Liberal democracy faces a new and decisive challenge – figuring out how to deal with the “post-Communist oligarchies” of Russia and China. These regimes – authoritarian, capitalist and eagerly integrated into the global economy – are without precedent. Figuring out how to deal with them is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today. How we answer it will determine the shape of the 21st century, much as the struggle with communism and fascism shaped the 20th.
This is the assertion Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian intellectual and a former leader of the Liberal Party, made in a powerful lecture in the Latvian capital, Riga, at the beginning of this month. Ignatieff’s thesis came to mind during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, held last week as the gracious former imperial capital for which the forum is named glowed in the pure white light of the summer solstice.
Central to Ignatieff’s argument is his insistence that “history has no libretto.” It isn’t marching toward any particular destination, including liberal democracy, he said: “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 today, we still 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,” Ignatieff argued. Sadly, though, we’re wrong: “we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society.”
As Ignatieff explained to me in a telephone conversation this week: “The simple point is that we thought they were coming towards us. What if they are not?”