Vincent McKee takes issue with an American view of democracy Liberty is a concept widely associated with functional democracies everywhere. Western nations have long presumed to hold the beacon that others are urged to follow. Liberal democracy is equated with affluence and social mobility, bringing in their wake benefits such as education, limited government and individual rights.
Yet the libertarian track record of liberal democracies does not always withstand examination. Secular France, with its revolutionary legacy, is currently suppressing the rights of Muslim girls to wear headscarves and Catholics to display crucifixes. America practises secular intolerance by the barring of Christian symbols from public buildings, while locking up enemy combatants without trial. Notions of liberty often amount to an enforcement of the rules and culture of dominant nations.
The liberty issue has generated a timely text from Dr Fareed Zakaria, a gifted American of Asian lineage who, as one might expect from the editor of Newsweek International, articulates a pro-Washington perspective on international affairs. But the book might have read better had its author been further removed from the Pentagon circuit.
The book’s title held out the hope of a comprehensive evaluation of the workings of liberal democracy and liberty. Alas, nothing of the kind followed. Notwithstanding a thoughtful introductory overview, The Future of Freedom descended into an introspective American audit, with occasional allusions to developments elsewhere. Little interest was shown in religious freedom, minority rights and human rights.
The author’s foreign policy chapters read rather like State Department briefing papers, and it was noticeable that while other nations — including Britain — came in for criticism, American policy overseas appeared sacrosanct.
Zakaria discusses Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu nationalism, threats facing pro-American Arab rulers, and a string of anti-American populist movements across Asia and Europe. Interestingly, he has little to say about liberty and democracy in Latin America or Africa. He takes the view that liberty is best protected by a culture of popular capitalism rather than free elections and individual rights. Moreover, he assumes that United States is entitled to police the rest of the world in order to impose its “progressive” programme.
Unfortunately, the author’s limited understanding of external cultures ensures that he is poorly equipped to propose policy in Asia, Africa or Europe. He displays no serious grasp of the role of political parties in European systems or the place of ideology in directing political movements in Asia. Another area of lightweight understanding is his analysis of Christian religion. He attaches much importance to the influence of Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists in public life, but appears completely ignorant of Catholicism, the faith of around a quarter of Americans. He misses the impact of Christian doctrine and culture in fashioning social reformist movements, not least the effect of Martin Luther King’s Southern Baptism on the struggle for civil rights, and the Catholic influence on trade union growth and the antinuclear movement.
Zakaria’s biggest gaffe is his inclusion of the Philippines among the militant Islamic nations. In fact with a population of 82 million (83 per cent Catholic, 10 per cent Protestant and 5 per cent Muslim), Filipinos comprise the world’s fourth largest Catholic nation, and, aside from newly born East Timor, Asia’s only predominantly Christian nation. Frankly, it is hard to understand how these gaps and errors were not spotted by the publisher.
The book is not without merits. Zakaria offers interesting perspectives on the workings of democracy in the United States and India, and he reminds readers that only countries with decent consumer levels and educational systems stand a reasonable chance of sustaining democratic institutions. This is true, and helps explain why democracy is stretched to breaking point in developing nations such as India and the Philippines, enabling the emergence of hardened autocrats like Indira Gandhi and Ferdinand Marcos.
At the same time, however, Zakaria believes that it is best leaving established Asian and Arab societies under traditional rulers rather than propagating reform. Indeed, he admits to feeling uneasy about the growth of democracy in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, on the grounds that it may produce anti-American regimes.
There are many obstacles to democratic culture in the developing world. They include poverty, corruption, privileged elites reluctant to share power and economic opportunity. Curiously, the lack of religious and political liberty in many Americanallied nations appears not to concern Zakaria. What we need now is a book that transcends American interests overseas and evaluates the working experiences of democracy beyond the United States — a project that would be useful to liberals and democrats everywhere.
Dr Vincent McKee is professor of comparative politics at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila.