Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, June 29, 2012

More Thoughts on Democracy and Islam

A few weeks back, my colleague Yohanes Sulaiman wrote an interesting piece on the connections between democracy and Islam. If you didn't get a chance to read it, or need a refresher, you can find it here. In this blog post, I'd like to build off of a part of what Yohanes wrote.

I agree with him that Islam and democracy can and does fit together. Democracy, as he wrote, is just an empty vessel waiting for countries to fill it with leaders, institutions, ideologies, and so on. Democracy is flexible and malleable enough to allow for substantial variation from country to country throughout the world. America's democracy looks and operates differently from democracies in, say, france or ghana or japan or Indonesia.

But some in the Muslim world don't think about democracy in these terms. Instead, they are critical of democratic institutions and processes, with a fraction going so far as to undermine, threaten, even at times wage war against the presence democracy in their land. Why? There are a host of possible factors, including religious reasons, fears of americanization, resistance to change, doubts that democracy can improve people's lives, and anger that democracy jeopardizes their political self-interests.

In my view, while we find traces of these attitudes in almost all Muslim democracies, they are more likely to be widespread in partial democracies and democratizing countries--countries where the shape and substance of the political system, is still new, in flux, and possibly contested by competed elites and groups. It is likely less applicable in Muslim countries like Indonesia and Turkey, where the political system has already congealed and people have come to accept it. There, democracy has become routine business.

In partial democracies and democratizing countries, we should not expect a nice, neat division between moderates and radicals, which is the conventional wisdom. This conventional wisdom suggests that good liberal moderates are engaged in a political struggle for civility and modernity with hardened extremists. Rather, over time, I expect that some mainstream civilians (some conservatives, moderates, and centrists), out of disillusionment and/or desperation, will become angry with and deplore democracy, putting them in the same camp ideologically, though not necessarily physically, with the fanatics and zealots.

With this in mind, we need to be careful when demonizing the critics of democracy in Muslim countries. Not all are extremists and radicals and terrorists bent on creating an Islamic caliphate. After all, not all are anti-system, ant-democratic groups and individuals. For instance, quite a few are simply sore losers who know that their place and status in society and access to resources are imperiled in a new democratic political order. Some are disgusted that the new democracy is not adequately or fairly providing political goods to the country. Hence, it's quite possible that the critics do not like democracy as it exists in their country, but could still hold favorable attitudes toward the idea of democracy more generally.

Yes, Yohanes is right: the critics, at least the persuadable ones, need to understand the functions and benefits of democratic systems. If they don't get it, we risk witnessing the political conditions that gives rise to the kinds of nasty consequences, particularly ones that can prevent the state from developing, democratic reforms from sticking and progressing, and the country from remaining unified and cohesive. Just look at the cases of present-day Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan, among others. The very nascent democratic systems in those countries have become a political football and the target of violent attacks.

Yohanes argues that democracy proponents worldwide need to make a better case to Muslims and Muslim countries that democracy is the way to go. This can't hurt, I suppose, but begs a series of questions: who communicates this pro-democracy message? How can they communicate this message? What tools can be used? And would this effort even be effective? Wouldn't they likely be labeled as Western propagandists?

But the overall thrust of Yohanes' point rings true: that democracy critics in Muslim countries have to update their beliefs about the nature of democracy. In the end, this process won't be easy and will take time. At bottom, prolonged experience with the process of democracy is the most probable way that will occur. As experts in social psychology tell us, direct, hands-on experience is a powerful way to cultivate and entrench lessons learned. It can break through distorted beliefs and alter beliefs that are seemingly resistant to change.

Indeed, direct experience can underscore a several important lessons. First, the critics can discover that while they might not have political power today, they can compete and win power in the future. The losers in democratic systems aren't necessarily outsiders forever. Moreover, they are not helpless. Free and open political systems provide an array of opportunities for political outsiders to influence politics. If they get involved in the process, they can voice their concerns and demands. They might be able to foster ties to the governement. The critics can even develop links to democratic countries and pro-democracy groups, which can then put pressure on their own governments to act in ways that they desire.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Democracy and Islam: A Think Piece

 Does Islam fit with democracy? It is one of the most often asked questions and yet probably a very misleading question, leading to more problems and biases.

