The End of… the End of the End of History?

Yes, you read that headline correctly. Let me explain….

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy 

Over the past weekend the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote a thoughtful columnin response to Biden’s televised address last week about aiding Ukraine and Israel. Douthat largely agreed with what Biden said but warned that attention paid to Ukraine or the Middle East was attention not being paid to China and the Pacific Rim. Douthat stated explicitly that he worries “about China and [keeps] insisting that a strategy of containment in the Pacific should be a priority, even when other threats seem more immediate.” 

Douthat is correct to issue this warning if you believe that China represents the principal threat to U.S. national security. Grand Strategy 101 is to make sure the urgent does not crowd out the important — and China is definitely the more important actor compared to either Russia or Hamas.

With that said, there was one argument of Douthat’s that I am no longer sold on: 

Moreover, China offers a somewhat coherent ideological alternative to the liberal-democratic order. The Putin regime is a parody of Western democracy, and Iran’s mixture of theocracy and pseudodemocracy holds little broad appeal. But China’s one-party meritocracy can advertise itself — maybe less effectively since Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power but still with some degree of plausibility — as a successor to democratic capitalism, an alternative model for the developing world.

Now this was something that I have been concerned about in the past. Eight years ago I wrote a paper for Brookings about the known unknowns for the next generation global political economy. One of them was whether an alternative economic ideology would supplant free-market capitalism as a viable universal model for large parts of the world:

Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument has been widely mocked but little understood since he originally formulated it a quarter-century ago.145 Fukuyama did not claim that the world would soon consist of nothing but free-market democracies. Rather, his contention was that, with the collapse of communism, liberal free-market democracy remained the last universally appealing model of political economy left standing….

Some commentators are beginning to articulate an alternative model that contrasts with liberal democracy. On the economic side, there has been enthusiasm in some quarters for the way that authoritarian states deploy a mix of sovereign wealth funds, state-owned enterprises, policy development banks, and national oil companies to accelerate economic development, buy off dissent, and promote technology transfer. Multiple Western analysts argue that the relative success of state-directed growth augur a rise in “authoritarian capitalism” or “state capitalism.”….

There are also emerging arguments in favor of alternative political models posited to be superior to liberal democracy. Arguments from authoritarian strongmen can be discounted as self-serving. Support from Western pundits are more worrisome but can also be dismissed. Political theorists making the case for “political meritocracy” are harder to dismiss. Daniel Bell argues that meritocratic principles for selecting leaders based on virtue, social skills, and intellectual ability can produce superior forms of governance in theory. In practice, he argues that China’s current political model—“democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top”—is superior to Western liberal democracy as practiced. Bell goes on to observe that his political views are “quite middle-of-the-road among academics living and working in China.” 

In essence I was asking whether we were reaching an end to “The End of History” thesis. 

That was then, however, and this is where I think Douthat might not have caught up with the shifting reality on the ground regarding the viability of the China model. Consider that in the past week China finally announced that General Li Shangfu had been dismissed as Defense Minister. This announcement was not exactly surprising, given that no one had seen him for more than two months. As the New York Times’ Chris Buckley noted, “General Li, who had been appointed defense minister in March, is the second senior official to be purged this year without explanation and under a cloud of suspicion.

One could dismiss this as an inevitable hiccup on China’s long return to greatness. Or one could read it as a sign that China’s model of political economy is faltering under the heavy hand of Xi Jinping. This is certainly the takeaway one senses from the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. He has written a long piece entitled “China’s Age of Malaise.” The entire essay is worth reading, but what is striking is the degree to which it flatly contradicts Douthat’s concern that the China model will be viewed as appealing by others. It is certainly not viewed as appealing by the Chinese:

To spend time in China at the end of Xi’s first decade is to witness a nation slipping from motion to stagnation and, for the first time in a generation, questioning whether a Communist superpower can escape the contradictions that doomed the Soviet Union.…

Measuring a nation’s mood can be difficult—especially in China, which doesn’t allow independent polling—but there are indicators. In America, when the nineteen-seventies brought inflation, gas lines, and turmoil in the Middle East, the public mood could be read on the roadways; the car industry still calls the sluggish, boxy aesthetic of those days the Malaise Era. Ask Chinese citizens about their mood nowadays and some of the words you hear most are mimang and jusang—“bewildered” and “frustrated.”…

As a matter of scale, China is as formidable as ever: it is the largest trading partner for more than a hundred and twenty countries, it is home to at least eighty per cent of the supply chain for solar panels, and it is the world’s largest maker of electric vehicles. But the downturn has shaken citizens who have never experienced anything but improvements in their standard of living. People who shunted their life savings into contracts for new apartments are contending with unfinished concrete blocks in overgrown lots, because the developers ran out of money. Civil treasuries are similarly depleted, by the shutdowns required by China’s “zero-covid” policy; there are reports of teachers and civil servants going unpaid.

China’s present troubles are about far more than the economy. Four decades after Deng and his peers put their country on a path of “reform and opening up,” his successors have reversed course, in politics and in culture. For ordinary Chinese citizens, that reversal is as jarring as it would have been for American homesteaders if the U.S. had retreated from the frontier. Joerg Wuttke, the president emeritus of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, who has lived there for more than thirty years, told me, “China always had comeback stories. But not now.” He recalled addressing a roomful of students at Peking University: “I said, ‘Who among you is optimistic?’ It was one-third—which means two-thirds are pessimistic at the best university in China. There’s this feeling of ‘What are we here for?’”…. 

To be clear, none of this means that China does not represent a threat, or that Chinese power is irrelevant. That is obviously not true. And it is possible that Xi’s brand of authoritarianism will appeal to other leaders interested in stifling dissent. 

Still, what seems quite clear is that we are now approaching a possible end to concerns about the end of “The End of History” — at least, unless or until the United States reveals the possible contradictions hidden within capitalist democracy.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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