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  • The Authoritarian Challenge
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
Victorious and Vulnerable: Why Democracy Won in the 20th Century and How It Is Still Imperiled. By Azar Gat. Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. 228 pp.

The twentieth century drew toward a close with the sweeping triumph of democracy. At the beginning of the present century, although it had become fashionable to decry "democratic triumphalism," there still seemed to be no serious rivals to democracy in terms of global power and legitimacy. A decade later, however, faith in the continued hegemony of democracy has been severely shaken. This is partly due to the disappointing progress of democratic consolidation in many new "third wave" democracies. Above all, however, it is due to the emergence of newly strengthened antidemocratic forces in the world.

The most important of these forces belong to two categories. One, of course, is radical or extremist Islam, as represented both by the nonstate actors responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist acts, and by the Islamic Republic of Iran. These forces and their sympathizers, although intensely motivated by religious and ideological passions, are weak in wealth and military power by comparison with the world's democracies. The second category of antidemocratic forces consists of powerful states such as Russia and China that have failed to evolve in a democratic direction and often act in opposition to the democracies on a host of international issues.

It is this second category that is Azar Gat's focus in this volume. An Israeli political scientist and military historian who has written a highly acclaimed 800-page work on War in Human Civilization, Gat emphasizes a historical watershed that took place at the dawn of European modernity. In [End Page 169] previous eras, even the wealthiest empires needed to fear being invaded and perhaps even conquered by poorer but fiercer barbarians on their borders. But as Adam Smith (whom Gat cites) had already pointed out in The Wealth of Nations (1776), the invention and employment of firearms radically changed the equation. Once the gun came on the scene, the martial skill and ferocity of the warrior counted for less. The key to military strength became the capacity to raise, equip, pay, and maintain regular armies, and here wealthier nations had an overwhelming advantage. This compelled nations that wished to preserve their independence or to increase their power to transform themselves in ways essential for sustaining an effective military. In short, they had to build modern economies.

The most successful nations at doing so have been the liberal democracies, and that is why they were able to win two world wars and the Cold War. But Gat asks whether these victories really were inevitable. He concludes that the defeat of Soviet communism was indeed largely foreordained, due to the inefficiency of the centrally planned economy. Gat confidently asserts that capitalism has proven to be "an unbeatable engine for creating wealth and power" (p. 9), but he expresses serious doubts about the superiority of democracy in this regard. In fact, he suggests that the triumph of the liberal democracies over the authoritarian or fascist powers in the world wars may have been based on historically contingent factors—above all, the fortunately isolated location and continental size of the United States, whose power turned the tide in both conflicts. According to Gat's account, the capitalist authoritarian or totalitarian powers were defeated not because their economies or militaries underperformed, but simply "because they were too small" (p. 5).

This, of course, leads to the question of whether nondemocratic capitalism may enable countries such as China (which is certainly not "too small") and Russia to remain competitive with or even to outperform the liberal democracies in the future. In short, to quote the title of Gat's much discussed 2007 article in Foreign Affairs on this theme, are we witnessing "The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers"? The resurgence of great-power authoritarianism was also a central focus of Robert Kagan's short 2008 book The Return of History and the End of Dreams, and concern with the new vitality of authoritarianism has become an understandable preoccupation for democratic activists and scholars alike. This is partly because authoritarian regimes increasingly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 169-172
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-20
Open Access
No
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