Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

What if Russia and China don’t become more liberal?

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 28, 2012 22:10 UTC

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?”

The superpower vacuum

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 19, 2011 16:34 UTC

Where is a superpower when you need one?

Many Americans suspect that their country’s relative decline is being met with gloating in other parts of the world — and not just in the dictatorships that have good reason to fear a strong United States. Americans imagine that even many firm friends have long nursed quiet resentments of the rule of their big brother, and that those historic slights mean a certain pleasure is being taken in America’s waning.

Those suspicions aren’t wrong. If you have trouble understanding how even the most ardent ally can also have a younger sibling’s sense of grievance, watch “In the Loop,” the BBC comedy loosely based on the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In one scene, the British prime minister’s enforcer, a character modeled on Alastair Campbell, arrives at the White House for a meeting on the impending war only to discover that his counterpart is a 22-year-old. His poetically obscene response is classic Campbell, and an illustration of why even some loyal Brits might not be totally dismayed by the humbling of the superpower.

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