Diversity Wins
No. 4 2011 October/December
Charles Kupchan

Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

The Hopes of the Nineties and the Contemporary World Development

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to a close almost a half-century of bipolarity and ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism. Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, many analysts pronounced the onset of a unipolar world that would expedite ideological convergence towards a Western model of modernity based on market capitalism and liberal democracy. Belief in the West’s material and ideological dominance led to widespread confidence that, in Francis Fukuyama’s famous formulation, history was coming to an end.

Twenty years of hindsight provide sufficient time to arrive at an assessment of these early judgments about the likely shape of the 21st century. In one key respect, confidence in the appeal of the Western model has proven quite accurate: capitalism has prevailed against the alternatives. To be sure, different brands of capitalism are practiced in different locales. But even countries ruled by communist parties, such as China and Vietnam, generally operate their economies according to market principles.

In other key respects, however, global trends have diverged quite considerably from the conventional wisdom of the 1990s. Perhaps most notably, power and political influence have moved with remarkable swiftness from the West to the rising rest. China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, and other rising powers are enjoying robust economic growth and political strength at the same time, while Western democracies are stumbling both economically and politically. In addition, although the spread of democracy made remarkable advances during the 1990s, its progress has slowed, if not reversed, over the past decade. The Arab Spring provides confirmation of the universal yearning for dignity and opportunity. But it is by no means clear that the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East will serve to advance the fortunes of liberal democracy in the region.

This essay explores how and why the world has diverged so thoroughly from initial expectations that the end of the Cold War would clear the way for the end of history. In particular, it examines the role that globalization has played in at once rapidly shifting the global balance of power and confronting the Western democracies with new economic and political challenges. Global interconnectedness has also contributed to social awakenings in the Middle East and beyond, introducing a new level of uncertainty and instability into world politics. The essay concludes by reflecting on the policy implications of these tectonic changes for Russia, the West, and the rising rest.


Last November’s G20 summit in Cannes spoke volumes about how dramatically the world has changed in the past twenty years. At the end of the Cold War, the G7 was the inner circle of the globe’s major economies and it consisted exclusively of like-minded states at similar stages of development. Today, that inner circle has twenty members and is far more diverse. At Cannes, the Western democracies were not only in the minority, but they were also in a position of striking weakness, both economically and politically. The members of the eurozone have been struggling to restore financial stability at the same time that the United States has been battling slow growth, high unemployment, and mounting debt. These economic difficulties have been exacerbated by political gridlock. Eurozone members have wrangled for over two years to arrive at a workable scheme for establishing financial stability. Meanwhile, many of the Obama administration’s repeated efforts to stimulate domestic growth have been blocked by a polarized Congress.

The United States has long dominated many of the multilateral institutions in which it participates. But the Cannes summit revealed a quite different picture. Due to America’s own fiscal constraints, President Obama could do little more than watch uneasily from the sidelines as Europeans scrambled to deal with Greece’s political chaos. It was the emerging powers – China, Russia, Brazil, and others – that came to Cannes with financial surpluses, but they declined to contribute to Europe’s bail-out fund, instead admonishing the EU to get its own house in order.

It is of course important not to overstate the new alignment of power on show at the G20 summit in Cannes. The major Western economies are at particularly low ebb, and they are likely to eventually tackle their fiscal problems and restore more normal rates of growth. Moreover, the United States, the EU, and Japan taken together still represent a sizable share of global economic output and a dominating share of military spending. Nonetheless, the G20 meeting provided a window into just how profoundly the global balance of economic power is shifting.

In the 1990s, many analysts were confident that history was ending, but now most see multipolarity and a new political diversity fast approaching. How did the prevailing wisdom change so quickly and thoroughly? For starters, most observers greeted the end of the Cold War with excessive optimism. They mistook the collapse of the Soviet Union for a definitive and durable triumph of Western values and a Western version of modernity. There were of course a number of important exceptions – China, Cuba, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia among them. But, the conventional wisdom ran, these hold-outs would soon fall prey to the allure of the Western way.

Such optimism proved unwarranted. Democratization made significant advances during the 1990s, but seemingly stalled thereafter. Russia’s brand of “sovereign democracy,” China’s “state capitalism,” and the Arabian Peninsula’s “tribal autocracy” appear to have considerable staying power. Throughout most of Africa, multi-party democracy is a faНade for rule by strongmen. Liberal democracy appears to have put down durable roots in most of Latin America, but that region is the exception, not the rule. The emerging world is poised to consist of a multiplicity of different kinds of regimes; considerable political diversity, not political homogeneity along Western lines, lies ahead.

