The Book Club

What Do We Mean by “Openness”?


Thank you for your very interesting and characteristically open-minded and nonpartisan response. I do agree with you and Ian Bremmer that encouraging greater openness should indeed be a long-term foreign-policy objective for the United States—and, I would add, for European countries, too. And you are right that how it is done is at least as important as whether it is done. A lot depends, though, on what meaning we ascribe to the phrase “long term.” Does this mean five to 10 years or over a period of decades? Neoconservatives have done this idea no favors by implying that results can be expected even in the quite short run and do their own cause no favors by clutching at straws to “prove” that the policy is succeeding. I refer, of course, to the overinterpretation given to the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon; to the meager signs of reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and even, arguably, to the “orange revolution” in Ukraine. But if by long term we mean several decades, then the difficulty, which is obvious to both of us, is that electoral cycles, and thus policy horizons, tend to be rather shorter than that.

This matters, too, in the interpretation we give to history. You aver that American policy during the Cold War was quite successfully directed at openness and support for building pluralistic institutions in East Asia and Western Europe. I would say that that is true only selectively and only by taking a pretty long-term view. Even in Western Europe there were fairly nasty dictatorships in Greece, Spain, and Portugal well into the 1970s, about which America never became overly concerned. In East Asia, South Korea had a military dictatorship as recently as the mid-1980s, one that performed a Tiananmen-style massacre on its own people in 1980 at Kwangju. So, just as Ronald Reagan was denouncing the Soviet “evil empire,” his government was turning a blind eye to a massacre in a country in which American troops were based. Whether South Korea moved to democracy a decade or so later because of American encouragement toward openness or because its growing affluent middle class demanded it is a moot point.

This also, though, brings me to your question about China and India, which seems to me to be the most important puzzle we face in this first quarter of the 21st century. In my view, here, too, the main issue is one of time horizon: What do we mean by the long term? But, also, I think it comes round again, as you rightly indicate, to a distinction between stability and openness.

China is a case where Cold War realpolitik ended up serving that long-term policy objective of encouraging openness. Mao’s China had been the archetype of a closed but stable (if you can call the Cultural Revolution stable) country. The combination of the Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement and the death of Mao created the chance for Deng Xiaoping to move China sharply along Bremmer’s openness axis. But the openness that Deng created, and that has led to China’s two and a half decades of rapid economic growth, was not internal openness, as Bremmer would call it, at least not until quite recently. It was external openness, openness to the world—openness to trade, foreign investment, technology, economic-policy ideas, and, perhaps most significantly for the longer term, Western university education.

India, by contrast, has long been one of the most internally open countries in the world. As Amartya Sen has written in The Argumentative Indian, it is a society of such cacophonous, pluralistic debate that it can be hard to get a word in edgewise. But it has not been a very externally open country, either culturally or legally. It has been fairly closed to trade, has shunned foreign investment, and has been pretty inward-looking in cultural matters, despite a Western-educated elite.

Perhaps this is the economist in me coming out, but my bet on this China-India question is that until India chooses to become quite a lot more open to the world, it will not have much chance of catching up with China. Fewer people these days justify India’s poor performance by referencing “the Hindu rate of growth,” but I’m equally not sure enough have really taken onboard how much more openness is required if India is to achieve broad and sustainable economic development in the way that China has. Yes, India has moved in the right direction. But not far enough.

China, for sure, faces problems caused by its continued lack of internal openness, which, when blended with a growing affluent middle class, are likely to bring on problems of stability. As Bremmer writes, the Communist Party of China faces a political crunch. It will either have to permit more internal openness and accountability and thus the institutions of justice and democracy, or it will have to sacrifice economic growth. This crunch could come quite soon, by which I mean during the next 10 years. My bet, though, is that when it does, the tanks will not again be sent in to Tiananmen Square, or not for long. A deal will be sought. There may be a period of instability, but the solution that will be sought will be some form of move toward democracy and the rule of law. It could be quite bastardized, in your term, and could well seek to copy Singaporean democracy rather than, shall we say, the Jeffersonian sort. But, when combined with external openness, this move will be very hard to avoid.

So, if we are talking about the long term and can therefore absorb in our thinking the risk of a year or three of instability or even turmoil in China during the next decade, then I’d nevertheless say that China is likely to stay well ahead of India for any sensible forecasting period. India’s democracy may make it more stable. But unless it also becomes much more open to the world, it will fail to turn that stability into the sort of economic development that lifts the living standards of hundreds of millions, rather than of a few million working in software.

Am I being too hard on the world’s largest democracy?