PARIS – Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” is still unfolding, but we can already read into it lessons about democracy and democratization that extend far beyond the Maghreb.
To set the Jasmine Revolution in historical perspective, we must recall June 4, 1989 – that pivotal Sunday when the Poles voted the communists out of power and, at the other end of Eurasia, the Communist Party of China crushed a burgeoning democratic movement on Tiananmen Square. In retrospect, that day looks like a fork in the road of human history. One path led to the demise of communism and a new birth of freedom and democracy – at times bloody and painful – in Europe. The other path traced an alternative course, with China remaining under the grip of its ruling party, but delivering prosperity to its impoverished masses through astounding and sustained growth.
As the revolutionary year of 1989 was unfolding, Francis Fukuyama, presciently yet controversially pondered whether the path chosen in Europe heralded the “end of history.” Following Hegel, Fukuyama made the case that history is directional – that it is leading somewhere – for two reasons. First, the ceaseless spread of technology and of the economic liberal order, which has a homogenizing effect. Second, the Hegelian “struggle for recognition” has been a pervasive driving force of mankind, powerful enough to lead countless individuals to the ultimate sacrifice.
But, while a widespread consensus held that communism was nothing but a dead end, China’s economic success, and the authoritarian backlash in Russia following Boris Yeltsin’s departure from the Kremlin a decade ago, prompted a more pessimistic analysis. Theories of “democratic rollback” and of a resurgence of “authoritarian great powers” surfaced to unveil the potential of systems that combined nationalism and state-led growth-yielding capitalism.
Some argued that authoritarian rule provided a much surer and safer path to welfare than democracy could offer, others extolled the virtues of “Asian values,” and still others argued that democracy in the Arab or Muslim world would only pave the way for Islamic fundamentalists to take power. Not surprisingly, autocrats everywhere embraced such views.
But the message of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution rings loud and clear: democracy – and the liberal political order in which it is rooted – is not merely a Western concept (or a Western conspiracy), but holds universal attraction, powered by the craving for “recognition.” Moreover, it can be accessed at an early stage of a country’s modernization.
To be sure, authoritarian rule can manage the early stages of industrialization. But a “knowledge economy” cannot operate with muzzled minds. Even the smartest authoritarian rulers are unable to manage complexity on this scale – not to mention the corruption that inevitably breeds in the protected shadows of autocracy.
Challenging the “myth of the autocratic revival,” the American political scientists Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry have examined China and Russia, finding “little evidence for the emergence of a stable equilibrium between capitalism and autocracy such that this combination could be dignified as a new model of modernity.” While neither country qualifies as a liberal democracy, both “are much more liberal and democratic than they have ever been, and many of the crucial foundations for sustainable liberal democracy are emerging” – one main hurdle being the centrifugal forces that democracy might unleash.
But most countries that are unburdened by such a threat have, quietly or spectacularly, rallied to the liberal order over the past decades. Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia have done so without being hampered by their supposed “Asian values.”
Similarly, Latin America, once the playground of myriad juntas and golpes, is now largely anchored in political liberalism. Turkey is ruled by a mildly Islamist party that plays by the rules of democracy. And, in the spring of 2009, the presidential campaign in Iran evinced a formidable craving for freedom.
What is obvious from these cases is that development activates the two channels that Fukuyama identifies as shaping the direction of history: cumulative economic and technological change and the desire for recognition. Both foster individual empowerment, which is the gateway to freedom and democracy. The paths differ between countries, setbacks are not uncommon, and it can take decades, but the leap can occur when the circumstances are ripe – as in Tunisia.
Indeed, the Jasmine Revolution embodies all the tenets of the liberal political order that the West has been advocating since the Atlantic Charter of 1941: a yearning for freedom, opportunity, and the rule of law. Moreover, Tunisia’s revolution was indigenous, not imported as part of some forcible regime change.
The Tunisian people, led by a frustrated middle class that refused to be cowed, thus provide a healthy reminder of the steady and compelling forces driving the behavior of individuals and nations nowadays. They illustrate the catalytic effect of digital connectivity (clearly visible, too, among China’s “twittering classes”). And they might embolden other Arab peoples, as may be happening in Egypt, to force accountability upon their rulers.
Whatever the outcome in Tunisia, those who believe that democracy, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, makes the world a safe place – and that more democracy makes it safer – have every reason to rejoice at such an auspicious development.