Cliff May

Is democracy on the march or is it in retreat? I put that question to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week. I suggested the answer was, at best, uncertain: Elections in Gaza have led to the creation of a terrorist mini-state ruled by Hamas; freedom in Lebanon is under intense assault by Hezbollah, also a terrorist group; Russia is more authoritarian now than it has been at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall; and Islamist Iran is as tyrannical as ever.

Secretary Rice argued, with vehemence and eloquence, that freedom does not advance on a steady trajectory -- setbacks and detours should be expected. She noted that for 30 years, Syria had dominated Lebanon, but now Syria has pulled out, and many Lebanese are bravely standing up to Hezbollah (which takes its instructions from both Syria and Iran). She pointed out that Iraq – for all its woes – has never been as free and democratic as it is today. And she noted that Hamas “has always had power. Now it has responsibility as well.” All this, she said, signals progress. “We’ve planted seeds,” she said.

Cogent arguments: Are they correct? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was widely believed that liberal democracy had become, self-evidently, the only rational way to organize society. If that was so, it meant the greatest ideological debate of all times was settled. Francis Fukuyama famously called that “the end of history.”

Now Robert Kagan has a new book entitled: “The Return of History and the End of Dreams.” In particular, he writes, “autocracy is making a comeback,” with Russia and China the most significant examples. In other words, it’s not – as another senior State Department official told me last week – that Russia’s rulers have been “backsliding” in practice from a democratic ideal they embrace in theory. Rather, they believe in autocracy. They see it as an alternative that is not just viable but superior.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s strongman, uses the term “sovereign democracy” to describe a governing model that has little tolerance for either opponents or critics. And he may not be incorrect in perceiving that given a choice between freedom, on the one hand, and power, order and stability, on the other, most Russians prefer the latter.

In China, too, it is may be that most people are content to keep their noses out of politics in exchange for a higher standard of living and not having those noses removed from their faces by the authorities.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.