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Thursday, June 16

China and the world: Yes, and back again

9:15 AM update: Simon has replied at some length to today's post and with some strong disagreements. For clarity's sake I have posted his reply underneath this one by turning the eBlogger clock back a few minutes. Pundita will respond in tomorrow's post, which will (at least for a time) bring the China Dialogues to a close.

In a second post yesterday (Never Assume) I published Simon's reply to my essay on China and democracy and my clarifications on points he made about the essay. Here, I republish the meat of his reply:

"Democracy is not just about voting; it also requires checks and balances; independent, free and strong institutions (courts, press etc.); rule of law (in both enforcement and legislation by popular acclaim rather than decree); and respect of private property rights.

"If we were to chart countries on these yardsticks you'll find China is currently a mess, with the CCP trying to restrict the first two while implementing the second two. Are they compatible? No. That's the true contradiction at the heart of China. But is it sustainable? I fear it is for far longer than most would suspect."

Now I'll repeat the question from Simon that I quoted in the first post yesterday:

: "...are we witnessing a gradual emergence of an effectively liberal capitalist democracy empire, primarily directed and led by the US?"

My answer is, "It depends on how many governments give up trying to out-talk reality and how fast they give it up."

The Bush Doctrine is a wonderful thing, but it came a little late in the day for humanity. This decade should be called, "Now you tell us?" As example, recently the head of Iranian security announced that the entire government, and in fact everybody in Tehran, needed to be transferred to the city of Isfahan.

Why? Well, because Tehran is built on or right next to a major fault line. Iran is Earthquake Alley anyhow, and Iran is overdue for the Big One. Nope, the buildings are not earthquake proof and in fact they are an example of what could be called shoddy construction. Crooked procurement specialists, crooked contractors, substandard building methods and materials.

To get down to it, the projected number of people to die in an earthquake striking Tehran is 700,000.

Now if you're sitting in China can this affect you? Yes, given China's dependence on oil trade with Iran or at least their heavy investment in Iran's oil business. It's all connected, these days.

Another item: the Middle East is running out of drinking water. The population leapfrogged from 75 million to 300 million. They need something like eight trillion gallons of drinking water a day, and the expense of petroleum is putting massive-scale desalination of sea water out of the question. (The desalination techniques depend on petroleum for their energy.)

It's now a little late in the day to be tackling the problem. And many Arab governments are broke. When you ask the ones with oil wealth what happened to all the oil revenue--well, it's not there.

Another example: The sands of the Gobi desert are chewing up vast tracts of China. When you ask Beijing why they didn't say this was a problem sooner--well, they didn't.

I don't mean to single out the Middle East or China. Everywhere you look these days, governments are clearing their throat and announcing that they have a problem--one they should have mentioned about a decade ago.

Another example: by now Western European governments have noticed that their countries are overrun with millions of illiterate Arabs and Africans who don't speak a European language and who really resent cleaning toilets and emptying garbage for a living.

And there is the 10,000 pound gorilla. I received a letter in response to my recent mention of H5N1; the writer referred to the possibility of a pandemic. I didn't have the heart to reply that it would be a statistical anomaly if there is not a pandemic. In other words, it will be a miracle if the human race dodges this bullet.

How long have we got? Two hours, tomorrow, next year, five years, fifteen minutes from now. And no, a vaccine won't come in time to avert chaos. The strain will be very lethal by all projections--fast killer. And even once the vaccine is developed, the task will be getting it around the globe.

Now we like to think that we're not looking at a Perfect Storm--that a score of disasters will strike nicely spaced apart, giving us time to recover before we have to face the next one. But of course we don't know how events will stack. Yet one thing can be known for certain: the more people who are engaged in their governing process, the more effectively responses to disaster and entrenched societal problems will be mustered.

So Simon tells me that Beijing thinks they can keep the lid on reality for longer than anyone can imagine. For some reason which strains my knowledge of China's history, the Chinese have developed a habit of thinking they can make reality go away by renaming it. Don't call it a labor camp; term it a "reeducation" camp and name it Bluebird of Happiness.

The problem here is that Nature and the intersection of human events don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese. So this presents a problem, if you're trying to talk a galloping desert into being something it isn't.

Simon, I hope you get my drift, if you'll pardon the expression. Sensible Chinese all over the planet must find some way to talk Beijing into letting go of the notion that if 700,000 peasants will only show enough patience, Beijing can Beat the Devil--or Sighing Wind in Pines, if one prefers it that way.

Failure to convince Beijing is not an option. Make it happen, by any which way. How? Directness, as the falcon member of my team is fond of saying, is the best policy. Beijing can put it to the people: "We need to get more of you involved in government. Now we can play this two ways. You can go crazy and crash the country, or you can figure out how to do this in orderly fashion."

But first, some background in the Bush Doctrine is required if one wants to talk sense into Beijing. So let's take a look at where we've come from, and where we are now.

Paul Wolfowitz and Natan Sharansky did not so much influence George W. Bush's thinking as help him articulate it at the level of a doctrine. In 2004 the anonymous Belmont Club blogger wrote an essay, Pro and Contra, which for the first time analyzed the Jacques Chirac or 'Brussels' school of geopolitics against the emerging school represented by the ideas of Sharansky, Bush and Wolfowitz. In two paragraphs, the blogger accomplished what no one (to my knowledge) had managed to do:

He brought the central flaw of the era of globalization into focus and showed that it was cutting civilization off at the knees. Here are the key passages:
History may remember Jacques Chirac as one of the most prolific institution builders of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The European Union and the United Nations are but some of the multilateral projects he sought to strengthen in the belief they would serve as a prototype for the future ordering of the world.

