It is hard to miss the democratic longings of so many of the world’s citizens as their voices rise these days. In number and diversity, these are surely among the distinct sounds of 2013.
It is, however, impossible to miss the persistent disheartening spread of corruption among countries struggling to enter the modern world. It is not just extreme abuses of political power; it’s the exercise of oligarchic influence and (worst of all) the combination of the two.
Where is all this going? And what are Americans to do in a world now rightfully mistrustful of humanitarian interventions? What are Americans to do when the Wilsonian mission to democratize everyone suffers an almost certain fatal loss of credibility?
To hear the sound of the world we live in, consider this utterance:
“We need a president who wants to do good for the country, not to rob it.”
Quick: Where and when was this fine aspiration articulated?
Before we get to the answer, think of how many places you might hear such an observation. Could be South Africa, where Nelson Mandela’s passing reminds us of how venal his successors have often proven. Change “president” to “prime minister” and you are in Thailand, where dissidents ravage Bangkok to push a powerful, hugely rich family, the Shinawatras, out of politics.
I hear Chinese voices by the many millions in this remark. Over-the-top corruption, often involving colluding tycoons and Communist Party officials, is the single most threatening issue facing the Beijing leadership (if only they were facing it squarely). Discontent over the “corruptachiks,” let us call them, is the rumble deep within the mountain.
O.K., time’s up: The plaintive cry came from a student in Kiev a few days ago, taking a break from Independence Square, where hundreds of thousands of protesters have gathered for the past two weeks to demand the ouster of Ukraine’s corrupt, Moscow-tilted president, Victor F. Yanukovich. On Sunday, when the largest demonstration yet was scheduled, the BBC posted some moving, camera-in-the-crowd news pics. This is what the world I am writing about looks like.
The details always differ. Ukraine’s opposition wants the country to lean into Europe as a key to democratizing, modernizing, and getting away from the oligarchic model infamous in post–Soviet Russia. China today is “a vast field of aspiration,” to borrow from a book I wrote a few years ago. It is economic, social, and political, and it puts ever more people on a collision course with the corruptachiks, whose grip on power seems nickel-plated, but, then, so did the Soviets.
These two countries, Ukraine and China, now crystallize one of the great challenges facing all emerging nations. Xi Jinping, China’s chest-out new president, is thinking of barring correspondents from The New York Times and Bloomberg, both news organizations having written at length recently about the astonishing extent of corruption in the People’s Republic. How’s this for adroit leadership? Shoot the messenger.
But corruption is only part of the problem. And the problem challenges the old Western democracies as much as it does the so-called middle-income nations.
To begin with, corruption is primarily a symptom, an outcome, a consequence, as opposed to a stand-alone phenomenon. It floods the vacuum when democratic mechanisms are absent or malfunctioning—this is the obvious root of it.
There is a new, more threatening reason for corruption as it now spreads among nations leaving their pasts behind and looking for new ways forward. It is the substitution of technocratic competence for democratic procedure.
In a column published in this space nearly three years ago, “The Real Reason China Should Worry America,” I quoted a celebrated Indian thinker named Partha Chatterjee, who talked of “governmental technologies” to describe this shift in the world’s priorities. “A regime secures legitimacy not by the participation of citizens in matters of state but by claiming to provide for the well-being of the population,” he wrote in The Politics of the Governed. “Its mode of reasoning is not deliberative openness but rather an instrumental notion of costs and benefits.”
Bruce Jentleson, a professor of politics at Duke and co-author of The End of Arrogance, put it this way: “Legitimacy in many societies is coming to be based on performance, not process. By contrast, Americans are more about process and less about performance.”
This trend has quickened since I quoted these guys. Just this weekend, Margaret Hodge, a British MP noted for her Laborite hell-raising, spoke to the Financial Times of “managerial politics.” It is all committees, conferences, and briefings now, she griped. Connecting with constituencies gets short shrift.
This is what Yanukovich is defending in the Ukraine—a sequestered technocracy, accountability out the window. And with the window open, in comes the strong reek of corruption. There are no mechanisms to counter it.
The Mandarins in Beijing are perfecting the art. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is not about eliminating graft and hot money; the project is to control them and keep them out of sight—but keep them, certainly. And you cannot say what oppositionists truly want: A lot of Ukrainian “democrats” might be content enough if the water runs and the schools have heat. We have to wait and see.
This is a danger for countries such as the U.S. for one simple reason: Performance politics works more often than we easily admit. People who have gone long without tend to take the bribe. Consequently, the Western democracies will have trouble competing in the 21st century. They already are, indeed.
Nobody envies Washington’s malfunctions. The “be like us” conceit is shot. The other night a TV commentator remarked that the calamity of Obamacare means the president will no longer be judged by politics or principles or goals, but by performance. So the tendency to technocracy, at least as we are to judge Obama, spreads. (It is also partly what the fight in Europe is about.)
It is the wrong way to go. In the face of Ukraine’s upheaval and the low-simmer corruption crisis in China, the priority for the democracies must be to remain democracies—obstinately, maybe even bravely. Forget Wilson: There is no spreading democracy around the world, we realize at last. Ukraine and China underscore the impossibility of the thought in the post–Iraq, post–Afghanistan era.
The task is to make our own institutions work again and show others that efficiency and democracy are not an either/or deal. Performance and process are not a trade-off, even if Washington is doing its best to make it seem so. The point is to recover efficiency and frayed democratic values, too. This would be to judge our president on the basis of what he stands for as well as his technocratic competence. The result would be a better polity.
This would make Americans leaders once again—imagine that. It would be something new, leadership by example rather than interventions and the old “mission.” This is what the earliest Americans meant, long before Woodrow Wilson came along.
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