After the Fall

Ben Rhodes raises a hard question: How did America get from the pinnacle of our Cold War victory to this sorry place?


The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, five days before Ben Rhodes‘ 12th birthday. The wall’s demise was the culmination of a series of large and (mostly) bloodless revolutions that brought down nearly all the Soviet-imposed governments of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union itself was looking shaky, and would officially dissolve into its constituent republics in 1991.

Rhodes’ teen years were a period of undisputed American triumph. Not only were we the sole surviving superpower, but our political vision (representative democracy with constitutionally protected human rights) and economic vision (market economies gradually merging into a global free-trade zone) had also triumphed to such an extent that a US-style political economy was seriously put forward as the end-point of history.

The distant origins of the present volume lie in an article entitled “The End of History?” which I wrote for the journal The National Interest in the summer of 1989. In it, I argued that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism. More than that, however, I argued that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history.”

… The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of the military-authoritarian Right, or the communist-totalitarian Left. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe. In addition, liberal principles in economics – the “free market” – have spread, and have succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in industrially developed countries and in countries that had been, at the close of World War II, part of the impoverished Third World. A liberal revolution in economic thinking has sometimes preceded, sometimes followed, the move toward political freedom around the globe.

Today, though, liberal democracy seems to be in retreat around the world, to the point that America itself has a flourishing fascist movement. Last winter, Donald Trump attempted to stay in power after losing the election, and even instigated a riot in an attempt to intimidate Congress away from recognizing Joe Biden’s victory. For a moment it appeared that he had finally gone too far, and that his own party would now turn against him. But within weeks, he had reasserted control of the GOP, which is now working to craft tools for a better coup against democracy in 2024.

But it’s not just us. Russia appeared to be democratizing in the 1990s, only to become the model of the new fascism under Vladimir Putin. Similar nativist authoritarians have since taken power in Hungary, India, Brazil, and several other countries.

China’s communist leaders once looked like dead-enders. By suppressing their own democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989, China appeared to have staked out a position on the wrong side of history. Both Bill Clinton and the two Presidents Bush believed that opening up trade with China would increase the pressure on its leaders to democratize. A growing Chinese middle class, Americans of both parties agreed, would soon insist on political rights commensurate with its prosperity. Hong Kong, which Britain yielded to China in 1997, looked like a Trojan Horse. Surely the freedom and prosperity of Hong Kong would change China more than China changed Hong Kong.

Today, President Xi has more power than any Chinese leader since Mao, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are held in camps that could be a model for a new dystopia, Hong Kong is being brought to heel, and Chinese influence is spreading not just in Asia, but in Africa as well. Worse, numerous studies indicate that the Chinese middle class fears political change that might rock the boat of Chinese prosperity.

After the Fall. In his new book After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Rhodes discusses the state of democracy around the world, and how we got here. He recounts his conversations with democracy activists in places where authoritarianism is ascendant: Hungary, Russia, and Hong Kong. Always in the background is the ghost of his younger self, who visited these places in happier times, and proudly imagined that his own democratic America was the model all other countries aspired to imitate.

Another ghost is the idealistic Rhodes who wrote speeches for Obama and believed that the 2008 landslide marked a sea change in US politics and governance. Present-day Rhodes is constantly confronted with how his work has been undone, turned around, or made meaningless.

In the final section, Rhodes humbly comes back to the US to analyze where we went wrong and what those foreign activists might have to teach us about democracy.

One thing Rhodes does well is to look past the bright shiny object that is Donald Trump. He has no illusions about what Trump represents or what a disaster his administration was for democracy and for America’s place in the world. But the anti-democracy movement in the US is part of a global anti-democracy trend that Trump did not start.

From our post-Cold-War apex, when democracy seemed to be a lesson the whole world wanted to learn, how did we get to a point where a Trump presidency was even possible?

First mistake: failing the fledgling post-Soviet democracies. Vladimir Putin did not come out of nowhere. He rose to power because the Yeltsin government in Russia was inept and corrupt. Privatizing the Soviet government’s assets and creating a capitalist economy was supposed to bring prosperity. Instead, it created a class of billionaire oligarchs and impoverished the general population. Democracy was supposed to give the people a voice in government, but instead the oligarchs bought the major media and spent lavishly to re-elect Boris Yeltsin in 1996. The legitimacy of Russia’s 1996 election was widely doubted.

These events produced a cynicism about democracy, markets, and America that is now deeply embedded in the Russian consciousness. The Yeltsin disaster didn’t just happen, it had American fingerprints all over it. American economists were everywhere in Russia in the 1990s, pushing privatization. American political consultants helped shape Yeltsin’s 1996 campaign, and President Clinton was clearly rooting for Yeltsin to prevail. At the same time, when the world price of oil collapsed and took Russia’s economy with it, the US and other Western democracies were stingy with aid.

