The cold war ended with almost universal acceptance that market based economies that engage in international trade provide a better life for their citizens than do closed economies with central planning. Even the “communist” countries of China and Vietnam do little more than give lip service to any application of Marxist thought.
However this “victory” in the cold war should not be thought of as a victory for democracy. In fact, there is a growing dissatisfaction for democracy in much of the world. Research would seem to indicate that while economic growth is correlated with economic freedom, the evidence that democracy leads to economic growth in developing economics is much less compelling. After all China has seen 650 million people moved out of extreme poverty while giving its citizens more economic freedom but little in the way of political freedom in a very short period of time. Can any democracy in the developing world claim a similar record of achievement?
There may be a new cold war emerging, one that is not fought with guns and threats of mutual destruction, but one fought out in the financial centers of the world; the battle for the hearts and minds of the developing world between the ideology of authoritarian control of political activities and democratic political and economic systems. The authoritarian system promises stability and longer-term economic policies while democratic systems focus more on change and short-term policies. This cold war will not necessarily be fought between nations, but by individuals with competing ideologies both within and across borders.
Today, the authoritarian ideology is making headway in winning hearts and minds. The current financial crises in Europe and the sluggish US economy being weighed down by increasing levels of debt have exposed democracy’s biggest weakness, which is the need for politicians to forsake long-term fiscal responsibility to create short-term benefits in order to get reelected. On the other hand China has weathered the storm quite well and its longer term policies of fiscal restraint appear to currently be working better than the policies of the governments of democracies to endlessly spend beyond their means.
The political situation in Thailand has been a huge propaganda victory for the proponents of the authoritarian view. Here in Vietnam where I am currently at, in the media, the crisis in Thailand has been a major topic and is contrasted negatively to the stability and economic growth found in this country. While not trying to take sides in the political battle, in Thailand it is obvious there is not a general willingness to accept the outcomes of elections and for the election losers to lick their wounds, regroup and attempt to gain power by winning the next election. Instead military coups, politically motivated judiciary decisions and mass demonstrations have become the means to attempt to gain political power.
Even 78 years after the end of the absolute monarchy democracy has not won the hearts and minds of many of the Thai people. Many look at Thailand as an example of why democracy does not work in Asia, while others will claim a country needs a benevolent dictatorship to run the country until it develops to the point where it is mature enough to handle democracy. Thailand might be the test case in Asia for democracy. Can Thailand become a functioning democracy where peaceful transfers of power through elections become an accepted fact, or will it fall into constant political chaos or will it follow the Burmese model of promising elections “sometime in the future” without actually doing so.
In hindsight, it is easy to see the factors that caused market economies to win out in the last cold war over command and control economies. However at the height of the cold war the outcome did not seem certain at all and with America’s military withdrawal from Vietnam “communism” seemed to have scored a major victory. But in the long run the command and control economic system of running a government proved to be less efficient than economies that primarily relied on markets. Maybe Thailand will be this cold war’s “Vietnam” being a short term victory for proponents of authoritarianism but only delaying the inevitable march of democracy.
In forty years time historians might be writing about the inevitable “victory” of democracy over authoritarian systems of political governance, however at the present this victory is by no means assured. While a country with an authoritarian political system and a developed economy in the 21st century remains an untested hypothesis, there is enough evidence of democracy’s recent failings to understand why there is growing support for other models of governance.
Does the political crisis in Thailand indicate a slowing or reversal of the use of democratic systems of government? Will Thailand continue to be used as the example of what can go wrong if a country allows political demonstrations and elections? Or is this situation only a temporary set-back for both the country and for the furthering expansion of the democratic model of government? The answers might seem obvious from the vantage point of forty years in the future but the answers are less obvious at the present.[Scott Hipsher is the author of Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm; The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective; Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries and numerous articles in academic journals, academic conference papers and contributions in other books. The author can be reached at [email protected]]