Russian flag behind barbed wire against cloudy sky

President Biden, from the outset of this administration, has articulated a vision of a 21st century world divided between two adversarial systems — democracies and autocracies. It is very reminiscent of the early Cold War when Truman and Eisenhower described an existential struggle between communism and the free world. Contemporary strategic fault lines look much as they did then; Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China versus the democracies of Europe and North America. Observers have a right to be skeptical. History does not usually replicate itself so neatly and broad brush categories like autocracy and democracy often conceal more than they reveal.

Yet, to a remarkable degree, the principal actors on the international stage have taken the places and assumed the roles that Biden describes. Even more striking, the world’s principal autocracies — Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — while fearsome in their willingness to intimidate, oppress and kill — have revealed serious systemic pathologies and weaknesses.

Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.

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