Tough challenges ahead for liberal democracy

Liberal democracy faces a new and decisive challenge — figuring out how to deal with the “post-Communist oligarchies” of Russia and China.

How we do it will determine the shape of the 21st century.

This is the assertion Michael Ignatieff, Canadian intellectual and former leader of the Liberal Party, made in a powerful lecture in Riga, Latvia, recently.

His thesis came to mind last week during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Central to Ignatieff’s argument is his insistence that “history has no libretto”.

It isn’t marching toward any particular destination.

“As late as Benedetto Croce, liberals still thought of their creed as being the wave of the future and thought of history as the story of liberty.”

When it comes to Russia and China, we hope we will all eventually sing along to this seductive libretto. It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve toward democratic liberty. “But we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society,” said Ignatieff. “The simple point is that we thought they were coming towards us. What if they are not?”

The optimistic cliché he described was very much the conventional wisdom in St Petersburg. It is what the visiting Western business titans wanted to believe, and what the presiding Russian government chiefs wanted them to believe.

Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa and chairman of the US-Russia business council, said president Vladimir Putin’s opening speech was “very, very good. He was basically clear that he stays on the course of reforms. He stays on the course of modernisation”.

When I suggested Putin might instead be taking Russia backward — freedom of assembly was sharply curtailed this month and several activists, including Putin’s goddaughter, were questioned by police and had their homes searched — Kleinfeld demurred.

Referring to the reformist promises of Putin’s speech, he said: “We have to take that at face value.”

When I asked Igor I Shuvalov, the suave first deputy prime minister, what he made of Putin’s speech he, too, spun it as proof Russia is on the path to becoming more like the West. “We are passing the way all developed countries pass,” he said.

This is a useful theory for Russian and Chinese leaders — and a comforting one for their Western business partners. It is useful because assurances that you are on the path toward Western- style liberal capitalism can serve as a catch-all justification for whatever illiberal policy you happen to be pursuing at the moment. Think of it as the dictator’s version of St Augustine’s prayer to be made good, but not yet. Believing that the duo Ignatieff calls the “post- Communist oligarchies” are on the liberal capitalist path is comforting for the liberal capitalist companies that do business with them, too.

After all, for all the kowtowing required to do business in Russia and China, the rewards are vast.

If they really are not marching inevitably toward liberal democracy, that is a problem. Ignatieff says our attitude toward Russia and China is a question of such great import because both countries “are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible”.

He is right that this is the fundamental operating proposition of Russia and China, and he is right it poses the most serious challenge that the very idea of liberal democracy faces anywhere today.

It is no surprise that this question was not on the agenda in St Petersburg. But surely it should be much more squarely on the agenda in Western capitals.


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