Does Globalization Promote Democracy?: An early assessment

An enduring tenet of the post-Cold War era is that globalization can be a catalyst for democratization. In one formulation, when democratic ideals sweep (or even trickle) across borders into authoritarian states, globalization makes democratization inevitable. Proponents of this view point to the contagion of democratic transitions in the world over the past quarter-century and to the ability of technology to penetrate the most closed societies. Even the Orwellian North Korean government, they point out, has gone gingerly online, though the country’s broader population has no electronic access to the outside world.

But these broad trends cannot yet confirm a strong and direct connection between globalization and democratization. The evidence is mixed and will continue to be so for some time. For every society in which a “people’s power” revolution is helped along by international cheering squads and satellite television, another is daily becoming more cosmopolitan while adhering to traditional (and often authoritarian) practices. The city-state of Singapore, rated as “most global” on the A.T. Kearny/Foreign Policy magazine Globalization Index in terms of cross-border contact between people, has remained resolutely semi-authoritarian for the past 30 years and shows few signs of greater democratization. Moreover, while entire regions, particularly in the former Eastern bloc, embraced economic globalization and more open political processes at the onset of the 1990s, by the end of the decade many new democracies were faltering under the weight of globalization, whether because of unfavorable economic trends or greater transnational crime. It may not yet be possible to make a final judgment about the connection between globalization and democracy, but a closer look will clarify where globalization has helped democratization, where it has inhibited movement toward greater openness, and, assuming an increased pace of globalization, what the greater flows of people and ideas will mean for the world’s governments and societies in the years ahead.

Toward International Norms of Democracy

Perhaps the most tangible evidence of globalization’s impact on democratization has been the infusion of democratic norms, and the principles of human rights that support them, into many international and regional institutions. The principle of accountability for human rights abuse is increasingly unfettered by national borders, as the 1998 arrest of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet in London demonstrated. The ad hoc United Nations war crimes tribunal that was convened for the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was extended to Rwanda in the middle of the decade, presaging a broader move toward international justice. In the coming decade, the establishment of an International Criminal Court will be a watershed in that move.

Democratic principles are also reshaping regional institutions. The European Union, originally an economic community, now requires democratic government as a precondition for membership and promotes democracy in its collective foreign policy. The Organization of American States, once a diplomatic forum for both democratic and nondemocratic governments, now works actively to restore democracy when it is imperiled in member states. The Organization of African Unity, also a traditional diplomatic group, is attempting to forge a regional human rights code modeled after the Helsinki process in Europe.

But the process has its limits. Regional groups adopt codes of democratic practice where a quorum of democracies already exists or where the largest and most economically powerful states are democratic. In these cases, the weight of the democratic majority (and the benefits of membership in the club) are sometimes sufficient to help persuade nondemocratic states to liberalize. But the trend halts abruptly where the political spectrum includes an equal number of democratic and nondemocratic states or where authoritarian regimes are predominant. In Asia, for example, the diversity of political regimes has largely kept democracy and human rights off the table in the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

A more encouraging but more low-level trend has been the growth of transnational nongovernmental organizations devoted to promoting democracy and protecting human rights. These groups, which usually originate and are headquartered in Western nations, establish beachheads (and nurture local counterparts) in authoritarian nations, although they are seldom able to operate there without significant restrictions. Thus, in regions where authoritarian trends remain strong?most notably in Asia and the Middle East?the only networks dedicated to spreading democratic values and strengthening human rights are nongovernmental. For the foreseeable future, the best chance of building intergovernmental democracy and human rights regimes in these regions will be in a gradual crossover process, as NGO networks pull government officials into “track two” (mixed government and NGO) dialogues and other informal exercises.

The Instrumental Effects of Globalization

In regions lacking a widespread and overt commitment to democracy, Western policymakers and nongovernmental groups trying to promote greater political liberalization have placed their faith in the indirect effects of globalization. In this view, globalization offers a bait and switch. An authoritarian government agrees to a global regime to gain benefits of one sort (usually economic) but is forced to accept the political consequences (greater popular pressure for democracy) that follow. Policies crafted in accord with this theory focus on two aspects of globalization?international trade liberalization and telecommunications. Not surprisingly, the theory also supports two cherished American beliefs: that open markets and democracy are the inspiration and consequence of one another and that the march of technology cannot be stopped.

Thus, for more than a decade successive U.S. administrations have claimed that broadly maintaining trade with China, and specifically encouraging China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, would provide a back-door route to political reform. Adhering to WTO rules would require the regime in Beijing to provide more transparent and accountable government and would strengthen the concept of the rule of law, two fundamentals in modern democratic systems. In addition, foreign telecommunications companies would gain parity with government companies in China, spreading their technology and loosening the regime’s control over contact between China and the outside world, as well as among Chinese citizens themselves.

The logic, compelling in the long run, has short-term limits. In countries with enduring authoritarian regimes, leaders are more likely to accede to legal reform for pragmatic reasons?to improve economic conditions through increased international trade?so long as the reforms are not viewed by the populace as ideological capitulation. Leaders may also consider reforms pertaining to international trade to be easier to contain, because the initial focus is on commercial codes that primarily affect foreign business. Although it is possible to cordon off domestic populations in the early stages of such reform, the consequences of trade liberalization and marketization eventually require the regime to adopt a broader approach. But economic liberalization can also exacerbate problems that seem to outpace legal reform efforts and even encourage popular support for authoritarian or semi-authoritarian government. Russia’s entry into the international economy has, in the minds of many Russians, worsened official corruption and economic crime. As long as these trends are perceived to be stronger than (even impervious to) reform, citizens are likely to tolerate less than democratic rule as a short-term solution.

Moreover, some of the economic powers poised to enter international trade regimes, most notably China, could themselves affect the rules governing those regimes. Thus far, global trade rules have largely been written by Western democracies, whose combined economic power has placed aspiring entrants in the role of supplicants. But the entry of more “mixed” economic powers?governments committed to market reform but not necessarily to Western-style democracy?may change these institutions. At the least, the link between trade preferences and transparent processes may weaken slightly, as may support for overt political conditionality linked to trade, in the mode of the European Union. At worst, global trade institutions could be rent with bloc behavior, not unlike that sometimes seen in the United Nations.

Technology and Political Openness

Technology’s impact on democratization is likely to be more immediate, although not sufficient in itself to effect political change. Weak economies, along with government resistance, have contained the spread of technology in many Middle Eastern and some Asian states and will for the near future. But technology’s advent has added a new dimension to the prospects for political change. The most dramatic episodes of popular resistance against authoritarian regimes in the past decade have featured prominent roles for technology. In Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese demonstrators communicated with one another and the outside world by fax. In Bangkok in 1992, Thai professionals, dubbed “mobile phone mobs,” coordinated antimilitary demonstrations with student leaders and one another by cellular phone. In Indonesia in 1998, anti-Suharto resistance was largely directed via the Internet.

But for all these moments of high political drama, technology’s greatest promise in promoting political openness lies in the everyday intercourse of civil and political life. In authoritarian societies, the Internet differs from print and electronic media, because no government-dominated media exist for the regime to use as a counterweight. From its inception, the Internet has been a freer form of communication than any other, at least for those able to obtain it.

Modernizing authoritarian states often wish to expand the use of technology for economic development but also to keep citizens from using it for political purposes. Doing both, however, is increasingly difficult. China’s ambitious plan to build a national computerized information infrastructure has spurred domestic telecommunications industry growth of 30-50 percent a year since 1989. At the same time the government registers all Internet users, is investing in technology to monitor and filter cyber communications, and regulates acceptable topics for online discussion. But Chinese Internet users have learned how to circumvent many of these restrictions using proxy servers, a sign that technology can usually outmaneuver attempts to control it.

Today China’s 17 million Internet users are a small fraction of the nation’s population. But their number is increasing rapidly?growing 75 percent from 1997 to 1998 and then tripling in 1999. More important, political discourse in China has expanded despite state attempts to censor and prevent it. In the medium run, the effects of government efforts to control the Internet will depend in part on whether China can maintain brisk economic growth. If it does, Internet growth is likely to overwhelm attempts to control it. In the long run, the prognosis is favorable. In countries where technology is growing, control of global media may alternate between government and society, but the advantage will usually go to society in the end.

Downsides for Democracy

But globalization can also hand authoritarian regimes an edge. Regimes that accede to economic reforms most often allow openings they are confident they can control. If the immediate impact is favorable?an improved economy, greater access to modern technology and goods?the regime’s popular legitimacy may be strengthened by the perception that it has delivered (or at least permitted) the improvements. Ironically, globalization can thus extend the longevity of the regime, at least in the short run.

