From miracle to mirage: rethinking Asian exceptionalism vis-a-vis the third world.

Author:Thornton, Songok Han


"Asian exceptionalism" is a concept now in eclipse, but during the "miracle" years of East Asian development it had a profoundly debilitating impact on Third World thought. This study explores that "miracle" effect, and poses the crucial question of how the Third World is going to respond to a world without miracle myths, whether Western or Eastern. With Western neoliberalism under suspicion throughout the Global South, and with "Asian values" discredited after the Asian Crisis, the Third World is effectively on its own. Will it embrace the challenge of this de facto liberation, or will it flee into the waiting arms of yet another miracle formula, such as Sino-globalization? (1)

A better understanding of the stilted relationship that obtained for a whole generation between "Asian values" and Third World thought can perhaps provide an inoculation against this new mythology. It is common knowledge that the "Asian miracle" served as a geopolitical buffer against Soviet designs on the Pacific. It was unsurpassed as an ideological weapon aimed at the Second World. (2) Far less attention has been given to its equally effective role as a barricade against non-aligned modes of development--i.e., against Third Worldism. The decline of Third Worldism has often been explained as a by-product of the Cold War's demise. But its retreat antedated the Soviet fall, and can better be explained by the advent of the Asian miracle as the vanguard of global capitalism in the developing world. This, I suggest, is the principal reason why the Global South capitulated so easily to the inroads of neoliberalism in the last decade of the Cold War. Economic restructuration was enormously facilitated by the prior conceptual restructuration that came to be known as "TINA": the notion that there simply was no alternative to the strictures of global capitalism.

Having accepted this wisdom from on high, the reconstituted Third World would now be in for another shock: the startling revelation that the "miracle," which had cast "the rest" in such a dismal light for almost two decades, was a stupendous lie. Mexico's Tequila Crisis might be written off as one more chapter in the Latin World's economic inadequacy, but the Asian Crash of 1997 took place at ground zero of the miracle itself. It happened, that is, at the very epicenter of the new capitalist development model. This event might have had a more liberating effect on the Global South if China's rise had not come to the rescue. That second "miracle" once again discouraged Third World alternatives. Nonetheless the fall of the original miracle did lasting damage to TINAism and opened a new space for Third Worldism in coming years. Finally the South is starting to map its own "Third Way" in a world without apodictic developmental guidelines.

Washington, likewise, has to radically re-orient itself within a world without insurmountable global norms or "unipolar" enforcement capabilities. (3) The end of the Cold War put America in the curiously unenviable position of having no major geopolitical rival. Triumphalism and growing economic hubris trumped geo-realist common sense about the dangers lurking behind US unipolarity. Now, instead of having one preeminent enemy, America finds itself at odds with much of the entire world. It is telling that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who for years served in the CIA tete-a-tete a KGB agent named Vladimir V. Putin, expresses nostalgia toward the "less complex" days of the Cold War. (4)

The last glimmers of appreciation for US supremacy were seen in the Gulf War international coalition and in the vanguard role that America was invited to play in Kosovo, after European countries proved incapable of handling this relatively small crisis in their own back yard. However, even as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright toasted America for being the "indispensable nation," the global drift was toward a very dispensable view of US hegemony. In the face of what has justly been called the criminalization of American foreign policy, (5) the only surprising thing is that many nations taking this view--let us call them the contras--are not programmatically antiAmerican. They are simply non-aligned.

This, to be sure, is a new kind of non-alignment. Whereas the old Non-Aligned Movement had been a distinctly Third World phenomenon, today's version has expanded to include a broad range of newly industrialized countries (NICs) and developed countries. One of their few common denominators is ma intense aversion to US unilateralism. Rarely is this pushed so far as Hugo Chavez's anti-American rants or Vladimir Putin's blasts at the "hyper-force" of US militarism. After throwing down the gauntlet at a February 2007 Security Conference in Munich, (6) Putin rushed over to the Middle East to elaborate his "New Course" for a multilateral world order. Even so, he draped himself in the borrowed imagery of US soft power by having his chief propagandist, Vladislav Sourkov, describe him as a new Franklin D. Roosevelt. (7) The point is that Washington has so completely lost its way as to appear, from a Third World perspective, more fundamentally "un-American" than Putin is. What Russia claims to offer, ironically, is nothing less than a global New Deal.

