The defining geopolitical competition for this century is between people who support democracy, with all its imperfections and blemishes, and autocrats, who always want to rig elections and control civil society.
During the 1990s, many policymakers foolishly fell for the notion that as countries become richer and more educated, they will inexorably become more democratic.
The evidence, however, firmly rejects this so-called ‘modernisation theory' (Acemoglu and Robinson 2022). There is no general tendency for countries that grow faster (or become richer) to become more democratic. Authoritarian rulers have on many occasions strengthened their hold over countries with an educated population and a rising middle class – Persian Gulf oil states, Putin’s Russia, and Xi’s China are just the latest examples.
There is a corollary to modernisation theory, which may appear more sophisticated and benign, but in essence is equally flawed. This corollary maintains that the technological innovativeness of democracies ensures that they will triumph against autocracies. This version of techno-optimism may have reached its apogee in the 2010s when there was a general euphoria about online communication and social media, with some even claiming this constituted a transformative technology that would bring down dictators, for example during the Arab Spring of 2011-2012.
As we argue in a forthcoming book (Acemoglu and Johnson 2023a), technologies are highly malleable, and can be used in many ways. Social media and the internet illustrate this point by proving to be tools in the hands of autocracies intent on surveillance, censorship, and heavy-handed oppression.
In fact, there is nothing new about this technological innovation being a force for both good and evil. Improved communication technologies have often been used effectively for propaganda by anti-democratic regimes and leaders. The Nazis were masters of radio propaganda, and in the US, the most adept users of this medium included not only democratically elected leaders such as President Franklin Roosevelt, but also the fascist-sympathiser, rabble-rouser Father Coughlin.
Seen through this lens, it is obvious how counterproductive American and Western European policies towards autocrats have been. From at least the 1990s, the US foreign policy establishment claimed that all we had to do was trade freely with China and democratisation would occur naturally. China was admitted into the WTO in 2001 on favourable terms.
Of course, cheap Chinese labour was great news for multinational corporations, especially as they enthusiastically offshored activities to China and built more complex supply chains, transferring much of their technology to Chinese companies in the process. But there was nothing to worry about, in the eyes of our business leaders and politicians, because this was all ‘win-win’: everybody would benefit from Chinese exports, and China itself would soon join the ranks of peace-loving democratic countries.
The US was also a leading voice in the international system which allowed, or perhaps even encouraged, OPEC to manipulate oil prices,
even though such activities would be viewed as a criminal conspiracy in most Western legal systems.
The European approach to Russia has been even more problematic. For more than 20 years, German political leaders maintained that the Nord Stream gas pipeline would help bind Russia to a peaceful Europe.
Of course, some well-connected people in democracies also benefited mightily from this complacency. London and other European capitals opened their arms to foreign oligarchs wishing to buy prime real estate or sports clubs. The European banking system has been complicit in allowing rich Russians to launder their vast fortunes into their real estate, financial assets, and very large yachts (Acemoglu 2022).
When questioned on these practices, policymakers would fall back on a version of modernisation theory: this was a passing phase, and with the children of elites from Russia, Saudi Arabia and China studying at famous British boarding schools and American colleges, their parents would surely soon become staunch defenders of democracy, free markets, and human rights. Nothing of the sort has happened.
Alas, over the past three decades rising prosperity in leading nondemocracies has strengthened the political dominance of a small elite, rather than building any type of democratic movement. In the 1980s, before China became completely integrated into the world trading system, there was a strong dissident student movement in cities and genuine bottom-up organization among peasants in the countryside (Pan 2008). All of that was crushed in the 1990s by a wave of repression funded by buoyant government revenues from foreign trade and western investments, after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Capitalism alone will not bring democracy to more places, either. Under current arrangements, capitalists are willing to sell autocrats anything they want. Western countries sold components used in advanced weapons to Russia after 2014,
despite a supposed EU ban on such shipments. US companies sell advanced chips to the Chinese military industrial complex, despite prohibitions – and even though China is currently a major source of re-supply to the Russian military, including for jet-fighters that are used indiscriminately to kill Ukrainian civilians.
