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The Failed Bet on Russian and Chinese Reform

Russia and China shattered the belief that economic liberalization leads inevitably to greater political freedom. Maybe a new generation of reformers will show that history really does culminate in democratic capitalism, but from now on Western leaders should proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism toward grand narratives.

STANFORD – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasing authoritarianism have belatedly awakened much of the world to the failure of a geopolitical wager made by the United States and its allies a generation ago. Their necessary response to today’s grim new realities reflects the cost of losing that bet, and it will change everything from security alliances, military budgets, and international trade to financial flows and environmental and energy policies.

The bet Western countries made in the 1990s was that integrating Russia and China into the international community through trade and commerce would hasten domestic political, as well as economic, reforms. Nobody expected either country to turn into a capitalist democracy overnight. But it was assumed that greater prosperity would gradually round off their rough ideological and authoritarian edges, allowing for cooperation to replace confrontation.

To understand the context in which this bet was placed, we need to go back to 1980, when America was still reeling from stagflation and the tragic conclusion of the Vietnam War. The Cold War was in full swing, pitting capitalism against communism and democracy against totalitarianism. Proxy wars erupted regularly, and the sobering risk of a nuclear confrontation was ever-present.

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