Monday, October 12, 2009

Regime Change: Time to Get Real About World Order

Despite having great affinity for Liberalism, I have never called myself a Liberal. One of the bones I, as a Progressive, often pick with Liberals is their inability to prioritize among mega- and micro-issues in the real world. The evils we live among in this world, foreign and domestic, are so vast that we need to set our minds on triage.

I have gone on and on about the differences I see between Progressives and Liberals, but that is not the purpose of this column other than introducing it.

Back in the days when I was a doctoral student-poseur, I read everything Samuel P. Huntington wrote. Among his writings, was his foundational Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). I just tripped over a re-review article by Robert D. Kaplan written for The Atlantic almost a month ago. I agree with Kaplan about the urgent relevance of Huntington's central tenants - (vintage 1968) to Contemporary American Foreign Policy. 

Thus, without further delay, I feel compelled to read some of Kaplan's commentary into the record.
In the early 21st century, the problem of weakly governed states is a pervasive one. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia, along with many other countries I could name-especially in Africa-all pose significant challenges to world order for the chaos they have unleashed … as a result of their ineffective, unresponsive, or nonexistent government institutions.

..... Weak states have been a major issue since the end of World War II, when the dismantling of European empires resulted in self-government for many peoples who had little experience of it, and who suddenly had to cope with the rigors of modernity. The adjustment process is one that has taken, and will continue to take, decades to complete. The outside power that best understands this process, without harboring sentimental illusions about "ideal" forms of government, will have a significant advantage over the others. Indeed, the undeclared battle between the United States and China in Africa-over which of the two countries' approaches to development works best-will speak volumes about the future balance of power in the world. While we've tended to emphasize democracy, human rights, and civil society, the Chinese have emphasized massive infrastructure projects and authority by any means possible, civil or uncivil.

Our own idealistic approach may fit nicely with our view of ourselves as a high-minded nation apart. But it may not, in fact, be the best approach - either for our own sake, or for the well-being of the nations upon whom we seek to impose it. Fortunately for us, however, there is an incisive philosophical guidebook we can consult for advice on how to proceed more effectively.

..... As a guide, Political Order in Changing Societies can make for uncomfortable reading, because, more in keeping with the Chinese mindset, it recognizes, as did Hobbes long ago, that authority-even of a brutal kind-is preferable to none at all. Indeed, Huntington's most arresting assertion comes at the very beginning: that the degree to which a state is governed is more crucial than how it is governed. Huntington explains that, despite the ideological differences, the United States had far more in common with the Soviet Union than it did with any weakly ruled state in Africa. For though the U.S.S.R. was Communist, it at least had strong institutions, unlike most states in Africa. It is the quotidian elements of power, Huntington suggests-the police force, the tax authority, the motor vehicles bureau, the electricity company- that give a governmental system legitimacy, and which are signally lacking in the developing world. When Iraq or Afghanistan have even a few of these things, our troops can take off their body armor and go home.

Americans tend to believe that the way to develop such institutions is by holding elections and establishing democracy. But Huntington argues that this is a flawed assumption. He contends that we are seduced by the notion of a "unity of goodness," according to which all good things go together and responsive institutions flow from democracy. But,

  • What if democracy isn't the panacea we imagine?
  • What if democratic elections frequently break down along ethnic lines and produce civil war?
  • What if one weak democratic government after another follows in succession, so that a state remains in a perpetual situation of partial anarchy?
  • Or what if, as many examples attest, strong, responsive institutions sometimes evolve from dictatorships that have become increasingly benevolent over the years? Think of South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile, all of which evolved peacefully into model democracies.

Huntington goes so far as to suggest that monarchies, of all regimes, are the ones most likely to develop liberal institutions because, being an anachronism in the modern world, they have to prove themselves through good works-unlike radical nationalists or other extremists who can justify their grip on power merely through ideology.

Huntington pours scorn on our fixation with corruption in places like Afghanistan. Corruption, he explains, can be a means of stanching violent revolution. It offers an alternative means of government and tax collection, in places where formal government itself is weak or incapacitated. And as with the high levels of corruption in the U.S. in the 1870s and 1880s, it can be a sign of dynamic development. Corruption is not therefore a sign of the illegitimacy of those in power, but merely of their impurity and inability to consolidate institution building. Those who insist on purity will have no allies.

… military coups are not in and of themselves evil, but a sign that the military finds itself in a more advanced stage of institution building than its counterparts in the civilian side of the bureaucracy. Young officers who revolt are often better educated or less corrupt than those whom they overthrow.

