The enduring myth of democratic convergence

Refugees by the hundreds make their way to a Hungarian registration centre by the Serbian border. The challenge in dealing with this crisis runs deeper than how to manage it. It is also a question of vision and values. (Photo: © UNHCR/Mark Henley)

Refugees by the hundreds make their way to a Hungarian registration centre by the Serbian border. The challenge in dealing with this crisis runs deeper than how to manage it. It is also a question of vision and values. (Photo: © UNHCR/Mark Henley)

It is a turbulent world. Refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa are pouring into Europe by the tens of thousands. Millions more are struggling to survive in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey as violent sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq continues without end. Ukraine is floundering, unsettled by increasing incursions by Russia and the breakdown of the Minsk Agreement process. The global economy also looks like it is in for a long and bumpy ride. The Chinese economy is roiling as asset prices tumble and its own stock market bubble bursts.
As the price of oil tumbles, oil-producing countries — Canada included — are taking a major hit, though the falling price is good news for consumers and the transportation sector. Earlier this year, China’s Premier Li Keqiang signalled that China’s growth rate would drop from double-digits to seven percent, a figure that some economists now say may be too rosy. “Economic shocks, from Greece to China to Russia,” as McKinsey & Co. warn in a new report “are now of greater concern because around the world, traditional policy tools have already been used and financial resources depleted to help economies recover from the last downturn.”
But the challenge runs deeper than how to manage a succession of crises. It is also one of vision and values. The U.S.-led post-Second World War international order — built around democratic values, open economies and global security norms — is threatened not just by the onset of chaos, but also the growing appeal of other political, religious and economic models of local and global governance. The sad truth is that fragile flower of western liberal democracy, and the norms and institutions that accompany and sustain it, is wilting and losing its appeal in many parts of the world.

Earlier this year, U.S. officials contended that China is piling sand on reefs in the South China sea to create island inlets in the region, augmenting already existing tensions. (Photo: Airbus Defence and Space imagery)

Earlier this year, U.S. officials contended that China is piling sand on reefs in the South China sea to create island inlets in the region, augmenting already existing tensions. (Photo: Airbus Defence and Space imagery)

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s, policymakers and many western intellectuals believed that the Soviet Union and its communist allies, China included, would eventually succumb to the forces of liberalization and democracy as their economies and societies evolved. It was called the theory of convergence.
More than 25 years after the Cold War ended, convergence theory still has a powerful grip on the minds of western policymakers and intellectuals. But should it?  To paraphrase former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, western democracies, the U.S. included, are no longer that “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” for the simple reason that there are other political models out there that are now competing for hearts and minds.
The cruel lesson of the second decade of this century is that democratic convergence is not happening. We are no longer surfing what the great American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, once called the “third wave of democracy.” In fact, we are witnessing a deeply troubling reversal of democratic fortunes. As Freedom House’s 2105 annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties shows, democracy is in overall decline and “under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.”  Freedom House finds that “nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began. This pattern [holds] true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas and an even split in Asia-Pacific.”
The policy implications of the end of convergence for western democracies are profound. Western democracies must work together much more closely than they have in recent years to address the growing challenges to liberal democratic values and norms and revitalize the governance arrangements that underpin the liberal international order and have been the basis for global co-operation and prosperity since the end of the Second World War.
In the original Cold War theory of convergence, Marxism was, at best, a transitional phase in the natural evolution of societies, an accompaniment perhaps to the early stages of industrialization as Walt W. Rostow argued many years ago in his influential book, The Stages of Economic Growth. According to early proponents of the theory of convergence, Marxism was a political model that could not withstand the corrosive social and political pressures that accompanied the creation of affluence and the rise of a new middle class. With those pressures, economies shifted from making intermediate products, such as raw materials and machinery, to producing goods to meet direct consumer demand. In the end, all societies would begin to look more and more alike and capitalism and democracy would emerge triumphant.
It was an idea that was subsequently popularized in a different form in Francis Fukuyama’s highly provocative essay (and subsequent book) The End of History, which argued that after the fall of communism, there were no viable alternative political models to western-style democracy.
In its post-Cold War form, convergence theory also came to be applied to countries such as Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq, which fell under authoritarian rule, or countries such as Iran, that fell under religious rule.

