When Eastern Europe emerged from the dark oppressive cloud of history in 1989, Western proponents of liberal democracy could be excused for their elation. Their cause had won a bitter ideological struggle with Communism. History appeared to vindicate the notion that democratically elected governments presiding over free-market economies delivered such an unprecedented combination of prosperity and freedom that everyone, in due course, would want to join. Freedom's march appeared irresistible, especially because, in general, authoritarianism and poverty also marched together.
There were a few exceptions to this apparently iron-clad law of causality but they were accidents of history and geography. Singapore was prosperous but not very free and certainly not democratic. Nor were the Gulf monarchies, where the enormous natural wealth available to the state explained the ability of their authoritarian rulers to deliver economically. Besides, their economies produced little else but hydrocarbons, and once oil and gas were taken out of the equation, many argued, the explosive cocktail of political oppression and economic deprivation was still there.
Fast forward to 2012 and the picture is dramatically different. First, China is making the Singapore exception somewhat harder to ignore. Second, Singapore look-alikes are emerging in the Gulf, where benevolent despots preside over increasingly diversified and successful economies.
Meanwhile, in Europe an even more worrying trend is challenging the belief that political freedom fosters prosperity.