RANGOON – Across the Middle East, and now in Burma (Myanmar), one of the great questions of contemporary global politics has resurfaced: How can countries move from a failing authoritarianism to some form of self-sustaining pluralism? Foreign ministers everywhere, in turn, face crucial policy questions: When a country launches such a political transition, when should other countries help, and what is the best way to do so?
Happy transitions, to paraphrase Tolstoy, are all alike; but every unhappy transition is unhappy in its own way. The happy transitions across much of Central Europe following the end of the Cold War were made easier by the fact that the old communist order more or less died on its feet and surrendered power peacefully. This, along with generous support from Western Europe, the United States, and others, helped to create a mood conducive to reconciliation, allowing each country to tackle in a measured, non-vengeful way the many difficult moral issues arising from the recent dark past.
Above all, perhaps, these transitions took place amidst a wider network of legitimate institutions – the European Union, OSCE, NATO, and the Council of Europe – championing the rule of law. This supportive context provided a roadmap for national policymakers, helping them to build democratic institutions and marginalize extremists.
Elsewhere in the world, things are not so easy. Discredited regimes may cling all the more ruthlessly and ruinously to power, as in Syria. Or they may create all sorts of new problems on their way out of power, as in Libya. Or they may be struggling to introduce democratic accountability while maintaining stability, as in Egypt.