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An Era of Democratic Revolutions
In the early 1980s, my parents immigrated to the United States from communist Poland. Both software engineers, they saw in the U.S. a place where they could build the future and prosper without the oppression of a government that doled out favors based on Party membership and meted out punishments for political dissent.
They had both been active in the Solidarity movement, a movement which brought Polish society together to topple the communist regime in 1989. “Solidarity” began as a workers’ strike and grew to encompass the political left, right and center; the Catholic Church as well as leading Jewish and other religious and non-religious intellectuals and activists. Solidarity brought together the entire society in the cause of self-determination; the right of a people to govern themselves, free of tyranny and foreign interference.
Only one year before, Chileans had come together en masse to oppose the continued reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Eighteen parties across the political spectrum, many of whom previously would not speak to each other, rallied the public to vote “no” on extending Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years. The Chilean Supreme Court even mandated that Pinochet adhere to his own Constitution’s guidelines for the fairness of the referendum, a rare check on his power that signaled to the public that a new space was opening for democratic contestation. Indeed, Pinochet decisively lost the referendum, ushering in a new era of hope and prosperity for Chile.
In 1990, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda recognized the writing on the wall; decades of economic stagnation and single-party rule had led to days of rioting and a coup attempt. Kaunda attempted to appease the people by announcing a referendum on whether to legalize other parties, but soon he realized this was not enough. Feeling the pressure, he recommended constitutional amendments legalizing multiple parties; these were approved unanimously by the Zambian parliament. Kaunda also called a snap general election for the following year, which he roundly lost to Frederick Chiluba, the leader of the new Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD).
Poland, Chile, and Zambia are only a few examples of the “wave of democratization” that swept the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While the word “democracy” has many meanings, in this era of revolutions, it has largely meant the establishment of procedures for ensuring the peaceful transfer of power to new leadership selected by relatively fair and contested elections within a nation with widespread suffrage. The geopolitical conditions of this decade (~1985-1995) created a rare opening for such reforms in many countries; the weakening and fall of the Soviet Union combined with the United States’ pullback of support from some anti-communist dictatorships and the IMF and World Bank’s increasing tendency to make loans conditional on some degree of democratization.
While many countries across Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America have since experienced reversals of this democratizing trend, the events surrounding the end of the Cold War nevertheless demonstrated that the desire to influence the political future of one’s society is universal and cannot be easily suppressed. Many of these young democracies looked to the United States as an exemplar, aspiring to be like the country that U.S. President Ronald Reagan had called “a shining city upon a hill”.
The Rise of Authoritarian Empires
On the same day that Poland held its first free election since the 1920s — June 4, 1989 — the Chinese government sent in approximately 300,000 troops to pacify a protest in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Roughly a million people had been engaged in marches, hunger strikes and sit-ins since April to protest systematic corruption, growing inequality, lack of free speech and association, and negative coverage of student political activism by state-run media. The government finally declared martial law and cleared the square, completing its operations on June 4. Hundreds, if not thousands, of demonstrators were killed, and many were subsequently executed, imprisoned or disappeared. The day after the crackdown, the world was riveted by images of “Tank Man”, a lone protester staring down a column of tanks leaving the square. The identity of this man was never publicly confirmed, but he instantly became a globally recognized symbol of the fight for freedom against state repression.
While the events of June 4 rallied global public opinion in support of Chinese pro-democracy activists, this had virtually no effect in moving China toward a more democratic system of government. In fact, since the events in Tiananmen Square, China has served as perhaps the world’s most prominent example of the fact that economic prosperity does not require democracy. Since 1989, China has averaged annual GDP growth of over 9%, among the world’s highest, and it is unquestionably the world’s leading exporter. Between 1990 and 2015, China lifted nearly 750 million people out of extreme poverty — that translates to 66% of the world’s extremely poor population moving to a higher socioeconomic status.
Measuring public opinion in China is notoriously tricky, as foreign polling firms are banned and residents are reluctant to share their genuine feelings about their government. Nevertheless, a steadily improving standard of living is one of the most reliable indicators of government support. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Chinese government prioritizes economic growth (and, implicitly, combating inequality) as a primary driver of its own legitimacy. In order to keep the economic good news front and center, and to suppress any bad news or conflicting narratives, the regime also enforces some of the most stringent media regulations in the world, using a combination of censorship, lawsuits, arrests and other intimidation tactics.
China’s growing economic prosperity has translated into greater geopolitical power. China is building its own alternative to SWIFT, a U.S.-led banking communications network which frequently censors financial transactions to and from Chinese banks and individuals. The country has also partnered with Russia, India and Brazil to create a new, commodity-backed, basket-based reserve asset to rival the International Monetary Fund’s SDR (“special drawing rights”). In addition, the Chinese Communist Party has recently instructed Party members to divest themselves of foreign asset holdings, and the Chinese central bank has begun to systematically taper its purchases of U.S. Treasuries. China has partnered with Russia to execute a manned mission to Mars by 2033, years before the United States will have that capability, and has made it explicit that the United States’ involvement in the Pacific region is not welcome.
China’s close partnership with Russia is no accident; they are both global-scale imperial forces who share a continent, and so they have a long history of cooperation. While the fall of the Soviet Union temporarily destabilized that incarnation of the Russian empire, the reborn Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin has been busy recapturing and building upon its historical influence across the region. Domestically, Putin consolidated power by establishing himself as a key stakeholder in all major industrial activity in the country; by increasingly channeling funds from regional provinces to the capital; and by demoting, intimidating and even murdering political opponents and dissidents. Whether or not he personally receives kickbacks is a subject of debate. While Putin has not been able to deliver the type of economic growth and improvement in living standards that the citizens of China have come to expect, he nevertheless is seen by many Russians as restoring the strength of the ruble, and the power and dignity of the Russian empire on the world stage through a skillfully executed, Russia-first foreign policy.