The conventional wisdom about globalization has also been off the mark. Globalization was supposed to make all countries embrace liberal economic systems in order to compete effectively in the global market place. The Western democracies, due to their laissez-faire proclivities, were presumably best equipped to navigate the new global economy. The less regulated and the more fleet-footed the polity, the better it would fare in the era of globalization and digital technology.

Globalization’s impact has, however, diverged quite considerably from these early predictions. One of the top performers is China, where the state has retained considerable control over the economy. Certainly, China’s growth rates will eventually slow, and it faces plenty of economic and political hurdles ahead. But its impressive economic performance suggests that state capitalism will continue to hold its own against the more liberal alternatives.

Meanwhile, globalization appears to be taking a heavy toll on the Western democracies. The United States, the EU, and Japan are all passing through periods of pronounced economic and political difficulty. Although misguided policies have contributed to the downturn, a broader cause is the relocation of manufacturing capacity from the developed to the developing world, which has led to rising unemployment and stagnant middle-class incomes across the West. Globalization and the digital economy on which it depends are also increasing inequality within Western societies by favoring high-tech innovators and savvy investors at the expense of blue-collar workers. The debt crises plaguing the Western democracies are only making matters worse. Americans are losing their jobs and homes while Europeans are laboring under austerity packages that depress growth and cause pronounced hardships. Meanwhile, Japan has suffered through over two decades of economic stagnation and rising rates of inequality and poverty.

These economic conditions are the main cause of the political weakness that has been plaguing the world’s leading democracies. In the United States, economic uncertainty stokes ideological cleavages, producing a polarized public and a gridlocked legislature. In Europe, hard times are contributing to the renationalization of political life, threatening to fragment the European Union as its members try to reassert their individual sovereignty. In Japan, the ruling Democratic Party is both internally divided and in open warfare with the main opposition party, the Liberal Democrats. These political travails are making it extremely difficult for the United States, the EU, and Japan to address their economic challenges.

To be sure, the United States, the EU, and Japan are likely to recover their economic vitality and their political strength. But as the Soviet Union dissolved twenty years ago, no one could have foreseen that democracy’s discontents would have by now become so pronounced. And even if the world’s leading democracies find their way out of their current impasse, the West’s ongoing economic and political difficulties have diminished the appeal of its version of modernity just as the world is entering an uncertain period of global change. As a consequence, it is more likely that emerging powers will follow their own unique paths to modernity as they rise, ensuring that the next world will not just be multipolar, but also politically diverse. Moreover, even emerging powers that follow the West’s path to liberal democracy, such as India, Brazil, and Turkey, are not steadily following the West’s lead. On the contrary, they regularly break with the United States and Europe on geopolitics, trade, the environment, and other issues, preferring to side with ascending states, whether democratic or not. Interests matter more than values. In the offing is not a one-way road to laissez-faire markets and liberal democracy, but a world that will be populated by multiple and competing modernities.


Another surprise of the last two decades has been the central role that the Middle East has played in global politics. The precipitating event was the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, which lured the United States into lengthy and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington is finally winding those conflicts down and learning that good intelligence and surgical operations are far better at combating terrorism than large-scale invasion and occupation. But the wars have distracted the United States from focusing on other regions and priorities, added to the nation’s mounting debt, and contributed to political pressure to decrease defense spending and adopt a more judicious and less onerous brand of internationalism.

Ten years on, the events of September 11 have certainly changed the world, but less dramatically than most analysts initially presumed. Preventing terrorism will remain a priority for governments around the world. But barring future attacks of similar or greater impact than those in New York and Washington, this objective will not dominate U.S. strategy in the way that it has for the past decade.

Meanwhile, the Middle East stays at the center of global attention as a consequence of the Arab Spring. Fostered in part by new information technologies and social networking, the popular uprisings that began sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa late in 2010 seemingly challenge the above assertion that the world is headed towards political diversity rather than homogeneity. At least on the surface, the uprisings suggest that the Muslim Middle East is finally moving towards a Western version of modernity. As protesters gathered in one country after another, the region appeared to be on the cusp of embracing democracy. Policy makers and pundits alike initially compared the unrest to the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall – a historical watershed marking the arrival of participatory politics to the Arab world. And this political awakening was indeed a remarkable and uplifting confirmation of the universality of the human desire for respect and liberty.