US government and non-government advisors were so entranced by the vision of Russia joining the global market economy that we didn’t pay much attention to how it happened, or whether it was good for the Russian people.

We set the stage for Putin to raise Russian identity politics and restore national pride. And if he also turned out to be corrupt, his message that all governments are corrupt is very plausible. His elections are unfair, but no democracy plays fair. He provides order and protects Russia from foreign dominance. What more could the people expect?

Russia and the other post-Soviet republics were part of a larger pattern: Again and again, the vision of a borderless world economy trumped democratic ideals. China in particular did not have to raise its human-rights standards to get into the world economic club. There was money to be made from China’s billion-person market and its bottomless well of cheap labor, so we could overlook a few transgressions against human rights. Surely that would all get fixed after China became prosperous.

Second mistake: abandoning our principles after 9-11. America’s message abroad has always been two-sided. On the one hand, we promote democracy and human rights as universal values. On the other, we have often supported cruel dictators like the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein (until he invaded Kuwait).

But after 9-11, the Bush administration took the attitude that national security justified anything. We could invade any country we wanted, and launch attacks anywhere we believed the terrorists were hiding. We could ignore the Geneva Conventions and hold prisoners in legal limbo in Guantanamo, where they were protected by neither the laws of war nor American jurisprudence. American citizens could be declared “enemy combatants” and vanish into military prisons. Intelligence services could scoop up Americans’ private communications and sift them for terror-related keywords. We could even torture people if we thought they could tell us about terrorist plots.

In its post-9-11 zeal, the Bush administration created a rhetorical template for authoritarian governments around the world. If their opponents could be labeled “terrorists”, then any action against them was justifiable. Is China herding Uyghurs into concentration camps? Doesn’t matter, they’re terrorists.

Third mistake: the 2008 banking collapse and its aftermath. From the beginning, globalization had winners and losers. Opening a national economy to foreign trade both created jobs and destroyed them. Immigration simultaneously added vigor to an economy and increased competition for low-level jobs. Financial deregulation both created wealth and increased risk. The argument was that the gain outweighed the pain.

That argument was always a tough sell among working-class people, who benefited little from a rising stock market, but saw their once-secure jobs move overseas. They could buy cheap manufactured goods at Wal-Mart, but could never hope to be employed making them.

2008 underlined a problem: The gain-over-pain argument held in theory if everyone followed the same rules. But if there was one set of rules for the rich and another for everyone else, the wealth at the top would never trickle down. If bankers can profit when risky investments succeed, but get bailed out by the government when they fail, then the whole system is rigged.

Outside America, 2008 showed that globalization made local economies vulnerable to mistakes and corruption abroad, particularly in the US.

No one was ever brought to justice for the corruption behind the banking collapse. That never sat right with working-class people both in America and abroad. “I lost my job and my home,” people told each other. “What did Bank of America lose?”

Fourth mistake: Trump. The election of Donald Trump was both a cause in its own right and an effect of the previous three causes. He followed the Putin model of combining cynicism with nationalism and nativism: He was a liar and a conman, but (in his view) so was everyone else. If the system was already rigged, why not elect someone who promised to rig it in your favor?

Within the US, Trump dismantled the rules and traditions that protect democracy against authoritarianism and government corruption. He ignored the Constitution’s emoluments clause by running businesses and dues-collecting clubs that anyone seeking a favor could patronize. He bulldozed the barriers that kept the Justice Department from becoming a political weapon. His emergency declarations usurped Congress’ power of the purse. He pardoned his co-conspirators in exchange for their silence. His failure to stay in power after losing the 2020 election was more frightening than reassuring, and his supporters in state legislatures have been paving the road to make a 2024 coup proceed more smoothly.

Outside the US, Trump destroyed the idea that America is a reliable ally or a champion of democracy. He undermined NATO. He invented reasons to impose tariffs on Canada. He put the world on notice that the US would not cooperate to fight climate change. He praised dictators and denigrated democratically elected leaders. Human rights played no part in his foreign policy. If China wanted his favor, it should buy more soybeans, not allow Hong Kong the independence promised in China’s treaty with the United Kingdom.

Worse, he raised the fear (both here and abroad) that America might simply go crazy. However reasonable Joe Biden might sound today, who knows what some future president might do? Foreign leaders would be foolish to follow America’s lead or put much stock in American promises.

We’re not alone. None of the activists Rhodes talked to has yet succeeded: Putin and Orlov are still in power, and Hong Kong continues to lose its freedom. So he doesn’t conclude with a five-steps-to-restore-democracy chapter. Perhaps the central thing Rhodes learns is that the struggle against autocracy is so similar in such disparate places.

