Differences and Similarities in the influence “External Forces” has on two waves of democratization

Written on July 22, 2011
(translated by krizcpec)

By “Two waves of democratization” I mean the Third Wave of Democratization (Third Wave) that started in the 1980s and the MENA revolutions that began in 2011.

What made me wrote this post was my experience from calling programs at some radio stations. Audience from China often asked me that given the poor conditions of Chinese human rights, why aren't the international community offering any help? Judging from what they said, I felt they didn't seem to realize that the international community is formed by entities which have different interests; to them, the international community has shared values and would act unanimously whenever international disputes arise. Just to make clear to my compatriots that I didn't mean to be sarcastic, not in the slightest sense. I do feel like to analyze the international environment during the Third Wave and MENA revolutions, so that my readers would have a rough understanding of the international community.

For the past thirty years, the world has witnessed the Third Wave that took place in more than two decades ago and revolutions in MENA that started in 2011. For the yet-to-be-democratized China, it would be most important to observe the international community's stance on these two earthshaking waves of democratization. From my observation, the most obvious difference between this two movements is that in the Third Wave, external forces' intervention often had decisive influence upon a country's democratization process; as for MENA revolutions, it resulted entirely from the peoples' awakening consciousness of their rights, there was no intervention or “manipulation” from external forces.

Regarding the role external forces had played in the Third Wave, Samuel P. Huntington devoted an entire chapter of his renowned book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century for analysis. It stated that when some countries had achieved specific social and economic development level, they entered a zone which would make their transition toward democratization most likely. During this phase, actions of foreign governments or organization may impact (decisively) a country's democratization process. Of the twenty-nine democratic countries in the 1970s, fifteen were established either during foreign rule or after they became independent.

Huntington then went on to list out the following facts: in the late 1980s, the world's major sources of power and influence, such as the United States, the Vatican, the European Community (predecessor of the European Union), and U.S.S.R. (during the Gorbachev era), were all actively promoting liberalization and democratization. The Holy See made Catholic authoritarian regimes lose their legitimacy; Brussels provided the impetus for democratization in Eastern and Southern Europe; Washington promoted democratization in Latin America and Asia; and Moscow cleared the path for democratization in Eastern Europe. I would like to draw my readers' attention to this: at that time, among these countries, the Vatican used its religious influence; Moscow, political influence; the United States and the European Community were in economic upswings, the United States in particular had vigorously promoted the democratization process abroad through political, economic, diplomatic and military means, providing massive substantial support financially, or even militarily in its effort to export democracy. For example, the Reagan administration invaded Grenada in 1983; the Bush administration ordered military aircraft to fly over Manila to show its support for Corazon C. Aquino.

But this year's Jasmine revolutions in MENA was triggered by factors completely different from the Third Wave. There was no obvious religious belief that would propel it; there was no powerful opposition organizations, and no external forces to “plan” and “instigate”; it was entirely the result of peoples of MENA countries became aware of their rights. To look for connection, if any, between this wave of revolutions and the Third Wave, then probably one could say that the Third Wave had provided conditions for a relatively relaxed environment in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. Since the downfall of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, these countries, driven by external pressure and the awareness of the danger of being toppled, have adopted corresponding lenient measures to ensure long-term stability: they partially granted freedom of speech, permitted newspapers run by private capital; they let citizens to associate and allowed multiparty system. After all, democratization is, in the first place, a process of value dissemination; it is, as a matter of fact, also a process of ideas being put into practice. It is the slightly relaxed policies adopted by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt that sowed the seeds of today's MENA Jasmine revolutions.

The MENA revolutions have taken the United States and Europe by complete surprise. Since the end of the Cold War, the Western liberal world had lost their common enemy, Socialism, and adjusted their own foreign policy, which ideology and political system were no longer the main considerations. When the MENA revolutions began, the Western countries were caught in the recession triggered in 2008 by financial crisis and became financially strained. Therefore, the United States and European countries were unresponsive at the start of the revolutions, they only showed their moral support a few days later. When civil war between the Gaddafi government force and the oppositions broke out in Libya, the UN Security Council was, at the request of some Arab countries, forced to pass on March 18 resolution no. 1973 to protect Libya civilians, and a no-fly zone over that country was established. Longtime global democratization leader the United States has to have its Congress repeatedly reassured that this military operation would not increase government spending, and stressed time and again to the world the legitimacy and the limited nature of U.S. participation in military actions. This limited involvement has led to four whole months of continued armed confrontation with Gaddafi before the Libya opposition forces finally saw brighter prospects. The Istanbul conference in mid-July signified that the Libya incident has entered its final stage. Mahmoud Jebril, a leading figure of the National Transitional Council (TNC), submitted to conference a detailed proposal which stated that once Gaddafi succumb to international pressure and step down, Libya will be transformed into a full democracy. In view of this, the United States, along with thirty other countries, recognized the TNC as the country's legitimate governing authority and promised to hand over the $32 billion worth of Gaddafi's family assets, deposited in Britain, the United States, and other countries, after relevant legal procedures are done.

The reason I analyzed the roles and attitudes the external forces had in these two waves of revolutions was mainly to help those pursuing democracy and freedom inside China to understand one thing: the promotion of China's democratization process in future relies mainly on the people's awakening consciousness of their rights and the strengthening of their operational capacity. The world has entered a historical phase that is rarely seen before: both the West and China slip into recession, European economic downturn is certain, and its revival in the near future would be difficult; as for the United States, although its economy is much better than Europe, it is currently at the bottom of the U-shaped recession/recovery, coupled with tremendous national debt accumulated as a result of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has no choice but to adjust its global strategy, relinquish or reduce its leadership functions in certain international affairs. For example, with the backdrop of the United States and the rest of the world slipped into recession, the Voice of America, which had played crucial roles during the Third Wave, sees its Chinese broadcast service hanging in the balance.
Currently, China has in fact reached the crucial phase of moving toward democracy. When a country has set aside more budget for internal repression and maintenance of social stability than for external military expense, the whole world knows this would only lead to turbulence and chaos. If the CCP leadership moves with the tide and actively push for democratization, it will become China's Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the world look up to with respect; but if it stubbornly upheld the high-handed approach in maintaining stability, then when the day that it loses its power comes, which is not the result of intervention from external force, it will only have itself to blame.