Little after the Cold War goes according to script

June 08, 1994|By Robert Kuttner

LITTLE in the post-communist world is going according to script.

In Hungary, the voters just returned former communists to power, following a similar reverse last year in Poland.

The cold bath transition to capitalism in Russia is a dismal failure; it is not yet clear whether the army, the ultra-nationalist right or the regional mafias will inherit the mess.

China continues to achieve prodigious growth rates as an unexpected hybrid that is mostly communist and slightly capitalist. Theorists used to insist that you couldn't be a little bit capitalist any more than a little bit pregnant. Supposedly, either the crushing weight of statism would extinguish the entrepreneurial spirit. Or, alternatively, the sheer dynamism of a market economy would sweep away the central planners.

But China -- like Hungary and Poland -- could well practice its own successful blend of state and market for many decades to come. Though Beijing has defied Washington's human rights warnings, the Clinton administration continues to treat China's mostly statist economy as if it were a democratic capitalist system.

Nor has the end of the Cold War made it easier for the United States to compel its most recalcitrant trading partner, Japan, to play by symmetrical rules.

What's going on here? For one thing, free market triumphalism was premature. It turns out that many economic models are viable.

As James Fallows observes in his new book on Asia, "Looking at the Sun," even ostensibly capitalist nations don't necessarily practice America's brand.

The four strokes of a rattan cane administered to young Michael Fay in Singapore were not just a punishment for spray-painting cars; they were a symbolic lashing of Washington's efforts to impose a universal concept of capitalism and of human rights.

For another thing, the Western technical experts advising formerly communist nations ignored their domestic politics. One can debate whether austerity is necessary economics, but newly enfranchised peoples tend not to vote for abrupt declines in their living standards.

Stephen Holmes, a University of Chicago scholar studying post-communist society, observes that conventional wisdom insists the problem in Russia is too much lingering state. But public authority is collapsing so fast, says Professor Holmes, that the greater danger may well be an absence of the public authority necessary for a functioning civil society and market economy.

A third myth was that the end of the Cold War would free the United States to pursue a more diverse concept of our national interest. But in practice, the end of the East-West conflict has deprived us of the one reliable lodestar that signaled when to get involved.

When does a foreign crisis become a vital national security matter for the United States? In Kuwait? Korea? Bosnia? Somalia? Haiti? Rwanda?

It is easy to ridicule the Clinton administration for its lack of a consistent policy. But who is offering a convincing litmus of when to intervene, and over which issues?

One must go back to before World War I, when the United States was resolutely isolationist, to find as fragmented and confusing a global system. Dealing with such a world is simply not within America's experience as a great power -- which is why new policies have to be invented from scratch.

One could imagine a wholly different set of economic policies, in which the United States resolved to trade freely only with nations that practiced more or less our brand of human rights and free-market access. This would allow most of Europe, some of Latin America, and parts of Asia, free trade with the United States. Other nations could continue to trade with us -- but with penalty tariffs.

As affronts to human rights and economic barriers fell, so would tariffs. Nations that chose to retain different economic and social systems would be buffered from our own.

This is the model the Clinton administration briefly tried out in its more assertive Japan and China policies -- and rejected as too risky. Instead, we will continue to pretend these nations are American-style capitalists, and hope that our generosity and example will coax them in our direction. Similarly, we will hope that the former communist lands of Europe will eventually see our light -- and not collapse into anarchy in the meantime.

But the predicted stampede to embrace the American model has not materialized. Instead, one expects a long, frustrating era of diversity, muddle and even regional anarchy.

The English historian A.J.P. Taylor once described 1848 -- a year of aborted revolutions in Europe -- as "a turning point of history on which history failed to turn." The same might be said of 1989.

The pluralism of the post-communist age is turning out to be far more plural than the optimists imagined. And pessimists can fairly wonder how long it will take America to redefine its vision and its interests accordingly.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.

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