Twilight of the Totalitarians

The next decade will be bad for authoritarian regimes except one: China.`

Demonstrators protest the Iranian government’s crackdown on dissidents

Hoping to identify the “influences” that might have been at work in the world at the time of his birth, writer Arthur Koestler once cast what he called his “secular horoscope.” He read through a copy of the London Times from the day after he was born—Sept. 6, 1905—and found pogroms, industrial strikes, “disturbances in Kishinieff,” and the Russian empire’s failed war against Japan. All, he reckoned, were harbingers of the political events that eventually shaped his life: the collapse of empires, the Russian revolution, the rise of Hitler, the twilight of liberalism.

Now that we are reaching the end of what seems destined to remain a nameless decade, I’d like to borrow this idea and cast the “secular horoscope” of the new decade to come. Though I don’t have the benefit of hindsight, as Koestler did, there are a few stories that might well turn out to be harbingers of political events to come.

This being the 21st century, I’m not going to start with the London Times but, rather, with the online edition of the Times of India, which several days ago published a story on the world’s fastest train. If deployed in the United States, this train, which travels around 250 mph, would do Washington to New York in less than an hour, San Francisco to Los Angeles in an hour and a half. But, of course, it is impossible—for political, financial, and administrative reasons—to imagine such a train in the United States anytime soon. Instead, the new train is “expected to act as a catalyst in the development of central China,” for it is the Chinese who have just announced their intention to produce it. Just as America built the interstate highways as it ascended to economic power in the 1950s, in other words, China is set to build its fast-train network as it ascends to economic power in the 2010s.

Elsewhere in the news, other authoritarian regimes are in trouble: The riots in Iran this week are by far the most serious since those that followed the June 12 elections. Tens of thousands of people once again took to the streets, openly defied the authorities, fought the police, and proved, once again, that the regime’s “divinely derived” legitimacy is in tatters. At the same time, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet drew my attention to another piece of Chinese infrastructure that happens to be bad for another bunch of authoritarians: It describes the new gas pipeline, just opened, between Turkmenistan and China. Since Russia’s gas fortunes have long been based upon paying Central Asians low prices for gas and charging Europeans high ones, this could—maybe, possibly—spell the beginning of the end of Gazprom’s, and Russia’s, dominance of Eurasia.

Finally, if you were paying attention to the news around Christmas, it was hard to miss the rather weird story of the Nigerian man who smuggled some explosive powder into his underwear and tried to blow up an airplane. The attack was, in fact, a failure, a clumsy attempt that was foiled by other passengers—and if the attacker is claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, that reflects rather badly on al-Qaida. It’s not that the incident wasn’t serious—it could have ended in a horrible tragedy—it’s just that it doesn’t look like the work of a well-organized, well-funded conspiracy, which 9/11 definitely did.

And what do these headlines tell us? If I had to read the tea leaves and make a grand prediction, I would say that in the closing days of the 2000s, the future does not look good for all authoritarian regimes. However, the signs are very positive for one particular authoritarian regime: China. Partly this is because the Chinese, unlike the Iranians and the Russians, continue to deliver prosperity, and in the current era it is prosperity, not ideology, that keeps authoritarian regimes in power.

Perhaps, then, we are embarking not upon a new twilight of liberalism but, rather, on an era in which prosperity, in the form of infrastructure as well as consumption, becomes the focus of international competition and U.S. foreign policy. We are already heading that way: The Copenhagen climate summit failed, after all, because the United States and China could not agree on a matter that affected their prospects for growth. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the focus of U.S. foreign policy for the past decade, is dwindling to the status of major nuisance.

Which makes sense, since we were talking about China and the possible consequences of Chinese prosperity back at the beginning of the last decade (remember the bitter argument in May 2000 about giving China most-favored-nation status?) before we started talking about Islamic terrorism. There is something reassuring about the regularity with which China always returns to the center of international attention, decade after decade—as well as the regularity with which we are always distracted by something else.

Maybe the Teens will be different. Happy New Year.