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Home > 2023 > Who Will Dominate the World? Democrats or Dictators? | M.R. Narayan (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 13, March 25, 2023

Who Will Dominate the World? Democrats or Dictators? | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 25 March 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman
by Charles Dunst
Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 428; Price: Rs 799

A world increasingly in turmoil is locked in a bitter battle of ideas: democracy versus autocracy. There was a time when it seemed that democracy would simply overwhelm the world barring isolated spots. No more. As international affairs specialist and author Charles Dunst points out, autocracies and dictatorships of various hues today outnumber democracies — for the first time since 2004. Worse, autocratic regimes seem to be winning too. And the creaky democratic world finds the situation challenging — and daunting.
Autocracies today account for some 35 percent of global income — compared to only 12 percent in 1992. Also, a distressing number of people looking for new political visions are finding inspiration in autocracy. Commentators in Berlin, London and Washington may argue that autocracy is inherently brittle and will eventually crumble but people increasingly view autocracy as ascendant and democracies as impotent.

Why not? China has in the 40 years increased its per capita income 25-fold, lifting more than 800 million out of poverty. Some Gulf autocracies — notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have had similar success, thanks to their oil wealth. Singapore is just not an economic miracle — with one of the highest per capita incomes globally — but the city state can boast of an incredibly efficient and meritocratic bureaucracy. Along with these, Vietnam too proves that capitalism can succeed without liberal values.
No wonder, global dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all-time high, with public frustration touching unprecedented levels in the West — once a model for the rest of the world. Dunst highlights the main shortcomings in most democratic countries while also highlighting their successes. The poor health of liberal systems can give birth to anti-elite and anti-status quo politicians. “And around the world, such politicians tend to be demagogues with authoritarian tendencies.”

Ironically, after calling Singapore an autocracy (which it is), the author wants democracies to improve their governments by using the Singapore model to make existing civil and foreign services far more merit-based. A failure would be catastrophic, he warns. If meritocracy dies, so will democracy.
Lack of accountability is another problem in democracies, making people conclude that elected officials and private sector leaders get away with everything. Here the author praises the UAE — “a hardened autocracy but fairly accountable to its citizens”. Without accountability, one cannot have democracy in its true meaning.

Democracies, more so in the West, are experiencing a crisis of trust. What is worrying is that the most trusted governments seem to autocracies, even if not all of them. Of course, dictators have the ability to exert substantial control over the media and thus control the narrative reaching their people. But even given that, democracies seem to have slipped into a downward spiral of incompetence, transparency failures and voter disagreement, laying the ground for autocracy.

The other major grouse in democracies is the obsession to win the next election, which gives a go by to the need for a sound long-term vision. In the process, today’s democracies increasingly appear incapable of looking beyond the next election cycle instead of addressing essential and long-term problems, at home and abroad. This has affected voter turnout in many democracies. How can liberalism be advanced if democracies do not get their own houses in order?

But it will be wrong to conclude, Dunst argues, that countries like China and Saudi Arabia, with their top-down regime that allow for decisive action, can solve their problems easily. China’s authoritarian system failed to handle the Covid-19 crisis. For all their visible strengths, autocracies lack the civil society activism inherent to democracies that play a key role in evolving sound vision.

Democracies across the board also need to upgrade their safety nets for the 21st century. A swathe of reforms will be needed to fix creaky systems to ensure that they provide for everyone, not only in times of crisis but all the time; without this, people will not support democracy at home. Thus, reforming the social safety nets is vital to democracies’ economic and geographical success. Unfortunately, most democracies do not offer a path to the good life to their citizens. Unless voters feel supported, they will vote for economically regressive nationalist leaders who promise short-term fixes without a long-term view. More than a few of these leaders will have authoritarian tendencies.

The author gives full marks to the democratic world for producing cutting-edge innovations. The tragedy is that spending on these fronts has stagnated; in some cases, it has fallen. While South Korea and Norway may have the fastest 5G systems, many of the next top performers include autocracies (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Thailand and China). Beijing is also winning the global 5G race, particularly in the developing world. By 2030, China is expected to outpace the US in producing semiconductors. Russia spends more on R&D than does India, which has not hiked its R&D spending since 1996 and today spends less than each autocracy.
Dunst blasts the West for its myopic view of immigration. All around the democratic world, politicians rant against immigration, calling migrants names. The reality is that immigrants boost economies of countries they move into. Economists say that allowing more people to move from poor to high-productivity rich countries would increase global GDP by trillions of dollars. But the message is not being relayed well.

Immigration is one issue that clearly demarcates autocracies from democracies. China may be super rich but Chinese nationals increasingly try to find a new home in democracies. No one from a functional democracy will ever want to shift to any autocracy. The exception is Singapore — “probably the only example of a truly successful autocracy” from which democracies can learn lessons.

“Our foolhardy belief in democracy’s everlasting victory has left us complacent at a moment when our rivals are not only investing more, but performing better too.” The time has come to beat autocracies at their own game: not by becoming more authoritarian but by improving our governance. In the end, it is good governance, whether by autocracies or democracies, that will win. Dunst seems very hopeful, perhaps more than what his own scholarly arguments hint at.

Indeed, it is doubtful if democracies will imbibe the many lessons in this timely, important and rare book and reform. The book offers what the author admits is one — not the only — roadmap. The warning is clear: liberal democracy must succeed and take deeper roots. If democracies succumb to autocracies, it is the ordinary people who will suffer the most.

The likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson cannot inspire liberals anywhere. If democracies could indeed easily change themselves, they may not have found themselves in the mess they are in today. The author, an American, does not refer to the numerous times Washington has actively helped oust democracies whose rulers were not subservient to it and propped up outright dictatorships.

Significantly, the author almost ignores India — the world’s largest democracy on the strength of voters. (He also omits the brazenly failed autocracies and the not so successful democracies.) It is obvious he doesn’t find present day India’s democratic credentials strong enough. Dunst does refer to how India continues to experience spasms of ethnic and religiously-motivated violence, often encouraged by government officials, undermining its liberal foundations. At one point, he dubs India a “developing democracy” along with the Philippines and Mexico. This itself should sound alarm bells ringing for a country that was until some years back widely viewed as a successful and functional, even if chaotic, democracy. Despite not naming India among the leading democracies, many things Dunst spells out have immense relevance for the country. This book is a must read for all those who respect and long for democratic ideals.

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