Civilizations compete. Sometimes they even clash. They succeed or fail in ways that can be measured.
Successful civilizations often, but not always, inspire imitators.
Civilizations that are falling behind sometimes try to emulate their betters. But, sometimes they try to destroy those who are doing better. They do not aspire to greater success; they want to share the misery.
When the Cold War ended America stood forth as the world’s most successful civilization. Some would envy it. Some would refuse to accept it. Some would try to surpass it.
The question was: why had America succeeded when so many other civilizations had failed? Why did America succeed when Marxist civilizations had produced nothing but misery?
Did America win the Cold War because of liberal democracy? Did we win because we had the most lawyers? Or was it all about free enterprise and capitalism?
Bret Stephens addressed these questions in his column yesterday:
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.
Today, America is retreating from world leadership. It seems to believe that occupying the moral high ground, being too proud to fight, and ensuring that transgender people not suffer discrimination will make it a beacon that the rest of the world will want to emulate.
America’s leaders are pursuing lofty ideals like social justice and inequality… but apparently, that has not translated into greater wealth and prosperity.
The world has taken notice. As its economy sputters along in the weakest recovery in memory, the American model looks less and less attractive to developing nations. Of course, Europe is not inspiring too many imitators either.
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.
Stephens does not mention the rise of China. While America has been, at best, resting on its laurels, China has been rising.
Surely, that nation’s ability, through a strange admixture of free market capitalism and political dictatorship, has been producing an enormous amount of wealth. Developing nations have noticed and they seem to prefer the Chinese to the American model.
One consequence is the return of the dictators. Stephens writes:
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.
It’s not about our ideals or our principles. It’s about performance:
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?
Samuel Huntington saw it coming:
Sustained inability to provide welfare, prosperity, equity, justice, domestic order, or external security could over time undermine the legitimacy of even democratic governments. As the memories of authoritarian failures fade, irritation with democratic failures is likely to increase.
We seem to have reached a point that Huntington foresaw:
What would happen if the American model no longer embodied strength and success, no longer seemed to be the winning model?