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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington--Economics, Stability and Peace

Washington, 19 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Economic integration -- which many political leaders view as a key to democratization and peace -- is no guarantee of either.

In fact, under certain conditions, the dramatic expansion of economic trade and other ties among nations may have exactly the opposite effect, undermining democracy at home and making peace abroad more problematic.

These are the unsettling conclusions of two articles that appeared in the "New York Times Week in Review" on Sunday.

In the first, entitled "Global Forces Batter Politics," Roger Cohen demonstrates that international markets have overwhelmed the political establishments in many countries in Western Europe and further afield.

On the one hand, Cohen points out, the increasing power of these international markets relative to domestic ones imposes constraints on national governments.

The French government, for example, cannot use Keynesian policies to promote full employment because it has agreed to allow international market forces within the European Union to operate without the kind of national restrictions that states imposed in the past.

And on the other, politicians in Western Europe who make promises in order to win votes increasingly find that these international market forces make it impossible for them to fulfill their pledges after gaining office.

The first of these factors, Cohen suggests, is undermining the commitment of many populations to free trade. In some cases, it is even leading to the rise of nationalist politicians who call for a return to protectionism.

But the second factor is having an even more corrosive impact. It has already led many people in these countries to conclude that their own governments are increasingly irrelevant in their lives and that elections don't matter.

To the extent that such attitudes spread, they inevitably undermine the very legitimacy of democratic states and thus make the maintenance of a democratic order that much more difficult.

The second article, by Thomas L. Friedman, considers the impact of expanding international trade on the prospects for peace in the Middle East. In general, even those who acknowledge that international trade may have an adverse impact on democracy at home nonetheless believe that such trade will make peace more likely. But Friedman argues that such a conclusion is far too optimistic and that "business ties can't make Mideast peace."

A longtime Mideast hand, Friedman shows that trade can help reinforce trust established by political agreement but that by itself international trade cannot prevent rapid and unpredictable political explosions.

The conclusions of these two writers about the situation in Europe and the Middle East have far broader applicability. And they call into question one of the most cherished beliefs of many in the West that economics alone will solve political problems in the former Soviet bloc.

But the fact that this optimism now appears to have been misplaced does not justify the arguments of those nationalist politicians who call for protectionism and economic self-sufficiency. Indeed, the pursuit of those goals by any state would also subvert the possibility of establishing or maintaining democracy at home or peace with one's neighbors.

Protectionism in almost all cases as Soviet policy demonstrated would mean economic stagnation, increasing both relative poverty and the prospects for political instability.

And the pursuit of autarky, of complete independence in economic affairs, not only is impossible for most states but lowers the cost to any state that tries it of engaging in international conflicts.

Instead, the new realism about what free trade can and cannot achieve points to a very different conclusion: It suggests that those who want democracy and peace must pursue those goals directly rather than counting on the invisible hand of the market to do what they lack the political will to go after.