Realism or Evangelism? Security Through Democratization as a National Strategy

Realism or Evangelism?
Security Through Democratization as a National Strategy

by Donald K. Emmerson
September 1, 1996

From 1989 to 1991, for anyone who had hoped through the long years of the Cold War for the eventual triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, it was hard not to feel good about world events.

From 1989 to 1991, for anyone who had hoped through the long years of the Cold War for the eventual triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, it was hard not to feel good about world events.

In 1989, scant months after a pure white “Goddess of Democracy” arose in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall fell down. As if by chain reaction, Czech legislators voted down red power, and anticommunist Romanian rebels ended Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal rule. By then, to be sure, Deng Xiaoping’s troops had already overturned the “Goddess of Democracy” and massacred the statue’s makers. But many, if not most, of the Americans who ventured to predict the future in China in the wake of that tragedy doubted that the butchers of Beijing could prevent democratization. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, to my knowledge no respectable China-watcher argued that China was inherently or permanently incapable of democratizing, or that Chinese culture and democratic politics were somehow forever destined to remain incompatible. Typically, on newspaper opinion pages and talk shows, revulsion over the killings was accompanied by cautious optimism: Democracy would come to China. If not this year, perhaps the next; and if not then, perhaps the year after, or the following year, or the year after that. One would have to wait, but not too long, and certainly not forever.

By the end of 1989, Francis Fukuyama had taken the end-of-communism argument one step further into the possible ending of history itself, on the grounds that communism’s downfall had left nothing standing that could compete with liberal democracy and market capitalism on a global scale. And as the number of liberal-democratic and market-capitalist countries grew, the world would become more secure. No longer would there be any reason to defend either system against an alternative; there were none. Fukuyama’s thinking struck many at the time as wishful—erudite and intriguing, but wishful all the same.

In October 1990, more than a year after the massacre in Beijing, I found myself in the Boston area attending a seminar on Asian democratization sponsored by the Asia Foundation. Among those present was a well known China expert who argued eloquently that the Tiananmen students and the Chinese peasantry understood freedom in the same way, were equally dedicated to bringing it about, and would so on rise up to transform China into a democracy. Yet on the freedom scale of a leading human rights monitoring organization, Freedom House, as of January 1996 China still received the worst possible score—as if nothing had changed in the six and a-half years since the crackdown.

Chinese politics have changed, but they are by no stretch of the imagination liberal democratic. Overly optimistic observers underestimated the sustainability of Leninism. The income raising effects of economic reform made political reform less urgent. Not all Chinese conceived of freedom first in political terms. By initially satisfying the desire of rural dwellers to be free from hunger, Deng Xiaoping made it easier to deny freedom of speech to urban students and intellectuals. Even in the cities, many Chinese were willing not to make waves so long as they could keep making money. Against the wishful thinking of outsiders, pragmatic compromises helped prolong authoritarian rule.

Meanwhile, economic gaps between the coast and the countryside have been growing. The benefits of decollectivizing agriculture have faded in memory. Rural dwellers have wearied of mistreatment by local party cadres. Rural as well as urban crime is on the rise. Beijing cannot rely as it may have before on a peasantry materially co-opted into quiescence.

Even if these trends do signal expanding demand for a more accountable government—a plausible if debatable inference—it does not necessarily follow that China’s rulers will choose to respond with concessions instead of repression. And even if a supply of democratic institutions and practices does arise to meet the demand, it does not necessarily follow that a more democratic China will behave in ways conducive to regional security. The democratization of China, by entrenching nationalism as a popular mandate, could make it harder, not easier, for Beijing’s leaders to compromise with neighbors for the sake of peace in the region. This could be especially true in the dangerous and possibly protracted phase when democratic ways are being experimented with but have not been institutionalized.

Thus, looking back on that Asia Foundation seminar in 1990, I remain persuaded that in those euphoric days too many observers of China and other developing countries were excessively sanguine about the prospects for democracy within states and its conduciveness to security among states.

The optimism was understandable. If 1989 had been a banner year for democracy and security, 1990 had brought more encouraging news: the surrender of drug-trafficking, election-canceling Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to U.S. troops; the end of Yugoslav and Soviet communist monopolies on power; the end of Leninist rule in Nicaragua through a peaceful election; the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the unraveling of South African apartheid; a U.S.-Soviet arms accord; NATO’s formally declared epitaph for the Cold War and its proposals for East-West cooperation; the reunification of Germany as a democracy; and Lech Walesa’s and Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s respective electoral accessions to the Polish and Haitian presidencies.

The first half of 1991 brought more good news: American-led United Nations troops restored the security of Kuwait by reversing Iraq’s invasion of that country; majorities in the Baltics voted for independence from the U.S.S.R.; Albania’s holdout communist regime resigned; and the South African parliament repealed apartheid.