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In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, democracy was on the march and we declared the End of History. Nearly two decades later, a neo-imperialist Russia is at war with Georgia, Communist China is proudly hosting the Olympics, and we find that, instead, we have entered the Age of Authoritarianism.

It is worth recalling how different we thought the future would be in the immediate, happy aftermath of the end of the cold war. Remember Francis Fukuyama’s ringing assertion: “The triumph of the west, of the western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to western liberalism.”

Even in the heady days of 1989, that declaration of universal – and possibly eternal – ideological victory seemed a little hubristic to Professor Fukuyama’s many critics. Yet his essay made such an impact because it captured the enormity, and the enormous benefits, of the change sweeping through the world. Not only was the stifling Soviet – which was really the Russian – suzerainty over central and eastern Europe and central Asia coming to an end but, even more importantly, the very idea of a one-party state, ruthlessly presiding over a centrally planned economy, seemed to be discredited, if not forever, then surely for our lifetimes.

That collapse brought freedom and prosperity to millions of people who had lived under Soviet rule. Moreover, the implosion of Soviet communism inspired hundreds of millions of others around the world to embrace freer markets and demand more responsive governments. The great global economic boom of the past 20 years, which has brought more people out of poverty more quickly than at any other time in human history, would not have been possible had the Soviet way of ordering the world not been discredited first.

Yet today, in much of the world, the spread of freedom is being checked by an authoritarian revanche. That shift has been most obvious in the petro-states, where oil is casting its usual curse. From Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, the black-gold bonanza has given authoritarian regimes the currency to buy off or to repress their subjects. In Russia, oil has fuelled an economic boom that prime minister Vladimir Putin, and some of his foreign admirers, mistakenly attribute to his careful demolition of the chaotic democracy of the 1990s.

For Russians, that argument is strengthened by the fact that the rising economic power of the moment – China – is unashamedly sticking to its faith in one-party rule. The end of the cold war made it tempting to believe that as countries opened up their markets, and became richer in the process, they would inevitably open up their societies, too. George W. Bush, US president, reiterated that hopeful thesis on his Asia tour last week, insisting: “Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas.”

But the Chinese mandarins and the Russian siloviki are taking a different view – and acting on it. As China scholar David Shambaugh recounts in his new book, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, the CCP studied the collapse of Soviet communism with great care. And rather than seeing it as proof of the inevitable, global triumph of western liberalism, the Chinese comrades treated the Russian example as a textbook case of what a ruling Communist party ought not to do.

In this version of history, sinologist Andrew Nathan tells me, 1989 is also a turning point, but not because that was when communism’s most notorious wall came down. Instead, the key event of that year was the bloody suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square: “As a propaganda position they have put it out that we had a crackdown in 1989 and we saved the party and we saved the country,” he says. “We didn’t have a failure of will like the Russians. Without that, we wouldn’t have been a great, modern power.” That’s a point of view Mr Putin has embraced, too, describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy and his own reconstruction of a neo-authoritarian state as the only way to restore Russian “greatness”.

The west has been remarkably sanguine about this resurgence of authoritarianism, and one reason is that, this time, the comrades have money. Even as the Kremlin repeatedly confiscates the assets not just of its own businesspeople, but of foreign ones, too, investment bankers, and plain old investors, are flocking to a Moscow flush with petro-roubles. The same is true of the Gulf states. China, on a path to become the world’s largest economy, is the most attractive of all.

But the Age of Authoritarianism is bad news for all of us, not just the human rights campaigners that businesspeople and practitioners of realpolitik love to dismiss. Like all overly rigid objects, authoritarian regimes conceal a tremendous fragility in their apparent strength – and their leaders know it. It is this realisation that has driven Mr Putin’s systematic destruction of all forms of civil society – an eminently pragmatic measure, although it has mystified some outside observers, who wonder why so popular a leader needs to be so heavy-handed. China’s chiefs have figured this out, too, hence their anxiety about everything from the Muslim Uighurs to the internet to the former Soviet Union’s “colour revolutions”.

Of course, another way to ensure popular support for your authoritarian regime is by playing up nationalist sentiment. We are more tolerant of our home-grown bullies if we think we need them to fight our enemies abroad – as even democratic America has demonstrated in recent years. Mr Putin has understood this all along, launching a brutal attack on Chechnya even before his coronation as president in 2000.

Russia’s expert taunting of the hotheads in Georgia, followed by immediate and massive retaliation the moment Tbilisi took the bait, is the latest evidence that, for the Kremlin, neo-imperialism is an essential bulwark of neo-authoritarianism. Bringing down the walls really did make the world safer. Now that so many leaders are building them back up again, figuring out how to contain the 21st century’s monied authoritarians is our most pressing foreign policy dilemma.

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