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Globalization Means Westernization

MUNICH: Does globalization produce a world of democracies? The easy answer is a resounding "No." It does, however, increase the costs for autocratic regimes of not having accountable political systems. In this respect globalization implies, like it or not, Westernization.

This is far different from the old liberal idea that trade and contact with totalitrian regimes begets democracy, sooner or later - an idea on display during President Clinton’s visit to China earlier this summer. No doubt he hoped, as do many in the West, indeed in China itself, that the visit would catalyze change in the Middle Kingdom, opening up the one-party regime and introducing Chinese societies to the values of the democratic West.

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If these hopes are likely to be disappointed, it is not for lack on trying by America’s charismatic president. It is simply because the relationship between economic ties and democratic change are more complex. True, trade makes any country in the age of globalization, whatever its political ideology, more dependent on all the players in the world wide marketplace. Even if China’s leadership wanted to, it could no longer clock its subjects from contact with Western goods, markets, ideas.

To deduce from this, however, as Western leaders do whenever they visit places like China, Cuba, and Iran, eager businessmen in tow, that somehow greater economic interdependence will automatically encourage political reforms in their host country is reminiscent of the naiveté which gripped many in the West during the days of "Detente." Back then, contacts with the old USSR and its satellites were believed to promote major domestic change. But autocratic regimes, we learned through the disappointments of detente, are unusually well equipped to stifle yearnings for freedom among their populace.

More recent evidence that the state of the economy and of the political system can be disjointed is found in Asia today. The financial crisis gripping that region is just one year old and likely to get older. There are many causes for this, but the most widely recognized reason for why the crisis erupted and why it refuses to die down is this: Asian countries, while opening their economic systems, kept their political structures closed. They were active participants on international markets, attracted foreign capital, were integrated for all intents into the globalized world. Yet while their economies blossomed, power remained opaque, screened by personal loyalties, secret deals, corrupt practices.

Economic openness and political accountability clearly can coexist without much difficulty. Perhaps, as Asia’s spectacular growth prior to the crisis indicated, this combination may even have contributed to the region’s economic success, at least for a while. It is, after all, not so long ago that the "Asian model" was widely celebrated as the wave of the future.

The problem with the "Asian model," we now know, is that it is not very resilient in crisis. Those Asian countries which had earlier opened their political structures in accordance with their economic ones, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, fared much better in the current turbulence. In other words: sustained economic success in the globalized world does not automatically lead to democracy nor does it depend on democracy - but it does depend on a political system able to avoid and weather financial and economic, not to mention political, crisis.

For many of its emotional critics, globalization just means Americanization - the invasion of American mass products and mass culture. But that is neither unavoidable nor permanent. Who knows, tomorrow products from countries other than America may command the allegiance of global customers. The decisive impact of globalization lies elsewhere: it gives a crisis bonus to countries with transparent and accountable political structures.

Financial crisis are inevitable in the global marketplace. Markets are imperfect controllers of their own fate as are all human endeavors, particularly those based on speculation and greed. International control mechanisms of sufficient authority to police global financial markets are not in place today, with not be around for some time, and will remain imperfect even then. Countries have to create their own safeguards to protect themselves against the kinds of upheaval that is shaking Asia. This means to make sure that political power is controlled and political processes transparent. Such may not yet be democracy. It is Westernization.

It is possible, of course, to prosper without Westernization, so despots need not despair. Their hold on power is not imperiled by economic success. The global market does not impose Westernization. But when global markets get out of control, the penalty for not Westernizing in time can become very high indeed. Then both autocratic regimes and the economic achievements over which they presided are at risk. When financial storms start blowing, despots can no longer respond by battening down the hatches and isolating their economy from the world because it has become part of the global market.

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In order not to be blown away, they have to accept the interference of bodies like the IMF with the resulting weakening of their own hold on power. And then, as Indonesia’s Suharto found out, it may well be too late to retain power at all.

So Westernization is promoted not by contacts, by trade, or by ideology. It is promoted by self-interest. It is simply a precaution against future risks. If you want to weather the crisis of globalization, you better Westernize. The global marketplace will punish those who act too late.