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Becoming modern: the US, Europe, and the 'others'


Dave Belden, 24 September 2002


Open Democracy

Modernisation is the key battleground of global political ideas, says this keen-eyed overview of openDemocracy’s September coverage. Two questions arise. Can all non-Western countries become modern? And is the US a help or hindrance in the process?
About the author
Dave Belden is managing editor of Tikkun
Stephen Lukes says the Bush conservatives think they don’t have to listen to what the weak (Arabs or Europeans) say. They believe the Arabs are just resentful and jealous because they couldn’t make modernisation work. But then Lukes says Edward Luttwak, a conservative, is not wrong in his categorisation of the Arabs. They have failed at modernisation and they are resentful. What’s wrong is the Nietzschean arrogance: thinking supermen don’t have to listen to failures.

American conservatives are indeed in cocky mood. Their tendency is to ascribe Arab failure principally to flaws in their character and culture, just like the American poor. Now, instead of buckling down to the hard work of work, the bin Laden Islamists have succumbed to fantasy ideologies. This is Lee Harris’s term in Policy Review. He’s right, but it’s curious how he doesn’t notice the fantasy elements in American ideologies: whether ideas of a free market or God’s own people on parts of the right, or of America = evil on parts of the left

Robert Kagan says the Europeans have acted out of weakness, but Francis Fukuyama points out that it is a voluntary weakness – they could have spent their money on guns not welfare, but they chose welfare.

Who’s the most modern of us all?

What this all looks like is that one bunch of people have failed to modernise, and the other bunch have modernised so well that they have moved beyond war. There is a future, and Europe is it. Some burned Western intellectuals say they don’t want modernisation at all. But if modernisation means getting to be like Europe, where long life, health care, and an end to war are staples, where choosing your own language and culture remains possible, then majorities anywhere will choose it. There are ways in which America is better than Europe: more innovative; more able to assimilate others – it will be a mixed race nation soon. The Japanese do it better in other ways. Other regions of the world will make their own modernisations. But Europe is the first to move once vicious enemies beyond war. Of course conflict resolution is the future.

Two big questions remain:

(1) How does the rest of the world get there? Paul Hirst is in despair – he doesn’t see any current viable programme for modernising the poor countries. Is there ‘a modernisation process’ (even one with many possible variations) open to the rest of the world or not? Suppose for the moment there is.

(2) Are American arms the guarantor of this post-war future? Can we trust America to fight the wars necessary to ensure the modernisation process survives to become the future for everyone? Or is its hubris, its imperialist selfishness, its overwhelming strength the main stumbling block?

In short, is there a modernisation process open to all, and is America helpful or harmful to it?

The answers I believe are simple in outline, though complex in practice.

(1) There is a modernisation process, and in the long run it will be open to all. But America and American-dominated institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) do not define it. Its ingredients are the familiar ones of a regulated market, rule of law, democracy, civil society, free enquiry, a strong middle class. We know that. But to achieve it, governments may have to defy American interests and prescriptions. Peoples will have to overthrow tyrants and repressive elites, even those supported by American or European foreign policy. You create your own democracy – don’t expect outsiders to do it for you, even if they did in some spectacular cases (Japan, Germany, Afghanistan).

The barriers to economic development are often political, as laid out beautifully by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Hilton L. Root in The National Interest. This article explains why aid sometimes makes things worse. Autocratic and exclusive regimes survive by helping a small elite, and by keeping the people down. Inclusive regimes survive better by helping the people. It is better to help indigenous democrats change exclusive regimes, than to provide aid that helps only the elites.

Gema Martín-Muñoz takes neoliberals to task for assuming that democracy will follow economic growth in the Middle East; she says democracy is needed in order for economic growth to happen in the first place. Clearly American foreign policy has hindered that development. In China, economic development is coming first, without following any IMF prescriptions, and we can hope and trust that democracy has to follow. India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, who give perhaps the least support to al-Qaida – because economic and democratic developments are going ahead together.

It seems that there is a modernisation process, and the world’s two largest countries are engaged in it: India and China. Though to claim that just goes to show how vague the definition of it is, and how hopeful one needs to be to believe in it. Still, it seems to be there. It may well be easier for large countries than for small to follow it, of course (large internal markets).

To get small oligarchic countries into this modernisation process is a huge challenge. They may be the most delayed.

(2) The American left is severely split and confused over whether America itself is always wrong, or only sometimes; see Adam Schatz. But the simple answer has to be: America is sometimes a help, sometimes a hindrance. It’s not all good or all bad. It fought and won the crucial wars of the twentieth century, against Nazism and Stalinism, and it likes to have an Enemy. The Europe that is beyond war, and developing conflict resolution, would not have been possible without that America. It is so powerful, it is in constant danger of adventurism. But it did good for Kosovo and for Afghanistan (ask the Kosovans and Afghans) despite civilian casualties (which could have been lessened). It should have gone into Rwanda to stop the genocide, and I hope ‘next time’ it does, if the Europeans are too lily-livered and others too disorganised to do so themselves.

Different paths, shared future

Reviewing Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell, David Brooks writes of the modern world: ‘Now America is the main issue. Is America the vanguard of the future or is its political and cultural might more a threat and a corrupter? Today, it is how you feel about the United States that determines whether or not you think America should play an assertive and, if necessary, unilateral role around the world.’

That’s how it is, but it’s not how it should be. The main issue, in fact, is how to get all countries on to the modernisation path towards full stomachs, open and educated minds, democracy, and an end to war. If world policing is needed to that end, those who dislike America as the world’s policeman must shoulder in and share the role – if they don’t, they have little basis for complaint when America cracks the wrong heads. Europe has to put off its dreams of living at the end of history, enough to share that burden. If America isn’t going to listen to the Arabs, to invest more in understanding the hindrances to development, Europe must. Europe is bigger and richer than America. It must take a bolder lead in acting against the political barriers to development around the world.

The left should be at the forefront of this struggle. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Atlantic Monthly says the left is dead. He quotes Isaiah Berlin: this is the first time since 1789 that there is no large project on the European left. But that must be wrong. The project has just shifted overseas. But to take a useful lead, the left has to accept that the modernisation process includes much it has reviled: markets, business management, productivity. Much of what American capitalists pioneered is helpful and good. The struggle now is between capitalisms that work better for the people, and ones that work worse: it’s not capitalism versus socialism (if that means state planning, the labour theory of value, no private property).

America is both beast and saviour, slouching towards a post-war world. Don’t feed its ego by saying it’s one or the other, or the main issue in the world today. It isn’t. I made a mistake. The two main questions are: (1) is there a modernisation process open to all, and (2) why is America ceded too much power by Europe and the rest of the world in militarily defending and intellectually guiding that process?



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