DURING the past few years "the erosion of democracy" has been spreading in many of the newly independent states of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. This weakening of Western-style representative government has baffled and alarmed many of us. We do not understand it, and we often condemn it too quickly. Fortunately, a more sympathetic study of the problems of government in these countries has begun. Having concentrated so much academic research and assistance on economic development, we are realizing that we have failed to pay enough attention to political development. For if we fail to understand the dilemmas and challenges of the new politics, American diplomacy will be even more ineffective than it has been so far in the huge segment of the world where over a billion people are experiencing the difficulties and trials of new nationhood.

As is noted somewhat shrilly these days, the political globe is trisected into the Atlantic, the Communist and the Asian-Arab-African, with the third part contested between the other two. The political institutions of Asia, the Middle East and Africa can thus become a decisive factor for creating either world progress or world conflict. If they grow strong, they will help to maintain peace; if weak, they will open the way to situations as precarious as those we have seen develop in the Congo or Laos.

At the very time that the governments of these new states are struggling to get on their own feet and set their own course, they are overwhelmed by competing ideas, people and organizations descending upon them from the Atlantic and Soviet worlds. They have little or no time to reflect upon issues of national policy or to study new programs. Of course, the contest of which they are the object is also advantageous to them. It gives them an importance out of proportion to their strength; they can play one side off against the other to get more aid and to increase their own freedom of manœuvre in foreign and domestic politics. Nevertheless, this contest as to who shall aid them complicates their political development; they are compelled to make basic political decisions in conditions of tension and turmoil. And the hazards are increasing as Moscow and Peking now begin a new contest between themselves on how to win the new states over to Communism.

These alien and competing influences of the Atlantic, Soviet and Sinic worlds reinforce those national voices which demand complete modernization. But they do not show the way. Nor can the new states break wholly away from politics derived from traditional institutions. The new politics must seek to solve the problems arising out of the abrupt dislocation of ancient and static societies suddenly thrust into a turbulent, fast-changing world.

Three kinds of problems must be solved: environmental, operational and conceptual. Our task is to identify which of these problems is unique or highly particular to newly independent states. We are not dealing just with the immemorial question of politics in the Aristotelian sense that government is by definition a controversial issue--its problems strewn between the opposite poles of liberty and order. We know that the new states confront these historic dilemmas; they also face a special combination of new factors.


There are four environmental factors which produce unique or at any rate special problems of government for the approximately 60 new states which have recently come into being. These are the aftermath of the past, the demands for modernization, the threats to national unity, and the phenomenon of one-man prestigious leadership.

In dealing with the first, the new politics begin with the nation's effort to recover intellectually and spiritually from the painful effects of colonialism, imitation and tradition. Colonialism hands on several particular difficulties to new governments. For one thing, the West is under such suspicion that foreign experts often must clear away an atmosphere of reserve and sensitivity before they can be helpful. Yet these experts are indispensable in the first years of freedom. Colonialism, with a few exceptions, left the new nations such a paucity of trained nationals that they found themselves with only a handful of competent planners, administrators, engineers, businessmen, economists, doctors and other specialists. Each new government starts with high hopes, ample blueprints and low capacities to cope with the difficult system of centralized controls which has been inherited. It finds difficulty in removing this dead hand of the past, not so much out of inertia as because there is a lack of new leaders capable and strong enough to replace the obsolete and alien forms of administration. Failure to modernize the administration often leads to overloading the handful of dedicated men who must try desperately for a while to make the old system work, despite increasing frustration and criticism.

Another aspect of the aftermath of the past is the tendency to imitate the West. The leaders of new states, having been exposed to European and American liberal tenets and inspired by great documents like the American Declaration of Independence or the French Bill of Rights, usually took over Western forms of government in toto from the very start of nationhood. Ironically, in view of their struggle against colonialism, they adopted carbon copies of the colonial power's parliamentary or presidential form of government, complete with constitution, universal suffrage, political parties and national elections. Unfortunately, this wholesale borrowing without adaptation merely proved the "futility of facsimiles." Old societies with ingrained habits and very high rates of illiteracy could not understand the intricate process of political competition at the national level. The new system eventually broke down.

Leaders in many new states have pointed out for us the cause of the trouble. Alien institutions were suddenly grafted onto the traditional structure without adequate understanding of their proper functioning and without suitable synthesis with national characteristics. The results have been often chaotic, for the capacity to govern in a totally foreign style never really existed.

