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Governments around the world need to respect the growing force of the people’s voice

Image by ~sNowFleikuN
Image by ~sNowFleikuN

People have been taken by surprise by the persistent demonstrations in Turkey against Prime Minister Erdogan and his style of government. Turkey seemed to be more a model for the new states emerging from the Arab Spring than a candidate to travel the same route.

What is going on? Turkey is connected with the Arab Spring, but is not part of it. It is not Arab and it is already a well-developed democracy. It is connected, because the Arab Spring, so-called, is not Arab at all. It is a global phenomenon. The process of globalisation in economics and communications, and the empowerment of individuals and sub-national groups in the global spread of freedom, have created a new relationship between governments and their peoples everywhere. This is the great new theme of geopolitics in the 21st century, more pervasive and influential than the themes of East/West, North/South or Islam/non-Islam.

Not only are ordinary people much better informed about what is going on around them, out to the global level if they are interested enough, but they have a means to connect with each other and add numbers to feelings if they have something important to share. As a consequence they are much more aware of what they may justifiably expect from life and much more inclined to do something about it if their expectations are not being met by governments. And their voice has an international impact, not just a national one in each country, because borders are so porous.This trend affects democracies just as much as autocracies, because the power of ordinary people to reshape society is not altered by the political context. Whenever I talk with the current generation of young adults, I find a disillusionment not just with particular politicians or parties but with the political class as a whole. This has to do both with the top-down, one-way communication habits of political leaders and with the short-term, power-oriented obsessions of policy-makers, which seem increasingly devoid of strategic content.

There is also the factor that, in a much more complex, unstructured and transparent world, governments make more numerous and more visible policy mistakes.

How does this feed into geopolitics? ‘Geopolitics’ describes the sum of activities and interactions in the international arena that affect power relationships. The geopolitical trend or mood can be positive or cooperative when states are working together to solve problems and avoiding or remedying difficulties that might lead to competition or conflict. Conversely, when international compromise is weak and competition grows, the geopolitical atmosphere turns negative or difficult.

If governments everywhere find it hard to persuade or control their populations, they scrabble harder to retain authority and become more preoccupied with their domestic situations. This militates against creativity and proactivity on the international stage and against the taking of strategic risk to solve long-term problems such as climate change or nuclear proliferation. The evidence of recent events and policy choices in the EU, the United States and China illustrates this trend, though in different ways in each place.

If the phenomenon is global, why has it come to the surface first and most intensely in the Middle East? The reason is straightforward. The Middle East, or at least the Arab World, has for most of the previous century been the region where the talents of an intrinsically capable population have been most held back by poor or repressive governance. Most other nations have to be increasingly careful how they handle popular demands, but the Arab Republics were/are quite clearly in the category of poor fulfillers of expectations.

So what happens now, as repressive regimes become more determined, as in Syria, or more skillful in deterring opposition, as in Iran, Russia and China? Are we seeing a troubled but ultimately healthy process of democracy-building? Or will the fear of anarchy persuade people that the better choice is firm rule? There may be different evolving answers to this question as between China, for instance, where so far the majority seem to have placed order and controlled economic growth ahead of freedom, and countries like Iraq and Egypt, where the first taste of democracy has stimulated a desire to continue the experiment. Here Turkey may genuinely claim to be a model, if Erdogan can resist travelling the path of Putin.

What seems certain is that the building of new democracies will take time. It is not just a matter of removing the tyrant and holding elections. The growing of a democracy requires the rule of law, the sharing of a national identity and a growing middle-class economy. None of these comes naturally. The first two can be promoted by good leadership, but economic health stems from ingredients which may or may not be present in any particular national mix. Egypt has some real problems in this respect, since the burden of subsidies and public sector over-employment is too great for the productive power of the economy to carry without root-and-branch reform. Libya has a smaller population and huge oil and gas reserves, but the rule of law is proving problematic. Syria is currently off the screen for chaos.

What if the economy opens up in advance of political change? China is the one to watch here. Deng Xiaoping started the drive for a more open economy within a closed political system. That is fine so long as the people want it, but unsustainable if they come to resent corruption and inefficiency more than they value order. This half-century will see the testing of that.

The underlying lesson of this evolving picture lies in the need to respect the growing force of the people’s voice. Erdogan does not appear to have judged this well: he needs the Twitter generation. But people’s greater freedom also carries a corollary: they need decent government, and have to give it room to breathe. If populace and government opt for a balance between freedom and responsibility in most countries, geopolitics will give us a comfortable ride. If not, there is trouble ahead on a global scale.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock is a former British diplomat and Honorary Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations.

Published inInternational Relations

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