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The Dustbin of History: Asian Values

According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values — fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were ...

According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values — fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were economic success stories and the West was mired in recession — lost their luster following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mutual assured destruction kept the two Cold War superpowers in check but offers little assurance to nations threatened by suicide terrorists. The Club of Rome’s doomsday prophecies of global starvation are now starved for credibility. The threat of the military-industrial complex is taken seriously only in Hollywood films and on conspiracy newsgroups. Dependency theory thrived amidst a backlash against economic imperialism yet withered in a globalized era of free trade and foreign investment.

Are these ideas really doomed to oblivion? Or, for all their flaws, do they still have some relevance? Can they make a comeback? FOREIGN POLICY has invited six notable minds to sort through the dustbin of history and share what they found.

About a decade ago, East Asia was hot and so were "Asian values." In explaining East Asia’s extraordinary economic development — what the World Bank termed a "miracle" — many believed that culture played a pivotal role. After all, so many Third World countries had tried to climb their way out of poverty, and only those of East Asia had fully succeeded. Singapore’s brilliant patriarch Lee Kuan Yew became a world-class pundit, explaining how the unique culture of Confucianism permeated Asian societies. Many scholars agreed, perhaps none more forcefully than Joel Kotkin, who in his fascinating 1993 book, Tribes, essentially argued that if you want to succeed economically in the modern world, be Jewish, be Indian, but above all, be Chinese.

I have to confess that I found this theory appealing at first, since I am of Indian origin. But then I wondered, if being Indian is a key to economic success, what explained the dismal performance of the Indian economy over the four decades since its independence in 1947 or, for that matter, for hundreds of years before that? One might ask the same question of China, another country with an economy that performed miserably for hundreds of years until two decades ago. After all, if all you need are the Chinese, China has had hundreds of millions of them for centuries. As for Jews, they have thrived in many places, but the one country where they compose a majority, Israel, was also an economic mess until only recently. All three countries’ economic fortunes improved markedly in the last three decades. But this turnaround did not occur because they got themselves new cultures. Rather, their governments changed specific policies and created more market-friendly systems. Today, China is growing faster than India, but that has more to do with the pace of China’s economic reform than with the superiority of the Confucian ethic over the Hindu mind-set.

It is odd that Lee Kuan Yew is such a fierce proponent of cultural arguments. Singapore is not so culturally different from its neighbor, Malaysia. Singapore is more Chinese and less Malaysian, but compared with the rest of the world, the two are quite similar societies. But more so than its neighbors, Singapore has had an effective government that has pursued wise economic policies. It’s not Confucius but Lee Kuan Yew that explains Singapore’s success. The simplest proof is that, as Malaysia has copied the Singaporean model, it has also succeeded economically.

The discussion about Asian values was not simply a scholarly debate. Many Asian dictators used arguments about their region’s unique culture to stop Western politicians from pushing them to democratize. The standard rebuttal was that Asians prefer order to the messy chaos of democracy. But East Asia’s recent political history makes a powerful case for the universality of the democratic model — if it is done right. Unlike other Third World countries, many in the region liberalized their economies first and then democratized their politics, thereby mirroring the sequence that took place in 19th-century Europe. The result has been the creation of remarkably stable democratic systems in Taiwan and South Korea, with more mixed but still impressive results in Thailand and Malaysia.

The point is not that culture is unimportant. On the contrary, it matters greatly. Culture represents the historical experience of a people, is embedded in their institutions, and shapes their attitudes and expectations about the world. But culture can change. German culture in 1939 was much different from what it became in 1959, just 20 years later. Europe, once the heartland of hypernationalism, is now post-nationalist; its states are willing to cede power to supranational bodies in ways Americans can hardly imagine. The United States was once an isolationist republic with a deep suspicion of standing armies. Today, it is a world hegemon with garrisons around the world. The Chinese were once backward peasants. Now they are smart merchants. Economic crises, war, political leadership — all these circumstances change culture.

A century ago, when East Asia seemed immutably poor, many scholars (most famously German sociologist Max Weber) argued that Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism. A decade ago, when East Asia was booming, scholars turned this explanation on its head, arguing that Confucianism actually emphasized the essential traits for economic dynamism. Then the wheel turned again, and many came to see in Asian values all the ingredients of crony capitalism. Lee Kuan Yew was compelled to admit that Confucian culture had bad traits as well, among them a tendency toward nepotism and favoritism. But surely recent revelations about some of the United States’ largest corporations have shown that U.S. culture has its own brand of crony capitalism.

Weber linked northern Europe’s economic success to its Protestant ethic and predicted that the Catholic south would stay poor. In fact, Italy and France have grown faster than Protestant Europe over the last half century. One may use the stereotype of shifty Latins and a mañana work ethic to explain the poor performance of some countries in the Southern Hemisphere, but then how does one explain Chile? Its economy is performing nearly as well as the strongest of the Asian tigers. Indeed, Chile’s success is often attributed to another set of Latin values: strong families, religious values, and determination.

The truth is that there is no simple answer to why certain societies succeed at certain times. When a society does prosper, its success often seems inevitable in retrospect. So the instinct is to examine successful societies and search within their cultures for the seeds of success. Cultures are complex; one finds in them what one wants. If one wants to find cultural traits of hard work and thrift within East Asia, they are there. If one wants to find a tendency toward blind obedience and nepotism, these too exist. Look hard enough and most cultures exhibit these traits.

One would think that the experience with the Asian values debate would have undercut these kinds of cultural arguments. Yet having discarded this one, many have moved on to another. Now it is Islam’s turn, but this time as a culture of evil. Rather than faulting bad leadership, politics, and policies in Muslim countries, many in the West — including British historian Paul Johnson, Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, and U.S. evangelical leader Pat Robertson — have found it more comforting to fall back on grand generalizations about Islam. They will find that the one group of people who most strongly agrees with them are the Islamic fundamentalists who also believe that Islam’s true nature is incompatible with the West, modernity, and democracy. But history will disprove this new version of the culture theory as it has the last.

Fareed Zakaria is an author and host of Fareed Zakaria GPS Twitter: @FareedZakaria

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