The Net Delusion - By Evgeny Morozov


For anyone who wants to see democracy prevail in the most hostile and unlikely environments, the first decade of the new millennium was marked by a sense of bitter disappointment, if not utter disillusionment. The seemingly inexorable march of freedom that began in the late 1980s has not only come to a halt but may have reversed its course.

Expressions like “freedom recession” have begun to break out of the think-tank circuit and enter the public conversation. In a state of quiet desperation, a growing number of Western policymakers began to concede that the Washington Consensus—that set of dubious policies that once promised a neoliberal paradise at deep discounts—has been superseded by the Beijing Consensus, which boasts of delivering quick-and-dirty prosperity without having to bother with those pesky institutions of democracy.

The West has been slow to discover that the fight for democracy wasn’t won back in 1989. For two decades it has been resting on its laurels, expecting that Starbucks, MTV, and Google will do the rest just fine. Such a laissez-faire approach to democratization has proved rather toothless against resurgent authoritarianism, which has masterfully adapted to this new, highly globalized world. Today’s authoritarianism is of the hedonism- and consumerism-friendly variety, with Steve Jobs and Ashton Kutcher commanding far more respect than Mao or Che Guevara. No wonder the West appears at a loss. While the Soviets could be liberated by waving the magic wand of blue jeans, exquisite coffee machines, and cheap bubble gum, one can’t pull the same trick on China. After all, this is where all those Western goods come from.

Many of the signs that promised further democratization just a few years ago never quite materialized. The so-called color revolutions that swept the former Soviet Union in the last decade produced rather ambiguous results. Ironically, it’s the most authoritarian of the former Soviet republics—Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan—that found those revolutions most useful, having discovered and patched their own vulnerabilities. My own birthplace, Belarus, once singled out by Condoleezza Rice as the last outpost of tyranny in Europe, is perhaps the shrewdest of the lot; it continues its slide into a weird form of authoritarianism, where the glorification of the Soviet past by its despotic ruler is fused with a growing appreciation of fast cars, expensive holidays, and exotic cocktails by its largely carefree populace.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were started, if anything, to spread the gospel of freedom and democracy, have lost much of their initial emancipatory potential as well, further blurring the line between “regime change” and “democracy promotion.” Coupled with Washington’s unnecessary abuses of human rights and rather frivolous interpretations of international law, these two wars gave democracy promotion such a bad name that anyone eager to defend it is considered a Dick Cheney acolyte, an insane idealist, or both.

It is thus easy to forget, if only for therapeutic purposes, that the West still has an obligation to stand up for democratic values, speak up about violations of human rights, and reprimand those who abuse their office and their citizens. Luckily, by the twenty-first century the case for promoting democracy no longer needs to be made; even the hardest skeptics agree that a world where Russia, China, and Iran adhere to democratic norms is a safer world.

That said, there is still very little agreement on the kind of methods and policies the West needs to pursue to be most effective in promoting democracy. As the last few decades have so aptly illustrated, good intentions are hardly enough. Even the most noble attempts may easily backfire, entrenching authoritarianism as a result. The images of horrific prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib were the result, if only indirectly, of one particular approach to promoting democracy. It did not exactly work as advertised.

Unfortunately, as the neoconservative vision for democratizing the world got discredited, nothing viable has come to fill the vacuum. While George Bush certainly overdid it with his excessive freedom-worshiping rhetoric, his successor seems to have abandoned the rhetoric, the spirit, as well as any desire to articulate what a post-Bush “freedom agenda” might look like.

But there is more to Obama’s silence than just his reasonable attempt to present himself as anti-Bush. Most likely his silence is a sign of an extremely troubling bipartisan malaise: the growing Western fatigue with the project of promoting democracy. The project suffers not just from bad publicity but also from a deeply rooted intellectual crisis. The resilience of authoritarianism in places like Belarus, China, and Iran is not for lack of trying by