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Asked about Obama’s foreign policy achievements, his defenders always trot out Cuba as a historic diplomatic success. In their minds, the re-establishment of relations with that small, impoverished, long-suffering dictatorship falls somewhere between Commodore Perry’s breaking down the door to Japan in 1853 and Nixon’s China gambit on the Richter scale of statesmanship.
The mantra of our Cuba policy objectives is “a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy.” According to our State Department:
“U.S. policy toward Cuba is focused on supporting our values, such as freedom of speech and assembly and the ability to access information, through engagement. The U.S. government is reaching out to the Cuban people by fostering increased travel access and people-to-people exchanges, encouraging the development of telecommunications and the internet, and creating opportunities for U.S. businesses to support the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.”
In my Havana Postcard, a few weeks ago, I opined that opening Cuba to American tourist dollars would probably have little if any positive effect on freedom in that country. This got me thinking about how regimes such as the one run by the Castro crime family are supposed to fail. Are there any general theories out there about how authoritarian and totalitarian regimes collapse? And upon which theory does our current Cuba policy rest?
In the 1980s, the reigning theory of the lifecycle of authoritarianism and totalitarianism was something called the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. Named for our formidable UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, this doctrine was based on the idea that right-wing dictatorships, although distasteful, could liberalize, while Communist dictatorships were permanent and incapable of reform. This theory dovetailed nicely with its Soviet counterpart – the Brezhnev Doctrine. The Brezhnev Doctrine stated that the Soviet Union would go to great lengths to ensure that once countries entered the communist camp, they would remain there. The Soviet bloc was a kind of Roach Motel: Countries check in, but they don’t check out.
The Kirkpatrick Doctrine was a political expedient, not a theory in the scientific or even the political sense. It was primarily useful as an explanation for the support that the United States lent to anti-communist authoritarian regimes around the world, from South Korea and the Kuomintang in Asia to the various tinpot dictatorships of Latin America.
As an empirical matter, though, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine had persuasive power. Prior to 1989, precisely zero communist regimes had evolved into liberal democracies. By contrast, during the same period, a number of anticommunist authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships had liberalized: South Korea, Taiwan, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, for example. Others were on their way to becoming democratic: Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and the Philippines. Something in the character of communist regimes seemed to make them a one-way street.
This picture changed drastically in 1989. The worldview embodied in the Kirkpatrick and Brezhnev doctrines was chiseled in the granite of conventional wisdom, so everyone on both sides of the Iron Curtain had the wind knocked out of them when the Soviet empire crumbled into dust, closely followed by the Soviet Union itself (despite the best efforts of the George H. W. Bush administration, with all of its horses and all of its men, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again).
Much ink has been spilled asking how and why the Soviet empire collapsed. On the left, credit is given almost entirely to the alleged courage and vision of Mikhail Gorbachev. The common view on the right is that Reagan understood and exploited the hidden structural weaknesses of the Soviet regime and succeeded in spending the Russians into submission and bankruptcy. The latter view is far closer to the truth, but it is incomplete.
As North Korea shows, even a desperately poor slave society run by a deranged madman can muddle along indefinitely, and even build ICBMs and a nuclear arsenal, if it can muster the necessary political will and brutality and if foreign powers do not intervene. The Soviet Union’s fall was due to the exhaustion and collapse of the necessary political will and ruthlessness on the part of the Communist Party, combined with the relentless political, economic, and strategic pressure Reagan applied — mostly against the advice of the American foreign policy establishment and even his own advisors. But there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. In fact, the whole thing was highly improbable.
The stunning events of 1989 and 1991 caused the Kirkpatrick Doctrine to be scrapped and replaced by Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theory, which posited that after the collapse of communism, liberal democracy remained the only viable model for organizing society. All of the world’s dictatorships would eventually fall in line. And since democracies don’t fight other democracies, our future would be one of perpetual peace, rainbows, and boredom.
Fukuyama’s famous argument is often paired with one articulated by Charles Krauthammer in an influential September 1990 Foreign Affairs article titled The Unipolar Moment. Krauthammer observed that following the defeat of global communism, the United States had become the world’s unrivaled superpower. Krauthammer argued that this temporary historical position allowed the United States an unprecedented window of opportunity to impose its will and its values on the world, and that we should not hesitate to do so. He argued, in other words, for a strategy of global domination.
From the vantage point of 2016, it is difficult to entertain either position. The Whig or neo-Hegelian notion that history has a beginning, middle, and end; a direction, a logic, and an arc that bends this way or that, seems dubious. The thought that the United States should impose its values on the world has caused us no end of trouble. Yet we still mostly view the trajectory toward ever-greater democracy and freedom as somehow natural. Both George W. Bush (2005) and Barack H. Obama (2011) are on record as saying that “freedom beats in every human heart.” Hence the almost universal expectation that Cuba will follow in the footsteps of other communist states, helped along by American influence and benevolence. We may call this view “democratic romanticism.”
In light of what we know today, what can we say about how dictatorships turn into democracies? Why did so many authoritarian regimes democratize during the 1980s and 90s, and why have so few done so since then?
The answer must surely have something to do with the nature of the Cold War. The Cold War is usually described as having had a “polarizing” effect on the international system, which was itself characterized by its “bipolarity” during that period. What this jargon means is that the political orientation of the world was shaped by powerful ideological and political forces created by the diametrically opposite poles of the United States and the Soviet Union.
This metaphor, borrowing from the physics concept of field theory, is useful when thinking about the political forces acting on and within states. The strongest impulse orienting authoritarian regimes toward liberal democracy was the Cold War itself and the effect it had states caught up the massive force fields to which that conflict gave rise. What all of the liberalizing regimes – Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, etc., – had in common was alignment with the United States in the Cold War; they were therefore, to a greater or lesser degree, subject to powerful American influence.
One might add that the most infamous totalitarian regimes of the right – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – were brought to their demise through the application of American influence, although of a more robust and direct kind. But their transformation into liberal democracies also owed much to the Cold War.
Shortly after the Cold War ended, the bipolarity evaporated, and the global trend toward democracy and liberalization greatly weakened. Its last expression – the Arab Spring – failed miserably, to the complete indifference of the Western democracies.
The very concept of democratic government seems tattered and shopworn nowadays, even within its historic heartland. Consensual government isn’t a set of institutions, so much as it is a culture and a set of mental habits. Unfortunately, even Americans don’t seem to believe in our own deep principles in politically significant numbers anymore, as the current election season seems to indicate.
Despite our president’s epoch-making visit to Cuba this week, a “rapid, peaceful transition to democracy” is a pipe dream based in wishful thinking and democratic romanticism. The Castro brothers and their friends have learned from the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev. They will fill their Swiss bank accounts with American dollars and their dungeons with political prisoners.
Left to its own devices, the natural state of human government is dictatorship of one form or another. Just as every businessman wants to be a monopolist, every politician wants to be a dictator, and only a few societies have developed institutional and psychic safeguards against these tendencies. To ask how totalitarian regimes fail is begging the question, since the question assumes without further inquiry that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes must necessarily fail in the end. It is consensual government, not dictatorship, that requires an explanation.Published in