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Arab Spring is not the same as post-USSR

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who spent years covering the post-USSR transition to democracy, wrote last week that Arab Spring nations need to rush to the polls in order to seize the democratic moment. She compared her experiences in post-USSR nations to what is occurring in the Arab world. But her basis for comparison is flawed. As I argue below, Arab Spring elections should delay until fledgling political parties form because the democratic conditions regarding the Arab Spring are not similar to post-USSR Central and Eastern European nations.

First, the USSR represented a top-down style of governance that affected a dozens of territories that would later become free and independent nations. That impacted local political organizational structure in the sense that Kazakhstan, Ukraine, etc. did not have local governing bodies with any tangible effect on the economy, welfare, etc. That is simply not the case with Arab Spring nations, which already have developed strong networks of political organization that would not have been possible in the USSR.

Second, the USSR was a centralized economy. The new nations borne out of the USSR’s downfall opened their economies partially because they wanted to become part of an increasingly integrated world, but they were not prepared for the shocks of misplaced resources and productive inefficiency when they opened their borders. The USSR, by being such a large region and keeping commerce within its borders, could subsidize and artificially sustain failing industries. The new nations quickly discovered most of their technology was so old and the cost of production so high that they were not economically viable in the open market.

Arab Spring nations’ products have operated in the free market for years, although much of these nations’ revenues come from oil. Still, even having that resource is something post-USSR nations did not have, and therefore it is up to Arab citizens to democratically elect the representatives they feel will best handle those oil revenues — whether that means setting up a more comprehensive welfare system, using it to create business tax credits or other initiatives. Most Arab Spring nations have at least some semblance of free markets and politicians therefore must make decisions whether to keep those markets open, open them further or close them. All of these are economically philosophical questions that require debate and dialogue between established parties, and it’s a dialogue that did not exist in the nascent post-USSR days.

Third, while Arab nations’ press freedoms are certainly limited by U.S. standards, they are by far and away more developed than the former USSR. Noting this, there is a greater window for press debate of party positions and philosophy prior to voting in democratic elections in Arab Spring nations than there were in post-USSR nations. Arab Spring nations have seized the benefits of social media, and it would be a shame if those nations stopped short of allowing the press to analyze and discuss party platforms prior to these democratic elections.

Fourth, and final for now, post-USSR nations had no existing foreign policy legacy once that nation dissolved whereas Arab nations are entangled in a variety of agreements with other Arab nations, the West (usually over oil and Israel) and emerging economies such as India and China (also for oil). Foreign policy will be an enormously important issue for Arab voters, where doctrines and agreements could be jeopardized, reversed or enhanced based on whichever party wins the majority. This has serious implications for Israel and the shifting geopolitical power structure concerning relations with China and India relative to a somewhat declining U.S.

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“Middle East Marshall Plan” should include human rights promotion

U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are planning a sort of Middle East Marshall Plan by tying U.S. intervention with business and economic interests. IF (and I say IF) this is what the U.S. decides to do to break its relative isolation during the Arab Spring, the senators should work to promote human rights at the same time.

This extremely nauseating puff piece about the war veterans/politicians/BFFLs seemed to care less about the news and  more about their on-again, off-again Beltway lovefest. I hope WaPo plans on a follow with some analysis, but in case they don’t, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.

From The Washington Post:

The elder statesmen are also hoping to forge something resembling a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, aiming to spur massive private-sector investment across a region remade by revolution. The pair traveled to Egypt last weekend with eight Fortune 500 executives in an attempt to ignite investment in a country that has struggled since the February fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

Human and basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech and free and open elections, ideally, would come before economic development. Without human rights, society is at greater risk of corruption and abuse.

The U.S. has had its rear end pinned to the pine when it comes to supporting revolutionary forces in the Arab Spring. So the first proactive approach the U.S. makes is to support investment and U.S. economic interests, which is not going to set off a ticker tape parade in most Arab countries.

By promoting human rights in tandem with economic interests, the U.S. will appear more benevolent and also secure more stable investments. Fortifying institutions such as free and open elections will make politicians more accountable and curb corruption, which will mean a more honest and even approach to things from government contracts to welfare. Human rights reform will reduce workplace abuses, alleviate gender wage and employment differentials and therefore lead to a more productive and stable economy.

There’s also the dangers posed by opening up economies to the global market when those nations do not have sound human rights protections. “Race to the bottom” scenarios could develop in which nations depress wages to earn a competitive advantage for foreign investment. It also makes exports cheaper and therefore more attractive in the international market, but at the expense of a nation’s own people because it decreases purchasing power. That, in turn, diminishes the opportunity to innovate and be entrepreneurial because citizens have less disposable income and have to provide for families on sub-standard wages.

This is obviously asking for a lot. Promoting business will address youth unemployment, one of the largest causes of the Arab Spring. That alone would go a long way. But the U.S. should aim to have equal involvement in helping craft institutions and human rights reform as it does in boosting the Middle East economy.

Ultimately, the U.S. is currying favor with future Arab leaders, and one way to do that is by bolstering those nations’ economies. The U.S. doesn’t negotiate trade or peace agreements with the Arab street, so I understand the tactic.

But the U.S. has often worried about its image in the Arab world, and its hesitance to support revolutionary forces has not been viewed positively by most Arabs. The perceived inconsistency of the State Department — intervening in Libya but not Syria, for example — only amplifies that negative image.

I truly believe a more active approach to human rights promotion is possible. There is a power vacuum in the Arab world, unlike China, where the U.S. has also used rhetoric rather than might to encourage human rights reforms. The Arab street genuinely wants the freedoms U.S. and other nations have, so I believe it would be more receptive to U.S. help.

Diplomatically, America’s hands are tied. Intervening on the side of revolutionary forces will send a signal to allies that the U.S. is fickle. But the Arab street sees a contradiction between U.S. actions and its purported values of freedom and liberty. Arabs see that as hypocrisy, which amounts to an image problem of the worst kind.

 

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