In actuality, the political mores of the past begin to assert themselves soon after the first flush of freedom has subsided. The Western party system breaks up into personal cliques. People follow strong personalities rather than platforms. Officials begin to rule by fear and to profit from graft. Ritual, custom and myth resume their powerful role in public affairs. Leaders abandon parliaments and parties in favor of direct rule in a more traditional authoritarian pattern. The age-old needs of the community take priority over the rights of individuals or minorities. Western-style opposition is leashed and in some cases even moderate dissent is muzzled. The population as a whole returns to its ancient detachment from political affairs. Thus, the order that has always been sought displaces the liberty that was never quite known.

What new synthesis will come out of the operation of these historical factors no one can yet tell. But at least the futility of facsimile is now being recognized. An experimental approach is being welcomed in Asia and in many of the Arab States. In Africa, on the other hand, there is so little political tradition of contemporary value to fall back on that there may be no way of avoiding the imitation of Western political institutions at the start. But Africa can learn much from the political experiences of Asia in dealing with the deficiencies left from colonialism, as well as about the dangers of overdone and automatic imitation and the distortion of tradition.

The demand for rapid modernization places an intolerable burden on the managerial capacities of the new governments. Can they produce "progress" overnight? They have been trying, and often succeeding, as witness the rebuilt cities with their modern-style schools, factories, office buildings, hotels, hospitals and airports. But in the wake of nationalist revolutions, progress and freedom are sometimes found to be contradictory goals. The faster the people demand all of the first, the sooner they must let go some of the second. When both are sought at once, the entire national structure has to be overhauled and revamped in a short time. It falls to governments without adequate staff to tackle this total national transformation; the environmental pressures deny them time for adequate preparation or careful execution.

New governments in Asia at first tended to overreach themselves in setting goals, depending too much on perfecting blueprints and neglecting to consider their capacities for execution and management. At first political leaders decided hastily which kind of economic institutions to set up, what emphasis to put on industry, how the creation of new human resources could be generated, where to integrate foreign concepts and assistance, and whether to show preference for rural or urban groups. In trying to cope with these major decisions, the new Asian states were immediately caught, as the Africans now are, in the pincers of time: the people expected everything good to turn up immediately, but in practice everything took time. Neither the Western-trained leaders nor their Western advisors fully understood the nature of the profound changes they were launching. Sooner or later the rhythm of modernization broke into different tempos. The radical changes produced new social groups; there were university graduates without jobs, factories without technicians, and plans without managers. The new leaders were operating in different decades or even centuries from the mentality of nearly the whole population. And on top of this, modern medicine and other factors touched off a population explosion. Where will the food, the houses, the schools, the jobs come from to meet the nation's future needs for today's outpouring of children?

For modernization to succeed there must be a unified nation. This is the third environmental challenge: after independence is attained, can a nation in fact be formed? New nations often express their nationalism more by the volume of lung power than by the value of discourse; but this does not prove their national unity. Unfortunately, most of the new states cannot start off as cohesive, homogeneous societies in which some popular consensus is feasible, because they are ripped by so many centrifugal forces--racial, ethnic, linguistic, regional, tribal and economic. All the energy and resourcefulness of the political leadership must often concentrate just on keeping the nation from disintegrating. The processes of modernization add new social strains to the old. Traditional and modern groups clash. The feudal, landed interests in the countryside oppose the new economic interests of the city. Old-guard officials resent the influx of young administrators and technicians. The professional elite are torn from their cultural past and removed from the people, disoriented to an extent Westerners seldom realize. Corruption and nepotism rot good intentions and retard progressive policies. When the familiar village way of life disintegrates, the majority of the rural people can come to feel so neglected, so alienated and confused that they embrace a magnetic personal leader of the old type or turn to the Communists. Many of them, disenchanted with rural life, flock to the cities, demanding homes, schools, jobs and goods on a large scale. Urbanization--with its own political dynamics--is spreading fast everywhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

And, finally, all these various pressures bring forth the phenomenon common to almost all new states: the leadership of some towering personality. One of the figures who led the people to independence stays on to mold the new nation, interpret its will, act as its spokesman and consolidate its statehood. Without him, it must be said, most of them would collapse immediately. Because of him the new states tend to combine all executive and legislative authority, and sometimes even juridical functions, in the hands of the one man and his régime. And to increase this authority he may bring to bear his personal will, his vision of destiny, his appetite for empire, or his greed for greatness. The result is not only the excessive centralization of power, but the erosion or overt destruction of the opposition.