It's time to wake up. Providing autocrats with advanced technology does not make them more peace-loving, better behaved, or mellow in any way. Autocrats stay in power by fragmenting society and by fomenting nationalist messages – to counteract the demonstration effects created by Western success. Drawing on either a religious or secular basis, autocratic rulers tell their people: we are special, we are threatened, it is us against the world, and if we allow the West to ‘prevail’, they will destroy us, our way of life, our culture, and so on. All of this is nonsense, but as we discuss in Acemoglu and Johnson (2023a), it can be sold to people through cleverly designed information filters, millions of internet bots, and well-funded official media. Autocratic oppression is like a bicycle – the people on top fear that if they don’t keep peddling lies, they are likely to fall off.
Seen this way, what happens next in Ukraine is of paramount importance. After some decades of hesitation and underperformance, in 2019 Ukraine chose – through the ballot box –to reduce the power of the existing pro-Russian ruling elite and move its institutions in the direction of Western Europe. Vladimir Putin either found this shift threatening or simply decided there was an opportunity to grab more territory. Putin uses propaganda to effectively control Russian society and to mobilise more than enough popular support. The West has helped Ukraine, but slowly – fearing the consequences of escalation, including the potential use of nuclear weapons.
Think what happens if Putin prevails. This will send a signal that autocratic nations can invade more democratic neighbours with impunity. The incentive for autocrats to acquire nuclear weapons will also increase, because this obviously allows them to get away with more.
Recent experience in Afghanistan reminds us that democracy is rarely successful when imposed from the outside (Brick Murtazashvili 2022). And when a country chooses democracy for itself, the process can be contentious, with steps forward and back – as we have seen in many parts of Eastern Europe. For democracy to flourish, or even to survive, it needs to have a ‘safe haven’. This means that expansionist autocrats need to keep their hands off – and their tanks out of – countries such as Ukraine that are attempting to control corruption, eliminate the power of oligarchy, and genuinely become democratic.
We are now entering the most dangerous phase of the 21st century. Based on prosperity due to its success as an exporter to industrial democracies, China has picked up its game as an inventor of technology, particularly for surveillance. The race to develop artificial intelligence is on, with two big players: the US and China. Now the autocrats have a potential source of oppressive technology being developed within their own ranks – although we should also not rule out that misguided Western companies may invent tools that can be used to undermine our own political systems (Acemoglu and Johnson 2023b).
Over this century, the number of people living in today’s prosperous democracies will peak, likely around 1.5 billion. But the world’s population will continue to grow from 8 billion today, towards 10 billion (United Nations 2022) or perhaps even 12 billion.
India will soon become (or perhaps already is) the world’s most populous country, but there is nothing secure about its vaunted democracy now, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reportedly using advanced surveillance technologies against opponents
(these allegations have been denied).
Much of the population growth in the coming decades will be in Africa, where the conflict between democracy and autocracy is very much alive.
What technology will be invented or adopted in China, India, Latin America, and Africa, who will benefit, and how will attempts to create more democracies affect global security? Will there be a further emergence of aggressive autocrats, using AI from China, drones from Iran, and mercenaries from Russia? Much of this will be determined on the battlefields of Ukraine.
If Russia is allowed to continue occupying Ukraine and to declare success, this would send a powerful and harmful signal – autocrats can invade democratic countries and get away with murder.
Acemoglu, D (2022), “Closing Tax Havens Is the True Test of the West's Resolve”, Project Syndicate, 8 March.
Acemoglu, D and S Johnson (2023a), Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity, Public Affairs (forthcoming).
Acemoglu, D and S Johnson (2023b), “What’s wrong with ChatGPT?”, Project Syndicate, 6 February.
Acemoglu, D and J Robinson (2022), “Non-Modernization: Power–Culture Trajectories and the Dynamics of Political Institutions”, Annual Review of Political Science 25: 323-339.
Bandow, D (2021), “How Triumphalism Squandered America’s Cold War Victory”, Cato Institute, 30 December.
Brick Murtazashvili, J (2022), “The Collapse of Afghanistan”, Journal of Democracy 33(1): 40-54.
Fukuyama, F (1989), “The End of History?”, The National Interest 16: 3-18.
Manand, L (2018), “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History”, The New Yorker, 3 September.
Pan, P (2008), Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, Simon & Schuster.
United Nations (2022), World Population Statistics 2022.