The much-vaunted "liberal order" policed by the U.S. was a product of World War II and the Cold War. Germany and Japan had to be kept down, the Communist powers had to be contained, and the old countries of Europe had to learn to live with one another under unifying pan-national institutions. All of this was made possible by American money and military might. As a result, the Free World, in Western Europe and East Asia, became a US dependency. This cannot go on forever. Indeed, the arrangements are already fraying. But then comes the old imperial paradox. The longer others remain dependent on the U.S., the less capable they will be of taking care of their own affairs, including their security. And, like an authoritarian parent, the U.S. itself, despite its admonitions to its allies to pull their weight, is often loath to let go of its increasingly unruly dependents.
As governing systems, both China's autocracy and America's democracy are facing crisis. In many ways, their crises are the mirror image of each other -- and so are the solutions. To fix itself, China needs more re-politicization -- robust popular feedback and accountability to aerate its hidebound mandarinate. American democracy needs more de-politicization --stronger meritocratic, non-partisan and deliberative practices and institutions -- to escape its capture by the populist, short-term horizon of voters, organized special interests and the paralyzing gridlock of its adversarial political parties. Our two political cultures are as distinct as our economies are intertwined. Yet both have much to learn from each other's strengths as well as weaknesses. In short, China needs to lighten up; America needs to tighten up.
Economic success does not assure peace, but economic failure and disintegration almost assures conflict. It is incumbent on the leaders of the major nations of the world to figure out how to achieve more rapid and sustained economic growth. A commitment to maintain strength, to uphold the international order, is an inherent and deeply-seated part of any successful global system. Great powers can never bluff. When they bluff, when their intentions are uncertain, they are tested. When they are tested, questions arise, and the prospect of conflict mounts.
Now legally for sale to the highest bidder, multi-party representative democracy may well be compromised beyond repair. When elected officials increasingly represent their contributors instead of constituents, voting becomes a form of disenfranchisement disguised as consent of the governed. The more things get out of hand, the less radical the alternatives appear. To restore the rule of the many over money, we need to go way beyond the same old campaign financing debate and start thinking about reforming our system of democratic governance itself. It's time to open up the political imagination and think outside the conventional ballot box.