great-power conflict. Chinese
leaders avoid confrontation with the United States today both
because they could not count on a victory and because they fear
the impact on the Chinese economy and, by extension, the stability
of their autocratic rule. American, Australian, and Japanese
dependence on the Chinese economy makes these nations cautious,
too, and the powerful influence of American big business makes
American leaders take a more accommodating view of China. In
both China and Russia, economic interests are not just national,
they are also personal. If the business of Russia is business,
as Dmitri Trenin argues, then its leaders should be reluctant
to jeopardise their wealth with risky foreign policies.
Yet history has
not been kind to the theory that strong trade ties prevent conflict
among nations. The United States and China are no more dependent
on each other's economies today than were Great Britain and
Germany before World War I. And trade relations are not without
their own tensions and conflicts. Those between the United States
and China are becoming increasingly contentious, with Congress
threatening legislation to punish China for perceived inequities
in the trade relationship. In both Europe and the United States,
concerns about the growing strategic challenge from China are
increasingly joined or even outstripped by fears of the growing
economic challenge it poses. Fifty-five percent of Germans believe
China's economic growth is a "bad thing," up from
38 percent in 2005, a view shared by Americans, Indians, Britons,
the French, and even South Koreans. Today 60 percent of South
Koreans think China's growing economy is a "bad thing."
The Chinese, meanwhile,
may still tolerate pressure to adjust their currency, crack
down on piracy, and increase quality standards for their products,
as well as all the other hectoring they receive from the United
States and Europe. But they are starting to feel that the democratic
world is ganging up on them and using these disputes as a way
of containing China not only economically but strategically.
And there is also the matter of the international scramble for
energy resources, which is becoming the primary arena for geopolitical
competition. The search for reliable sources of oil and gas
shapes China's policies toward Iran, Sudan, Burma, and Central
Asia. Russia and the democracies led by the United States compete
to build oil and gas pipelines that will provide them leverage
and influence, or deny it to their competitors.
alone cannot withstand the forces of national and ideological
competition that have now so prominently re-emerged. Trade relations
do not take place in a vacuum. They both influence and are influenced
by geopolitical and ideological conflicts. Nations are not calculating
machines. They have the attributes of the humans who create
and live in them, the intangible and immeasurable human qualities
of love, hate, ambition, fear, honor, shame, patriotism, ideology,
and belief--the things people fight and die for, today as in
Nowhere are these
human qualities more on display than in the Islamic world, especially
the Middle East. The struggle of radical Islamists against the
powerful and often impersonal forces of modernization, capitalism,
and globalization that they associate with the Judeo-Christian
West is the other great conflict in the international system
today. It is also the most dramatic refutation of the convergence
paradigm, since it is precisely convergence, including the liberal
world's conception of "universal values," that the
radical Islamists reject.
As a historical
phenomenon, the struggle between modernization and Islamic radicalism
may ultimately have less impact on international affairs than
the struggle among the great powers and between the forces of
democracy and autocracy. After all, Islamic resistance to westernization
is not a new phenomenon, though it has taken on a new and potentially
cataclysmic dimension. In the past, when old and less technologically
advanced peoples confronted more advanced cultures, their inadequate
weapons reflected their backwardness. Today the more radical
proponents of Islamic traditionalism, though they abhor the
modern world, are using against it not only the ancient methods
of assassination and suicidal attacks, but also modern weapons.
The forces of modernization and globalization have inflamed
the radical Islamist rebellion and also armed them for the fight.
But it is a lonely
and ultimately desperate fight, for in the struggle between
traditionalism and modernity, tradition cannot win - even though
traditional forces armed with modern weapons, technologies,
and ideologies can do horrendous damage. All the world's rich
and powerful nations have more or less embraced the economic,
technological, and even social aspects of modernization and
globalization. All have embraced, with varying degrees of complaint
and resistance, the free flow of goods, finances, and services
and the intermingling of cultures and lifestyles that characterises
the modern world. Increasingly, their people watch the same
television shows, listen to the same music, and go to the same
movies. Along with this dominant modern culture, they have accepted
- even as they may also deplore -the essential characteristics
of a modern ethics and aesthetics. Modernity means, among other
things, the sexual as well as political and economic liberation
of women; the weakening of church authority and the strengthening
of secularism; the existence of what used to be called the counterculture;
and the exercise of free expression in the arts (if not in politics),
which includes the freedom to commit blasphemy and to lampoon
symbols of faith, authority, and morality. These are the consequences
of liberalism and capitalism unleashed and unchecked by the
constraining hand of tradition, or a powerful church, or a moralistic
and domineering government. Even the Chinese have learned that
while it is possible to have capitalism without political liberalization,
it is much harder.
Islamists are the last holdout against these powerful forces
of modernity. For Sayyid Qutb, one of the intellectual fathers
of al-Qaîda, true Islam could be salvaged only by warring
against the modern world on all fronts. He wanted to "take
apart the entire political and philosophical structure of modernity
and return Islam to its unpolluted origins." A very different
kind of Muslim leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, clearly identified
modernity with the Enlightenment and rejected both. "Yes,
we are reactionaries, " he told his opponents, "and
you are enlightened intellectuals: You intellectuals do not
want us to go back 1,400 years."