Why? Considering the crowd to whom the question is often asked, notably the political scientists, religious scholars, and PC crowd, the question usually demands a resounding answer "yes."

Yes, a good Moslem can also be a good democrat.  Yes, Islam is compatible with democracy. 

At the same time, however, in Moslem-majority countries, including those that have experienced the Arab Spring, reactions to democracy have been mixed, ranging from enthusiasm to longing for the good old stable days under authoritarianism. And in extreme cases, democracy is just a stepping stone toward an Islamic caliphate or theocracy, such as in Iran. 

In fact, for some Islamists, democracy is a secular invention, a deviation that circumvents the role of God, causing people to no longer rely on God for their decisions. They also look at the hypocritical conduct of various democratic countries, especially those that have turned a blind eye to the dictatorships in China and the Arabian peninsula while at the same time bombing Libya, threatening Syria, and boycotting Iran.

This worldview thus leads to many dilemmas and questions in various newly democratized Moslem-majority countries. To what degree can people trust the Islamists to respect democracy and the rule of law? Why there are people actually voting to demolish democracy? Why would people cling to dictatorships, even though many have already realized that the autocrats have done nothing beneficial for their countries. Why would extremist Islamists engage in democratic elections, even though they openly disdain the system that they are participating in?

The great hope, of course, is that Moslems of all stripes will see the light, the benefits of democracies, and willingly embrace it.

But some Moslems, including Moslem political elites, see a downside here. In order to reap these so-called benefits, they have to change their interests and values to fit with the ideals of democracy. With this in mind, then, maybe the better question is whether democracy with Islam? 

Perhaps Moslems need to be reminded that in spite of its secular origin, democracy itself is a neutral entity, a method of picking a government and a way to ensure that the government is accountable to the people.

It seems for many scholars, analysts, and pundits, democracy is an "endgame," that by the end of the day, everyone should embrace democracy. The problem, however, is that this normative view makes democracy sound like this "kingdom in the sky," a perfect ending that should not be analyzed critically. But why should people embrace democracy if it also leads to massive corruption, political instability, bad governments, and worse, authoritarianism?

While democracy defenders claim that democracy improves the welfare of people, it should be stressed that this outcome is achieved only if the rule of law is upheld by a strong and capable judiciary and police force. The problem is that newly democratized countries often lack a capable police force and independent judiciary, which can and frequently does lead to internal chaos. A quick glance at Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, reveals the perils: a spike in violence, criminality, gangs, militias, and a general sense of social and political disorder. Quite frankly, it is no wonder people long for the return of good ol' authoritarianism or hope for another kingdom in the sky, a Theocracy, a caliphate, or whatever else.

A competent scholar could argue that authoritarianism strongly limits free speeches, allows ruling elites to act with abandon, promotes injustice and cruelty against citizens, and that all the troubles in newly democratized countries are really traced back to the authoritarianism period. Any good historian could also make a case that a caliphate system would be terrible, considering the experience of the Ottoman Sultanate, where the caliphate crumbled from within, destroyed by inertia, a succession of bad rulers, and an inability to adapt to the new threats and new technological developments from Europe.

Still, the point is that proponents of democracy should try to make a better case in defense of democracy. In short, a democratic system of politics and governance might be flawed, but in the end, it is a superior system to any other than currently exists in practice. Most notably, it can, if done right, coexist with religious beliefs or local systems, not sully or destroy them.

This, then, begs a question: how can democracy be fitted around local political systems, local religious beliefs, varying customs, and a wide of political and social ideas and sensibilities? Given the rise of democracy around the world, as well as the immense struggles of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an issue worth pondering about.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Is China a Great Power?

Most public accounts, especially articles by journalists and pundits, either treat China as a great power or a country well on its way to being one in the near future. The problem is that there has been little public debate about this characterization of china. China's rise to the top is treated more as an assumption rather than something that needs investigation and observation. But is it true?

