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Sunday
Feb112007

Democracy: dish best served cold

One reason we see growing resistance to globalization's advance is the gnawing sense among many observers that economic integration doesn't rapidly lead to democracy. China successfully opens up to globalization, as does Russia, but neither seems destined to meet our definition of political freedom anytime soon.

When economies open themselves up to globalization's scary makeover, there's also the great chance they'll succumb to its disintegrating impulses. Business guru Ian Bremmer notes in his recent book, "The J Curve," that authoritarian regimes often come apart at the seams when first they truly embrace globalization's broadband connectivity. If survived, the country can ultimately emerge on the far side of that journey far more stable, but that's a big if.

Then there's the complicating factor of America's long war on radical extremism. Democracy is the cure, we are told. Yet it's patently obvious that the vast majority of authoritarian governments most threatened by such extremism would only become further subject to political instability if they attempted a rapid transition to democracy - e.g., radical Islamic parties winning free elections.

It would seem that we face a strategic conundrum in this long war: We know that states most connected to the global economy rank among the freest, and yet encouraging the movement of developing economies toward either goal (connectivity or democracy) places the other goal in deep jeopardy.

So how do we get relatively stable but disconnected nations to embrace globalization while not falling apart and yet somehow move toward political pluralism?

Most countries that completed that journey in the past did so as single-party states. Three good examples are Mexico, South Korea and Japan. For decades, all three presented themselves as multiparty systems, and yet all were dominated - until recently - by a ruling party whose permanently weak opposition played the role of Washington Generals to its Harlem Globetrotters (i.e., the patsy who always makes a game of it but is never allowed to win).

If stable democracy is an outcome of, rather than a means for, successfully embracing globalization, then effective sequencing of change - political, legal, economic - would seem of paramount importance. Here, I think three models are most pertinent.

The most familiar model is that of Asia's "tigers" (e.g., Japan, South Korea, Singapore): Establish a firm legal rule set first, then pursue rapid economic advance through export-driven growth, and once enough wealth is accumulated in a growing middle class, let the political system open up slowly.

With the Soviet Union/Russia, the path has been the exact opposite: a political opening-up, followed by economic liberalization, followed by bureaucratic retrenchment.

Mikhail Gorbachev initiated political change (glasnost) that he hoped would quickly lead to economic revitalization (perestroika). Instead, the U.S.S.R. dissolved as a political union.

Next came Boris Yeltsin as Russia's first truly elected leader. His rapid and widespread privatization policy effectively snipped Moscow's lines of control across the economy. The result was an equally rapid emergence of "gangster capitalism" by which corporate wealth was concentrated in the greedy hands of the so-called oligarchs.

The oligarchs were, in turn, dethroned by Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, in a nakedly aggressive re-nationalization of the economy's commanding heights (extractive and energy industries). Putin's law-and-order leadership reflects the return to power of the Soviet Union's security elite, who now attempt to clone a double of their ruling party as a conveniently pliable opposition (sound familiar?).

China's model plies a third course: Deng Xiaoping chose first to focus on economic liberalization with his four modernizations. When the grassroots democracy movement sprang up in the late 1980s, a political crackdown ensued (the Tiananmen Square massacre), and ever since China's leaders have focused on constructing the country's business rule sets while delaying political liberalization.

All three models suggest that democracy is a dish best served cold - as in, once economic activity with the outside world has been tempered by effective legal rule sets. That takes time, typically a good generation or more.

Americans don't possess a lot of patience and yet that - plus lots of job training - is what our country needs most for managing globalization's many challenges.

Connectivity drives code while unleashing freedom. Giving countries enough time to master the first two (economics, law) makes the third (democracy) not just possible but inevitable.

In this change process, globalization is both contagion and cure, acting as a volatile accelerant of freedom's expansion around the world.

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