Beyond their immediate impact on the reigning autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt, the protests engulfing the Middle East have challenged a central premise of many Arab regimes, namely that in exchange for political passivity the leaders would provide stability and economic opportunities. The states never really kept their side of the bargain, and the Middle East increasingly came to resemble the Soviet Union of the 1970s, a corrupt, stagnant bureaucratic state.
It is obviously too early to know what will arise from the upheavals in the Middle East, but a new order would offer the United States both challenges and opportunities.
From the outset it is important to dismiss the trite Orientalist assertion that democratic movements would only lead to the rise of radical Islamist regimes. The reality remains that in the past three decades the Arab populace have gradually grown weary of radical ideologies and their self-proclaimed truths. From pan-Arabism and its promise of Arab renaissance to Islamism and its quest for salvation, the beleaguered populace has come to appreciate that the primary effect of such ideologies is repression and stagnation.
What is unfolding in Arab streets is not an assertion of religious reaction but a yearning for democracy with all its burdens and rewards.
The first such reward would be joining the global movement toward economic reform. The preconditions for a successful market transition, such as rule of law, competing centers of power, transparency and cohesive administrative networks are also essential pillars of democratic polity. Only legitimate regimes resting on popular support can undertake painful structural reforms. A more liberal polity that cedes power to the private sector is well-suited to rekindling the confidence of diverse international investors and meeting the standards of the global economy. Both Eastern Europe and Latin America testify to the fact that an expanding entrepreneurial class has historically proven to be the most enduring nemesis of autocratic rule. In the end, free societies are the most effective way to create prosperous economies.