By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
The announcement last month about the reset of US-Cuba relations was big news here in the US. Many agree with President Obama that, after 50 years, the US trade embargo against Cuba was not working and that it is time for a change. Others opine that we should have pressed Cuba harder to democratize its political system and address its human rights concerns before agreeing to loosen trade restrictions between our two countries.
Only time will tell whose position is right. But, one thing is certain: while, for many, the US remains the world’s only shining beacon of freedom, much of what we value here in the US simply can’t be replicated elsewhere at this time. It’s foolhardy to insist that others must embrace our approach before we engage meaningfully with them.
The world is full of countries with which we have amicable, supportive and economically productive relations but whose political systems and approach to human rights values don’t necessarily line up with ours. Think Singapore, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as stellar examples. There are many, many others.
For its part, Singapore can be thought of as a hybrid. Its system of government is functionally a democracy even though there is little public participation in government and its People’s Action Party has won every election since Singapore became an independent city-state in 1965. Yet, its physical beauty and high standard of living is envied throughout the world, and it ranks as the world’s ninth best city to live in, visit and do business in, tying with Los Angeles.
Consider Thailand. It’s a constitutional monarchy existing under a parliamentary democracy since 1932. Yet its democratic system remains weak and the country has been ruled by a succession of military rulers in recent years. Nevertheless, Bangkok, its capital, ranks as the top tourist destination in Asia with 11.5 million visitors annually. The country is among the largest economies in Asia and it has positioned itself to become the logistical hub in ASEAN.
Then there’s the UAE. It can be categorized as a federal presidential elected monarchy since its president is elected among the seven absolute monarchs who rule each of the seven emirates that comprise the UAE. The country has elements of a democracy including a constitution and legislative and judicial branches. And who can deny the incredible economic and educational progress achieved by the Emirati people since becoming fully independent in 1971. Even so, today when the citizens of the UAE look across their borders to many of their Middle Eastern neighbors who earlier this decade embraced the Arab Spring, many wonder if democracy is an ideal form of government. They question if democracy fits different cultures and ask themselves if their regional culture has the discipline and patience for democracy to succeed.
For democracy to flourish, certain assets must be in place, including citizen discipline and patience. These include an educated citizenry that values democratic procedures, a national commitment to the free flow of information and association, a strong cultural support for a limit to the state’s powers and holding the state accountable for its actions, an involved and economically-strong middle class, a national spirit of tolerance, and an elaborate system of local self government where future leaders can gain experience.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t speak up for freedom and human dignity at every opportunity. But, we also need to recognize that countries and their citizenry need to build their own roads to a democratic ideal.
An example is the contrasting paths taken over the past 25 years by Russia and China, both former major communist states. Russia rapidly embraced a form of democracy after the disintegration of the former USSR. Eventually, it devolved into a “gangland” which has been compared to the lawlessness that gripped Chicago during Prohibition and beyond. Today, Russia is a democratic dictatorship under President Putin with only a handful of its citizenry truly enjoying prosperity. Contrast this experience with that of China. During roughly the same time frame, China made monumental strides in creating a strong middle class while catapulting itself into becoming the world’s largest economy, even as it remains today a communist dictatorship.
Consider Tunisia. Its uprising in 2011 against an autocratic leadership inspired the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East. This past autumn, Tunisia took its final step in a four-year transition to democracy by holding its first free national presidential election. The point here is that the Tunisian people took those first steps on their journey to democracy by themselves. Will they be successful? Only time will tell.
Now compare Tunisia’s experience with that of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has reverted to military rule, Libya is struggling to survive as a country, Syria is disintegrating, and what can I say about Iraq that hasn’t already been said.
Bottom line – Managing a democracy like ours in the US is serious business. It may not be for everyone today, but it can be an ideal and an aspiration. We in the US owe it to those who would emulate our approach one day to ensure we protect and nurture Lady Liberty and the vision of our founders so that we do remain freedom’s shining beacon.
Originally posted on Forbes