Dr. Stephen Hanson, vice provost for international affairs and director of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary, is a scholar with the big picture in mind.
A graduate of Harvard University with a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, he is the author of a groundbreaking book on post-imperial democracies. He is also co-author of several books dealing with post-communist rule and of numerous academic papers on the subject.
Hanson is in the midst of writing a book analyzing what 25 years of post-Soviet change can teach us.
In his recent scholarly article on this topic in the journal Perspective on Politics, Hanson writes, “The twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR naturally provokes us to reflect on the course of Eurasian and world history in the post-communist era. Upon closer examination, however, it is not clear what significance the precise time span of two and a half decades has for the scientific study of political and institutional change.”
Hanson explains there are good scientific reasons for taking stock of institutional outcomes in the post-communist region at this historical juncture. It is increasingly clear, he writes, that the post-communist period marked a distinct historical epoch within which the main trends were toward the consolidation of liberal capitalism in the most advantageously positioned countries of East-Central Europe in the context of the global dominance of a hegemonic liberal power, the United States.
But by the autumn of 2016, he notes, all signs pointed to a decisive shift away from hegemonic liberal globalization, and toward the re-emergence of a multipolar world dominated by various forms of popular nationalism.
According to Hanson, many scholars have observed that, as of 2016, there had been a fairly clear geographic distribution of regime outcomes in East-Central Europe and Eurasia since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. There was a sharp difference between the relatively successful institutionalization of essentially liberal democratic capitalism in East-Central Europe and the Baltic States, versus the hegemony of non-democratic, personalistic politics in the rest of the former Soviet Union.
“Theories predicting that a relatively rapid “transition to democracy” throughout the post-communist world could be attained as a result of careful “crafting “of constitutions by post-communist elites, or asserting that the legacies of communism would play a less important role in regime change than the functional “imperatives of liberalization” were apparently wrong,” Hanson asserts.
He quotes a Weberian evolutionary view of institutional change that allows some confidence about certain key lessons of the past 25 years. As the European Union lurches from crisis to crisis, and its expansion to the east comes to a grinding halt, the attractiveness of “joining Europe” loses its appeal, even for idealistic youth.
“Unless political actors emerge who can articulate creative new conceptions of social closure with an affinity for civic tolerance and rational legal proceduralism, then, the early signs of breakdown in post-communist democracies such as Poland and Hungary may portend a much more widespread collapse of liberal democratic regimes – not only in East-Central Europe, but throughout the European Union,” Hanson states.
In his view, in the former Soviet Union, social disgust with corruption and patronal politics may not in the short run be enough to galvanize collective action to establish any enduring alternative post-Soviet regime type.
“Weberian evolutionary theory thus predicts with high certainty that the next quarter-century of change in Eurasia, and elsewhere, will prove to be every bit as turbulent as the period we are reviewing now – if not more so,” Hanson concludes.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.