Autocracies like China, Russia and Iran are challenging the dominance of Western democracies. Much has changed in the last two decades, fueling this emerging threat to the free world.
China & Global Trade
China joined the WTO in 2001 and disrupted global trade. Subsidy of state-owned or state-sponsored industries tilted the playing field. Manipulation of exchange rates, amassing $4 trillion of foreign reserves, helped to depress the yuan, creating a further advantage for Chinese manufacturers.
Manufacturing employment in the US shrank by more than 5.5 million jobs between 2000 and 2010.
Europe experienced similar losses.
Output recovered, but through a combination of automation and offshoring labor-intensive activities, manufacturing jobs were never restored. Losses of 4 million US manufacturing jobs (23.5% of total) and an equal 4 million (10%) in the European Union appear permanent.
The Global Financial Crisis
The global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008 and the recession caused soaring unemployment and further alienated blue collar workers.
The $700 billion bailout of the banking system (Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008), with no prosecutions of key actors, undermined trust in Federal government.
The Rise and Decline of Nations
Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), argues that interest groups — such as cotton-farmers, steel-producers, labor unions, and banks — tend to unite into pressure groups to influence government policy in their favor. The resulting protectionist policies hurt economic growth but their costs go unnoticed, attracting little resistance, as they are diffused throughout the economy. The benefits, on the other hand, are concentrated in the hands of a few, incentivizing further action. As these pressure groups increase in strength and number, the costs accumulate, and nations burdened by them fall into economic decline.
Olson formulated his theory after studying the rapid rise in industrial power in Germany and Japan after World War II. He concluded that their economies had benefited from the almost complete destruction of interest groups and protectionist policies as a result of the war and were able to pursue optimal strategies to rebuild their economies. The result was that their economies, unfettered by pressure groups and special interests, far outstripped those of the victors, burdened by the same inefficient, protectionist policies as before the war.
Federal government, choked by lobbyists and special interests, failed to prioritize issues facing blue collar workers: global trade, off-shoring jobs and fallout from the GFC. Formation of the Tea Party movement in 2009 created a rallying point for libertarians and conservatives — supporting small government and traditional Judeo-Christian values1 — but it also opened the door for populists like Donald Trump.
Exponential growth of social media, combined with disinformation and fake news, has polarized communities.
In 2017, 93 percent of Americans surveyed said they receive news online, with news organization websites (36%) and social media (35%) the most common sources. Trust and confidence in mass media has declined from 53 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2016, according to Gallup Polls.
Politics are increasingly dominated by outrage and division, with populist candidates gaining handsomely.
Many Western governments are now formed of fragile coalitions. Greece, Italy, Germany, even the UK. Others in Eastern Europe — Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey — are heading towards autocracy.
The Long Game
China has been quietly playing the long game. Massive investment in infrastructure, subsidy of key industries, controlled access to its markets, upgrading technology through forced partnerships with Western companies in exchange for access to Chinese markets, and industrial espionage have all been used to gain an advantage over competitors.
The CCP exploits divisions within and between Western governments while expanding their influence in universities, think tanks and the media. The stated aim of the CCP’s United Front Work Department is to influence Chinese diasporas in the West to accept CCP rule, endorse its legitimacy, and assist in achieving Party aims. This includes some 50 million who emigrated after 1979 or are PRC students studying abroad. Stepped up surveillance of PRC students, funding of Confucius Institutes on campuses and growing student activism has raised concerns in Australia over academic freedom and promotion of pro-Beijing views3.
Western governments seem unable to present a coordinated response. Absence of a cohesive, long-term strategy and weakened alliances make them an easy target.
Governments are also subjected to pressure from within. The latest example is pressure exerted, by US companies, on the White House to lift the ban on sales of US technology to Huawei. From the New York Times a few days ago:
Beijing has also pressured American companies. This month, the Chinese government said it would create an “unreliable entities list” to punish companies and individuals it perceived as damaging Chinese interests. The following week, China’s chief economic planning agency summoned foreign executives, including representatives from Microsoft, Dell and Apple. It warned them that cutting off sales to Chinese companies could lead to punishment and hinted that the companies should lobby the United States government to stop the bans. The stakes are high for some of the American companies, like Apple, which relies on China for many sales and for much of its production.
The problem with most Western democracies is that they are stuck in a short-term election cycle, with special interest groups, lobbyists for hire, and populist policies targeted at winning votes in the next election. Frequent changes of government lead to a lack of continuity, ensuring that long-term vision and planning, needed to build a winning global strategy, are woefully neglected.
Autocrats like China, Russia and Iran are able to play the long game because they enjoy continuity of leadership. They do not have to concern themselves with elections and the media cycle. They own the media. And elections, if held, are a mere formality, with pre-selected candidates and pre-ordained results.
Western democracies will have to adapt if they want to remain competetive in the 21st century.
Focus on the Long-term
Switzerland is one of the few Western democracies that is capable of a long-term focus. Their unique, consensus-driven system ensures stability and continuity of government, with buy-in from all major political parties. The largest parties are all represented on the 7-member governing Federal Council, elected by Federal Assembly (a bicameral parliament) for four-year terms on a proportional basis. There has been only one change in party representation on the Federal Council since 19592.
Cohesiveness and stability provide a huge advantage when it comes to long-term planning.
Regulating global trade, limiting the threat of social media, ensuring quality journalism, protecting academic freedom, guarding against influence operations by foreign powers, limiting the power of lobbyists and special interest groups — all of these require a long-term strategy. And buy-in from all sides of the political spectrum.
We need to adapt our current form of democracy, which has served us well for the last century, but is faltering under the challenges of the modern era, or risk losing it all together. Without bipartisan support for, and commitment to, long-term policies, there is little hope for building a winning strategy.
The choice is ours: a highly-regulated, autocratic system where rule of law is the first casualty; a stable form of democracy that ensures long-term continuity and planning; or continuation of the present melee, driven by emotion rather than forethought, populist leaders, frequent changes in government — and subservience to our new autocratic masters.
- Wikipedia: Tea Party movement
- Current Federal Council representation is 2 Free Democratic Party (liberals), 2 Social Democratic Party (social democrats), 1 Christian Democratic People’s Party [CVP] (Christian conservatives) and 2 Swiss People’s Party [SVP] (national conservatives), reflecting 76.2% of the popular vote in 2015 Federal elections. The SVP gained one seat from the CVP in 2003.
- The Diplomat: China’s United Front work – Propaganda as Policy