Mittwoch, 22. August 2012

Another Very Glittery Reading List Reviewed

Trying to make sense of the Arab Spring is not exactly an easy task and has, hence, given rise to all sorts of explanations, some credible, some nutty. But there was always something odd about the Middle East being the only region left out of the third or fourth way of democratisation that started in the 1990s. Yet, while many people in the Middle East are now fighting for democracy and freedom, there are still people who argue that such aspirations should be eschewed in favour of the stability that autocracies supposedly provide. In fact, this line of thinking is frighteningly widespread among Western intellectuals, both right and left-wing. Yet, when trying to make sense of the developments, I felt it might be useful to take another look into Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. His ideas, first developed in the early 1990s, still ring surprisingly true and though I certainly won't have to re-evaluate his theories here, there is one witty take-away. Fukuyama observed that while socialism and communism were largely being discredited in Eastern Europe and Asia, Western intellectuals had increasing sympathy with the ideologies. While none of these Western intellectuals wanted to live in communist or socialist countries, they still felt that these systems might have legitimacy for others. In the eyes of these intellectuals such legitimacy grew with the cultural and geographic distance of the society in question. It often appears to me that the very same dynamic is at work today when Western intellectuals question the genuine nature of the Arab Spring and the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East.  

Putting the Arab Spring in context is not an easy objective in itself, but discussing what influence the West has had when spreading democracy and the rule of law is where it becomes even more interesting. And in that vein, Robert Kagan's new book The World America Made is an interesting contribution that is by no means as bad as some people have dubbed it. Kagan is quite right in pointing out that the United States has been a reluctant sheriff that only faced up to the challenges presented by the world when left with no other option. Kagan remains deeply sceptical when considering whether the BRICS will uphold the world order the United States had created. This pessimism is partly routed in Kagan's distrust in multilateral institutions, which is all too understandable. Yet, at times, he is taking the argument a little too far. After all, this world is more peaceful precisely because the United States has created a world order that is easy join and more difficult to overturn. That is not to say that there won't be tensions in the future, but the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for instance, would go a long way in easing tensions in the South China Sea. Still, Kagan reminds us of the contribution of this beneficial hegemon.  

Yet, Kagan's anxiety over the nature of the newly rising powers is not without merit. In fact, despite the Arab Spring, there is also an authoritarian resurgence in places like Venezuela or Russia. Slate contributor William J. Dobson in his new book The Dictator's Learning Curve is looking into the way regimes in Russia and Venezuela and other places are trying to paint themselves as democrats while destroying the democratic institutions these countries still possess or have possessed. He is giving a very detailed account of how voter suppression, electoral manipulation and persecution is being executed in states like Venezuela, Russia, the People's Republic of China and—before the Arab Spring commenced in earnest—in Egypt. All of this is from time to time a chilling account, yet Dobson also gives reason for hope. For the first time, democracy and human rights activists have formed a truly global movement, where one movement learns from each other.

Now politics is all nice and lovely, if you're a policy wonk like Christine O'Donnell, but that is not all in life. If you feel ready to be read about the adventures of a bird-watcher, than Jonathan Franzen's Farther Away is a good read that might take your mind of politics. And if you even want to read a German book than Rafael Horzon's Das weisse Buch is certainly everything but a waste of time.  

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