John: I’m sure people a lot smarter than me have addressed the question of culture vs. institutions in development, but there’s a certain circularity to the argument. The character of a nation’s institutions is in some substantial part a result of the nation’s culture. For instance, England’s tradition of consensual government, starting with Magna Carta, wasn’t a gift from extraterrestrial visitors, it was an outgrowth of the nation’s circumstances — economic, religious, historical, etc. — that shaped the behaviors, beliefs, and expectations of the English.
I don’t mean to be determinist about this. Cultures can, in fact, change. Who a century ago would have thought Spain and South Korea would be developed democracies? But it doesn’t just happen on its own, and it takes time, more time for some cultures than others.
So Romney was a lot more than half right — “a Middle East composed of market democracies” isn’t something we should expect any time soon.