Selling free enterprise in the third world: will the Asian model outsell the West?

Beneath the whirling punkah fans of a grand old hotel on the west bank of the Blue Nile, a familiar face moved toward me. The frown lines were deeper, but its dark visage broke into a broad smile.

The place was Khartoum, late 1978. My fatigues-clad visitor was a guerrilla leader who is today a key cabinet minister in a large African nation. It had been almost 20 years since I last saw him, when he was a young student at Boston University

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We chatted. I asked this man just in from the bush of northwestern Mozambique about his wife and children. ''My son has just graduated from Amherst,'' he answered proudly. ''My daughter's at BU. A chip off the old block.''

If there was any incongruity in this guerrilla-Ivy mix, he showed no consciousness of it. Nor, I suspect, does he see today any inconsistency in the fact that his nation, Zimbabwe, is inexorably becoming the 32nd African state to embrace one-party rule in some form.

Is there, in fact, a contradiction in the sweep of one-man, one-party rule through much of what has come to be called, with oversimplified labeling, the third world? At first glance, one might think so. Some of the maximum leaders and their cabinet retinues have, like my Zimbabwean acquaintance, been educated in the democracies of the West. Others, including leaders of military coups in Latin America, have been exposed to democratic control of the military during command training in the United States.

Many of them have rejected Marxism, with its one-party credo. And yet they have shifted to authoritarianism. In doing so, they discarded the multiparty system bequeathed by retreating colonials to most of the countries born in the ' 50s and '60s. Instead of ''ins'' and ''outs'' alternating to refresh the talent and ideas of national leadership, these ''ins'' are in for as long as they can hold on.

Does this represent a failure of the West, of Western education? Does it indicate unusual corruptibility or megalomania among a whole generation of ''southern'' leaders?

It's possible to answer ''no'' to both questions. And to do so without resorting to the apologies that UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and colleagues make for some of the most corrupt, and above all, wasteful of Latin American dictators: namely, that rightist dictators are inherently less final than those of the left.

The problem, in so many countries, lies in economies that have not fulfilled the hopes of their citizens. During the first quarter-century after World War II , decolonization created new nations and new hopes. UN membership rose from 51 to 158. The former colonies graduated in an era when both Western and Eastern economies were enjoying what seemed to be an endless growth cycle. The momentum of rebuilding war-shattered economies carried the former Axis and Allied powers into an unusual era of growth and citizens' hope.

And for the new leaders of new nations, there was a smorgasbord of choices to get in on the feast.

They could join the American or West European economic spheres - trade, aid, loans, educational opportunities. Or they could sample the Russian promise, the more Spartan wave of the future. Later they could choose the heretical Chinese version of Marxist aid - perhaps a Tanzam Railway - if they suspected Moscow's brand of being just another version of white imperialism. Or, they could listen for a higher bid from Nationalist China (Taiwan) - perhaps ingenious agricultural aid that produced not one, not two, but three rice crops a year.

Guinea, Ghana, Indonesia, and Egypt experimented with the Soviet-brand product, then rejected it. India alternately gazed toward Khrushchev's Moscow, then Galbraith's America.

For a few third-world nations, rising economies helped to satisfy rising expectations. But for most there was only the wild rise and fall of world commodity prices, or the showplace aid project from East or West that never seemed to launch the local society into self-sustaining growth. They never reached what Walt Rostow, writing at the beginning of the Space Age, called the Takeoff Stage.

With disappointment came coups. Also the desire to insulate the ''ins'' from the dangers of votes, electoral or parliamentary, that might express frustration with the economic doldrums.

Thoughtful politicians and academics in the West have sought to aid the return of democracy - sometimes by helping an exiled leader who is committed to popular rule, sometimes by pushing Western governments to withhold aid, downgrade diplomatic recognition, or speak out against offenders.

Seldom have these measures worked as well as those who believe fervently in the benefits of democracy would like.

What, then, are the answers, if any?

It's unwise to be dogmatic. But also unwise not to put forward some views. Societies need ways of sending in fresh teams with fresh ideas - the essence of democracy - whether in Tudor England or Mobutu's Zaire.

One of the most effective approaches, surely, involves what might be called ''the magnet of the chopstick states.''

Almost unnoticed in Moscow and Washington, the third world is no longer forced to select from a smorgasbord whose three main dishes are American stew, Soviet goulash, or nonaligned vegetarian. It now have before it the economic growth examples of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and even a glimmer of hope from high-tech factories in North Borneo.

What beckons is a version of the American-Japanese entrepreneurial, free-enterprise, competitive, incentive system. But a system practiced in smaller nations that other ''new'' nations can identify with; practiced by nonwhites; practiced by peoples whose exported movies do not show an impossible dream of luxury apartments, swimming pools, and Aston Martin car chases.

It should be noted that many of these Asian chopstick states, these Asian work-ethic states, have not themselves graduated to full multiparty democracy. Certainly not Korea or Taiwan, or even the guided democracy of Singapore. That may be regrettable. And it is sophistry to say confidently that rising living standards, better education, and more communication from the democratic world will inevitably lead to democracy in any of the chopstick lands. The history of leaders who made the trains run on time and put chickens on every table is not necessarily a history of transition to democracy.

But the lands who have given their people hope and rising living standards are certainly more apt to end in becoming modern democratic states. South Korea averaged 8 percent annual growth in the past two decades. Over roughly the past decade, Malaysia has averaged 7 percent, Singapore 10 percent, Taiwan 7.5 percent. With that has come a rise in entrepreneurial spirit, independent judgment, desire for progress and change, knowledge of the world, and improved education. Those qualities are a breeding ground for democracy.

Meanwhile, the success of this third-world economic honor roll should be a magnet to the political and economic leaders of other one-party states. American political leaders would do well to realize that third-worldish Malaysia is likely to make a more compelling advertisement for the American way of economic and political organization than America itself.

A Boston University student-turned-guerrilla-turned-cabinet-minister knows the benefits (and flaws) of the American system. But he does not find it easy to believe - or to convince his fellow citizens - that that system can be reproduced in toto in post-independence Zimbabwe. A version closer in scale and time is more convincing. The chopstick example ought to sell well for the rest of the century.

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