Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thomas Friedman, The democratic recession, NYT, May 7, 2008.

The term “democratic recession” was coined by Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, in his new book “The Spirit of Democracy.” And the numbers tell the story. At the end of last year, Freedom House, which tracks democratic trends and elections around the globe, noted that 2007 was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the cold war. Almost four times as many states — 38 — declined in their freedom scores as improved — 10.

What explains this? A big part of this reversal is being driven by the rise of petro-authoritarianism. I’ve long argued that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation — which I call: “The First Law of Petro-Politics.” As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.

“There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” explains Diamond. “Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria are the poster children” for this trend, where leaders grab the oil tap to ensconce themselves in power.

Bourque calls this "High Oil Fosters Petro Dictators." This is not "market failure." It's market dysfunction, i.e., the market operates according to principles which make it, far from an "invisible hand" that inevitably guides us in directions we need to go; on the contrary, we may need for the market's invisble hand to be slapped from time to time. Left alone, the market will provide all the motivation necessary for corruption and other forms of criminal behaviour.

There are some other caveats that need to be made here. Several NGOs employ very subjective methodology without the kind of challenge that once was traditional in academic circles. Freedom House is one; Transparency International, another.

Amnesty International was once open to the criticism that they directed their campaigns against say non-OECD countries. That has changed. But a similar systemic criticism of TI's bias against small time corruption compared to the blind eye it turns toward multi-billion dollar corrption in the US raises questions about where else.

I call these "methodological" because they are pervasive. Like attitudes, they reproduce themselves in human organizations where they are then able to grow like compound interest.

Definitions of democracy remain contested, all the more since the critical US/EU sabotage of the Hamas election (2006). Much remains to be seen in the wake of the Maoist victory in Nepal. Liberal (capitalist, shock) democracy is clearly just one kind. Freedom is great, but greed is not good.

So identifying Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria as dictatorships while the US, UK, Israel and Turkey are lauded as democracies raises serious questions among the spectators who stand to lose the most from these prejudices--not because we own them but because we are subjected to them. All the signs indicate that our grand children will bleed to preserve them.

Meanwhile, what about Kazakhstan? Equatorial Guinea? Saudi Arabia? Turkmenistan is about gas more than oil, but then so is Russia.

Americans like to be able to say things like "there is no more disgusting leader in the world today than Mugabe." But what does that give you? It provides one of the chief apologists for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Iraq disaster (to mention just a few) with some undeserved moral altitude.

Welcome to the ditch, Thomas. The time may be coming for the US to learn a little humility. It has never been an American virtue. It may just be that the world needs humility from the US even more than it needs democracy.

Read the rest of Friedman's argument =>
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