Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Illusion of Democracy

US can’t bulldoze democracy into unready soil

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Islamic conservatism, as practised in Saudi Arabia and most Muslim countries, and nationalistic authoritarianism successfully exemplified by China and Russia, are the two powerful alternatives to democracy as political organising principles. Spreading democracy is a worthy goal but the US has to face complex challenges in this interdependent world, challenges that would compel policymakers, Democrats and Republicans, to act as pragmatist idealists.

Both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama are gradually moving in that direction as they consider global threats: terrorism, failing states, soaring oil prices, nuclear weapons proliferation and environmental degradation. A “league of democracies”, as Mr McCain has described it, is not enough to solve global problems. Consider the present actualities. China has been growing at the rate of 8-9 per cent for the past two decades or so and is expected to become a powerful economic and military force, almost a superpower, in the coming decades. Since authoritarian rule has not held China back from growing at a dizzying rate, it is quite sensible to ask: How could China do so much in such a short time without freedom and civil liberties?

In a speech at the Hoover Institution on US foreign policy at Stanford University in Stanford, California, Mr McCain said about China that “despite miraculous economic growth and a higher standard of living for many millions of Chinese, hopes for an accompanying political reform have diminished. The ruling party seems determined to dominate political life, and as in the past, the talk is of order, not democracy, the supremacy of the party not of the people”.

Perhaps the Chinese people by and large don’t care for democracy; nonetheless, the US has no choice but to deal with China for commercial and diplomatic reasons.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Japanese-American scholar, Mr Francis Fukuyama, gloated that it was nothing but “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
You can see the bonfires of such scholarly predictions all around.

The end of communism brought about a sense of misplaced euphoria, a massive illusion: this is the final triumph of democracy. But freedom did not happen in Russia after the Soviet Union disintegrated; and it did not happen in China in spite of rapid economic growth and broadening prosperity under state-controlled market capitalism couched in fervid nationalism.

The raging Beijing Olympic fever is about nationalism, not democracy and freedom. It is a corporate-hitched global propaganda about China rising under authoritarianism, not a new chapter on freedom and democracy.

Freedom did not spring like a long-awaited spring after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact worldwide authoritarianism has increased. China has no doubt ceased to be an immediate threat since its economic growth has become increasingly tied up with search for energy and other raw materials, foreign direct investment, and exports, especially to Europe and the US.

Today China, paradoxically, is the US’s biggest foreign lender; and so, no wonder, human rights concerns, including Tibet, have ceased to be an issue in US-China relations. Whenever US trade officials visit China, they urge China to spend more on consumer goods and raise the value of its currency; they seldom mention democracy or Tibetan human rights.

For China, consuming what they manufacture is more important than political freedom. Democracy has not been rising in the Muslim-Arab world, where authoritarianism holds sway. Between the US and Saudi Arabia and other seemingly pro-American Muslim-Arab countries in the region, where fundamentalism has a large appeal, human rights and freedom are never a hot-button issue. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the US leveraged financial and military aid to make Pakistan an ally against Taliban and Al-Qaida terrorism.

And to maintain its hold over Pakistan, the US muffled the issue of even the black-marketing of nuclear technology by one of the world’s most notorious scientists, Mr AQ Khan, who recently implicated the Pakistan military in his nuclear wheeling and dealing.President Pervez Musharraf might have receded in the background because of the recent popular upsurge, but the military still rules the land. And the Taliban exercise control over a crucial border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US cannot give up the realpolitik of dealing with non-democratic regimes, such as North Korea, regardless of its messianic fervour of spreading freedom universally. The song and dance of freedom and liberty seems to be a posture of public diplomacy for winning the hearts and minds of the Arab-Muslim world after its ruinous post-Iraq war handling of insurgency.

There is no gainsaying the fact the US remains vulnerable to terrorism so long as tyranny and the ideology of hate prevail abroad and for which, some experts believe, there’s no other solution except to expand the democratic form of government and its freedoms. But Arab/Muslims look at China, where 1.3 billion people work day and night to make goods for the entire world without much concern about freedom.

The US cannot bulldoze democracy into any country.

Elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq raised some hope that eventually a sharing of power might bring about the beginning of democratic law and order. But freedom to vote is not enough because it does not mean the end of violence, poverty and unemployment, which provide fertile ground for more terrorism.

Look at Zimbabwe’s President, Mr Robert Mugabe, who told the world at the recent African Union forum to go to hell. Mr Mugabe looks to China, not the US or South Africa.

The rhetoric of democracy must include economic aid, including preferential trade for poor countries that have been making valiant efforts to grow economically and control terrorism at the same time. Instead of crouching toward China or Russia as a model, they should look to the US. That is the biggest challenge for US international diplomacy and the next President.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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