The Chilean Model

21 November 2011


More than a year ago I wrote The North Korean Model, in which I speculated on the basis of recent new stories that the generals who run Burma were eying North Korea as their “model” of development (though it might be more accurate to say that North Korea is a model of impoverishment). At that time it was reported that the generals of Burma were considering pursuing nuclear weapons, and there was at least one news story that claimed that the Burmese generals were explicitly looking to North Korea as their model.

The mysterious site in the Burmese jungle was cited as a possible location for a clandestine nuclear program.

At that time, the signs were not good for Burma’s future. While North Korea is, as I said above, a model of impoverishment and misery, it is also, by way of its nuclear bellicosity, a robust model of regime survivability. It you have a nuclear deterrent, and you have nothing worth taking, the world will leave you alone no matter how much misery you inflict upon your own population. This is the sorry lesson of North Korea, and it looked like it was going to be a lesson repeated in Burma. If the Burmese generals had prioritized the pursuit of nuclear weapons, this would have been a sure sign that they were abiding by the imperative of regime survival.

The military junta ruling Burma has been implacable in the face of international criticism, but are beginning to show signs that they are not prioritizing regime perpetuation.

After I wrote about the dangers of the Burmese generals pursuing The North Korean Model, I moved on to write What does the election in Burma portend? and The Plot Thickens in Burma. In the latter I suggested that, “Burma is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” This was in response to the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. I had expected the ruling junta to find an excuse to either keep Aung San Suu Kyi locked up, or force her into exile. These are the sorts of actions one would expect from a military junta pursuing regime survival to the exclusion of all else.

Oxford PPE and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is a symbol of Burma and the spiritual head of the NLD.

Not only has Aung San Suu Kyi remained free, but it has been announced that she will seek election to Burma’s parliament (Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi targets by-election seat). Other gradual reforms have been surfacing in Burma, enough to suggest that the Burmese generals are not pursuing a strategy of regime survival at the expense of all else. Of course, the ruling junta can reverse itself at any times betraying the apparent reform as illusory. We are all-too-familiar with regimes that promise reform and begin to show signs as if they were going to reform, only for the hopeful signs to be followed by yet another crackdown. This could happen at any time in Burma, but it will not necessarily happen.

Another crackdown by the Burma junta could happen at any time.

The model that the Burmese generals now appear to be following is not that of North Korea, but rather that of Chile. While no analogy is perfect, there are certainly a greater number of parallels between Burma and Chile than between Burma and North Korea. The North Korean regime is one of dynastic communism, while neither Burma nor Chile had any similar dynastic tradition, but both experienced long years of military rule with promises of reform.

This famous photograph of the Chilean junta shortly after taking power is an amazing study in character. Pinochet himself is the picture of implacable resolution; the man behind him looks as though he were secretly surprised by the success of the coup; the man on the left looking out of the frame is a bit overwhelmed by events and has forebodings about the future.

In Chile, these reforms did eventually come, but they came so gradually that the pace of the reforms and the eventual re-democratization of Chile happened “below the radar” of the popular press, as it were, because the news cycle operates at a completely different pace. Perhaps that is the way that generals of a military junta need things to happen, giving them deniability both for reform (to placate their own supports) and for long-term ambitions for military rule.

There is a similar dynamic at work between Turkey and Pakistan, with the military in Turkey remaining the guarantor of a secular Kemalist state even while other sectors of the state are “civilianized” — if that is a word — while Pakistan seems to persist in a twilight of military rule so powerful that civilianization is not yet a force in the rule of the country. One could say that Pakistan is pursuing the Turkish model, but it could just as well happen that Pakistan remains mired in its de facto militarism and no viable civilian regime emerges from the current state of affairs. Thus there is nothing politically inevitable about Chilean-style civilianization, just as there is nothing politically inevitable about a crackdown following a period of relaxed military rule.

Kemalism is allowed secular civilian rule to emerge in Turkey, but it took a long time to make it happen. This is not a solution for the impatient.

If me memory serves me, I recall that in the late 1970s George Will argued for a distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, taking Chile as his Exhibit A. This was, as I vaguely recall, a typical piece of Cold War apologetics, arguing that an authoritarian Chile might lack freedom on all levels, but it had at least some marginal degree of freedom, and that this was in any event preferable to the totalitarian political systems of nation-states within the Soviet sphere of influence. Of course, Latin American Marxism was never quite the grim, gray Marxism of the Soviet Union or its satellites in the Warsaw Pact, which latter which “acquired” by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War in the Soviet quest for strategic depth, since the plains of the Russian steppe provided no protection against the kind of invasion that it experienced during the Second World War.

While George Will’s Cold War distinction sounds disingenuous, if not a bit smug, it is theoretically valid. The problem with theoretical validity in politics is that, in actual practice, reality departs so far from theory that one is more than a little suspicious of any apologetics. This is the source of so many utopian dreams turning into dystopian nightmares — the most famous example of which, of course, was the “Worker’s Paradise” of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was the worker's paradise that wasn't, and in so betraying the hopes of the world casts suspicion on all utopian programs.

Is the Burmese junta an authoritarian regime that, while evil, is less evil than the totalitarian dynastic communism of North Korea? If it is, there is a reasonable hope that it will follow the Chilean model and, perhaps in several decades, eventually join the comity of nations as a democratic nation-state. And if the Burmese junta is interested in following the Chilean model, we can hope that there will be another Milton Friedman who is willing to accept the backlash in exchange for getting the Burmese economy on a firm footing.

Milton Friedman took a lot of flack for advising the Chilean junta, but the intervention of the Chicago Boys has much to do with Chile having one of the best economies in Latin America today.

It is to be expected that the junta generals in Burma, like Pinochet, will try to protect themselves if they allow civilianization to go forward. Pinochet had himself named a senator for life. Similar provisions are likely to be tried in Burma. In the long term, they will be no more effective in controlling the future of Burma than Pinochet’s provisions were effective in controlling the future of Chile.

Edward Gibbon foresaw the results of trying to secure regime impunity and perpetuity by way of legislative fiat. Hint: it doesn't work.

Here it is appropriate to quote a passage from Gibbon that I quoted previously in The Institution of Language:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.

Any regime that seeks to secure itself in perpetuity without seeking to secure itself by attempting to perpetuate an ultimately unsustainable authoritarianism will face the inevitable logic of Gibbon’s pronouncement.

To hand the security of one’s regime and one’s person over to a legislature (which is ultimately what Pinochet did) is an attempt to meet political rationality half way: there is a rational recognition that the authoritarian model cannot be maintained in perpetuity, but there is also a desire to retain one’s impunity (and perhaps also the impunity of regime cronies) …

But political rationality cannot be met half way — one must go the extra mile, as it were, meeting a sustainable and survival political order on its own ground and on its own terms. The alternative is to face, sooner or later, a catastrophic end to a unsustainable and unsurvivable regime.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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