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  • Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context
  • Surain Subramaniam (bio)
Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context. By Daniel A. Bell. Princeton, New Jersey and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. Hardcover and softcover: 379 pp.

The issues surrounding the transferability of liberal democratic governance to non-Western societies have been at the forefront of normative studies in the vast literature on democratization and democratic theory, particularly since the end of the Cold War. This period has also coincided with U.S. foreign policies of democratic enlargement and transformation, together with the robust role played by international non-government organizations in facilitating the development and institutionalization of liberal democracy and civil society in societies around the world. Paralleling these developments in international relations has been the unprecedented economic growth and development witnessed in many East Asian societies in this age of economic globalization. It is at the interface between the universal spread of liberal democratic thinking and the rise of East Asian economies that the issue of transferability of liberal democratic governance has become a significant area of intellectual and scholarly inquiry for students of democratization, political theory and philosophy, and Asian governments, politics, and philosophy. Daniel Bell's recent work, Beyond Liberal Democracy, makes a significant contribution to this area of study and it ought to be read by scholars who are undertaking research in this area. This work is a culmination of at least a decade of thinking and writing by a scholar who has observed closely the many intellectually significant issues that have arisen from political developments in East Asian societies during this period. Although some of the themes in this work have been examined by Bell in his previous works, most notably in East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), this latest work covers a broad range of new issues. This combined with the elegant narrative form in which Beyond Liberal Democracy is written makes for an interesting and timely piece of scholarship that should attract a wide readership.

Organizationally, the book is divided into three parts, each addressing one of the components identified by Bell to be "the main hallmarks of liberal democracy — human rights, democracy, and capitalism" (p. 9), in other words, the constituent parts of democratic capitalism. Operationally, Bell has delineated these three areas by examining (1) Human Rights For An East Asian Context, (2) Democracy For an East Asian Context, and (3) Capitalism For An East Asian Context. Clearly ambitious in its scope, Beyond Liberal Democracy [End Page 531] is the product of Bell's efforts to consolidate in one comprehensive work the many issues that have arisen in recent years following the counter-arguments provided by the political, cultural, economic, and normative experiences of East Asian societies. In this sense, readers would benefit from being exposed to the intellectual evolution of the many issues raised in the debates surrounding the transferability of liberal democratic governance, as seen from the East Asian perspective. While Bell does an adequate job of laying out these arguments in a fair and balanced way, the nature of the questions raised preclude any definitive or conclusive arguments that would lay these issues to rest once and for all. Indeed, one could speculate that rather than to aim for the latter; Bell's real contribution with this book is to raise some of the fundamentally significant questions that subsequent works in this area of study would have to address and with which future scholars would have to contend.

The main argument in Bell's book is that when it comes to the question of transferability of liberal democratic governance, "one size doesn't fit all" (p. 1), and that Western advocates of the universality of liberal democracy who miss this important insight often do so through an almost unconscious sense of cultural parochialism shaped by the Western intellectual development of the ideas associated with liberal democracy. Following this argument, Bell urges Western advocates of liberal democracy to seriously engage their intellectual counterparts in East Asia, particularly those who are well versed in both Western and East Asian traditions of political philosophical thought, in...


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pp. 531-534
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