Libera Est Carthago?

(That’s probably atrocious Latin – so sue me; I went to a Jewish school.)

I see that while our server was down, Josef Joffe wrote the piece I was planning to write about recent events in Tunisia.

So, since he took that side of the argument away from me, I’ll switch sides.

Tunisia is, indeed, exceptional in the Arab world, with a higher per-capita income than almost any other non-petro state (Lebanon beats it by a nose), a relatively high rate of urbanization, and the second-lowest total fertility rate in the Muslim world (after Albania, both well below replacement). It’s also exceptional in the degree of its integration with Western Europe, somewhat comparable to Turkey without the vast Anatolian hinterland.

But I’m still wary of giving in too much to economic-determinist theories of democratization. Not just because any such theory has to cope with extreme outliers like India on the one hand and Singapore on the other, but because most of the new democracies became such in response to specific political circumstances, circumstances that may or may not fit Tunisia – or other Middle Eastern states – particularly well.

Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia all became more democratic after a period of aggressive industrialization and modernization. All these democracies then failed, giving way to revolutionary dictatorships of one for or another. Germany is now a modern democracy. Japan and Italy are modern free societies whose political systems have only just begun to open up from their post-war oligarchic character. Russia’s political system is still in flux, but few would characterize it as a modern democracy or a free society. In all these cases, dramatic economic change made for dramatic and even revolutionary political change. But a stable democratic order depended on an even more radical change in their positions in the international political order – first subjugation to and then alliance with the United States.

For the Southern and Eastern European states that democratized in (respectively) the 1970s and 1990s, democratization went hand in hand with fully joining the western “club” – NATO and the European Union. This was not preordained. In an alternate universe in which Western Europe was not united, but continued to be plagued by war, one could imagine a post-cold-war Hungary or a post-cold-war Poland under populist and nationalist regimes aiming to recapture lost territories (in Romania or in Belarus) and lost glory. In other words, they could have turned out like Serbia and Georgia. It’s hard for me to believe that economic or demographic factors were determinative of a more liberal result.

For the East Asian states that democratized in the 1980s, similarly, the international political context was important. South Korea and the Philippines were important American allies, and the United States strongly supported the authoritarian rulers of both countries – until it didn’t. The United States supported President Chun in his violent confrontation with widespread popular protests in 1980 – and Chun was able to effectively suppress those protests. By 1987, both the domestic and the international political context was very different, and the next transition of power in South Korea was also a transition to a new political regime. I find it very hard to believe that the key difference was the development of a stronger middle class between 1980 and 1987. Rather, the major change was in the tenor of the Cold War. In 1980, the context was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, and the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1987, the context was the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” – and the impending 1988 Olympics. Important context as well was the fall of Ferdinand Marcos only the year before, an abdication that was facilitated by his former American patrons. As with South Korea, it’s hard for me to believe that economic determinism was crucial. Among other things, while South Korea already met the “Huntington test” in 1980, the Philippines still has not met that test today.

South Korea did not have a long history of democratic traditions prior to 1987, and plenty of other currently democratic countries didn’t either; these things can be built. South Korea’s transition was the result of a divided opposition (which let the old regime’s candidate win), a determination by the old regime to permit a truly free election (which resulted in a loss the next time – and prison time for members of the old regime), and a sponsoring great power (the U.S.) that did not obstruct that transition process. If Tunisia progresses from its current turmoil to a more-or-less stable liberal democratic order, that will probably be the result of good decisionmaking on the part of the opposition, the old regime, and influential outsiders – by which I mean France, primarily.

As for whether Tunisia could be a “template” for other countries in the region, I’m really not sure what that means. That Egyptians or Algerians will rise up en masse against their own corrupt dictatorial regimes? That could happen, but if it does it strikes me as very unlikely that Tunisia will be the spark – the precipitate cause would have to be something domestic, something actually involving their own governments. That such uprisings will be successful (assuming that Tunisia’s ultimately turns out to be)? I don’t see why in principle they couldn’t be. Compared to the Philippines, Egypt is wealthier, has a stronger national identity, a more developed political culture – it’s not clear on what Huntingtonian metric the Phlilippines is a better candidate for being a democracy than is Egypt. But there are two very plausible reasons why Egypt, for example, could fail to follow Tunisia’s “lead” if that means anything. First, it’s not clear that a liberal democracy is what a hypothetical mass Egyptian opposition would seek to create. That’s not what emerged from the Iranian revolution, after all. Of course, our perceptions on this matter may be incorrect. Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is not antithetical to Egyptian democracy; India, Japan and Finland, after all, are all democracies, but their political cultures are rather different the one from the other. But our perceptions are the second factor. The American government is very unlikely to trust that an any popular Egyptian uprising would not lead to an Iranian scenario. Our lack of trust will, in turn, affect the behavior of the Mubarak regime in any such hypothetical scenario. He will know that we are not willing to see him go if the alternative is an Islamic state. And that, in turn, gives him more freedom of action.

In other words: the international political context matters. The United States’ willingness to see Ferdinand Marcos go was crucial to his departure, and that willingness was an expression of confidence – confidence that the end to the Marcos regime would not mean a pro-Communist Philippines. That confidence, in turn, was in part the result of changes in the larger dynamic of the Cold War. So if you want to see greater democratization in the Arab world, the crucial change in political context has to be less concern in the West about the rise of political Islam.

One final point. Just because a country democratizes – has regular, basically clean elections, with transitions of power that are not marked by violence, resulting in governments that are generally accepted as legitimate by the people governed – doesn’t mean the government that results will be terribly functional. Take the Philippines, for instance. But take, as well, much wealthier countries like Italy and Greece. The case for democracy is not that it is synonymous with good government, but that it is a more reliable means of avoiding atrocious government than any other system. And on that score I think it stands up pretty well, across a wide variety of cultures and in a wide variety of different economic circumstances.