To answer this question, we need to define (or more accurately, operationalize) the term "great power." In other words, how do we translate the concept "great power" into the real world? How do we know a great power when we see it? Let's take a stab at this subject by looking at several well-known efforts to conceptualize "great power."

Academics typically measure great power status based on relative power capabilities. One straightforward approach is to compute the economic and military power, among other things, of all countries in the international system, based on various numeric indicators, to a get a picture of where power is concentrated in the world. Here, the emphasis is on hard power: the capabilities that can be used to bribe, aid, threaten, and fight others.

Kenneth Waltz suggests an even simpler method. To be considered a great power, a country must be at the top or very close to the top in a battery of indicators of power, all of which touch on a country's technological, economic, political, and military capacity and sophistication. In Waltz's view, a great power can't lag in one category, which makes sense. Think about late 1980s Japan. To be sure, Japan was an emerging economic powerhouse, but its weak military and its foreign policy passivity prevented its climb up the great power ladder. Japan's ineffectual national security apparatus limited the country's influence and doomed it to be follower rather than leader in world politics.

For those of you less interested in data gathering and number crunching and looking more for simple rules of thumb, I have two more options. John Mearsheimer contends that great powers dominate their own regions. They are able to redesign their environments, to varying degrees, to serve their interests. As examples, they carve out spheres of influences and create regional economic and security institutions that enshrine, and often advance, their power and standing in the world. Less dominant, yet still powerful, countries usually face obstacles--both internal and external--that prevent them from from tinkering with their environments. Of particular importance is the presence of other powerful countries in the same region. Such countries--either by themselves or via alliances--can act as effective counterweights to any other member in the region, potentially circumscribing the latter's behavior and limiting its influence and power maximization possibilities.

Here is another approach: does a country look and act like a great power? Is it active in international relations? Does it have its own sphere of influence? Does it frequently set the agenda in the world? Does it seek to expand its interests? This logic follows roughly from the work of Hans Morgenthau, arguably, the father of modern international relations scholarship. Morgenthau posits a one-to-one relationship between state power and interests. Weak countries are usually primarily concerned with what happens inside of and proximate to their borders; much stronger and more powerful countries have the requisite capabilities to be global players. And they usually act as such, when opportunities arise. Great powers, and aspiring great powers, want the respect, prestige, and other perks associated with international dominance. Furthermore, they also realize that it is better to write the rules of international order rather than have those mechanisms foisted upon them.

Unfortunately, a proper and thorough assessment of the above attempts to define "great power" is beyond the scope of this blog post. But here is what we can say: China is the second most powerful country in the world, a rising power, and a potential contender to great power status. China has the second largest economy, it has embarked on a large-scale program to modernize and expand its military and power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, and it has taken the lead in creating green technologies. China has become more assertive in international relations, putting its stamp--in one form or another, and for better and worse--on a host of issues: the world economy, violence in Syria, the transition in power in North Korea, reconstruction in Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, territorial and waterway claims in the South China Sea, and so on. China's lust for new energy resources has led it to complete trade deals in far away places like Africa and South America. Equally important, China is now treated as an emerging great power by the international community. Most notably, worried about the rise of China, under Barack Obama, the U.S. has reoriented its foreign policy by implementing a "pivot" toward Asia.

All of this said, China's continued rise over the long-term is by no means guaranteed. Despite the breathless, practically cheerful, proclamations that the 21st century will be dominated by China, that the sun is setting on America's empire, a post-American world so to speak, there are few good reasons to assume these things will be true. America could once again show its political and economic resilience and vitality by rebounding from a tough last decade. And China has a host of obstacles to overcome. As a result, I am not quite ready to anoint China as the next big thing in international relations. China is still a relatively poor country, lacks the ability to mobilize and project military power into distant lands/waterways, and has not demonstrated the creative and innovative capacity--at least to this point--to be a business hub to the world.