The American experience … has been about limiting the power of government. After all, we imported our institutional practices wholesale from 17th century England and then sought to curtail them, rather than having to build them from scratch like so much of the rest of the world. We are not, then, in a position to share with the rest of the world our experience of establishing a democracy. To the contrary, our historical experience is somewhat irrelevant to the countries we are now trying to help.

Becoming more effective in the places where our military is embroiled will thus require that we lay aside our own historical experience, much as we are proud of it. Ungovernability has a set of rules all its own. We would do well to study it

I would argue that Kaplan's reading of S. P. Huntington is correct on the general mega-policy problems which developing countries present the United States. I would further argue that these lessons taught by the professor in the 20th century were ignored by Bush and Cheney in our current century.


  1. Vigil,
    I was able to read a couple paragraphs before realizing this was a somewhat more modern version of White Man's Burden. I had to quit reading at "Idealistic approach".
    Typical Cold Warrior. Crushing nationalism for pro-US military dictatorships,eventually morphing into managed democracies working for the benefit of our multinationals.
    This Kaplan guy could have been a speechwriter for George Bush. Or Obama.

  2. recognizes, as did Hobbes long ago, that authority-even of a brutal kind-is preferable to none at all.

    Its easy to wax longingly for a humanistic, progressive, warm and fuzzy government that looks after everyone from cradle to grave observing human rights. But when the local bandit, drug lord, or warlord kills your children and rapes the wife any authority that puts a stop to that starts to look good.

    I don't know but I've heard enough that one of the reasons the Taliban is resurgent is because while they are crazed thugs they at least offer some sort of stability. as compared to the current "national" Afghan government.

  3. kaplan is a neolib. he is a senoir fellow for Center for a New American Security, which imo; is the neolib arm of the AEI. these are all israel firsters. old cold war dino's who insist on constant encroachment on russia and china. they are globalists, occupiers, and colonizers. these guys never met a dictator they never liked. they will go in under the guise of freedom, and democracy. while all along raping and pillaging for natural resources. THEY are the problem, not the countries that are on their target list.

  4. Vigil tried to sneak Kaplan by his sophisticated readership by putting on as favorable spin as possible. In order to do so, he deliberately suppressed Kaplan's 2nd para:

    A major policy goal for the United States, therefore, is to try to reduce instability by building or bolstering institutional capacity in these countries, especially in those areas most tormented by violence or extreme underdevelopment. All around the world, for U.S. troops and civilian foreign aid workers alike, the quest for stability is paramount. In this regard, even counterinsurgencies can be beneficial, providing physical protection to a subject population, and overseeing basic infrastructure projects—in effect, serving as the military arm of foreign aid.

    The last sentance here is specifically egregious: COIN strategy employed by Christian-American boots-on-the-ground on Islamic turf promises the exact opposite of stability.

  5. The oroblem with both sides in this debate is that neither democracy nor stability can be imposed from the outside over the long term. Cultures grow in their own ways and in their own time. For the US, the best role is to use our example and economic power to encourage others to follow our example, something we could not do under Bush and the GOP.

  6. Yes! I did deliberately scrap that sentence,

    In this regard, even counterinsurgencies can be beneficial, providing physical protection to a subject population, and overseeing basic infrastructure projects—in effect, serving as the military arm of foreign aid.

    This is an abomination. For us to be shouldering and soldiering COINs around the world, especially in the Islamic world at the same time our pals are amuck in Palestine, is totally counterproductive. We are the illegitimate alien force to the people.

    Look at the real world, my fellow Americans. Take this from today's Daily Beast:

    The ultimate goal of the U.S. administration in Afghanistan is to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban, not only in Afghanistan but also in neighboring Pakistan. To succeed, the U.S. needs a legitimate and functional government in Kabul that provides justice, security, and basic services to a population that, at present, feels disenfranchised from the political process. The public has lost faith in the Afghan government and the coalition forces. They no longer believe that either is able to protect them from the Taliban.

    That's behind all this foolish transplanting of Western electioneering with its purple thumbs, hanging chads, voting frauds, etc. We're trying to put over on Afghans that we our presence among them is legitimate by bringing them our 'elections'?

    Afghanistan has had its own form of town council meetings, loya jirga, for longer than our USA has been the USA. Afghanistan should be left alone, more or less, to find its own path out of Chaosistan.

    All efforts would be invested in a Marshall Plan for Pakistan - I didn't say troops - which is higher on the international food chain. Did any one look on the failing states chart above (you have to click on it!)? Pakistan is at least on the chart. Afghanistan is off the charts, literally.

    And, did I mention that the Pakis have nukes?

  7. You didn't need to mention the Paki nukes! Like walking in mid polysci 206. Some very erudite thinking on all sides here! TC's point per cultural growth clings to my mind. You really can not impose / however; I see this as another argument for exiting Afghanistan. And with that, I agree.

