A Network of Dictators

There's a fight brewing for the future of the Internet.

The Internet came very close to being kidnapped last week. Russia and China used the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) to push for government control of the Internet and restrictions on access to information. WCIT was supposed to update an obscure U.N. treaty on international telecommunications, but instead a longstanding fight over control of the Internet to reduce the risks it poses to authoritarian regimes came to a head. This was not entirely a surprise. In 2011, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia's WCIT goal was "establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capabilities of the International Telecommunication Union" (the U.N. body responsible for telecommunications and the WCIT).

The WCIT saw national sovereignty return with a vengeance. Blocs of states competed for power. This is not a bipolar contest, with the West on the side of righteousness. Our righteousness has been dented and there are many more players. Governments as diverse as Malaysia, Vietnam, and India want their values and their national laws to have precedence in cyberspace. If the overworked term "globalization" means a borderless world, where American culture and values dominate, and if the Internet is the primary vehicle for delivering this, other nations want greater control of the car. The Russians cleverly used discontent with the status quo to win support for repressive ideas, including international endorsement for blocking access to troubling websites.

Authoritarian regimes fear the Internet because they fear their own people. Russia, China, and Iran see the access to information brought by the Internet as a threat to regime survival. Last year, when he was still Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev said of the Arab Spring and social networks, "Let's face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it." Medvedev would not identify who he meant by "they," but the finger-pointing brings back memories of the Kremlin's jittery reaction to popular uprisings that toppled entrenched regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s. At the time, Putin and other senior officials publicly accused the West of meddling. Authoritarian regimes believe that the Internet is, as one Chinese official put it, part of "an American plot" to undermine other governments.

The United States was on the defensive, shielding the Internet's status quo. This is too easily portrayed as America's desire to keep its political and economic control of the Internet. Americans may be surprised to learn that they control the Internet, a conglomeration of millions of individual networks, but the belief that the United States has a grand strategy to preserve "hegemony" has a deep hold on thinking in many nations. Hegemony, in this case, means using American technology and the services of giant American companies to access a global resource managed by an American corporation under contract to the Commerce Department. Russia and China argued persuasively that this global resource should be managed by all nations, under the auspices of the United Nations. Eighty-seven nations, led by blocs from the Middle East and Africa, supported Russia and China, while only 54 agreed with the United States.

There were many reasons for the broad support of the Russian and Chinese proposal. The United States has less influence after its misadventures in the Middle East, a tarnished human rights record, and is the victim of a widespread belief that it was responsible for global recession. The apparent decline of Europe reinforces the unwillingness of other nations to accept without question Western leadership (and values). Many countries were swayed by development considerations (meaning more high-speed telecommunications services for poor countries), for which the authoritarian proposals seemed to offer greater support.

The WCIT showed that the end of the Cold War was a temporary triumph for democracy. When Russia and China abandoned communism and embraced markets, some expected that they would play by Western "rules," but they do not regard these rules as binding, immutable, or legitimate. International relations are in a period of ambiguity -- not quite great power politics (too much economic interdependence for that), but also not a single, international community sharing similar values and content to accept the United States as its leader.

Fin de siècle ideas about a borderless world where governments would play a lesser role remain strongly embedded in American thinking about the Internet. These old ideas let authoritarian regimes capture the agenda for change. We are past the moment when it appeared that borders would disappear and nation-states would be replaced by an amorphous international community. Far from disappearing, borders and states, after an initial period of decline, are adjusting to and adopting new technologies. The resurgence of sovereignty means governments will extend their laws into cyberspace and create technologies to enforce them, but this resurgence is linked to a troubling trend. This new sovereignty disputes Western values once thought to be universal. There is questioning, if not rejection, of the ideals and institutions for global governance imposed on the world 65 years ago. If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put to a vote now, it might not win.

The longstanding U.S. position that an open, free Internet is the best for innovation and growth is no longer persuasive. If it were true, the European Union would be outperforming China. Linking democracy to dubious commercial arguments puts human rights at risk. America needs a more compelling narrative to defend universal values.

That narrative has to be political, more like the Helsinki Accords than Davos. Internet governance is only one part, albeit an important one, of the larger rebalancing of global power. It is also the latest chapter in the struggle for democracy and rule of law. The United States must explain -- in the face of the resurgence of sovereignty, the shift of power away from Europe, and the growing importance of non-Western states -- why democracy remains best for both justice and growth.

Some say that Dubai was a victory for Internet freedom. This is true in the same way that Dunkirk can be considered a victory for escaping defeat. The American negotiators performed admirably given how weak a hand they inherited. But this was no real victory. A contest of ideas explains why a technical discussion turned into a politicized debate. The battle for the WCIT is over. The battle for the Internet has begun, and we need better ideas if we are to win it.




Why are so many Asian countries run by families?

