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Will Democracy Die Last?

These days, liberal democracy and authoritarianism seem to be engaged in a process of competitive decay, the outcome of which remains uncertain. But it is never wise to write democracy off, much less act in ways that hasten its downfall.

PARIS – In the late 1970s and early 1980s, prominent international relations experts such as the late French political philosopher Pierre Hassner argued that the world was witnessing a process of competitive decay between the United States and the Soviet Union. For the latter, the conflict in Afghanistan was about to become an even costlier failure than the Vietnam war had been for America. By 1989, the verdict was clear: The Soviet Union had atrophied much faster than the US, and its empire collapsed, the victim of its own errors and contradictions.

Today, the concept of competitive decay of ideological and political models seems to be relevant once again. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the liberal democratic ideal had become “obsolete.” Yet the crowds of protesters demonstrating in the streets of Moscow and, much more spectacularly, Hong Kong, suggest that the authoritarian model has plenty of problems of its own.

True, worried democrats now fear that the world has entered a third, darker phase of its postwar history. The first phase, from 1945 until 1989, was dominated by the Cold War. The second, between 1990 and 2016, represented a fragile victory for liberal democratic regimes. But now, the argument goes, the world is in a new, dangerous populist era that began with the victory of the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom and the election of President Donald Trump in the US.

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