Serious Reading of Current Events

One of my goals this year is to spend more time reading serious, thoughtful analysis of current affairs and less “news.” The idea is that while day-to-day stories may change, the essential nature of the current world doesn’t, and deeper thinking about the bigger issues of the day will actually be much more edifying than keeping up with the latest twists and turns of the U.S. Congress or the Euro-zone. With this in mind I recently read Voting Against Freedom by Joshua Kucera at the Wilson Quarterly.

Kucera’s basic premise is that if people had paid attention to how former Soviet Block nations responded to the fall of the U.S.S.R. they would not have been so quick to be cheerleaders for the “Arab Spring”. He makes an excellent case. He points out the fact that even though many of these countries could have gone the democratic route they did not. More importantly, they don’t see this as a failing of their respective nations.

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project have found that the percentages of Lithuanians, Russians, and Ukrainians who believe that a “strong leader” is preferable to a democratic government have risen significantly over the past 20 years. A survey last year of 10 ex-Soviet states by the Russian research institute Integration found that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is even more popular in other parts of the former Soviet Union than in Russia itself. “People want a strong hand, stability, growth, and prosperity,” explained the institute’s director, Sergei Moroz.

As a long-established democracy (really a republic, but for the purposes of this argument democracy works) we in the U.S., and to a lesser degree Europe, tend to paper over how messy a democracy is. Many countries who have ousted former dictators through protest and revolution do not want more chaos. They crave stability, and the best way to achieve stability is through a benevolent strongman. To illustrate the point he convincingly contrasts Kyrgyzstan, widely described as an island of democracy in the former Soviet Block, to Kazakhstan which is still ruled by the same man who was in control in 1991. Needles to say Kazakhstan is stable, with a growing middle class while Kyrgyzstan struggles with various factions all trying to vie for power resulting in a lot of legislative chaos. 

When these nations look for societal models to copy they do not look to democracy and the west. After all, the closest democracy geographically is India, and it is anything but a glowing example of modernity and prosperity. A much brighter light is given off by the likes of Singapore, where a strong handed Communistic government is ushering in modernity. It isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it is stable (for the moment) and one can see the appeal to nations trying to rebuild. When they look at democracy they do not see a path to prosperity.

Sean Roberts, an anthropologist and Central Asia specialist at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, writes that “most citizens of Kazakhstan, and perhaps most post-Soviet peoples outside the Baltic states, engage the concept of democracy much as they embraced communism before—as a mostly empty ideological framework to facilitate deference to the authority and power of the state, not as a system of formal institutions that can effectively represent people’s interests and make governance more successful in serving the people.” Roberts further observes that “if many Americans saw in the end of the Cold War the victory of American ideals, per [Francis] Fukuyama’s ‘end of history,’ most former Soviet citizens viewed it more as an ‘end of ideology,’ or a sign that grand ideals are essentially incompatible with the realities of life.

To return to the main point of this post, why, as Egypt and the rest of the Middle East was rioting in the streets, did the U.S. and Europe cheer them on as if a wave of democratic reforms were all but assured? We had a perfect model to look to that was only 20 years in the past- hardly ancient history. In fact to countries in the old Soviet Block “the Arab Spring was seen from the beginning more as an outbreak of chaos and Islamist extremism.” Surely this view was not hidden away. Did scholars, pundits and thinkers from these nations not share these opinions? Why did no one listen?

Rather than listen to the pundits on CNN or the opinion makers at The Washington Post, we should be looking to recent history and global scholarship when trying to analyse current events.