New Delhi: While Otto von Bismarck and Deng Xiaoping built Germany and China to last, they also left them critically vulnerable in one realm: the transition to democracy, which is the natural order of things. The founders of the United States kept democracy at the core of nation-building because they were disillusioned with the revolutions of Europe, religious wars and the interminable conflicts of monarchies. Nations are supposed to imitate life, seasonal changes, principles of capitalism, etc, with cycles of upswings and downturns but the United States has defied this trend. The twenty-first century was not supposed to be the US century but the United States is going strong. It still leads the world in everything from hard to soft power; the economy, business and finance; capital; innovation, and so on. Like it or not, it is the leader of the world. Most of the world aspires to be the United States. It might marvel at German engineering and the Wirtschaftswunder but Germany’s indelible association with Adolf Hitler and his horrors sticks in the throat. Fanatics on the Right might revere the German past but no decent individual would. China has strictly no following either among democratically-minded people although foreign strongmen may be attracted to authoritarian capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

For all his contribution to the rise of Imperial Germany, Bismarck was rudely thrust aside by Kaiser Wilhelm II in his ascent to power. Lacking Bismarck’s skills in diplomacy and in creating webs of counter-intuitive alliances and partnerships sub-rosa, the Kaiser led Germany to the disastrous First World War. The Kaiser had monumental inferiority complexes regarding Great Britain, his mother’s home country (he also had Oedipus complex), whose doctors he blamed for his father’s death. In the run up to the war, he baited Britain time and again, especially in the Boer uprisings, without in the least advancing Germany’s interests. Bismarck was acutely aware of the Balkan’s reputation as a powder-keg and kept Germany at arm’s length from the regular disturbances there leaving its control to Austria. The Kaiser, however, walked into the same Balkans’ trap eyes wide shut. Historians have blamed Bismarck for making Germany too strong too soon without leaving a leadership chain trained to contain German nationalism. It finally produced Hitler who ruined Germany.

Deng Xiaoping could be faulted on similar lines although he had the luxury of choosing a few leaders to continue his political and economic legacies, the last of who, Xi Jinping, proclaimed himself president-for-life. Like Bismarck, Deng had no bias for democracy. He ordered the Tiananmen Square crackdown and suffered no misgivings to the end of his life for the bloodshed caused. Like Bismarck again, he believed in rise by stealth, while his economic pragmatism was all his own: colour-neutral cats proficiently catching mice. Deng’s China survived the Cold War intact but the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bitter-sweet experience. It was sweet because China had collaborated with the United States to bring down the Soviet Union. It was bitter at the same time because Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost powerfully moved Tiananmen Square protesters to demand political openness leading to their massacre. Nineteen eighty-nine was a terrible year for world Marxism and China but China’s real nightmare has just begun. The trade war prosecuted by Donald Trump has hit at the very vitals of China and the recent Hong Kong protests against extending mainland Chinese deportation laws to the special administrative region have sent communist rulers into a panic that democratic aspirations may be more deeply embedded in Chinese psyche than they assumed. Deng thought he could privilege wealth-creation by suppressing democracy. He might yet be shocked beyond the grave.

Otto von Bismarck and Deng Xiaoping’s critical failures have not alerted strongmen in other countries that democracy often has a way of rendering awry “the best laid plans of men and mice”. Nations have lives extending to thousands of years. Strongmen in ten or twenty years of rule hubristically assume they have conquered the world and made their nations indomitable. They see the nation and their own self as one and the same. History has no place for narcissism. History has proved them wrong in their own lifetime or in successive decades. A nation that is not at peace with itself or with its neighbours has an unsettled future and all the propaganda of strongmen and their regimes would not make it otherwise. Strongmen are strongmen whether they come to power through violence and bloodshed or through mind-warping election strategies that turn voters into programmed robots. Hitler came to power through elections and even rigged supermajorities could not satisfy his millenarian lust in the end. He left Germany in ruin. That will be the fate of all nations that prefer strongmen to liberal democracy and hyper-nationalism to social peace and stability and a peaceful neighbourhood.