That would be a fine contribution, if only it were true. Unfortunately, as the Chechnyan pogrom amply proves, this progressive image is a hoax. Putin's patent objective, understood through his actions rather than his words, is a reconfigured Second World. The more likely locus for a real New Deal is Latin America, which naturally takes the contra route after the grievous failure of its Washington-directed restructuration of the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time the Pacific Rim was still largely content with its US affiliation, and probably would have remained so--albeit in a less deferent way--as long as its "miracle" era lasted. That all changed with the Asian Crisis, which was intensified and prolonged by IMF-dictated "reforms." It was no secret that these strictures were a product of neoliberal collusion between the IMF and the US Treasury Department. Asia in general took a hard lesson from this dubious "rescue" operation, and Bush-era unilateralism widened the East/West gap still further.

Not only has the Bush agenda ignored the core tenets of geopolitical realism but also the dismal outcome of past American flirtations with imperialism. Now, by default, hope for a progressive world order lies with the developing world. Having fought long and hard to rid themselves of colonialism, Third World countries must resist First World neo-colonialism by seeking their own path to development. (8) This imperative is of course nothing new. Third World nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s grew hand-in-hand with a distinctly non-aligned internationalism. At first this global Third Way, like early pan-Arabism, (9) was simply anti-colonial, but increasingly its goal shifted to escaping co-optation by the superpowers. That common cause helped Third Worldism bridge the ethnic, religious and linguistic gaps that divided it, (10) thus making it the undeclared second front of the Cold War. Washington found it necessary to depict this thorn in its side as a Soviet pawn. Otherwise there could be no hiding the fact that America's primary goal was hegemony, not global security or democratization.

One of the first to recognize the threat of capitalist recolonization in the postwar era was India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. By the late 1940s his government was already forging a non-aligned blend of socialist economic development and secular democracy. (11) Like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru rejected both communism and capitalism, but supplemented Gandhi's ecosocial austerity with his own pro-tech utopianism. This was most unfortunate, for Nehru's second declaration of Indian independence--liberation from the Cold War system (12)--was coupled with a giganticism that effectively declared war on nature. Thus it duplicated rather than supplanted the eco-imperialism of First and Second World modernisms. This destructive legacy has yet to be overcome. Its bigger-is-better mindset is so deeply ingrained that more ecofriendly approaches to development have rarely been explored as Third Way options. (13) Purging Third Worldism of Gandhi's values meant that none of the "three worlds" would offer an alternative to the eco-social pillage that has appropriated the name "development."

In other respects Nehru's vision was more progressive. His idea of nationalism drew upon his sense of Asia's relatively harmonious past, as compared to Europe's. Using secularism and federalism to bridge the gap between Hindus and Muslims, Nehru urged his new nation-state to seek unity in diversity rather than uniformity. (14) Meanwhile he continued his struggle against imperialism by refusing to enter the Cold War or the US-directed world system. When the World Bank retaliated by refusing to fund two badly needed oil refineries, Soviet funding came to the rescue. That of course threw Washington into a state of apoplexy. The rift with Washington was widened further by India's Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) of 1973, which set limits on Western equity holdings. Corporations that refused to comply were forced to leave the country. So it was that Indians were deprived of Coca Cola. (15)

It is hardly surprising that India, as the flagship of non-aligned nations, would pay dearly for its independence in terms of American aid. By contrast, many Rim nations enjoyed lavish US funding and export advantages. Official aid figures do not begin to reflect the scope of this difference, for America's tolerance of trade imbalances with countries on the Cold War frontline was a disguised form of aid. This pattern laid the foundation for the so-called "miracle" economics that would be used to discredit other development models and non-development...

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