These most radical
Islamists, along with Osama bin Laden, also reject that great
product of the Enlightenment and modernity: democracy. [i.e.
Fake (Majoritarian) Democracy, government by the media
and other big financial interests - A.W.] Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi denounced elections in Iraq on the grounds that "the
legislator who must be obeyed in a democracy is man, and not
God." Democratic elections were "the very essence
of heresy and polytheism and error," for they made "the
weak, ignorant man God's partner in His most central divine
prerogative - namely, ruling and legislating." As Bernard
Lewis has written, the aim of Islamic revolution in Iran and
elsewhere has been to "sweep away all the alien and infidel
accretions that had been imposed on the Muslim lands and peoples
in the era of alien dominance and influence and to restore the
true and divinely given Islamic order." One of those "infidel
accretions" is democracy. The fundamentalists want to take
the Islamic world back to where it was before the Christian
West, liberalism, and modernity polluted what they regard as
Their goal [like
those of Christian capitalist fundamentalists - A.W.]
is impossible to achieve. The Islamists could not take their
societies back 1,400 years even if the rest of the world would
let them. And it will not let them. Neither the United States
nor any of the other great powers will turn over control of
the Middle East to these fundamentalist forces. Partly this
is because the region is of such vital strategic importance
to the rest of the world. But it is more than that. The vast
majority of the people in the Middle East have no desire to
go back 1,400 years. They oppose neither modernity nor democracy.
Nor is it conceivable in this modern world that a whole country
could wall itself off from modernity, even if the majority wanted
to do so. Could the great Islamic theocracy that Al Qaeda and
others hope to erect ever completely block out the sights and
sounds of the rest of the world, and thereby shield its people
from the temptations of modernity? The mullahs have not even
succeeded in doing that in Iran. The project is fantastic.
The world is thus
faced with the prospect of a protracted struggle in which the
goals of the extreme Islamists can never be satisfied because
neither the United States, nor Europe, nor Russia, nor China,
nor the peoples of the Middle East have the ability or the desire
to give them what they want. The modern great powers will never
retreat as far as the Islamic extremists require. Unfortunately,
they may also not be capable of uniting effectively against
the threat. Although in the struggle between modernization and
tradition the United States, Russia, China, Europe, and the
other great powers are roughly on the same side, the things
that divide them from one another - the competing national ambitions,
the divisions between democrats and autocrats, the transatlantic
disagreement over the use of military power - undermine their
will to cooperate.
This is certainly
true when it comes to the unavoidable military aspects of a
fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Europeans have been
and will continue to be less than enthusiastic about what they
emphatically do not call "the War on Terror." As for
Russia and China, it will be tempting for them to enjoy the
spectacle of the United States bogged down in a fight with al-Qaîda
and other violent Islamist groups in the Middle East and South
Asia, just as it is tempting to let American power in that region
be checked by a nuclear-armed Iran. The willingness of the autocrats
in Moscow and Beijing to protect their fellow autocrats in Pyongyang,
Tehran, and Khartoum increases the chances that the connection
between terrorists and nuclear weapons will eventually be made.
Indeed, one of
the problems with making the struggle against Islamic terrorism
the sole focus of American foreign policy is that it produces
illusions about alliance and cooperation with other great powers
with whom genuine alliance is becoming impossible. The idea
of genuine strategic cooperation between the United States and
Russia or the United States and China in the war on terror is
mostly a fiction. For Russia, the war on terror is about Chechnya.
For China, it is about the Uighurs of Xinjiang province. But
when it comes to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, Russia and China
tend to see not terrorists but useful partners in the great
The great fallacy
of our era has been the belief that a liberal international
order rests on the triumph of ideas alone, or on the natural
unfolding of human progress. It is an immensely attractive notion,
mistakenly thought to be rooted in the Enlightenment worldview
of which all of us in the liberal world are the product. or
political scientists posit theories of modernisation, with sequential
stages of political and economic development that lead upward
toward liberalism. or political philosophers imagine a grand
historical dialectic, in which the battle of worldviews over
the centuries produces, in the end, the correct liberal democratic
answer. Naturally, many are inclined to believe that the Cold
War ended the way it did simply because the better world-view
triumphed, and that the international order that exists today
is but the next stage forward in humanity's march from strife
and aggression toward a peaceful and prosperous co-existence.
are just true enough to be dangerous. Of course there is strength
in the liberal democratic idea, and in the free market. It is
logical, too, that a world of liberal democratic states would
gradually produce an international order that reflected those
liberal and democratic qualities. This has been the enlightenment
dream since the eighteenth century, when Kant imagined a "perpetual
peace" consisting of liberal republics and built upon the
natural desire of all peoples for peace and material comfort.
Although some may scoff, it has been a remarkably compelling
vision. Its spirit animated the international arbitration movements
at the end of the nineteenth century, the worldwide enthusiasm
for a League of Nations in the early twentieth century, and
the enthusiasm for the United Nations after World War II. It
has also been a remarkably durable vision, withstanding the
horrors of two world wars, one more disastrous than the other,
and then a long Cold War that for a third time dashed expectations
of progress toward the ideal.
