In addition to warning us of the growing tide of populism and nationalism, and bashing Donald Trump, Pundits in Washington and other Western capitals have been also spending also a lot of time, debating ‘How the West got China wrong,’ as The Economist put it, which was just another way of asking, well, ‘How The Economist got China wrong.’
The West – or to use the first person plural ‘We’– so favoured by the intellectually modest Washington ‘foreign policy expert’ – had bet that China would head towards democracy and the market economy.
We were assured, by among others former President Bill Clinton in a 2001 address, that the forces of globalisation, energised by trade with the West, not to mention the power of the internet, would help democratise China.
But instead ‘we’ now suddenly discover that the gamble on China has failed. Western policies may have enabled that authoritarian state to get a firmer grip over its citizens, to pursue an aggressive mercantilist strategy that helped devastate American manufacturing sector, and to use its growing economic power to strengthen its military might and challenge US security interests.
So was it a mistake for the US to allow China to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and pursue a policy of engagement with Beijing? The Wall Street Journal, which has been a leading cheerleader for that policy recently raised the question to members of Washington ‘foreign policy community’ who helped implement it (Former President Clinton declined to participate in the survey).
The architects of the U.S. opening to China, President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, saw their initiative in realpolitik terms of normalising the relationship with the East Asian giant and collaborating with Beijing to counter Soviet power. They never promised that that policy would help grow a rose garden of political and economic liberalism in China. In fact, the country was ruled by a dictator and a mass murderer when President Nixon first travelled to it.
Which was more or less how American policymakers viewed for a long-time the US relationship with Turkey. Why were they so important? Well, have you taken a look at the map and browsed through a copy of Middle East for Idiots? Duh!
Indeed, any amateur geo-strategist could provide you with the familiar talking points: A country lying partly in Asia and partly in Europe, acting as both a barrier and a bridge between the two continents, situated at the crossroads of the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, and eastern Mediterranean. And with a very powerful military.
Bordering on the Soviet Union and situated at the gateway to an unstable Middle East, a NATO member, led by a modernising political elite, Turkey was one of the most important US strategic allies during the Cold War and at a time of growing US intervention in the Middle East.
That it was a Muslim country led by a westernised political elite was clearly a plus. But it was the military that helped provide stability to Turkey, and it was the authoritarian regime in Ankara that served as the main engine of westernisation and modernisation by using the power of the state to reduce the influence of the religion.
But then came what was seen as the western victory in the Cold War and the ensuing End-of-History fantasy, and America’s relationships with Turkey, China, and even Russia, were integrated into the grand democracy-and-free-markets-are-on-the-march narrative. Their governments were judged now less by whether their policies aligned with US strategic interests and more by their willingness to play the role assigned to them in the movie produced by the liberal intellectuals and policymakers in Washington.
Like all mythmakers, these policymakers made sure that what in many cases were evolutionary political and economic changes grounded in hardcore interests would be promoted as elements in a grand design.
So when Deng Xiaoping and his political successors in China, and a series of governments in Turkey and India, replaced the system of state-controlled economy with capitalism, there was no doubt in the minds of those subscribing to a new version of the Whig theory of historical progress, that the introduction of free markets to these countries, constituted part of an inevitable progression towards ever greater economic and political liberty.
It was as though the leaders in Beijing, Ankara, and New Delhi, went through some form of political metamorphoses after reading Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek or Ayn Rand, and were willing and ready to transform their countries into liberal democracies where both property and individual rights would be protected, and to adhere the rules of the American dominated international order because they supported the values that sustained that system.
But clearly that was not – and is not – the case. Instead, the authoritarian and nationalist leaders in China, Turkey, India or Russia, see in capitalism the most effective economic system of creating wealth– and not a way to empower individuals. And they want to use that wealth to make their nations more competitive economically and stronger economically In that that context, adhering to current international rules makes sense – as long as that serves their national interests.
As with the promotion of free markets, the infatuation with the need to spread democracy worldwide, reflected a similar make-believe approach. The notion of allowing the people to vote and elect their governments was regarded as another step on the road to progress.
That explains why so many policymakers in Washington have refused to see what was taking place in Turkey: the introduction of free elections were providing more influence to Islamist political parties that represented the views of the less secular and more nationalist voters in ‘red’ Turkey and were leading to the decline in the power of the military and the political elites they had backed.
Democracy, in short, does not necessarily help strengthen liberal values like secularism and women rights, and, if anything, can empower forces that oppose them. In the same way, capitalism and individual liberty do not always complement each other.
Which is why ‘we’ are so surprised that China is now ruled by dictator-for-life Xi Jinping who used the internet to reinforce his control over his people. Or that Turkey is now governed by an authoritarian Islamist Recap Tayyip Erdogan, whose political party once upon a time was compared to Germany’s Christian Democratic Party.
Capitalism creates the wealth that help strengthen Xi’s hold on power, while Erdogan has been elected and re-elected in free and democratic elections. And the bottom line is that the two reject America’s values and pursue policies that run contrary to US interests.
One could argue that Xi and Erdogan would have emerged even if Washington had refused to support China’s membership in the WTO or if it refrained from pressuring the Turkish military to give up its power.
But then perhaps instead of spending the last 20 years or so on engaging in global crusades to spread democracy and free markets, policymakers in Washington would have devoted more time and energies trying to ensure that Chinese, Turkish or Russian interests would become more compatible with those of the United States, they would not have found themselves today heading toward a collision course with Xi, Erdogan, or Vladimir Putin.
Foreign policy makers were wrong and are still wrong. If they were financial advisors managing your retirement portfolio (‘Do not invest in Apple stocks. Put all your money in Enron stocks!’), you would have fired them a long time ago. Instead, even in the age of Trump, they still seem to be controlling America’s foreign policy. ‘We’ need to do something about that.