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Taking Liberties

December 17, 2009

George Sciallaba in The National:

Post-Cold War history began with two broken promises. The world’s population eagerly anticipated a “peace dividend”: the channeling of a large share of the vast resources formerly devoted to “defence” into domestic reconstruction, the alleviation of poverty, and humanitarian foreign aid. It didn’t happen. When the international Communist conspiracy faded away, other rationales were found for continuing advanced weapons development and maintaining hundreds of American military bases around the world. Defence spending has not missed a beat in the United States, which has few manufacturing industries left, a decaying transportation system, a colossal trade deficit, and an economically insecure population, but which spends almost as much money on “defence” as all other countries combined.

Less explicitly, perhaps, but just as eagerly, many people also looked forward to a democracy dividend. “The natural logic of capitalism leads to democracy,” proclaimed a Reagan-era bestseller by the American social theorist Michael Novak. The citizens of countries liberated from Communism, with moral and material support from the Cold War’s magnanimous victors, would construct or restore democratic institutions and free markets. Third World societies, no longer caught between rival superpowers, would begin to receive primarily economic rather than security assistance from the US and could therefore develop without distorting military or ideological pressures. It seemed as though a yoke had been removed from the world’s neck.

But not for long. The “Washington Consensus” replaced the Cold War as a constraint – a “straitjacket,” as Thomas Friedman breezily acknowledged – on political development, more subtle but no less distorting than superpower rivalry. What has emerged, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a new and troublingly limited form of democracy.

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