No U.S. support for Iran’s pro-democracy uprising
In the ambitious nation-building exercises that followed U.S.-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002-2003, for example, it was believed that if you could get rid of unpopular dictators and Islamic extremists and sow the seeds of economic development with generous amounts of foreign aid and other kinds of assistance, democracy would eventually take root, no matter how barren the soil.
As those interventions went sour, a new American leader switched policy while keeping the same convergence assumptions: If you keep your hands off, nature will still run its democratic course. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Iran’s “green revolution” of 2009 was premised on the belief that Iran’s ayatollahs would succumb to a wave of popular unrest and the aspirations of the Iranian people for genuine democracy without outside intervention.
That, too, did not happen.
The development of state-led capitalism under communist rule in China was also seen through the same prism as earlier Cold War theories of convergence. With China’s entry into the global economy and astounding economic development, many believed its export-led growth would shift to domestic-led growth and consumerism. Growing demands for political participation by China’s new middle class would eventually erode the foundations of one-party rule, either peacefully or via social revolution.
In western thinking, the theory of convergence has also been central to beliefs about the socializing role of liberal international institutions and the importance of the principle of universal membership. Through the inclusion of non-democratic states in international institutions, including the Bretton Woods institutions, it was widely supposed that these international entities would exert a powerful socializing force. It would encourage those states, which would otherwise be free riders, spoilers or revolutionaries intent on upsetting the international order, to become responsible stakeholders in the current international system.
But the world’s most powerful autocratic regimes are now becoming more repressive, not less, and there is no sign that they will relax their grip as they struggle with their own massive internal social and economic challenges. Although China has embraced state-led capitalism with a vengeance, its authoritarian leaders are tightening, not loosening, their grip over their citizenry under China’s new president, Xi Jinping. Russia, after its brief flirtation with democracy and a fleeting period of greater openness, is reverting to authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin. Appeals to more virulent forms of nationalism are being exploited to bolster Putin’s claim to political legitimacy while he represses human rights and freedom of expression.

Chinese expansion and Russia’s territorial aggression
The normative sway of liberal international institutions that have been the bedrock of the post-war international order is also weakening. With its seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, Russia flagrantly violated the longstanding principles of state sovereignty and respect for territorial boundaries that are enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the founding principles of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
China is in the process of unilaterally asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea to the chagrin of its neighbours. The inability of the United States to follow through on strengthening China’s role in the Bretton Woods institutions has prompted Beijing to move beyond simply “free-riding” on globalization to creating its own institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, where it can write the rules.
The financial crisis and subsequent recession of 2008-2009 blotted the copybook of western democracies and the rules under which capitalist economies operate. No longer could western democracies take pride in the fact that democracy and capitalism go together and are the surest path to prosperity. The European Union’s continuing economic difficulties and sluggish growth rates have reinforced the message that western democracies are inefficient, if not incompetent, managers of their citizens’ fortunes and economic future.
Kishore Mahubani, one of Asia’s leading public intellectuals, gleefully pokes a stick in the eye of western democracies by pointing out that the “Asian way” has delivered superior social and economic results.  On the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence, he recently argued that Singapore has done a better and faster job of meeting the basic needs of citizens — food, shelter, health, education and employment — than any other society in the world. Singapore was able to do this by having an “enlightened dictatorship” of exceptional leaders: Lee Kuan Yew, its founding prime minister who died in March this year; Goh Keng Swee, the architect of Singapore’s economic miracle; and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Singapore’s philosopher and deputy prime minister.

Western democracies should counter on an international scale
At a time when western democracies have lost much of their lustre and appeal, many countries, especially in the developing world, are looking to Singapore and China as the new beacons for their own path and future development. In other parts of the world, brutal extremists are imposing their own 21st-Century brand of repressive religious theocracy on their people.
The implications of the end of convergence are as deep as they are profound. Western democracies of the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are going to have to identify collective strategies and approaches to counter the propaganda and battle of narratives that is being waged by those state and non-state actors — such as Russia, ISIS and Iran — that are challengers to the current international order. Western democracies are also going to have to focus on the rising appeal of “benign” authoritarian models whose proponents argue do a better job of meeting the needs of their citizenry. International economic and political institutions also have to be reformed to be more effective and inclusive to ensure rising powers have a greater voice and an increased stake in the current international order.
None of this will be easy. But unless western democracies demonstrate a renewed commitment to their shared set of values and interests and mobilize the requisite diplomatic, economic, military and political resources to act in concert on an international scale, global stability and prosperity and the great gains that the world has made during the past 70 years will be threatened.

Columnist Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow & Director of the Global Security & Politics Program, CIGI. He is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. David F. Gordon was policy planning director at the U.S. Department of State and vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He is currently senior adviser to the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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Columnist Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow & Director of the Global Security & Politics Program, CIGI. He is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. David F. Gordon was policy planning director at the U.S. Department of State and vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He is currently senior adviser to the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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