It is a testament
to the vitality of this Enlightenment vision that hopes for
a brand new era in human history again took hold with such force
after the fall of Soviet communism. But a little more skepticism
was in order. After all, had mankind really progressed so far?
The most destructive century in all the millennia of human history
was only just concluding; it was not buried in some deep, dark
ancient past. or supposedly enlightened modernity had produced
the greatest of horrors - the massive aggressions, the "total
wars," the famines, the genocides, the nuclear warfare.
After the recognition of this terrible reality - the relationship
of modernity not only to good but also to evil - what reason
was there to believe that humankind was suddenly on the cusp
of a brand new order? The focus on the dazzling pageant of progress
at the end of the Cold War ignored the wires and the beams -
the actual historical scaffolding - that had made such progress
possible. It failed to acknowledge that progress toward liberalism
was not inevitable, but was contingent on events - battles won
or lost, social movements successful or crushed, economic policies
implemented or discarded. The spread of democracy was not merely
the unfolding of certain ineluctable processes of economic and
political development. We do not know whether such an evolutionary
process - with predictable stages, with known causes and effects
- even exists.
What we do know
is that the global shift toward liberal democracy coincided
with the historical shift in the balance of power toward those
nations and peoples who favoured the liberal democratic idea,
a shift that began with the triumph of the democratic powers
over fascism in World War II and that was followed by a second
triumph of the democracies over communism in the Cold War. The
liberal international order that emerged after these two victories
reflected the new overwhelming global balance in favour of liberal
forces. But those victories were not inevitable, and they need
not be lasting. Now the re-emergence of the great autocratic
powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism,
has weakened that order, and threatens to weaken it further
in the years and decades to come. The world's democracies need
to begin thinking about how they can protect their interests
and advance their principles in a world in which these are,
once again, powerfully contested.
Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International
and senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
His new book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams,
was published in 2008.
The United States
of America is a society much less mature than it thinks it is,
largely locked into a state of pathological narcissism. It has
blitzed the world with its cult of the 'teenager', and its society
regresses farther back into adolescence: already it is showing
signs of infantilism. It is the also only country since Roman
times to claim to be 'the leader of the world', a title once
assumed by the Pope. And Popes are people who start Crusades,
and in doing so, preach slaughter of the Jews, disembowelment
of Muslims, burning of heretics, and the occupation and rapine
of whole continents.
Even Barack Hussein
Obama (whose middle name is the holiest
in Islam after Mohamed, and whose surname, pronounced with stress
on the first syllable means 'he is with us' in Farsi)
shows no further evolution in the 'American National Psyche'.
In his inauguration
said:- "...know that America is a friend of each nation
and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace
and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
No other country
has this hubristic narcissism. A few others (mostly within the
European Union - where some people are unconvinced that extreme
plumbing is more important than maturity or what Jung called
'individuation') have reached the InterPersonal phase of social
development, and one or two even a little beyond.
For the narcissist,
desire is God. And of course all desire is pathetic, especially
the desire for validation, for love, for God - even the desire
for truth. Maturity is the knowledge of great pleasure without
desire, wholesomeness without doctrine or dogma. Modern 'progressive'
Western society is a kind of deprived and uncontrollable child;
it is only the barest bones of a society which is really only
a Leviathan of a nutcracker, and its neotenised members squeezed
between two false poles: mass entertainment and employment.
The cities of the world are almost-indistinguishable mausoleums
inhabited by ghosts, childish zombis caught in the limbo between
the work ethic and the pleasure-principle, between religion
and morality, between envy and guilt. Poetry has been reduced
to words 'in shades of mediocrity'. The nearest most people
get to truth is what is written on lavatory walls, but very
few people are interested in truth. Capitalism has made a god
out of purpose, another out of desire, and the barbaric worshippers
of this Dual Deity are exponentially desiring, exponentially
achieving, exponentially destroying.
Of course 'backward'
and backward-looking Muslim societies are adolescent, too, though
much less individualistic. It is significant that the three
Abrahamic religions all promulgate early-adolescent attitudes
to sex, which makes their believers narcissistic, paranoid,
puritan and testosteronally aggressive. The women of all three
societies tend to have poor self- and body-image. Diets and
boob-jobs in western culture, Hijabs in Muslim culture. The
latter, though not exactly aesthetic, are far less damaging,
far less offensive - and far less lucrative.
No 'evolved' society
would be so adolescent as to go to war. Those who bomb others
bomb their own brains. The best example of that is Israel, a
state founded on 'terrorism', encouraged into existence by an
America which refused to countenance a mass influx of Jews after
World War II, and supported almost entirely by American arms
If America is
to 'lead the world' forwards rather than backwards into the
19th century nationalism that Israel so devastatingly demonstrates,
it has to discover humility and rediscover simplicity. Like
Britain and France, it needs to learn shame about its past.
It is not likely to do either of these things.
But it might, in time, start to 'humbly suggest' rather than
blockbuster or veto. International Politeness would be a start
in the maturing of the American National Polity.