But as the dust has settled and the initial euphoria has subsided, a more sobering picture has emerged. Governments in Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, among others, unleashed lethal force to shut down the demonstrations. In the case of Libya, the specter of a massacre of rebels in Benghazi convinced the UN Security Council to authorize armed intervention to protect civilians. The NATO-led mission eventually led to the downfall of the Libyan regime. But the outside help offered to Libya’s opposition movement is the exception, not the rule. In many of the other countries beset by popular uprisings, autocratic regimes have cracked down as Western governments do little more than urge restraint. Repression – sometimes brutal repression – has more often than not effectively extinguished the unrest.

Admittedly, a number of the region’s coercive rulers – Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi – were forced from office. But most of the new governments gradually evolving in the aftermath of these departures, although they have been introducing meaningful reforms, are unlikely to cohere as liberal democracies any time soon. Moreover, even though Egypt may be the most populous and influential country in the Arab world, it should not be seen as a trendsetter for the region as a whole; Egypt enjoys political advantages that most of its neighbors do not. The Egyptian military, a professional and disciplined institution with strong ties to the United States, played a central role in facilitating Mubarak’s departure and continues to oversee the reform of the country’s constitution and political structures. Most of Egypt’s neighbors lack national institutions capable of mediating such political change.

Moreover, Egypt’s sense of nationhood dates to ancient times, engendering a social cohesion rare in a region where most of the states are political constructions left behind by retreating colonial powers. In Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and much of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, tribal, sectarian, and ethnic divides regularly trump a weak national identity. These cleavages have long been suppressed by coercive rule, and democratization would do more to bring them to surface than to repair them. If Egypt is on the slow road to democracy, most of its neighbors can be expected to trail considerably further behind.

Even if the tide does turn, and democracy rapidly spreads across the Middle East, the region still would not follow a Western path to modernity. The more democratic the Middle East becomes, the greater the role that Islam – even if a moderate brand – will play in public life. After all, surveys indicate that some ninety-five percent of Egyptians believe that Islam should play a large role in politics, with nearly two-thirds of the population wanting civil law to adhere strictly to the Koran. More political Islam would be neither good nor bad; it simply would be a reality in a part of the world where politics and religion are intertwined. Nonetheless, observers and policy makers should stop operating under the illusion that the spread of democracy in the Middle East also means the spread of Western values. Moreover, the quest for dignity that is fueling the call for democracy is also likely to fuel a strident call to stand up to the West and Israel. Polls conducted after the fall of Mubarak, for example, reveal that over fifty percent of Egyptians favored annulling the country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. In a region with bitter memories of domination by outside powers, more democracy in the Middle East may well mean much less strategic cooperation with the West.



The world is fast headed towards not just multipolarity, but also multiple versions of modernity – a politically diverse landscape in which the Western model will offer only one of many competing conceptions of domestic and international order. Not only will well-run autocracies in some cases out-perform liberal democracies, but even rising democracies will also regularly part company with the West. Perhaps the defining challenge for the West and the rising rest is managing this global turn and peacefully arriving at the next world by design. The alternative is a competitive anarchy arrived at by default as multiple centers of power and the differing conceptions of order they represent vie for primacy.

Due to its brand of “sovereign democracy” as well as its status as both an established power and a member of the BRICS, Russia may be uniquely poised to help build bridges between the Western order and whatever comes next. Moscow has a long history of diplomacy and engagement with the West, yet also considerable credibility among emerging powers. Moreover, efforts to “reset” relations between Washington and Moscow have yielded fruit, producing new levels of cooperation on a host of issues. A dialogue has been underway about more fully anchoring Russia in the West, even as the country plays a leading role among emerging powers. Especially if the Atlantic community and Russia succeed in advancing rapprochement – perhaps by including Russia in NATO – the United States and the EU may find Moscow a particularly useful arbiter in negotiating the shape of a post-Western order.

The West and the rising rest are poised to compete over principles, status, and geopolitical interests as the shift in global power quickens. The challenge for the West and the rest alike is to forge a new and pluralistic order – one that preserves stability and a rules-based international system amid the multiple versions of modernity that will populate the next world.