With the fall of France in 1940, precious few democracies remained to defend liberalism — the idea that free men seeking their fortunes in private markets and governing themselves could best advance civilization, a just prosperity and the security of nations and individuals.
Today’s threats to freedom — an ascendant and autocratic China, and a resurgent and ruthless Russia — look a lot like fascist Japan and Germany in the 1930s. Each features disciplined government finance and state directed businesses. And their advance is assisted by dysfunction and decadence among Western democracies, summoned up by greed and political correctness.
China may have big government and private sector debt but it sits on huge holdings of U.S. dollars. Those substantially limit the possibility of a bubble bursting and enable Beijing to project power.
Vladimir Putin keeps Russian debt in check while investing its oil wealth in military modernization and disciplined expansion of social programs. Those appeal to Russian nationalism and expectations established during the communist era for guaranteed employment, health care and a steady diet of propaganda, bologna and vodka.
Corporate chieftains understand absolute loyalty to Moscow and Beijing is essential to business success and personal survival. And those centers of tyranny have successfully ensnared America’s corporate leaders — consider Ford’s decision to stick with Russia after the annexation of Crimea and Google’s cooperation with Chinese firms that can ultimately advance Beijing’s population monitoring and control technologies.
These adversaries are winning where it counts. Russia is in eastern Ukraine and Georgia, discrediting elections in Europe and the United States (how else could Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer deny the legitimacy of Donald Trump?) and extending its menacing influence in Syria, Iran and the wider Middle East.
Notwithstanding some push-back to its Belt and Road initiative, Beijing continues to win acolytes among aspiring autocrats in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. It boasts more robust growth and social progress for workers and a lot less terrorism and crime than western democracies.
Rationalized as engagement to encourage democratic reforms, bankers and multinational CEOs, academics and civil society grow rich and influential by lobbying to keep American markets open to cheap Chinese manufacturers.
The U.S. borrowing that necessitates builds Beijing’s dollar horde. European leaders happily buy Russia’s natural gas, and together those finance China’s and Russia’s military and international adventures.
This is appeasement of the most amoral variety.
Now Russia has developed a hypersonic nuclear weapons delivery system to foil America’s defenses. China has landed a rover on the dark side of the moon and plans a permanent colony to claim its resources before manned American voyages can return to lunar soil. And it is taking the lead in quantum computing and important dimensions of artificial intelligence.
All because Moscow and Beijing can better focus resources where it counts, while Washington and European politicians remain engulfed in sterile quarrels about international governance and whether adults should be required to work with the advent of robots.
Meanwhile, activists and civil society label Donald Trump a demagogue for criticizing Europe’s neglect of national defense, purchases of Russian natural gas and complicity with China. And for seeking to stem the flow of Chinese imports and U.S. dollars into Beijing’s coffers.
Ultimately, democracies in the West cannot respond effectively, because they too are hostage to profiteering and self-righteous prejudices of these multinational elites, self-aggrandizing activists and democratically unaccountable civil society.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist.