The WCIT showed that the end of the Cold War was a temporary triumph for democracy. When Russia and China abandoned communism and embraced markets, some expected that they would play by Western "rules," but they do not regard these rules as binding, immutable, or legitimate. International relations are in a period of ambiguity -- not quite great power politics (too much economic interdependence for that), but also not a single, international community sharing similar values and content to accept the United States as its leader.
Fin de siècle ideas about a borderless world where governments would play a lesser role remain strongly embedded in American thinking about the Internet. These old ideas let authoritarian regimes capture the agenda for change. We are past the moment when it appeared that borders would disappear and nation-states would be replaced by an amorphous international community. Far from disappearing, borders and states, after an initial period of decline, are adjusting to and adopting new technologies. The resurgence of sovereignty means governments will extend their laws into cyberspace and create technologies to enforce them, but this resurgence is linked to a troubling trend. This new sovereignty disputes Western values once thought to be universal. There is questioning, if not rejection, of the ideals and institutions for global governance imposed on the world 65 years ago. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put to a vote now, it might not win.
The longstanding U.S. position that an open, free Internet is the best for innovation and growth is no longer persuasive. If it were true, the European Union would be outperforming China. Linking democracy to dubious commercial arguments puts human rights at risk. America needs a more compelling narrative to defend universal values.
That narrative has to be political, more like the Helsinki Accords than Davos. Internet governance is only one part, albeit an important one, of the larger rebalancing of global power. It is also the latest chapter in the struggle for democracy and rule of law. The United States must explain -- in the face of the resurgence of sovereignty, the shift of power away from Europe, and the growing importance of non-Western states -- why democracy remains best for both justice and growth.
Some say that Dubai was a victory for Internet freedom. This is true in the same way that Dunkirk can be considered a victory for escaping defeat. The American negotiators performed admirably given how weak a hand they inherited. But this was no real victory. A contest of ideas explains why a technical discussion turned into a politicized debate. The battle for the WCIT is over. The battle for the Internet has begun, and we need better ideas if we are to win it.