Thursday, February 23, 2006

In Long Term, Connectedness Doesn't Define Danger

The troubled mass involvement in politics in the Middle East looks just like the problems associated with the democratization of the West in the early 20th century. Mass involvement in politics doesn't bring about coolheaded deliberation, secular technocrat style. Jose Ortega y Gassets Revolt of the Masses (1930) comes to mind as a pertinent analysis; so does the host of analyses dealing with the role of onesided public opinion in the long run up to the First World War in France and Germany (take this H-France review e.g.).

David Ignatius' new Washington Post column, "From 'Connectedness' to Conflict" correctly and astutely points out the short to middle term challenges related to the gradual move from aiming at stability to good governance in states abroad. Thomas P. M. Barnett's dictum that "Disconnectedness defines danger" would be under heavy fire as of late, if what he meant was that globalization's connectedness immediately and painlessly would hook everyone up to a Fukuyamaesque suburbian dreamscape. But Barnett continuously emphasizes the pain increased openness brings with it, and the automatic counterreactions there will be. If it didn't look patronizing we could call it 'teething'. But let's stick with that metaphor since we are all doing our own 'teething': European self-congratulatory posturing needs a kick in the groin every once in a while for tolerance and inclusivity to actually work.

One of the baseline assumptions of U.S. foreign policy is that "connectedness" is a good thing. Linkage to the global economy fosters the growth of democracy and free markets, the theory goes, and that in turn creates the conditions for stability and security. But if that's true, why is an increasingly "connected" world such a mess? This paradox of the 21st century is confounding the Bush administration's hopes for democratization in the Middle East. It turns out that in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and perhaps nations yet to come, the growth of democracy and technology has had the effect of enfranchising pre-modern political movements -- ones linked to religious sects, ethnic minorities and tribes. This trend astonishes Westerners who meet with Arab modernizers at events such as the World Economic Forum or see the skyscrapers of Dubai and think the world is coming our way.

Among military strategists, the bible of connectedness is a book called "The Pentagon's New Map," by Thomas P.M. Barnett. He argues that the world today is divided between an "integrating core" of orderly commerce, stretching from America and Europe across to China and India, and a "non-integrating gap," which is his shorthand for the messy rest of the world. The task of U.S. foreign policy is to connect the two. (...) So why does the world feel so chaotic? Why is there a growing sense that, as Francis Fukuyama put it in a provocative essay in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalization and -- yes, unfortunately -- terrorism"? (...) [Raja Sidawi] argues that Barnett misses the fact that as elites around the world become more connected with the global economy, they become more disconnected from their own cultures and political systems. The local elites "lose touch with what's going on around them," opening up a vacuum that is filled by religious parties and sectarian groups, Sidawi contends. The modernizers think they are plugging their nations into the global economy, but what's also happening is that they are unplugging themselves politically at home.

Sidawis insight is good, but also more fully developed in Christopher Lasch's "The Revolt of the Elites" (see this review for an abstract of Lasch's argument), which mirrored Gasset's argument, 60 years on.

Moving forward in terms of connectedness will bring more troubled confrontations between elite and mass in Middle East as elsewhere. But don't fall for the isolationist inclination on tat account. Purely elite and technocrat driven development characterized the 1960's and it didn't work well enough: coupled with the Cold War's focus on stability rather than good governance it also foretold the story of the failed attempts at one-size-fits-all approaches championed by the IMF/IBRD in the 1990s.

Instead, any democratic development in the Middle East must and will be by and through political actors with credentials among the wider populace. As I have argued before, democratization in the long term means squaring the state's regular capacity -- what it does apart from high politics, everyday institutions -- with the aggregate sense of equity of the population. If Hamas delivers on social services according to ethical conceptions of brotherhood and equality on a level that more resembles the social welfare states of Northern Europe than Texas, then we must take serious the wants that this success expresses. There will always be elites: for them to be successful in leading their countries to stability and good governance they must be accomodating towards the aggregate sense of equity of their populations.

This process will take another 30-50 years, but it is the only feasible direction. The alternative to supporting the process would be watching it unfold, perhaps more slowly, perhaps more bloodily (given that we don't blunderingly try to impose too fast, too much). Until then, brace for more loud noises, and, yes, violence there and sometimes here, as expressions of the political battle over the OECDification of their states.

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