Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam, Turkey, and International Liberalism

EDITORIAL, 25 Dec 2017

#514 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

More than 25 years ago I took part in a major conference in Kuala Lumpur affirming the importance of human rights. At the end of the second day, the convener of the conference, [TRANSCEND member] Chandra Muzaffar, a leading proponent of human rights and democracy in Malaysia, arranged for a few of the speakers to meet with the controversial leader of the country, Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamed. I was the only Westerner among the 4 or 5 of us given this opportunity. As soon as we entered the room Mahathir looked straight at me while posing a rhetorical question for which I had no satisfactory response: “Why do Western human rights NGOs and experts look only at our performance with respect to civil and political rights when our natural and proper preoccupation is the promotion of economic and social rights of our people?”

Of course, Mahathir’s assertion was meant to challenge the complacent Orientalizing conventional wisdom that continues to prevail in the self-satisfied liberal West, reducing the practice of human rights to whether or not a government is doing well or poorly on such issues as free elections and freedom of expression. No one denies the relevance and core vitality of such rights, but certainly not more so than whether the bottom strata of the citizenry, as measured by standard of living, can meet their basic material needs.

Despite decades of criticism along these lines, an ideological and geopolitically tainted approach to human rights remains dominant in the West, explaining the endless stream of condescending comments by Western leaders on human rights failures of non-Western countries selectively targeted for criticism. This tendency to lecture the non-West persists despite the West’s downward spiral amid dark domains of illiberalism. Malaysia was an illustrative case, with Mahathir constantly criticized for authoritarian tendencies, even anti-Semitism, and never praised for building a robust Malaysian middle class and making real inroads on poverty and income inequality. Looked at more deeply, Mahathir’s sins were far less about human rights than about his stands against neoliberal globalization and U.S. foreign policy priorities.

In response, the question I pose now to myself is ‘how to take human rights seriously without falling into the self-serving liberal trap of claiming the high moral ground in world politics by passing judgment on others while turning a blind eye toward the severe moral shortcomings of Western liberalism, many of which can be linked to the current phase of globalized capitalism?’ In addition, to avoid facing the deficiencies of global capitalism as currently, there is the Western post-colonial effort to occupy the high moral ground in international relations, thereby erasing both the colonial past and the rapacious aspects of the capitalist present. And finally, there is the geopolitical shielding of friends and the lambasting of enemies when it comes to human rights.

I was reminded of this meeting in Kuala Lumpur while in Vietnam for two weeks recently. The leadership of Vietnam was accused of harshly punishing critics and dissenters as if it had become more scared of domestic protest than it was in past years of American B-52 carpet bombing. Such critics were not entirely wrong to lament this fall from grace on the part of Vietnam’s leaders, who lacked the charisma and inspirational leadership of their wartime predecessors. At the same time it was unfortunate to fall into this typical Western trap of focusing on these liberal failures while neglecting what might be identified as ‘socialist successes.’

By this, I refer to the remarkable story of Vietnamese economic and social achievements, which center on drastically reducing extreme poverty and stimulating agricultural growth to such a level that Vietnam, previously frequently close to massive famine, had become the third leading rice exporter in the world (after the U.S. and Thailand). In effect, the government of Vietnam, while failing to deliver on such liberal ideals as transparency, participation, and accountability in relation to their citizenry, was nevertheless successfully building a needs based economy in which there were relatively few below the poverty line and where almost everyone was confident that their health, education, and housing needs would be met by the state.

Not only was this an impressive profile of current Vietnamese society, but it represented a trajectory of steadily improving economic and social achievement of the greatest relevance to the society as a whole that a generation earlier was almost totally impoverished, the aftermath of 25 years of devastating warfare. Since the 1990s, the Vietnamese poverty rate had fallen from about 50% to 7% in 2015 in a period during which roughly 1/3 of the population overcame conditions of food insecurity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

These Vietnamese national accomplishments are the normative realities obscured or ignored by the regressive kinds of thinking that validates and invalidates government performance in leading capitalist societies of the West—selective quantitative indicators of economic growth and stock market performance. Several rich and powerful countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities. Shocking figures of inequality are accepted as normal incidents of economic performance.

For example, the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class. This persistence of poverty and homelessness in an affluent society is accentuated by nurturing tendencies toward greater and greater income and wealth inequalities, leading to democratic decay and elite efforts to divert criticism by blaming systemic failures on scapegoats (immigrants, Muslims).

The same one-sidedness is present in the discussion of another of my favorite countries: Turkey—where I have spent several months each year for the last twenty. Of course, the dynamics are very different within each of these national settings. Nevertheless, there are some striking similarities in relation to the issues posed above. The critical focus of anti-government forces has been the democratic failings of AKP since it assumed power in 2002; this criticism has sharpened since the undoubted Turkish drift toward more authoritarian rule, beginning in 2011, internationalized by the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, and spiked sharply, especially in international circles, after the failed FETO coup of 2016 and the often crude and cruelly implemented overreactions of the Erdoğan government to lingering security threats that were indeed dangerous, but could have been addressed in less provocative ways. The purge in universities and media of those whose views and activities were deemed unacceptable by the Turkish government, as well as various moves against opposition journalists and minority politicians, especially those associated with support for the Kurdish struggle, are troubling developments, that should concern the whole of Turkish society, as well as justifying  international notice and criticism.

