What Samuel Huntington Knew
The dictators are back. The political scientist saw it coming.
By BRET STEPHENS - April 21, 2014 7:23 p.m. ET
'What would happen," Samuel Huntington once wondered, "if the American model no longer embodied strength and success, no longer seemed to be the winning model?"
The question, when the great Harvard political scientist asked it in 1991, seemed far-fetched. The Cold War was won, the Soviet Union was about to vanish. History was at an end. All over the world, people seemed to want the same things in the same way: democracy, capitalism, free trade, free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom for women.
"The day of the dictator is over," George H.W. Bush had said in his 1989 inaugural address. "We know what works: Freedom works. We know what's right: Freedom is right."
Turkey's Recep Erdogan and Russia's Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Feb. 7.
Not quite. A quarter-century later, the dictators are back in places where we thought they had been banished. And they're back by popular demand. Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will not have to stuff any ballots to get himself elected president next month; he's going to win in a walk. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presides over the most illiberal government in modern Europe, but he had no trouble winning a third term in elections two weeks ago.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent recent months brutalizing protesters in Istanbul, shutting down judicial inquiries into corruption allegations against his government, and seeking to block Twitter,YouTube and Facebook, the ultimate emblems of digital freedom. But his AKP party still won resounding victories in key municipal elections last month.
And then there is Russia. In a Journal op-ed Monday, foreign-policy analyst Ilan Berman pointed out that Russia had $51 billion in capital flight in the first quarter of 2014, largely thanks to Vladimir Putin's Crimean caper. That's a lot of money for a country with a GDP roughly equal to that of Italy. The World Bank predicts the Russian economy could shrink by 2% this year. Relations with the West haven't been worse since the days of Yuri Andropov.
But never mind about that. Mr. Putin has a public approval rating of 80%, according to the independent Levada Center. That's up from 65% in early February.
Maybe it's something in the water. Or the culture. Or the religion. Or the educational system. Or the level of economic development. Or the underhanded ways in which authoritarian leaders manipulate media and suppress dissent. The West rarely runs out of explanations for why institutions of freedom—presumably fit for all people for all time—seem to fit only some people, sometimes.
But maybe there's something else at work. Maybe the West mistook the collapse of communism—just one variant of dictatorship—as a vindication of liberal democracy. Maybe the West forgot that it needed to justify its legitimacy not only in the language of higher democratic morality. It needed to show that the morality yields benefits: higher growth, lower unemployment, better living.
Has the West been performing well lately? If the average Turk looks to Greece as the nearest example of a Western democracy, does he see much to admire? Did Egyptians have a happy experience of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood? Should a government in Budapest take economic advice from the finance ministry of France? Did ethnic Russians prosper under a succession of Kiev kleptocrats?
"Sustained inability to provide welfare, prosperity, equity, justice, domestic order, or external security could over time undermine the legitimacy of even democratic governments," Huntington warned. "As the memories of authoritarian failures fade, irritation with democratic failures is likely to increase."
The passage quoted here comes from "The Third Wave," the book Huntington wrote just before his famous essay on the clash of civilizations. The "wave" was a reference to the 30 or so authoritarian states that, between 1974 and 1990, adopted democratic institutions. The two previous waves referred to the rise of mass-suffrage democracy in the 1830s and the post-Wilsonian wave of the 1920s. In each previous case, revolution succumbed to reaction; Weimar gave way to Hitler.
Huntington knew that the third wave, too, would crest, crash and recede. It's happening now. The real question is how hard it will crash, on whom, for how long.
A West that prefers debt-subsidized welfarism over economic growth will not offer much in the way of an attractive model for countries in a hurry to modernize. A West that consistently sacrifices efficiency on the altars of regulation, litigation and political consensus will lose the dynamism that makes the risks inherent in free societies seem worthwhile. A West that shrinks from maintaining global order because doing so is difficult or discomfiting will invite challenges from nimble adversaries willing to take geopolitical gambles.
At some point the momentum will shift back. That, too, is inevitable. The dictators will err; their corruption will become excessive; their cynicism will become transparent to their own rank-and-file. A new democratic wave will begin to build.
Whether that takes five years or 50 depends on what the West does now. Five years is a blip. Fifty is the tragedy of a lifetime.