Friedman's Civil-Society Panacea

The New York Times columnist oversimplifies the world once again.

There may be effective methods for comparing political systems, but they require more care and nuance than one can sketch on the back of a cocktail napkin—or perhaps even outline in an op-ed—particularly, it seems, if The New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman is the columnist.

Friedman, fresh from a trip to India, used his column this week to engage in a favorite Washington cocktail party game, speculating about the fate of the world's emerging powers. But he added a twist by including the disappointing Egypt among the other big headliners of China and India. He focuses on two variables: first, the strength of the state; and, second, nongovernmental associations. He concludes that all three countries are missing at least one element (and one is missing both):

India has a weak central government but a really strong civil society, bubbling with elections and associations at every level. China has a muscular central government but a weak civil society, yet one that is clearly straining to express itself more. Egypt, alas, has a weak government and a very weak civil society, one that was suppressed for 50 years, denied real elections and, therefore, is easy prey to have its revolution diverted by the one group that could organize, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the one free space, the mosque.

One would not expect an opinion leader such as Friedman to be behind on the fashionable lingo of our day. Yet his use of the term "civil society" indicates that he is living in a prior decade. This shorthand for the nongovernmental sphere took off in the 1990s, in a post-Cold War world looking for the secret sauce that would make non-Western nations as free and prosperous as the West. It led to the dramatic expansion of the global institutions known as NGOs and made the democracy-promotion movement a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

The civil society paradigm may now be in decline. As one professor told me a few years ago, "We were all writing about it in the nineties, but since then it seems to have faded away." Indeed, the Google Books database shows its use accelerating in the late 1980s, peaking in the early 2000s and now beginning to wane.

Perhaps civil society hasn't turned out to be the magic bullet that some had anticipated. It was at its most powerful in the age of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the "end of history" era when politicians sought a "third way" to reconcile the excesses of both market individualism and welfarist collectivism—not only for their own countries but for the entire globe. It's not surprising that today some think tank scholars and academics have reconsidered the utility of the civil society formula. Looking back over two decades, one sees a series of foreign policy failures based in part on the great hope for installing Western-style liberal democracy in countries previously under illiberal regimes.

Remember when U.S. leaders thought they could remake post-Soviet Russia in America's image? Or when they thought removing Saddam Hussein would pave the way for liberal democracy in Iraq? Or, more recently, when some assumed that the transparency created by the internet would create a pluralist society in Egypt, where secularists and Islamic fundamentalists could live together in harmony? All of these predictions were based in part on the assumption that the Western formula for a stable and prosperous society could be grafted on to other parts of the world—as easy as double-clicking to upgrade the software on a computer.

But in the countries examined by Friedman, longstanding conditions on the ground—the underlying hardware—may require very different solutions. Perhaps China's history suggests that achieving solidarity there may rely on a kind of soft nationalism that is hard for the West to comprehend. Or in India, great cultural diversity may call for a more robust, homegrown federalism. Egypt, too, may need to retain sectarian elements that are anathema to secular Westerners.

Reducing a complex world to simple theories can be a powerful force for crafting winning strategies. The obvious example is the Cold War, in which Communist ideology did pose an existential threat to the essence of Western life. But as others in these spaces have pointed out, despite the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy around a few goals—containment, deterrence—the Cold War world remained as complicated as the pre-Cold War world.

Some argue that another ideology, market capitalism, defeated the communists once and for all and settled the matter definitively. This is an oversimplification. Successful U.S. foreign policy decisions during the Cold War were not motivated by an undying faith in capitalism but rather by a remarkably unideological realism. Capitalism, though essential, was secondary, the fuel that kept the engines running.

Since Friedman still believes in the secret sauce of civil society, it isn’t surprising that he advocates the same medicine for the ills of the emerging powers: educated young people, he asserts, will strengthen both the state and civil society. And yet he offers little evidence on how this new magic bullet will hit the target. Without such evidence, Friedman's vision—as with the 1990s exuberance for civil society—is merely a paper edifice of false hope. U.S. strategists must deal with the world as it is, not as they would wish it to be.