Since 1989, most authoritarian leaders have probably thought that the consequences for blithely killing hundreds of demonstrators in the main square of the capital, including being cut off from foreign assistance, facing massive civil unrest facilitated by better communication technology, trade sanctions or foreign intervention outweigh the short term gains those actions would bring. The Syrian government is currently challenging this received wisdom of the last two decades. Ironically, because Syria is a much smaller, less powerful and more ordinary country than China what happens there may be more important for other countries than what happened in China 22 years ago. Therefore, if the al-Assad regime remains in power after killing and torturing hundreds of its own people, it is likely that will set a more powerful precedent than the Chinese government set in 1989.
History has shown both that revolutions are rare and not the inevitable outcome of large, even massive street demonstrations, and that when most authoritarian regimes are overthrown, they are not replaced by democracies. Moreover, while some democracies, notably those in countries of Eastern Europe like Poland or the Czech Republic as well as the Baltic states arise out of events that could be described as revolutions, most democracies take a very long time to evolve. The American democratic revolution, for example, lasted roughly two centuries beginning with the American Revolution in 1776 which brought independence, followed a few years later by the creation and approval of the U.S. Constitution, and ending when apartheid in the American south was brought to an end with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965. Some other democracies, Germany and Japan, for example, grew out of military defeat, occupation and enormous commitment of resources from other democratic countries.
Citizens and leaders in Eastern Europe cannot be faulted for being worried about Russian policy in the region, particularly given the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. However, there is a danger of several issues being conflated with this fear. The serious concerns about Russia often contribute to a somewhat unfounded fear that the US is going to abandon its allies and principles in Eastern Europe as part of its goal of “resetting” relations with Russia. This fear is not always rational and has not been assuaged by anything President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton or others in the administration have said about the refusal of the U.S. to make any tradeoffs of this kind.
Obama’s decision to stop pursuing this is being described by critics as surrendering to Russia and a sign of the American president’s weakness. When viewed through the narrow lens of competition and machismo, this is not an unreasonable conclusion, but when the lens is expanded to include the actual interests of the U.S. and its allies, things look a little different.