Guest Column: What the Middle East needs is order

“Men may have order without liberty, but they cannot have liberty without order,” Samuel Huntington wrote in his seminal work, Political Order in Changing Societies. “The primary problem is not liberty but the creation of a legitimate public order. Authority has to exist before it can be limited, and it is authority that is in scarce supply … where government is at the mercy of alienated intellectuals, rambunctious colonels, [or] rioting students.”

Huntington’s insight is every bit as relevant today as it was when he wrote this in 1968. In the Middle East, substitute terrorist hit squads like Hamas for alienated intellectuals, malevolent al-Qaeda fanatics for rambunctious colonels, and suicide bombers for rioting students. It all boils down to the inability of Arab countries to create “legitimate public order.”

Neocons in Washington will have none of this. What’s uppermost in their minds is elections, free speech, and the transplantation of American-style democracy. Democracy has to come first. They think that only after a democratic system of government is in place can people create the institutions necessary to create peace, stability, and public order. Iraq is the current poster child for this theory.

But half a century of hard experience in East Asia turns this theory on its head and proves just the opposite. Democracy did not come to the Far East until very late—1989 is typically cited as the turning point. The only exception was the Philippines, still the region’s weakest link and poorest-performing economy, known far and wide as “the sick man of Asia.”

South Korea and Taiwan both lived under a “hard” authoritarian regime for nearly 40 years. In the early stage of development, South Korea was governed for many years by martial law under the tough, virtually autocratic control of Park Chung-hee. Taiwan was ruled for a generation by the iron hand of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, whose Nationalist troops had been defeated by Mao Zedong in China’s civil war and who fled to the island of Formosa with the remnants of his Kuomintang party.

Both countries played pivotal roles in the policy of containment that the United States used as a means of defending East Asia against the expansion of global communism during the Cold War, whether emanating from the Politburo in Moscow or the Central Committee in Beijing.

Japan and Singapore each developed a democratic tradition before 1989, of course, but it was more a version of “soft” authoritarianism unique to their respective culture, geography, and history. A single political party, the Liberal Democrats, dominated Japanese politics until the mid-1990s, with voters choosing mostly among LDP candidates for the Lower House. Minor opposition parties, like the Socialists and the Soka Gakkai, an anti-war group that emerged from a lay Buddhist organization, joined the fray as political “static” without ever posing a serious threat to the LDP.

Singapore was ruled from the get-go by Lee Kuan Yew, who negotiated the entrepôt’s independence from Britain in the mid-1950s, was the visionary architect of its secession from the Federation of Malaya, and subsequently controlled the leadership of the People’s Action Party that dominates Singapore’s politics even today.

Until 1997, Hong Kong had been a British Crown Colony for nearly 150 years, ruled by a governor appointed by London. Its only experience with elections was for its Legislative Council, 30 members of which were elected from geographical constituencies and 30 from functional, or professional, constituencies. These “elections” were widely contested by many who held that the functional constituencies were undemocratic because they were too narrowly defined.

Enter the Dragon. China lags behind its East Asian cousins by a generation. Its economic takeoff started in the early 1980s under the Four Modernizations plan conceived by Deng Xiaoping, who led the next generation of leadership after Mao and created the concept of “Socialist capitalism.” Jiang Zemin succeeded Deng as president of China from 1993-2003 and accelerated the market-opening measures that have made China the world’s fastest-growing economy for the past 20 years, all without elections.

Which brings us back to the Huntington principle. Asia’s high-speed economic growth—achieved by China and all the Little Dragons before it—was accomplished under political regimes characterized either by a military dictatorship (Taiwan, South Korea), single-party control (Japan, Singapore), a British colonial administration (Hong Kong), or Socialist capitalism (China).

Demand for a more open, liberal, and democratic political process grew in direct proportion to rising national incomes that were based on rapid economic growth made possible by key public policies consistently applied under stable political conditions that were distinctly undemocratic. Among the most important of these policies (there were about a dozen of them) were non-interference of religion in the affairs of state, development of a rigorous public education system, and a relentless emphasis on higher value-added manufactured goods exports.

Which in turn brings us full circle back to the Middle East, where attempts are being made to transplant democracy in soil that has not yet been adequately prepared. If democracy is to have any chance of taking root in this region, Arab countries must first demonstrate a commitment to the kind of public order that can produce social stability and encourage the creation of strong public institutions (such as rigorous schools, meritocratic government ministries, and visionary executive leadership) that can throttle out-of-control population growth and eliminate irrational interference in public affairs by the imams.

In a word, what the Middle East needs now is benevolent authoritarianism—not the kind of malevolent, autocratic, and repressive dictatorships that have characterized their governments for the past century. Once this transition is made, the transition to democracy may have a chance to succeed. By putting democracy first, Iraq faces the prospect of a devastating civil war.

Order, then liberty. Not the other way around. Empirical results in Asia have conclusively demonstrated this sequence over the past 50 years.

Steven Schlossstein is the author of Endangered Species: Why Muslim Economies Fail (forthcoming).

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

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