Yet sooner or later, the régime runs into trouble. New men with new ideas appear. The old leader and his party have come to lean on their prestige and the glory of their past achievements to ensure popular support. The leader is a national fixture--too indisputable to dislodge, too venerated to criticize, too hardened to change. No provision is made for a successor. The unitary party loses its revolutionary dynamism. It does not welcome the new approaches or the new faces. The dialogue between the older revolutionary generation and new political forces breaks down. Modernization and urbanization, however, are generating new associations which demand full expression of their points of view. Unions, faculties, business enterprises, professional societies, organized civil servants, the officer corps, cultural groups, and new voluntary associations of contemporary urban, suburban and even rural life all want a voice in the future.

As a result of the various pressures of the past and the present a political cycle is created, which typically appears to have six phases: the establishment of independence, the creation of modern institutions, the promotion of national unity and development, the appearance of contradictory factors, the collapse of leadership and political solidarity, the forming of new lines for the reestablishment of stability. Among the most urgent questions before the free world are: Why does this cycle so often occur? What can be done to alter its course? These are problems which deserve greater attention by Western scholars, as well as by those in the new states who are themselves trying seriously to find a synthesis of liberal goals and traditional values.


Who are the new faces and new voices seeking better ways to govern and to avoid breakdowns? They are the civilian and military graduates of the postwar era--the "trained élite," the "new nationalists," or the "revolutionary intelligentsia" in and out of uniform. By whatever name, this professional group will determine their country's political destination, the route to be followed, and the detours to the West or East that may be taken. Already this group of young professionals is starting to emerge in positions of influence and power in politics, the civil service, the military establishment, business, education and private groups. They represent a new type of nationalism: pragmatic but mixed with a touch of idealism; cosmopolitan without loss of patriotism; and modern, yet tolerant of tradition. Whether trained abroad like most of the preceding revolutionary generation, or in the new schools at home, the new nationalists have quite a different outlook from their elders. The young Asian professionals seem more interested in action and results than in the dogma and ideology of their elders. For them, integrity and competence count more than kinship, status or wealth. The test of public policy is the national interest and practical efficiency.

This is especially true of the young military officers. They are helping to modernize Asia and the Middle East, and sometimes hold the country together when it appears headed toward breakdown and chaos. The officer corps, where it exists--and this excludes most of Africa--is often specially qualified to help develop and preserve the nation. It provides the only available organization of young professionals in a country which lacks an adequate administrative service. The civilian graduates are just as able and patriotic as the military, and they may have a better and more rounded education. But civilians are unorganized; they are scattered individuals, sometimes disoriented. As a whole, they lack the discipline, responsiveness, esprit de corps and physical resources which the military establishment can often provide. We have seen instances of officers reorganizing a nation, stamping out evils, cleaning a city or running a province more popularly and effectively than party government or a diffuse bureaucracy. Consider the various experiences of Korea, Viet Nam, Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Sudan, Egypt and Syria--a long list. However, the conclusion to be drawn from these experiences is not that we should magnify the mission of the military but rather that we should mobilize civilian professionals to do the job instead.

What is it, then, that the new politics seek to accomplish? What are the objectives of the new nationalists, through which they hope to improve the capacities of their states to govern and to represent the people? While the new politics are still in the formative stage, it may be said that they are searching for a new ideological and cultural identity, an indigenous constitutional-ism, a strong executive and a responsible legislature, a coherent system of representation, a modernized and democratic civil service, a flexible development of the economy and a regional diplomacy.

A visitor to Asia, the Middle East or Africa cannot but be impressed by the persistent search for an ideology and culture which are both indigenous and modern. Dissatisfied with an initial nationalism crossbred by so many alien strains, the younger leaders believe that a new synthesis is needed. In his collection of addresses entitled "Freedom, Nationhood and Culture," Raul Manglapus of the Philippines has eloquently pointed out that the new politics must seek a new set of values using words, images and ideas reflecting the "genius of the people" and representing an authentic consensus. Everywhere in Asia, the Middle East and Africa the inward search for a national character probes the whole culture of a nation--its language, literature, folklore, art, customs and religions. Not only a renaissance but a national discovery is taking place in many former colonial territories. Thus, the new politics take on more local coloration as the findings of the archeologist, anthropologist and historian begin to expose the heritage hidden by years of alien rule. Out of national consciousness may come national confidence and cohesion. The home-grown "ism" is strong because its roots are deep. But the new soil could breed a warped variety of impulsive, emotional, destructive ideology if badly treated.

