This November will mark thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. A prominent symbol of Cold War division became a relic of history abruptly and surprisingly to people watching all across the globe. Events of the time left the United States as the undisputed sole superpower — a rarity when observed under the expanse of history. In the early 1990’s China was just emerging as an export-oriented powerhouse and the former Soviet Union was grappling with an empire, forged over decades, rapidly collapsing before their eyes. Nearly half a century of bitter great-power rivalry had come to an end. Within mere months between 1990 and 1991, the U.S. effectively coordinated the unification of Germany and wove an impressive international coalition which swiftly ejected Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. It was an exceptional display of American diplomacy and power. Academic work labeling the era as the “end of history” underscored this brief, but extraordinary moment in international affairs.
Three decades onward and this claim couldn’t have gone any more astray from the realities which warranted it. Political scientists increasingly discuss the global backsliding of democracy, autocrats speak of the decline of the west like gospel, and populist wannabe autocrats hearken back to archaic delusions of nationalistic ‘glory days’ ironically tied to Europe’s most self destructive periods. To any observer, watching the disillusionment of western post-war international norms, the unwinding of democratic cohesion, and retracting of diplomacy all underline that the world is changing — and not in favor of democracy. Russia’s increasing belligerence in world affairs and China’s resistance to political liberalization in the face of extraordinary economic growth further legitimize this narrative. Though this is a bleak, disturbing, and definitive cross-road in the course of humanity, it seems as though the constant attention given to the free world’s ills provides a false impression of strength to authoritarian countries. This ignores a crucial fact about them: they are equally (and in some respects) more prone to disarray and collapse than their liberal democratic counterparts.
Briefly put, existential threats posed to liberal democracies tend to be gradually erosive rather than rapidly destructive. They rise and fall over spans of time — tending to prove more resilient than their authoritarian counterparts in the face of a crisis. This can be attributed to the fact that their stability is derived not from coercion and brute force, but through the rule of law, guidance of constitutional procedure, and strength of institutions. People can freely express themselves without the fear of violence, putting democracies ahead of autocracies in long term social stability. In contrast to democracies, autocracies, with all their swiftness and appearance of strength abroad, posses the ability to collapse from minuscule domestic crises which can unleash forces that overwhelm and stoke chaos that even the most constraining of security apparatuses cannot contain.
Among all the dismal headlines and statistics regarding the state of freedom and democracy in the world, the world’s two most prominent authoritarian powers, Russia and China, have experienced an exceedingly high degree of social unrest in recent weeks. 50,000 person strong protests in Moscow continue after President Putin’s stranglehold on what’s left of Russian democracy squeezed out opposition candidates who were planning to run for the capital’s municipal election. Concurrently, massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, which have now stretched throughout the entire summer, erupted into violence after protesters shut down the autonomous region’s international airport for two straight days, prompting a police intervention.
Though protests tend to serve as a normal function of expression in free democracies, their application within authoritarian countries can prove consequential to regime survival if the grievances snowball into deeper rooted discontent with the political system itself. Russia and China are both cognizant of this. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings are falling while the oil-dependent, sanction constrained economy remains stagnant, leaving the Kremlin desperate to prevent the protests from transforming into broader, more amplified demonstrations. In the case of Hong Kong, protests have moved beyond expressing dismay with a now sacked mainland extradition bill into a broad call for more democracy, accountability, and discontent with the Chinese Communist Party. This leaves Beijing in a precarious situation of having to juggle an international image it’s working carefully to craft, maintain domestic stability, a slowing economy, and a compounding trade war with the United States. Quelling the disorder with force would cost both precious diplomatic capital and Hong Kong’s vital image as an international finance hub. Ceding to the demands of protesters that Beijing is publicly equating with terrorists is even more unlikely. The polarization between the two actors is setting up an unpredictable, dangerous situation.
These current realities demonstrate how thin a line authoritarian countries tread when maintaining social order. When political power is increasingly centralized in the hands of a few and outlets for public input are stifled, frustration can brew and overwhelm a regime’s ability to silence people. Legitimacy derived from coercion and fear, coupled with an unresponsive leadership to citizens demands, ultimately cultivates weaknesses that can prove fatal to those in power. When things such as economic downturns, corruption, foreign policy blunders and ill-guided policy decisions become too much for citizens to bear, these weaknesses become much more apparent and acute. They are inherent to autocratic regimes and a persistent dilemma for the leaders of these countries. It can be well asserted that liberal democracy isn’t the only system under constant threat.