In the United States, it's the Kennedys and Bushs; in South Korea, it's the Parks. On December 19, South Korea elected Park Geun-Hye as president -- but she's not just the country's first female head of state, she's heir to a controversial political legacy. Her father, Park Chung-hee, was South Korea's dictator in the 1960s and 1970s. And Park's not the only recent ruler with family ties. Across Asia, heirs of political dynasties have taken power.

Three days before Park's win, Japan chose as prime minister the right wing Shinzo Abe, son of a Japanese foreign minister and grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who as a cabinet member in 1941 signed the declaration of war against the United States, and served as prime minister almost two decades later. (Abe himself was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007.) In China, there's a new princeling-in-chief, too. In November, Xi Jinping became Communist Party chairman, 30 years after his popular father Xi Zhongxun, respected for his principles and his decency, ascended to China's elite decision-making body, the Politburo. And when Kim Jong Un became supreme leader of North Korea in December 2011, he too was following a family tradition: two generations of Kims had preceded him.

More than ever before, Asian summit meetings resemble family reunions. With few exceptions outside the dictatorships in the southeast and central part of the continent, virtually every country in Asia has been ruled by the offspring of a high-ranking politician in the 21st century. And these are mostly democracies we're talking about. Listing the family connections between current and former rulers quickly becomes tedious: There's Thailand's Yingluck Shinawatra, whose father was a member of parliament and whose brother, Thaksin, is the now-exiled former prime minister. In Bangladesh, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president. (Her longtime rival, former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, is the widow of a former president.) In Pakistan, current President Asif Ali Zardari was married to the assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is herself the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And so on.

It's a phenomenon that doesn't have clear socio-political divisions -- or recipes for success. While Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and embodiment of Burma's democratic ideals, is the daughter of Aung San (Burma's founding father and the closest thing the country has to political royalty), Thein Sein, the repressive (though liberalizing) president of Burma, is the son of farmers. Likewise, the rulers of the dictatorships of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam come from poor backgrounds, while in the more liberal, wealthy, and democratic Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is the son of the country's second prime minister and the nephew of its third. Lee Kwan Yew and his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, stewarded Singapore from a colonial backwater into one of the world's most innovative financial capitals. North Korea, run by a third generation Kim, is a mess. Mongolia, run by the son of nomad, is a promising democracy. 

So what is it about Asian political clans that makes their scions so appealing to voters? That the president of South Korea's father and the prime minister of Japan's grandfather likely met and sympathized with each other "as defenders of freedom against the Communist hordes" doesn't affect policy decisions today, nor make rapprochement between the two nations any more likely, says Richard Samuels, the director of the MIT-Japan program.

What lineage does do is allow voters in Asia's often-raucous democracies to select a known brand. Many Asian nations didn't shake off colonialism until after World War II, so the child or grandchild of a country's beloved independence leader still benefits from the shine of ancestry. Consider how distant the American equivalent feels: The 82-year-old Paul Emerson Washington is reportedly the closest living kin of the family of the first president of the United States of America -- he's the retired regional manager for a building supplies company. By contrast, both the daughter and grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as prime minister themselves; Nehru's descendants still dominate The Congress, India's most powerful political party.

It may be both a function of time and of political history. Asian societies "never ran themselves through an individual revolution like we did in the West," says Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of several books on kinship. Therefore, they more often fall back on the default system: clan rule. "It's vanity," he says. "You see these kids in supposedly socialist societies in Asia grooming their children like they were Tudor monarchs."

Indeed, political nepotism is a common practice, in varying degrees, throughout the world. "We make the mistake thinking that individual democracy is the natural state of man," says Fox. The truth is that humans tend to believe "that the charisma, the power, and the right to rule is inherited," and accept the offspring or spouse of a ruler as "a legitimate substitute," notes Fox. Four years after the 2000 election saw George W. Bush (son of a president) defeat Al Gore (son of a senator), Adam Bellow wrote a book arguing that "the American political class, along with other sectors of our society, is increasingly filled with the offspring of established parents." Bellow (himself the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow) doesn't see this as a problem: His book was called In Praise of Nepotism.

Tinkering with the natural order of ancestral veneration can be dangerous. "For thousands of years the Chinese state had relied on families and clans to maintain social order, and had supported their authority with laws that enforced filial piety," Bellow wrote. Indeed, Mao Zedong, the son of a middle-class farmer, tried to destroy the bonds that attached people to their families, replacing them with ties to the state. But shortly after the end of his 27-year rule -- marred by famine and chaos -- Mao's surviving comrades-at-arms begin institutionalizing a system and a government that they could pass to their descendents. Today, four out of seven of Xi's colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, are princelings -- the offspring of those who held high-ranking party posts.

It could be an unlikely coincidence that most of Asia is now run by political scions, but perhaps it's a universal phenomenon. In the rough and tumble world of democracy, we still like our political brands. Maybe we just prefer the illusion of choosing them.