And that's not all. As I wrote last October, I have other concerns:

China's economy could overheat. Its economy can't continue to grow at 10% for the foreseeable future, right? After all, it's an export-led market that depends on a healthy and vibrant U.S. and European economies, China's two largest markets, and both are struggling and expected to struggle for the next several years. Economists have long suspected that the unemployment rates in China are far higher than what Chinese bureaucrats routinely report to the world. Like America and Europe, China also has a debt problem. With the large number of future seniors, China likely has a upcoming workforce problem. Most of the world's most polluted cities, not surprisingly, are in China; attempts to remedy this, according to experts, could cause a 2-3% annual drag on the Chinese economy. The shift to urbanization, the impending move of hundreds of millions of people, won't be easy and could prove to be traumatic. China frequently experiences protests and demonstrations, some of which are violent. Any sharp negative changes in the Chinese economy or political system could exacerbate this situation, thereby eroding the political and social cohesion of China.
Now add in China's chaotic politics. Its impending leadership transition, due to take place later this year, seems to have fractured Beijing's elites. The Bo Xilai fiasco has revealed the extent of deep corruption embedded in the Chinese system. The treatment and eventual defection of Chen Guangcheng clearly highlighted the tyrannical ruthlessness of local and national leaders. Going forward, if these issues are not handled better, it would not be surprising to see a host of negative repercussions for China: an unraveling of social and political unity and cohesion, a delegitimized Chinese state, and, by extension, and a greater difficulty in extracting and appropriating resources in an efficient manner.

And of course, don't forget about regional politics. China does not dominate the region in line with Mearsheimer's expectations. And that's primarily because it is located in a region, broadly defined, that contains several other powerful countries (India, Russia, Japan, and even Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam). A rising China automatically triggers wariness and concern within the region. But an overly assertive, perhaps aggressive, China will trigger counterbalancing behavior. In fact, this has already happened.

America's so-called pivot to Asia has generated support from from U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. These countries want tighter political and security ties and enhanced military to military cooperation, and that is exactly what Washington is willing to give each country. Asian countries are already looking for ways to prevent the possibility of being politically, militarily, and economically dominated by China. And when push comes to shove, don't be surprised to see other countries, particularly India and even Russia, cultivate stronger ties with America as a way to balance against China. This kind of counterbalancing could very well ensure that China gets bogged down in regional politics/security affairs, effectively preventing Beijing from having a sufficient global focus to challenge the U.S. for hegemony.

In the end, does knowing that China is a rising power tell us anything? It tells us that there will be increased competition and rivalry in world between China and the U.S. and its allies in Asia. This is inevitable, no matter if Beijing's intentions turn out to be mostly friendly and benign. After all, as China searches for new trade and energy deals, it is going to encroach on the turf of the U.S., ruffling its feathers. Additionally, even if China listens to America's exhortations and becomes a "responsible stakeholder" in world politics, the U.S. won't be happy about this, as this means Washington will have to share international leadership with Beijing. Similarly, if China wants greater influence in internationally or regionally, again, Washington won't be pleased.

All of these scenarios, and many more, involving China could be relatively innocuous yet unnerve American elites. They might believe that China's rise comes at the expense of America. Moreover, because the intentions of Chinese leaders are by definition private and not completely knowable to outsiders, the U.S. will be wary of China's motives, at least as long as China remains a rising power.

Saying anything more than the above depends on your views on the U.S., China, bipolarity, great power relations, China-U.S. relations, and so on. In reality, Sino-American relations are not predestined to prolonged hostility or conflict, even if China makes the leap to great power status. While many associate tension, hostility, and cold wars with the bipolar era of Soviet and American dominance, this says nothing about a hypothetical period of Chinese and American supremacy. Indeed, Sino-American relations could veer toward hostility and conflict, but it is not the only possible outcome. America and China could simply become rivals and competitors, each learning over time to peacefully coexist with the other.

In this case, the cold war era could prove very valuable, serving as a powerful reminder of the disasters that can easily occur if superpower relations are not properly managed. Let's hope future Chinese and American leaders internalize these lessons.

*UPDATE: A version of this piece was published by Strategic Review. You can find it here.