Wolfowitz's vision seems altogether more complex. He seems unwilling to speak of institutions outside the context of empowerment, as if to speak of instruments of governance without freedoms was tantamount to prescribing tyranny. Their difference of opinion may be rooted, not so much in an argument over bureaucratic arrangements, but in their view of the nature of man himself.
". . .as if to speak of instruments of governance without freedoms is tantamount to prescribing tyranny."

With those words the writer nails the essence of the argument. If modern civilization is built on the concept of an alliance of cooperative nations, tyranny can easily present itself as on equal footing with democracy, merely by making an appearance of cooperation!

That is exactly what happened over the course of the post-World War Two era. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations raised up in the manner of a Phoenix to guide the world out of the ruins of a catastrophic global war.

The new world order would be built not on trade, but on managed trade, on the principles of economics and sound banking practices applied to a system of international cooperation. Then along came the Cold War, and the realities of governments led by despots who wanted to join the new order, at the level of trade, but did not want to share power with the people they ruled.

Let's see where all this was headed on the morning of September 11, 2001. The Belmont Club blogger quotes Chirac as arguing for a new world order based on multi-polarity:
That of an order based on respect for international law and the empowerment of the world's new poles by fully and wholly involving them in the decision-making mechanisms.

"Only this path," [Chirac] added, "is likely to establish a stable, legitimate and accepted order in the long run."

The new "poles" [Chirac] spoke of are the emerging regional powers of the new century, including Europe, China, India and Brazil. . .

"It is by recognising the new reality of a multi-polar and interdependent world that we will succeed in building a sounder and fairer international order. This is why we must work together to revive multilateralism, a multilateralism based on a reformed and strengthened United Nations."
With those words, Chirac neatly articulates the ideas that give legitimacy to tyrannies in the modern era. The multi-polar order Chirac envisions is built on regional trading powers, not on the concept of an advanced civilization; i.e., one that does not govern by oppression.

Standing in the dust that had been the World Trade Center, George W. Bush grasped that there is an unacceptably high cost attached to putting oppressive regimes on the same footing as democracies for the sake of international cooperation.

Thus, through a national tragedy, the most powerful man in the world, as the BBC once described him, found himself in an odd kind of agreement with the very protesters who hop up and down outside the G8 and IMF-World Bank annual meetings.

Mr Bush can't be described as anti-globalist, but the leader of the world's lone superpower nation was forced to grapple with the central complaint of the anti-globalists: to attempt to base civilization on world trade leads to a dystopia. Yet to attempt to base civilization on anything else, in the era when multitudes of widely varying cultures must interact with each other in reasonably civilized fashion, raises the question: if not on the foundation of trade, then what?

Whether one agrees with him or not, Bush named "freedom from oppression" as the foundation.

One thing that immediately derived from the Bush Doctrine is that scholars, philosophers, and wonks the world over went to Seventh Heaven at the thought of all the questions the doctrine raises. And even despots--unused to arguing about the nature of Man in order to justify their existence--have been forced to a philosophical bent. This, in the attempt to defend their right to rule with an iron fist.

Debates continue to rage over whether Bush is right and whether the United States should export democracy--genuine democracy. And if so, how? To what lengths should the American government go to implement Bush's idea of the right course for civilization?

Pundita has remained pretty much aloof from the debates. This is because I approach the Bush Doctrine with knowledge of a trend that has been gathering for years in development policy circles. The trend has been to acknowledge the failure of international organizations to implement good government in less developed countries. This includes the tacit recognition that despotic regimes make bad government. But the hands of the organizations have been tied because their charters prevent them from interfering (directly) in a nation's political course.

Thus, although they don't generally admit it before a microphone, the Bush Doctrine is an idea whose time has come. However, there are huge questions about implementation, as the debates indicate. The course seems set to use a combination carrot and stick approach, and encourage governments to implement democracy reforms within a "try your best" margin: give indication of how you will reform the judicial system, deal with corruption, do a better job of collecting taxes, encourage more freedom of expression, and so on.

It's going to be slow work with many setbacks, but there will be a snowball effect at some point. One of the biggest problems with instituting reforms is that often nobody wants to try, unless everyone is trying. That's because if you go after corruption in one country, the gangs simply move next door. If you agree to fair elections, a neighboring enemy country will send in people to stuff the ballot boxes, or terror armies will sweep the polls.

Yet if everyone sees everyone else more or less on the same page, this gives impetus for everyone in a region to try harder with reforms.

In short, once people put their mind to something and work at it, progress happens. But this is a long journey, and different cultures must join it in their own way. What are the roadblocks? Natural disasters, and the sheer volume of problems that built over the course of bad government in so many countries.

Which returns me to the need for sensible people everywhere to start talking as much sense as possible to their government, including the one in Beijing. What's important is not the word 'democracy;' what's important are the ideas behind it, and the truth that democracy makes for the best form of government in the age of megapopulations. So the task is to find a way to translate the same universal ideas which Bush sketched into one's own language and cultural referents.

Our parents' generation got us this far. They did the best they could. Now it's our turn to keep the human race lurching along. This time around, we need all hands on deck. There's no use bemoaning the shipwrecks of bad government. One must take the position that to be human is to err -- but work fast, very fast, to correct the most glaring errors.

How much time have we got? I am reminded of a nursery rhyme:

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten
Can you get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again

Time is what one makes of it, when the heart is fully engaged. Can one build foreign policy and good government around that observation? Let me put it this way: we'd better well try.
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