Russian support managed to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power throughout a brutal civil war that began in 2011. This represented a key defeat for the United States, who backed the rebels. Many of these insurgents, particularly in the early days, genuinely fought for liberal democracy, but as the conflict dragged on and political moderates were killed, they were increasingly replaced by members of religious extremist groups like ISIS — whom the United States had been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Syria quagmire was an expensive foreign policy defeat whose unclear goals and strategy created division within the United States.
With Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin has bet on the fact that Russia’s commodity power and nuclear capabilities will deter other countries from engaging with its military directly. Indeed, so far, the U.S. and EU have only provided indirect military support for Ukraine; the actual war has been waged on economic grounds. In response to the invasion, the United States took the unprecedented step of freezing Russia’s foreign reserve assets; this led Putin to redirect exports of Russian oil and gas away from Europe and the U.S. to India, China and other countries while insisting on payment for these and other Russian commodities in rubles. This weakened the petrodollar system and created an energy shortage in Europe that is accelerating the brewing sovereign debt crisis and sowing political instability across the continent.
In short, Russia and China are demonstrating that their power offers a material counterweight to the global influence of the United States. The success of Russia and China, both openly authoritarian empires, on the world stage is calling into question whether political liberty — ostensibly a hallmark of the American project — bears any relationship with economic prosperity, national security and global pre-eminence.
America: from Division to a New Shared Vision
Since the Cold War, Russia and the United States have been engaged in a mutual practice of sowing disinformation and social conflict in one another’s countries. Over the past decade, this practice has come to a head, with Russian political interference becoming a flashpoint issue in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Indeed, 2016 was the first time many Americans realized that other countries may try to influence the outcomes of our own elections, just as we routinely attempt to influence elections in foreign countries. Despite countless investigations, committees and reports, however, the U.S. government has not been able to produce a shared record of truth about the nature of Russian involvement with American politics that is accepted by members of both major parties and the U.S. public at large.
But Russian interference could only be effective at polarizing a country if a growing ideological chasm on issues from the economy and class inequality to gender identity and race relations had not already made the establishment of a shared reality — or even shared terms of debate — extraordinarily difficult. This fragmentation of U.S. political consensus places the country in a vulnerable position: it has called into question the essence of what it means to be an American. This is a crisis of meaning which has rendered inherited cultural narratives, particularly as represented by the two leading American political parties, hollow and unappealing, especially for younger generations. And as history has shown, an easy way for authoritarians to take power is to sow division and discord among a people.
In response to the current incoherence of the American project, some have concluded that it is not worth defending; instead, they have decided to focus on their own peace and prosperity in whatever jurisdiction is most amenable. Others have responded to the crisis of meaning by gravitating toward seemingly random, but in fact highly motivated, acts of violence that produce temporary feelings of power and relevance — as witnessed in the steady rise in mass shootings over the past several decades. Still others have entrenched themselves firmly in one or another partisan camp, believing that the only thing standing between themselves or their country and nihilistic implosion is the next electoral victory. Finally, a vast contingent of Americans is simply trying to ride out the storm, keeping their heads down and doing their best to survive.
We must do better than that as individuals, and as a country. We must re-found the American republic by re-imagining our institutions in line with the principles of liberty, equality and justice on which this country was founded. Only in this way can we offer a viable alternative to the model of civic life proposed by today’s rising authoritarian empires and the countries that follow their lead.
To be American means to stand for “liberty, not dominion,” in the words of our sixth President, John Quincy Adams. This means that Americans prioritize individual freedom and peaceful self-sovereignty over imperial power — over the projection of power over other countries and peoples. In 1821, before Adams was President but during his tenure as Secretary of State, he asked (and answered) the question; “What has America done for the benefit of mankind?”
“Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. […]
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. […] She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. […][America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”
This is an American project worth defending. It focuses above all on being American — on cultivating the virtues of friendship, freedom, generosity, reciprocity, equality, liberty and justice. Being American means having a certain kind of character — it means living one’s values. This is both much harder and much easier than being a global empire, with hands and interests in every conflict and a demand that other countries submit to our interests.
After our victory against the Axis powers alongside the Soviet Union in World War II, the United States became a global empire on a historically unprecedented scale. This led us to do the opposite of what Adams exhorted; we overextended ourselves militarily, economically, and politically in a way that undermined the traditions of liberty, friendship and generosity that guided our character as a people. We have ballooned our national debt and destroyed millions of well-paying jobs, progressively impoverished our people and sowed domestic unrest. In our foreign policy, we have often behaved in ways utterly inconsistent with our founding values. This has disillusioned generations of young Americans who believed in their country and wanted to serve it only to discover that their government’s actions did not conform to its stated ideals. Psychologists call this “moral injury”, a kind of psychological trauma experienced as a profound personal violation akin to rape or assault.
In order to re-found America, we must remember who we are. America and Americans stand for liberty, not dominion. This call for re-founding is therefore a calling for us to become better people — and for others, whose autonomy and independence we respect, to become better as well, on their own terms. Americans will lead by example, not by force. In this way, we can again uplift our own people and transform the world.
The only question is; are we the people who can do it?