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Biggest Story of 2011: Arab Spring or Fall of Democratic Stability?

The U.S. Capitol. Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

As the weighty foreign policy journals weigh in with their year-end editions, there’s a surprising result: far less about the implications of the Arab Spring and more about the economic and political threats to the liberal democratic order that was created in the wake of World War II. In other words, as much about globalization and the fate of the middle class in the United States and Europe as with big strategic thinking, even after a year that saw much of the Middle East in tumult.

And out of all the prose, one set of numbers jumps out, courtesy of Georgetown University professor and former State Department official Charles Kupchan. Facebook, with an estimated value of $70 billion, employs 2,200 people. General Motors, with an estimated value of $35 billion, employs 77,000 in the United States and 208,000 worldwide.

As Kupchan observes, “The wealth of the United States’ cutting-edge companies is not trickling down to the middle class.”

Kupchan’s article was one of several on this theme in Foreign Affairs, the weightiest of the journals. Editor Gideon Rose describes the challenge for Western governments and societies: “The postwar order of of mutually supporting liberal democracies with mixed economies solved the central challenge of modernity, reconciling democracy and capitalism. The task now is getting the system back into shape.”

And that theme is taken up in articles by Kupchan, as well as Francis Fukuyama, who argues that despite an upsurge of anger against capitalism and Wall Street, populism has surged not on the left but on the right, in the Tea Party movement in the United States and various right-wing populist parties in Europe.

“The left has not been able to make a plausible case for an agenda other than a return to an unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy” and a misplaced infatuation with a host of fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus, Fukuyama argues.

But even in the focus on economics, many of the year-end articles in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere come back to China’s ascendance and whether it will provide a convincing alternative to Western liberal democracy.

One debate being waged is between another Kupchan piece, in Democracy, which centers on revitalizing Europe and U.S.-European ties, and a counterpoint from Steve Clemons of The Atlantic group, arguing that the focus has to be on China and Asia. These two activist-intellectuals, both highly visible in the Washington talk circuit, set out some basic arguments that will be played out in the coming years, even if they are not being voiced in the current political campaign.

But the Mideast is not totally forgotten, especially in the editorial debut of journalist and author Robert Merry at the helm of The National Interest, the bible of what it would call the “realist” school of U.S. foreign policy.

The lead article, “Triumph of the New Wilsonianism,” by Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh argues that the Obama administration has put realism behind idealism, and revolutionaries ahead of longtime American allies in the Middle East, as it tries to stay ahead of the wave of the Arab Spring.

Based on the Libya model, which involved limited air power and no ground troops, the writers predict more humanitarian-driven interventions even as this administration winds down the military engagements of its predecessor.

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