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Can the U.S. Take ‘Yes’ for an Answer?

Author: Robert A. Manning, Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council
April 6, 2000
Intellectual Capital

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Can the United States take "yes" for an answer? A series of fascinating recent displays of democracy entrenching itself in East Asia imply an important critique of, and profound lessons for, United States foreign policy, making that question a central one. Yet with the notable exception of Taiwan's recent presidential elections, these political developments have gone largely unreported in the American press and remain oblivious to 99.9% of the public.

A move toward democracy

Nonetheless, recent political events suggest that Asians are reaching Winston Churchill's conclusion: "Democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others." And this is happening without the hectoring, and without Congress imposing sanctions, making demands or threatening to apply U.S. law abroad (or for that matter, even noticing) that have become an unfortunate hallmark of often well-intentioned, but imperious American behavior,

Of course, it is difficult to over-estimate the significance of the March election victory of opposition leader Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan, the first peaceful transition of power in 5,000 years of Chinese history. But that landmark event sent shivers down the spines of the politburo in Beijing. Perhaps as much as fears of an independent Taiwan, the unseating of the ruling KMT in Taiwan -- which was structured exactly like the Chinese communist party, and maintained similar political control for half a century -- was a disturbing precedent for Beijing's leadership, if an intriguing example to 1.2 billion Chinese. Yet Taiwan's election was only the most dramatic of a host of developments reshaping East Asia's political landscape. Consider these recent events that are emblematic of the new post-economic crisis political dynamics in Southeast Asia:

  • In Thailand, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart, a ruling-party political kingpin, resigned his government posts in late March after a government anti-corruption commission found cause to suspect illicit money flows and the Thai courts indicted him.

    Throughout the country, where vote-buying and other forms of abuse have been endemic, Sanan's resignation was but one of a host of events underscoring a deepening of rule of law. The Sanan affair was unveiled by the Counter-Corruption Commission, itself a product of the new Thai constitution. At the same time, more than one-third of the candidates who won seats in the March Thai Senate elections, 78 in all, were disqualified after investigations into vote rigging. And not least, a mid-March decision by a Thai court declaring Thai Petrochemical Industry, the country's biggest debtor, insolvent, was a big boost to the nation's fledgling bankruptcy laws and the court created to resolve the legacy of the Asian financial crisis.

  • In the Philippines, a latter-day version of the "people power" uprising that led to Ferdinand Marcos' downfall in 1986 has begun. Led by businessmen and professionals, it is aimed at forcing President Joseph Estrada (known as "Erap") to either radically reform his ways or resign. Estrada, a former pop movie idol, is facing allegations of widespread corruption, incompetence and embarrassing buffoonery. Estrada's chief of staff was fired after he said that he was the only sober one in the room as policy decisions were made in late night, drunken partying sessions. Estrada's popularity, in the stratosphere after his 1998 election, has plummeted to 7% in recent opinion polls.

    Though elected as a populist champion of the poor, Estrada has brought back many of the cronies associated with Marcos, such as Eduardo "Danding" Cojuanco. Foreign investors have been bailing out, and international aid agencies have threatened to withhold funds amid widespread corruption charges, stalled financial reforms, a tumbling stock market and renewed Muslim insurgency. This revenge of civil society seeks to restore the momentum of Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos, an Eisenhower-like figure who began to revamp and open the Filipino economy along free market lines.

    The Indonesian situation

  • Then there is Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation and fourth most populous country with a population of 209 million. In barely six months in office President Abdhurramin Wahid, known as Gus Dur, has actually done reasonably well at the arduous job of building a democracy from nothing, despite ill-advised American impatience. He has forced Gen. Wiranto to resign, reduced the political role of the military, particularly of the army, and set in motion processes to redress past abuses. And displeased with his Cabinet's economic management that has held up a $400-million International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, he lashed out at them and created a shadow team of economic advisers.

    More recently, his impressive attorney general, Marzuki Dausman, had investigators go to the home of Suharto to pursue their inquiry of his ill-gotten gains. Marzuki is trying to overhaul the entire legal system, beginning with a complete housecleaning of his office. He wants to create U.S.-style independent prosecutors to investigate key cases such as Suharto and human-rights abuses by the Indonesian military in East Timor and Aceh.

    Jakarta has been criticized for not pursuing more vigorously military abuses of the Suharto regime, particularly in East Timor and Aceh. But Wahid and Muzarki know that they are on a tightrope: Their legitimacy depends on demonstrating accountability for past abuses, but too much retribution could trigger a military backlash. Muzarki has spoken of "pushing for restorative justice," not retributive justice. So expect a South African-type Truth Commission rather than blanket Bosnia-type war crime tribunals.

    But American demands for full-blown war-crimes tribunals continue to hamper Washington's ability to work with the Wahid administration. This is precisely the problem all these regional developments highlight: We demand countries like Indonesia to make the changes we want and how we want, rather than allowing them to judge what their societies can bear and act in their own rhythm.

Watch and learn

U.S. foreign policy needs to learn to take "yes" for an answer. These recent events underscore broad patterns in Asia over the past 15 years: As economic dynamism has produced middle classes, demand for political accountability has followed, with the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and now Indonesia becoming democratic, and deepening that process. It is almost as if we do not believe in our own values that are triumphing.

Whether the issue is labor and environmental laws or political accountability for abuses, nations move at their own pace. Yet a dangerously dysfunctional U.S. foreign policy is buffeted by competing single-issue interest groups, a legacy-desperate president and public inattention, which often results in seemingly heavy-handed, arrogant and counter-productive policies trying to force the issue. Even here in authoritarian pluralist Malaysia, half the Malay voters angry at President Mahatir Mohammed's ruthless persecution of former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrihim, voted for opposition parties.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Asian developments that have occurred in Confucian, Islamic and secular cultures alike may apply to China. So long as China's reforms are moving forward, and the country is becoming more prosperous, why is it thought that Beijing's Leninist leaders will ultimately be immune from these trends as the Chinese middle-class swells. Can the United States have confidence in its convictions and put down its policy sledge-hammer?

The writer, Robert Manning, is Senoir Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Copyright 2000

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