He ends up thinking we need to internationalize that struggle: Hong Kongers, for example, are not protesting for their rights; they’re protesting for human rights. We in American should take inspiration from the fact that they’re not giving up, in spite of facing oppression far beyond what we currently have to deal with. I’m reminded of an idea I’ve seen attributed to Jesse Jackson (but can’t quote from memory): You shouldn’t be fighting just to make sure that your people aren’t forced to the back of the bus. You should fight to make sure that nobody is forced to the back of the bus.

Rhodes wants to rehabilitate the notion (debased by hollow post-9-11 rhetoric) that democracy and human rights are universal values. It’s fine that Hungarians want to achieve Hungarian democracy and Americans want American democracy. But it would be so much better if, as human beings, we wanted democracy for everyone.

He closes with the idea that America might still have a key role to play. In spite of Trumpist rhetoric, there are no “real Americans”. We are a collection of peoples gathered from all corners of the Earth. If we can overcome nativism and white supremacy here, we might finally become the beacon of hope we used to believe we were.

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Comments

  • Chris S  On August 2, 2021 at 11:17 am

    Very interesting! I appreciate the shout-out to Fukuyama. You might find this discussion of his most recent book interesting: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history

    I’ve thought about this issue a lot, but mostly I’ve been looking at it in terms of what Professor Timothy Snyder refers to as “the politics of inevitability” which I and my peer group growing up in the 1990s were all deeply immersed in.

    Snyder’s view is more systemic and sociological than the way you portray what Rhodes has written (I have not read Rhodes myself). The listed case studies are basically examples of consequences of the politics of inevitability. We failed the post-soviet democracies, yes, but why? Because we believed that the fall of the Soviet Union had proven that American-style liberal democracy would work as a sort of law of nature, and it was fine to push crony-capitalism and ignore any issues. We abandoned our principles after 9-11, well, sort of (to a large extent we just stopped pretending we hadn’t already abandoned them), but at any rate because we were scared by the idea that there was an alternative to the end of history and the inevitable triumph of our social and political systems.

    Because the politics of inevitability are rooted in a false premise, Snyder explains, they prepare the stage for the subsequent “politics of eternity” where a strongman leader seizes power on a message of strength, restoring lost glory, and freezing all change (whether progress or loss). Hitler, Putin, Trump (well he was a wannabe, Thank God, but the dynamic was there and remains).

    The conclusion, which I found really important, isn’t that we need to better hold to our principles in order to reinstate a sort of politics of inevitability. We wouldn’t have avoided where we are today if we had built real democracy in the soviet republics, not fought the war on terror, made our economy more just, and not elected Trump. We might perhaps have staved off the rise of authoritarianism and the politics of eternity for a time. But the threat would remain.

    Rather, by studying history, we can see that the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity are both false, and that nation states do not possess inherent qualities (and that there is no arc of history bending in any specific direction). Rather there are collections of human beings who must choose, day after day, whether they want to support authoritarianism, quietly hope it goes away, or act against it (one of Snyder’s examples is Teresa Prekerowa). And in the last four+ years, a lot of Americans (myself included) chose to quietly hope it would go away.

    This is laid out in four pages in the epilogue of Snyder’s short and excellent book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and elaborated on further in The Road to Unfreedom.

    I don’t know if Rhodes engages with Snyder’s writing at all (or if you have on the Sift – I can’t seem to find a search function?) but I HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who is struggling to figure out America’s place in the world or their place in America.

  • Carol  On August 2, 2021 at 11:29 am

    I don’t know that we can have enduring democracy until we have a world government with a mission to ensure the well being of all humans. Nation states creating impermeable government bubbles, allowing other humans in other countries to suffer deprivation and tyranny because “it’s not our problem” ensure that their problems will never go away, and will spread.

    There’s more, but that is one aspect

  • dhkinsey  On August 2, 2021 at 11:52 am

    to add to what this points to- the US promoted capitalism through the world, not democracy –
    we abandoned democratic principles at many junctures because capitalism is anti-thetical to democracy- capitalism uses democracy as a smiling PR license for empire building – ( as christianity was used prior)
    empire is in essence is a dictatorship to the world

  • philipfinn  On August 2, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    “How did America get from the pinnacle of our Cold War victory to this sorry place?”
    Perhaps, to begin with, the pinnacle was imaginary. Rhodes’ primal fault, perceiving History as a linear progression of pinnacles, hasn’t healed despite raining down thirty years of books and articles. But the Biblical Model of history – an attempt to lend scriptural authority through chronological order – only makes sense if you accept “progress” (whatever that means) as the “natural order” (whatever that is).
    What we call History is actually a series, with greater or lesser success, of tangential recoveries from semi-regular, periodic catastrophes.
    Perhaps Vladimir Putin, that monstrous broken clock Newsweek once called “Stalin, 2.0”, was correct once last century when he referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union as “The Worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century”.

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