Conversely, bad economic times that are attributed, correctly or not, to globalization can also give authoritarian leaders a boost. When disillusionment with economic reform sets in, Western policymakers’ insistence on the link between reform and democratization can be used to authoritarian advantage. In the Asian economic crisis of 1997?98, Vietnam and Laos, which had begun very modest political reforms to accompany marketization, jettisoned these political moves when their trade with the countries hit hardest by the crisis declined. The failure of some of the region’s fastest-growing economies?those linked most closely to the West?was taken as a warning of the dangers of globalization. Hard-liners eclipsed reformers in the early post-crisis years or replaced them altogether in the political structure.

Globalization has also helped sustain authoritarian regimes by feeding nationalism in some non-Western states. During the Asian economic crisis, anti-Western sentiments flared even in countries well on the road to democracy, such as Thailand, when catastrophic drops in currency values were popularly attributed to manipulation by Western traders. In more authoritarian countries such as Malaysia, leaders turned this new nationalism to their advantage by salting their political platforms with anti-Western (and anti-globalization) rhetoric and portraying themselves as national champions.

Technology too has fed the nationalist backlash against globalization. Democracy promoters have long heralded the “CNN effect,” in which television brings world events into the living rooms of people whose leaders would prefer to block such coverage. In Thailand in 1992, when the military government banned reports of Bangkok street demonstrations on government-owned television stations, coverage of the events (and the military crackdown on demonstrators) was transmitted to citizens through satellite television, creating a galvanizing force for resistance. In recent years, authoritarian regimes have used television to their own advantage. In 1999, satellite TV brought NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade into the homes of urban Chinese, who were quick to respond with public protests. During that same incident nationalists also made use of the Internet. At the height of the protests, Chinese hackers broke into the website of the U.S. embassy in Beijing, in an eerie modern-day parallel to the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

New “Global” Elites?

Perhaps the most important impact of globalization on political reform, and one of the most difficult to foretell, will be the way it shapes new political and social classes, particularly in authoritarian countries. In recent decades social scientists have theorized that globalization?in particular its ability to improve economic conditions through trade?will help create new middle classes that will, in turn, increase pressure for democratic reform. There is some truth to this generalization, but it downplays the role of elites in political change. However strong popular pressure for democracy might be, a democratic transition usually requires the approval, overt or tacit, of a significant segment of the ruling order. The key question is not whether globalization can help serve up larger street crowds demanding change, but whether it can change the very nature of elite groups.

Signs are emerging that globalization may be doing just that, with mixed effects for democratization. In countries (whether authoritarian or democratic) that emphasize modernization and economic growth based in part on foreign trade and investment, two developments are reshaping elite political culture. The first is the rise of technocrats, particularly those trained in global economics, in government and politics. In China, for example, technocrats are gradually assuming greater responsibility in the bureaucratic structure.The Communist Party of China has even begun to recruit them to enhance its own legitimacy. Technocrats are not, of course, automatically democratic reformers, but their influence can help make government more accountable and transparent, helping to lay the groundwork for a more democratic system.

A more noteworthy trend is the rise of new commercial elites in the power structures of many authoritarian and democratizing societies. Many made their fortunes in modern commercial sectors that benefited greatly from globalization. Seeking influence wherever they can find it, these new elites often pack the parliaments in countries where the executive branch had traditionally enjoyed exclusive control. In applying new communications techniques (and portions of their fortunes) to connect with voters, they have inspired a modern push for grassroots politics. Although generally considered reformers, they may also epitomize globalization’s lack of regulation. As these new elites have assumed power, indictments for political corruption have increased.

A Realistic Appraisal

Clearly, globalization is not a political panacea. At best a long-term ally in promoting democracy, it provides no automatic solutions. The sanguine correlations offered by some policymakers in the early post-Cold War years?particularly regarding the link between increased trade and democratization?should be reexamined. Although the advanced democracies can prime the pump of globalization, they should not expect to control the outcome or to realize immediate results. Indeed, the more enduring aspects of globalization may take at least a generation to realize. Until then, policymakers should be as ready to recognize globalization’s costs to democratization as they are to laud its benefits.