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[Park Sang-seek] Implications of Arab democracy for the U.S., China

After an extensive tour of Africa in February 1960, Harold Macmillan, then British Prime Minister, made the famous “wind of change” speech. He said: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

If the term “national consciousness” is replaced by “democratic consciousness,” the same kind of wind is blowing through the Arab deserts. The international community is debating this wind of change from mainly two perspectives: the causes of the revolutionary movements in the Arab states and the contagious effect of these movements. But another important question to explore is how this new wave of democracy will affect the international political order. In concrete terms: Will it consolidate or erode American hegemony? Will it transform China’s political system or enhance its international position?

In order to find answers to these questions, the nature of the new wave of democracy needs to be examined. During the cold war period, the U.S. and the Soviet Union struggled to expand their respective spheres of influence in the Third World. But the Third World was dominated by newly independent states, which developed their own political systems and formed a third bloc (non-aligned movement). The absolute majority of the Third World countries were either one-man civilian or military dictatorships.

Under the circumstances, the U.S. and the Soviet Union compromised their ideological crusades for political domination and supported these non-democratic or non-communist regimes as long as these regimes sided with their respective blocs.

The U.S. sometimes pursued this dualist policy to the extreme and supported anti-communist dictatorial regimes and opposed democratically elected leftist regimes. On the other hand, the Soviet Union supported any kind of dictatorship in the Third World to induce it to support its anti-American crusade.

Third World dictatorships, taking advantage of this superpower rivalry, extracted economic aid and political support from the superpowers while building and consolidating the legitimacy of their rule by indoctrinating their peoples that dictatorship is necessary for national unity and economic development. Then President Richard Nixon candidly declared that white dictatorship was better than red dictatorship, because the former does not last long but the latter does.

In the post-cold war period the Soviet Union’s position is being replaced by China, and the U.S. has been making all-out efforts to maintain the unipolar international order, leading the crude of democratic values, and China has been demanding the reform of the existing international order. China depicts its political system as an alternative model of governance in contrast with Western democracy and the Beijing consensus as an alternative model for the international economic order in contrast with the Bretton Woods system dominated by the U.S. The U.S. has been maintaining basically the same dualistic foreign policy ― crusading for democracy while supporting or tolerating non-democratic regimes that support the U.S. and its allies, particularly Israel.

China, in contrast, has been wooing developing countries, regardless of their political systems, by giving unconditional economic aid and advocating the strict observation of the principle of state sovereignty and putting more emphasis on economic and social rights rather than political and civil rights.

Third World dictatorships, taking advantage of this emerging bipolar system, have been able to maintain their rule. Ideologically, they are closer to China than to the U.S. but some of them maintain a closer relationship with the U.S. for practical reasons. They are beginning to learn that nationalism and anti-colonialism can be no longer the unifying force of the masses and democratic values, particularly political and civil rights and individual sovereignty rather than economic and social rights and national sovereignty have become more attractive to the masses. More importantly, the masses are now no longer illiterate but powerful people equipped with sophisticated knowledge and communication skills.

Harold Macmillan continued to say: “The greatest issue in the second half of the 20th century is whether uncommitted peoples of Asia and Africa will swing to the East or to the West.” In the post-cold war era a similar question can be asked as follows: “The greatest issue in the first half of the 21st century is whether uncommitted peoples of the developing countries will swing to the U.S. or to China.”

The U.S. leadership is divided on the best way to deal with the wind of change in the Arab world. Should it give unconditional support to the democratic revolutions in the developing countries regardless of their impact on American hegemony in the world? The U.S. is worried that new democratic regimes in the developing countries may turn against the U.S. or they may become highly unstable and mired into a civil war, thus disturbing peace and stability in the world.

In the Arab world new democratic regimes may oppose Israel and America’s pro-Israeli policy. China may take advantage of this situation and make great inroads into the American sphere of influence in the developing nations, particularly the Arab world. In view of the fact that the popular revolts in the Arab world were triggered not only by democratic aspiration but also by religious sectarianism and regionalism, such a possibility is high. In fact, peoples in the developing countries seek freedom from want as well as freedom from oppression.

The Chinese leadership is equally uneasy. The wind of democracy may blow into China. It has been much easier for China to deal with non-democratic states for promotion of its national interests, mainly because their interests are often mutually reinforcing. Therefore, the possibility of popular revolts against the communist one-party system in China and the shrinkage of pro-China countries cannot be precluded.

In sum, the wind of change in the Arab world is both boon and bane for the U.S. and China, although in the case of the U.S. foreign policy is greatly affected while in the case of China internal politics is more affected.

Harold Macmillan provided even the solution to the wind of anti-colonialism: “What is now on trial is much more than our military strength or our diplomatic and administrative skill. It is our way of life. The uncommitted nations want to see before they choose.” It is amazing that he advocated soft power rather than hard power half a century ago.

The U.S. can resolve its dilemma in two ways: one is to support democratic regimes unconditionally and the other to continue to pursue a dualistic foreign policy. The first choice requires the abandonment or at least compromise of American hegemony, and the second choice requires the abandonment of the crusade of universal values.

China also has two options to resolve its dilemma: one is to transform the collective communist system into a democratic system and the other to consolidate the existing system. Both options are risky: the first option may retard or disrupt economic prosperity and the second option may invite popular revolt.

After 9/11 the world entered a new era: the transitional period from the unipolar moment to a bipolar or multi-polar world. The winds of change in the Arab deserts have started the fourth wave of democracy and are sending a clearer signal for the end of the unipolar international order.

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University. ― Ed.
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