December 28, 2011


The Future of History (Francis Fukuyama, January/February 2012, Foreign Affairs)

There is today a broad global consensus about the legitimacy, at least in principle, of liberal democracy. In the words of the economist Amartya Sen, "While democracy is not yet universally practiced, nor indeed uniformly accepted, in the general climate of world opinion, democratic governance has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right." It is most broadly accepted in countries that have reached a level of material prosperity sufficient to allow a majority of their citizens to think of themselves as middle class, which is why there tends to be a correlation between high levels of ­development and stable democracy.

Some societies, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, reject liberal democracy in favor of a form of Islamic theocracy. Yet these regimes are developmental dead ends, kept alive only because they sit atop vast pools of oil. There was at one time a large Arab exception to the third wave, but the Arab Spring has shown that Arab publics can be mobilized against dictatorship just as readily as those in Eastern Europe and Latin America were. This does not of course mean that the path to a well-functioning democracy will be easy or straightforward in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya, but it does suggest that the desire for ­political freedom and participation is not a cultural peculiarity of Europeans and Americans.

The single most serious challenge to liberal democracy in the world today comes from China, which has combined authoritarian government with a partially marketized economy. China is heir to a long and proud tradition of high-quality bureaucratic government, one that stretches back over two millennia. Its leaders have managed a hugely complex transition from a centralized, Soviet-style planned economy to a dynamic open one and have done so with remarkable competence -- more competence, frankly, than U.S. leaders have shown in the management of their own macroeconomic policy recently. Many people currently admire the Chinese system not just for its economic record but also because it can make large, complex decisions quickly, compared with the agonizing policy paralysis that has struck both the United States and Europe in the past few years. Especially since the recent financial crisis, the Chinese themselves have begun touting the "China model" as an alternative to liberal democracy.

This model is unlikely to ever become a serious alternative to liberal democracy in regions outside East Asia, however. In the first place, the model is culturally specific: the Chinese government is built around a long tradition of meritocratic recruitment, civil service examinations, a high emphasis on education, and deference to technocratic authority. Few developing countries can hope to emulate this model; those that have, such as Singapore and South Korea (at least in an earlier period), were already within the Chinese cultural zone. The Chinese themselves are skeptical about whether their model can be exported; the so-called Beijing consensus is a Western invention, not a Chinese one.

It is also unclear whether the model can be sustained. Neither export-driven growth nor the top-down approach to decision-making will continue to yield good results forever. The fact that the Chinese government would not permit open discussion of the disastrous high-speed rail accident last summer and could not bring the Railway Ministry responsible for it to heel suggests that there are other time bombs hidden behind the façade of efficient decision-making.

Finally, China faces a great moral vulnerability down the road. The Chinese government does not force its officials to respect the basic dignity of its citizens. Every week, there are new protests about land seizures, environmental violations, or gross corruption on the part of some official. While the country is growing rapidly, these abuses can be swept under the carpet. But rapid growth will not continue forever, and the government will have to pay a price in pent-up anger. The regime no longer has any guiding ideal around which it is organized; it is run by a Communist Party supposedly committed to equality that presides over a society marked by dramatic and growing inequality.

So the stability of the Chinese system can in no way be taken for granted. The Chinese government argues that its ­citizens are culturally different and will always prefer benevolent, growth-promoting dictatorship to a messy democracy that threatens social stability. But it is unlikely that a spreading middle class will behave all that differently in China from the way it has behaved in other parts of the world. Other authoritarian regimes may be trying to emulate China's success, but there is little chance that much of the world will look like today's China 50 years down the road.

There is a broad correlation among economic growth, social change, and the hegemony of liberal democratic ideology in the world today. And at the moment, no plausible rival ideology looms. 

...when folks were assuring us that W was a fool for believing in the Arab yearning for democracy? Why, even Mr. Fukuyama blinked:

In "The Neoconservative Moment," Fukuyama turns a heat lamp on the cogitations of one thinker in particular, Charles Krauthammer, whose "strategic thinking has become emblematic" of the neo-conservative camp that envisaged the Iraq invasion. Krauthammer, one of the war's most vociferous advocates, had somewhat famously fancied the end of the cold war as a "unipolar moment" in geopolitics - which, by 2002, he was calling a "unipolar era." In February 2004 Krauthammer delivered an address at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington in which he offered a strident defense of the Iraq war in terms of his concept of unipolarity, or what he now calls "democratic realism."

Fukuyama was in the audience that evening and did not like what he heard.

Krauthammer's speech was "strangely disconnected from reality," Fukuyama wrote in "The Neoconservative Moment." "Reading Krauthammer, one gets the impression that the Iraq War - the archetypical application of American unipolarity - had been an unqualified success, with all of the assumptions and expectations on which the war had been based fully vindicated." "There is not the slightest nod" in Krauthammer's exposition "towards the new empirical facts" that have come to light over the course of the occupation.

Fukuyama's case against Krauthammer's - and thus the dominant neo-conservative - position on Iraq is manifold.

Krauthammer's logic, Fukuyama argues, is "utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world." "Of all of the different views that have now come to be associated with neoconservatives, the strangest one to me was the confidence that the United States could transform Iraq into a Western-style democracy," he wrote, "and to go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East."

This struck Fukuyama as strange, he explained, "precisely because these same neoconservatives had spent much of the past generation warning...about the dangers of ambitious social engineering, and how social planners could never control behavior or deal with unanticipated consequences." If the US can't eradicate poverty at home or improve its own education system, he asked, "how does it expect to bring democracy to a part of the world that has stubbornly resisted it and is virulently anti-American to boot?"

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Posted by at December 28, 2011 6:51 AM

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