The world is being shaken by tectonic changes almost too numerous to count. The economic crisis is accelerating the degradation of international governance and supranational institutions amid a shift of economic and political power to Asia.

Now, less than a quarter-century after Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” we seem to have arrived at the dawn of a new age of social and geopolitical upheaval.

Dramatically, the Arab world has been swept by a revolutionary spring, though one that is rapidly becoming a chilly winter. Indeed, for the most part, the new regimes are combining the old authoritarianism with Islamism, resulting in further social stagnation, resentment and instability.

Even more remarkable, however, are the social (and antisocial) grassroots demonstrations that are mushrooming in affluent Western societies. These protests have two major causes.

First, social inequality has grown unabated in the West over the last quarter-century, owing in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the threat of expansionist communism. The specter of revolution had forced Western elites to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth and nurture the growth of loyal middle classes. When communism collapsed in its Eurasian heartland, the West’s rich people, believing they had nothing more to fear, pressed to roll back the welfare state, causing inequality to rise rapidly. This was tolerated as long as the overall pie was expanding, but the global financial crisis in 2008 ended that expansion.

Second, over the past 15 years, hundreds of millions of jobs shifted to Asia, which offered inexpensive and often highly skilled labor. The West, euphoric from its victory over communism and its seemingly unstoppable economic growth, failed to implement necessary structural reforms (Germany and Sweden were rare exceptions). Instead, Western prosperity relied increasingly on debt.

But the economic crisis has made it impossible to maintain a good life on borrowed money. Americans and Europeans are beginning to understand that neither they, nor their children, can assume that they will become wealthier over time.

Governments now face the difficult task of implementing reforms that will hit the majority of voters hardest. In the meantime, the minority that has benefited financially over the past two decades is unlikely to give up its advantages without a fight.

All of this cannot help but weaken Western democracy’s allure in countries like Russia where, unlike in the West or, to a large extent, the Arab world, those who are organizing the massive demonstrations against the government belong to the economic elite. Theirs is a movement of political reform — demanding more freedom and government accountability — not of social protest, at least not yet.

A few years ago, it was fashionable to worry about the challenge that authoritarian-style capitalism (for example, in China, Singapore, Malaysia, or Russia) presented to Western democratic capitalism. Today, the problem is not only economic. Western capitalism’s model of a society based on near-universal affluence and liberal democracy looks increasingly ineffective compared to the competition.

Authoritarian countries’ middle classes may push their leaders toward greater democracy, as in Russia, but Western democracies will also likely become more authoritarian.

Measured against today’s standards, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower were comparatively authoritarian leaders. The West will have to readopt such an approach, or risk losing out globally as its ultraright and ultraleft political forces consolidate their positions amid a dissolving middle class.

We must find ways to prevent the political polarization that gave rise to totalitarian systems — communism and fascism — in the 20th century. This is possible. Communism and fascism were born and took root in societies demoralized by war, which is why all steps should be taken now to prevent the outbreak of war.

This is becoming particularly relevant today, as the smell of war hangs over Iran. Israel, which is facing a surge of hostile sentiment from neighbors in the wake of their “democratic” upheavals, is not the only interested party. Many people in the advanced countries, and even some in Russia, look increasingly supportive of a war with Iran, despite — or perhaps owing to — the need to address the global economic crisis and failure of international governance.

Yet, huge opportunities beckon in this time of far-reaching change. Billions of people in Asia have extricated themselves from poverty. New markets and spheres for applying one’s intellect, education and talents appear constantly. The world’s power centers are beginning to counterbalance each other, undermining hegemonic ambitions and heralding a creative instability based on genuine multipolarity, with people gaining greater freedom to define their fate.

Paradoxically, today’s global changes and challenges offer the potential for both peaceful coexistence and violent conflict. It is up to us to determine which future.

Sergei A. Karaganov is dean of the School of World Economics and International Affairs at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics. © 2012 Project Syndicate

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