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Democracy and markets


Jakarta, Indonesia -- FIVE YEARS AFTER the collapse of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War and ushered in the promise of a new world order, President Clinton has centered his foreign policy on the dual goals of promoting democracy and market economies abroad.

From Johannesburg to Jericho, from Moscow to Manila and to Port-au-Prince, American military, diplomatic and economic might is at work advancing the proposition that free minds and free markets offer the best possible hope for long-term peace and prosperity.

That was the message Bill Clinton brought to Indonesia this week when he met with his East Asia counterparts. It will be the theme he carries to a very different group of leaders next month (Dec. 10-11) in Miami, where the president will play host to the first Summit of the Americas.

"Free markets and democracy are on the move," the president told a group of businessmen here.

They are not, he might have added, necessarily moving together, as the contrasts between Asia and Latin America make clear.

Among the 18 countries making up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC group are China, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and a couple of others whose governments have staunchly resisted efforts to develop pluralistic democracies.

Still other APEC members, notably South Korea and Taiwan, suppressed democratic development for decades until their economies caught fire. Only later did they begin yielding to the forces of democratic change.

In Miami, Mr. Clinton will be surrounded by no fewer than 33 Latin American leaders, each of whom was democratically elected.

And which region is winning the development race?

Asia, hands down. Economic output across the region grew 7.4 percent last year, and should top 7 percent this year and next, according to the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

Latin America, as a region, grew 2.9 percent last year and will grow by an estimated 3 percent this year and next, the bank reports.

Democracy isn't to blame nearly so much as the vast differences between the two regions' history, cultures and resources.

Yet, Mr. Clinton's contention that democracy and development go hand in hand comes under scrutiny and even criticism across much of Asia, where the links between political and economic freedoms have ranged from tenuous to non-existent.

Opponents argue that for many of Asia's 3 billion people -- 2 billion of whom are poor -- democracy is unimportant and indeed may not even be desirable, as it can impede development and even lead toward chaos.

These critics look to such countries as Russia, India and the Philippines as examples of democracies struggling to ignite the sort of economic growth seen in Indonesia or China.

In those two countries political choice has taken a distant back seat to the more pressing imperative of raising living standards through export-led growth, largely fueled, somewhat ironically, by American consumers and investors.

To some Asian leaders, development at the expense of democracy has become something of a point of pride.

Singapore's senior leader, Lee Kuan Yew, has used press restrictions, detention of political foes and a range of other suppressive practices to keep his People's Action Party in control since independence nearly 30 years ago. The tradeoff was that he delivered to his tiny city-state an economic miracle that has given Singaporeans one of the highest standards of living anywhere in Asia.

Now Mr. Lee routinely preaches the gospel of unenlightened development, as when he lectured a group of Philippine business leaders two years ago that their country needed "discipline more than democracy."

Mr. Clinton's visit to Manila last weekend, in fact, was aimed partly at countering the message that democracy and development don't mix.

After two decades of falling miserably behind most of its Asian neighbors, the Philippines has begun showing signs of economic promise. That's largely the result of the country's decision eight years ago to cast out a corrupt dictator in favor of elected government.

The most meaningful lesson to come out of the past two decades of Asian development, however, is that a country's commitment to genuine progress, its economic diplomacy and the abilities of its people matter far more than its form of government in determining success or failure.

The basic nutrients of modern economic growth -- security, a skilled and healthy work force, access to markets, capital, information and technology -- can be delivered by either a tyrant or a democrat.

The problem with tyrants is that when they fail to provide those essentials -- as President Mobutu Sese Seko has done in Zaire, when they dole them out inefficiently to fatten cronies, as Ferdinand Marcos did in the Philippines, or when they squander precious resources suppressing their own people, as Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras did in Haiti -- there's nothing to stop them from wrecking the country.

The great thing about elected leaders is they can be fired.

Democracy, however, doesn't guarantee development. Its strength is that it doesn't have to, because democracy ultimately makes the people of a nation full partners in their own economic rise or fall.

In a competitive world where goods, money, technology and ideas flow freely across borders -- the kind of world Mr. Clinton seeks to further through summits like the ones in Miami and Jakarta -- democracy and the civil and human rights that flow from it may now give a country a decisive edge.

"The freer and more educated people are," Mr. Clinton said, "the more they are able to be creative and to change with the fast-changing winds of the global economy."

Bob Deans wrote this for the Cox News Service.

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