Dice are rolling

We are now started on a chain of events across the world, the resolution of which will determine the global reach of democracy during my children’s generation.  These events appear disconnected, but have in common the failure of top-down systems – from meritocracies to thugocracies – to withstand the complex pressures generated by the globalization of production, consumption, finance, and above all, communication and information.

The most remarkable feature about this moment of change is that, until recently, it had stopped short of systematic violence, at least outside Iraq.  Can this last?  The historian in me doubts that great change can be brought about without murderous resistance.  The recent massacre perpetrated against demonstrators by Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, tends to confirm my pessimism.

History is written in violence; that is an indisputable fact about the past.  About the future, I can only hope to be proven wrong.

Let me start with the latest of the transformational events:  the defeat by a wide margin of the EU constitution in France.  While a geiser of verbiage has spewed nonsense and platitudes all around the subject (the least objectionable of it accessible via RealClearPolitics), the fact to hang on to here is that the non vote has ended an era in Europe, and that no one has a clue as to what comes next.

Will the Europeans surrender ever more abjectly to the demands of their political elite – that tyranny of schoolmasters de Tocqueville warned against?  Or will they reconsider their moral and political condition, as individuals and as peoples, and opt for greater freedom of action, greater risk, but also a greater ability to influence the future?

Before that question is even formulated, there will be many temptations presented to the Europeans:  to abandon hope, to hide behind smugness and cynicism, to rage against vast impersonal forces, or against an America which seems to embody them, in short, to become a destructive force on the world stage, because that is always easier than shouldering one’s share of responsibility.

The Europe of the next generation is being born today.  Let’s keep tabs on the infant, to see whether he develops the character to stay free and become a force for good.

Across the Middle East, long-time dictators are tottering, and the only questions are, when will they yield, and what will replace them.  The history of the region has swung between absolutism and tribal warfare.  After the overthrow of Saddam by U.S. troops, the Shiites and Kurds, long oppressed by the fallen dictator, have joined to form a government based on the principle of popular sovereignty.  In response, the Sunnis have unleashed tribal war under the guise of religion.  They find support among those in the Arab world who consider Kurds as eternal foreigners, and Shiites as loathsome heretics.

Nowhere in the world are the dice rolling more consequentially than in Iraq.  If blowing up innocents succeeds as a political strategy, the entire Middle East will be in flames within a year, and the war on terror will be as good as lost.  I don’t think this will happen.  For me the question is less about terror than, yet again, about character:  will the mutually hostile tribes of Iraq be able to reach some arrangement that allows them all to prosper?   If the answer is no, the present state of violence will continue or intensify.

If events in Iraq are the most consequential to the next generation, those in Lebanon are probably the most suggestive of the direction the rest of the Middle East will take.  Lebanon has a long history of inter-tribal compromise, free press, entrepeneurial genius, and representative government (of a sort).  If democracy can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere in the region.

But Lebanon has also known tribal war to the death, and the feelings, both of blind loyalty to one’s own and of equally blind rage against one’s opponents, are still very much alive in the population.  Circumstances have bestowed a huge opportunity.  The Syrian occupation has ended.  Yesterday’s elections have raised Saad Hariri, son of the murdered former prime minister, to de facto leader of the opposition forces.  Against him are arrayed the Syrians, the Iranians, their creatures in Lebanon, and those who profited from the old order, including Hezbollah, the armed Shia militia.

Democracy in such an environment is a tall order, and Hariri himself knows that, if he fails to deliver a new Lebanon within a few years, the window of opportunity will slam shut.

In Syria and Egypt, two dinosaurs, Bashar Assad and Hosni Mubarak respectively, are feeling pressured by the U.S. and threatened by their own peoples.  Both have been throwing dissidents in prison, while promising to lead a reformist movement in person.  That is likely only if we believe a triceratops can evolve into Abraham Lincoln.

Assad has called for a Baath Party congress in early June; while dissident Syrians expect few changes to come out of it – “you simply cannot fix a corpse,” one of them maintains – he is desperate enough to try dramatic gestures.  Mubarak just held a referendum for a tightly controlled “reform” of the presidential elections, which went so well his thugs celebrated by beating up dissidents; they showed a preference for manhandling women.

The motto of the Egyptian opposition is kifaya:  enough.  It’s an apt term.  The twin farces in Syria and Egypt won’t last long.  But what follows the dinosaurs, in countries where the laws of political evolution have been unnaturally distorted, is anybody’s guess.

Then there’s India and China.  Both appear to be on the threshhold of great power status, yet neither can continue on the path it is currently pursuing.  Prosperity in India runs up against the corruption and arbitrariness of the state and central governments, the infamous “license raj.”  Either transparency is attained, or prosperity will be smothered.

As for China, it resembles a levitation act, amazing while it lasts but ultimately in defiance of the laws of physics:  what goes up must come down.  Laissez-faire, wild-west economic freedom managed by a totalitarian-minded party is too gross a paradox to endure.  One side or the other must win out.  In India and China the dice are rolling, the stakes are huge, and the outcome impossible to foretell.

In truth, the stakes are immense for the entire world.  The next 20 years, conceivably, can see an expansion of freedom unparalleled in history, with revolutionary consequences for the moral and material condition of the human race.  Just as likely is a world in which rulers wage savage war against their own people, tribe seeks to exterminate tribe, and only the fortunate few among nations can escape the vortex of violence.  We are not entirely powerless in this drama, but as Machiavelli observed, luck also enters the equation, and in that sense the future will feel very much like a roll of the dice.

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