My difficulty is that these negative developments are represented as the whole story about Turkey and the AKP/ Erdoğan leadership. Part of this problem of perception and accuracy is a tendency in Turkish political culture to reject dialogue and embrace polarization, whether of good and evil, secular and religious, white Turk and black Turk, and even truth and falsity. This has encouraged negative criticism of Turkish governmental behavior to be misleadingly expressed in the crude language of unconditional negation.

If international and internal assessments were more balanced and less polarized, the AKP leadership would receive considerable credit in domestic and foreign policy from better educated and informed observers of the political scene in Turkey. Criticisms of Turkey’s failed Syrian policies would be set off against the success of Ankara’s African diplomacy, the continuing vitality of its economy despite the obstacles created by the anti-Turkish international campaign would be acknowledged, the robustness of its foreign assistance program (second only to that of the U.S., and highest in per capita terms) would be noticed, the care it has accorded over 3 million Syrian (and some Iraqi) refugees would be praised, the global attention it has brought to the genocidal plight of the Rohingya people would be praised, and its various regional efforts at conflict resolution would receive favorable comment (including Cyprus; Israel/Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; Balkan and Caucuses internal relations within their respective regions). Turkey, unlike either Saudi Arabia or Iran, has mostly promoted a politics of reconciliation in the region, and unlike Egypt has done a great deal to raise the standard of living of its most disadvantaged citizenry.

My criticism of the unbalanced anti-government discourse in and about Turkey is quite congruent with my sense of what is right and wrong in Vietnam. For the bottom 50% or so of Turks the policies of the government during the period of AKP control, have enhanced greatly their material life circumstances when it comes to health, security, housing, public transportation, infrastructure, national pride, as well as improving the participatory rights and economic opportunities of those outside the urban centers in the West of the country.

The material neglect of underclasses and minorities causes fundamental deprivations in the daily life of the most economically marginalized portions of societies, hitting already vulnerable groups especially hard. What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) along with the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances in countries that affront the West for geopolitical or ideological reasons (as in Turkey or Vietnam).

My argument is not at all meant to be a reworking of the Huntington argument in the 1970s and 1980s that developmental priorities make authoritarian rule a palatable prelude to an eventual transition to political democracy and environmental responsibility. I am not proposing to defer concerns with democratic practices and human rights, but I am contending that normative backsliding with respect to fundamental civil and political rights should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity bearing on human wellbeing.

In the background of such critical discussion is the question as to whether the market-oriented constitutionalism of the U.S. governmental template should be regarded as the exclusive foundation of legitimate governance as was the claim of the triumphalist West in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse. With the rise of China and other Asian countries, there is an overdue spirit of humility evident around the world and less acclaim accorded Western styles of governance and development.

What then is being recommended? There is no clean solution, but an improved normative understanding depends on appreciating that the principle of self-determination is the basis of world order in the post-colonial era. Such appreciation allows the political space needed for diversity, economic sovereignty, and political experimentation. Furthermore, the liberal insistence on privileging political and civil rights should be superseded by adopting a more cosmopolitan agenda of human rights that is attentive to the collective, material wellbeing of a national population, and especially its lower 50%. In other words, the liberal exclusion of collective rights should be reviewed, and the tendency to gloss over the existence of poverty and gross inequality endemic in capitalist societies should be subjected to critical scrutiny. As well, the tendency of socialist or state-dominated societies to undervalue civil and political rights of individuals should be equally scrutinized.

The cases of Vietnam and Turkey strongly support the central claim here that national reputations of legitimacy should rest on a comprehensive assessment of material, ethical, and spiritual wellbeing of individuals and communities, and no longer be a reflection of geopolitical agendas (with respect to Turkey) and ideological arrogance (with respect to Vietnam).


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Dec 2017.

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3 Responses to “Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam, Turkey, and International Liberalism”

  1. Jon Olsen says:

    Falk makes good common sense here–all around. We do indeed need a much better balance of
    the values of human rights and of material well being to asses the “pono” value of a society, to use an excellent Hawaiian reference. Pono is the superb word that incorporates the English words “appropriate, correct, honorable, and righteous.”

  2. rosemerry says:

    Thanks to Richard for this article. I suppose that many Westerners do not even realize that the Rights of man include economic and social rights because the USA does not even take these into account at all.Voting seems to be the only right US citizens now have, and we can see its value in the election farces of recent years! The Princeton study in 2014 of laws passed compared with what most people want, shows there is no way that the “representatives” pass laws people want (except the very rich).

    Cuba, Venezuela under Chavez, several other Latin American countries, Gaddaffi’s Libya are other examples to add to Vietnam and Turkey. Even North Korea, according to recent visitors like Juliette Morillot from Le Monde Diplomatique, and Eve Bartlett, has education, health, housing and other rights among its restrictive control of the people!!

  3. Tina Corelli says:

    So never mind human rights, as long as there is bread and Mr Falk is happy.

    The pro-totalitarianism here is disturbing.