  8. the idea of "imposing democracy" is something I have a real problem with. It's like saying "imposing financial assistance" on someone.A person in financial need will gladly accept a grant or a loan on good terms,that same person may refuse or refuse to pay back a loan shark who rips them off.

    There would be no need to "impose democracy" on most societies.Other than those who desire a religious theocracy,having a choice of leaders appeals to most societies.

    The last thing the US wants is a democracy in any country whose resources or markets we desire. Because they will elect leaders who will do what is best for their countrymen rather than US multinationals.

    What we like is a managed democracy, which does what is best for the US but gives an air of legitimacy to the whole affair.

    Invading and occupying a country,shooting people down in the street like dogs and exercising divide and rule (Shia vs Sunni,Hindu vs Muslim,Pawnee vs Lakota),breaking up any non-US approved local elections at gunpoint-then holding elections between US approved candidates during a military occupation-is not "imposing democracy".

    It's imperialism. You don't have to force people to be free. you just have to leave them the fuck alone and let them find their own way away from Ottoman/British/French/US/Israeli imperialism.

  9. Monarchies most likely to develop liberal institutions????? The Saudi Royal Family evidently didn't get the memo on that one.

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  11. Yeah, good point Will. They haven't gotten the memo. Yet.

  12. We are hardly considered aliens in Afghanistan. More than 67% of the population supports our presence in that country. Curiously, but not surprisingly, Pakistan is considered one of the most anti-American nations on earth. It is no wonder al Qaeda has moved the bulk of their operations to this nuclear power.

    As to Kaplan, I agree with RZ in that he writes like a neo-liberal. I rarely agree with anyone who can be characterized with a "neo" in front of their affiliation or cause, and this is not exception.

  13. 67% Afghans support our presence? Rubbish! Whose or what poll are you citing? What do you think they did? Call all residential phone numbers? Door-to-door census-taking with clipboard and pencils? What is your wild-eyed fantasy? 67% ????
    You are 100% fucking crazy!

  14. Certainly, neither Bush nor Cheney read Kaplan's review or Huntington's analysis on policy problems about developing nations. Bush isn't smart enough to read these analyses, and Cheney didn't care—he was only in Iraq for the money. And, contrary to the ideals of the original Republican party, were more involved in increasing the power of government.

    Damn good comment, Will.

    The Washington Post notes Bush II tripled direct humanitarian and development aid to the world's most impoverished continent since taking office and recently vowed to double that increased amount by 2010—to nearly $9 billion.

    The Guardian notes he rarely talks about it.

    Really? Why?

    There's a proviso to his "good" acts in Africa, according to Socialist: a year since the US defence department set up the new Africa Command (Africom) to direct US strategic interests on the continent... reflects the renewed importance of African resources, particularly oil, for the US. As part of this project Bush is desperate for new allies on the continent to collaborate in the scramble for Africa.

    That scenario seems more likely than his much-praised assistance to Africa—another attempt to further Colonization and increase America's stronghold on oil interests throughout the world.

    This comment particularly struck me: Those who insist on purity will have no allies.. Of course. How does one define purity? Who can make that determination for others? Wouldn't that concept differ from culture to culture? And, if America continues its quest for what I can only term as "Colonialism," doesn't that run counter to the reason we fought a Revolution?

    I obviously need to read more of Huntington's writings. Thanks for posting this thought-provoking article, Vig.

  15. Well said Stella.

    Will makes a fine point too.

    What finally kicks into my mind is Oso’s inclusion: the White Man’s Burden…
    The shock in this policy wonking is the idea of that we must impose order onto / into societies. I’m just a lost Star Treker, wondering if the maximum directive is being followed… and of course, it can not. How can it be when cultures / Peoples are expanding beyond their boarders with the ‘need’ to preserve their ‘existence’? Basic arguments of war, since god was a puppy…or isn’t some god the author of war? The simple human dilemma of existence is the smoldering corpse on every battlefield. Like the battle between the us and the government to obtain HCR. Consistently spilling over the boarders… 700 miles at sea Somalian pirates took a Chinese tanker. Soros’s example of COIN = American evangelic fiscal opportunists who have anchored their fear dogma into rural Africa through indigenous franchised ‘pastors’ who are collecting fees from the starving and poor in villages with ‘witch exorcisms’ and the savage defilement / murder of children! Further robbing culture! We continue to crush to death what I think, Stella, is the only ‘purity’ in this wonking: the organic evolution of cultures, of a People. Like bullies on the playground… whomever has the ability to enforce his / her will over the rest… demonstrative foreign policy for every ‘world power’.

    We just keep un-learning how to share with each other. Simplistic, I admit.

    Ta Vig... for the education!