The rising leaders still seek an authentic constitution for the country. While the practice of Western-style representative government has dwindled or collapsed because it was either premature or misunderstood, there still remains a desire for constitutional government and the preservation of its juridical sanctity. Despite the ravages of corruption and the oppression of officials in so many new states, a hard core of constitutionalism and rule of law is germinating slowly. It needs nourishing.

A flexible, easily-amended constitution is preferred. The major question is how to combine a strong executive, which is traditional, with an effective national legislature, which is modern. As Mr. Nguyen Phuong Thiep of the Viet Nam National Assembly noted in a remarkable report to the recent session of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Tokyo: "Many Asian countries are making efforts to separate clearly the respective roles of parliament and government and simultaneously to insure a harmonious collaboration between these two organs." He suggested that, in Asia at least, the legislature's function is to make the executive more effective in governing throughout the country.

Coherent political representation is thus another objective of the new politics. As Mohammad Hatta of Indonesia pointed out during his visit to this country, the difficulties of operating Western party systems in new states cause a "crisis of democracy." To improve representative government and strengthen executive leadership, the new countries are experimenting with new forms of political organization, such as functional councils or social groups with elected leaders, and indirect representation for provincial and national assemblies. A democratic electoral process functions more readily today in urban centers than in the countryside. But as land reform and rural development loosen the authoritarian grip of landlords and tribal chieftains, the large rural population will stand a better chance of using elections wisely both to choose their representatives freely and to hold them accountable. The invigoration of village democracy and community development provides an outlet for the energy of young professionals, and by encouraging local initiative, new leaders can be found at the "rice-roots." One of the advantages of urban and rural reform is that it increases the people's participation in affairs of state so that government is not something merely imposed from the top.

But the new "pros" often encounter the opposition and negativism of old-fashioned officials and party henchmen. Bureaucracies dating from the pre-independence or pre-modern period cannot or will not apply advanced techniques; they tend to rely on traditional forms of coercion, and seldom take risks or initiative. In contrast, the young nationalists press for modern methods of management, imaginative projects to build up the nation, and civil liberties.

And finally, in economics and diplomacy, the new politics seem to be veering toward a more pragmatic approach. The economic dogmas concerning heavy industrialization and state ownership are being questioned, and in many parts of the world suspicion of private initiative and foreign investment is decreasing. Interest is growing in developing light industry, diversifying agricultural production, and improving village life. There is a more realistic attitude toward problems of economic growth, a willingness to extend timetables if need be, instead of rushing through impossibly rapid target dates, and an acceptance of partial planning in some sectors of the economy instead of total planning for the whole nation.

In diplomacy, the new professionals incline towards regional associations and the avoidance of too close a political identification with East or West. In seeking to achieve an independent, or at least a complementary, diplomacy, they will try to strengthen bilateral relations with their neighbors, explore economic and cultural coöperation on a regional basis such as the Nagreb in North Africa or the Mekong Commission in Southeast Asia, and take common positions on issues before the United Nations. Such regional diplomacy does not necessarily mean "neutralism." It reflects the search in the new states for a national and cultural identity, the will to be on their own and the desire to be different. The new nationalists are likely to be very independent people to deal with, for both the West and the East.

These are some of the political innovations emerging nebulously in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. They may or may not produce effective and democratic government. It is too early to tell whether the new professionals will be able to bring about stable modernization or whether the "classroom rebels" and angry young nationalists will force a faster and more violent pace.

Nevertheless, American diplomacy should seek fresh concepts and new means to strengthen this rising group of professionals by encouraging the new politics and the search for authentic institutions. We can do more to befriend the new faces in and out of public office--particularly the "outs"--who, sharing our values, wish to modernize their country without political breakdown. We can learn much more about their political problems in order to help them find acceptable means to reverse in their own way the practices that erode democracy. We can help energetically to expand basic education. We can organize programs for the development of democratic leadership. We can back regional diplomacy, and a new strategy of national economic build-up. Above all, we can support an "open-world" policy in the United Nations which will allow each new state to mature at its own tempo, to diversify in its own style, to receive a free flow of ideas from the outside, and to decide its destiny without alien compulsion.

Such is the challenge of making new democratic governments effective and secure in our trisected world. On their success rests our security. Here is a "new frontier" to inspire us towards a sympathetic and creative effort in the decade ahead.

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  • KENNETH T. YOUNG, JR., Director, Office of Southeast Asian Affairs, Department of State, 1954-58; Far Eastern specialist, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1949-52; member of postwar U. S. missions to Japan and Korea
  • More By Kenneth T. Young