Tuesday, May 29, 2007

US - Iran Talks: Setup for Failure?

On Monday, Iran and the United States did something these two countries have not been able to bring themselves to do, despite the clear need, for over a generation: they officially, publicly talked to each other. To you and me, this may not seem like much to brag about. They did not announce any historic concessions or in any other way repair the longstanding errors in mutual policy positions in order to renew a relationship that is, unavoidably, an important one in the current world. Indeed, they did not even agree to review that bungled relationship. They just talked.

But countries are not like us. You and I are, of course, rational individuals who calculate our interests and behave accordingly. Countries, in contrast, are vain and emotional creatures much enamored of standing high on questionable principles, much to their own harm.

At least they talked, and that would seem a step in the right direction. But when emotions are high, distrust proven by history* to be well deserved, politicians on both sides ready to exploit the situation for personal advantage, and everything fogged over by gross misperception of the other side, talking needs to be approached with finesse if it is to lead to progress.
[*Anyone who doubts that history gives the two sides good reason to distrust each other should read A Very Thin Line, Theodore Draper's embarrassing account of the Iran-Contra escapade.]

Washington sent a massive naval armada to Iran’s coast only days before the talks began. The U.S. has the power to destroy Iran; Iran does not have the power to destroy the U.S. The U.S. has recently invaded two countries on Iran’s border; Iran has not invaded anyone. The U.S. has also threatened Iran in other ways than the above-mentioned armada.

What reaction might one expect from the weaker side in a negotiation, when the stronger side is on the offensive, pressuring the weaker party both with force and (in the U.S.-Iran case) diplomatic pressure to make concessions? Concessions by the weaker side in such a situation come very close to surrender. Therefore, the stronger side should only expect success with such a strategy in a situation where surrender logically seems the only way out for the weaker side. Otherwise, such a strategy is likely to fail.

Iran is intrinsically the major regional power (i.e., in terms of geography, resources, population size); it is currently not the major regional power only because the U.S. has armed Israel, from which anti-Iranian threats have been flowing, to the teeth. But Iran’s position is steadily improving; Iran is a rising regional power with, if it can learn to manage its internal affairs, time on its side. The U.S., albeit far ahead, is spread thin since it has global aspirations, and is rapidly dissipating its power on ill-planned adventures. Moreover, these adventures are having the ironic affect of themselves contributing to Iran’s improving international position. The deeper the U.S. sinks into the Iraqi quagmire, the more astute Iran’s relatively moderate policy appears. The longer the Palestinian people are denied justice, the more reasonable Iran’s support for them appears and the more popular Iran is likely to become on the Arab street. The longer Lebanon’s Shi’a are marginalized in Lebanese politics, the more grateful they are likely to be for Iran’s support. The longer Syrian aspirations to get back its Golan Heights are denied and the more Syria is pressured, the closer it is likely to move to Iran. Time is on Iran’s side: what reason is there to anticipate that Iran will surrender?

Moreover, when two sides are face-to-face and looking for a way out, it is up to the more powerful—the side that can most easily afford to do so—to make the first concession. It is not reasonable to expect the weaker party to start from its relatively bad position and then promptly make it worse: to the weak, this looks like the first step on a slippery slope. It is also humiliating, and for a country that has been humiliated so many times by the West, accepting yet another slap in the face is not likely to be career-enhancing for the officials involved.

In addition to the above general reasons why threats and pressure are unlikely to persuade any rising power to make unilateral concessions is the specific nature of the Iranian regime. After its Islamic Revolution, Iran set up a highly factionalized government with numerous institutional checks and balances to prevent any faction from gaining control. The result may protect Iran from absolute dictatorship but also makes it difficult for Tehran to set and maintain a clear policy course. When the U.S. sends simultaneous contradictory signals (e.g., a threatening naval armada and an offer to negotiate), this is an open invitation to Iranian factions to focus on one signal and ignore the other. Each side in any internal Iranian foreign policy debate can honestly point to solid evidence supporting whatever interpretation of U.S. intentions it wishes to make. This contradictory U.S. policy thus seems likely to exacerbate factionalism in Iran and thereby inhibit the ability of Tehran to select and adhere to any consistent policy line. In a word, the U.S. strategy will make it more difficult for Tehran to reach agreement with the U.S.

Finally, Iran has all the reasons (trade, security) for being involved with Iraq as the U.S. has for being involved with Canada – plus additional ones from the common Shi’ite heritage of the two countries. Iraq is of critical interest to Iran. There may be some attractive trade-offs that could be made that would persuade Tehran to limit its activities in Iraq in return for something, but they would have to be very persuasive. Logically, one can only anticipate rising Iranian involvement in Iraq.

So the strategy being employed by the U.S. of setting the stage for talks with threats and pressure seem unlikely to lead to success, which raises the question of why such an approach has been adopted. Do American leaders fail to understand that the world has evolved past the old gunboat diplomacy stage, or is success in the talks simply not Washington’s goal? Whatever the truth, Washington’s approach to these talks makes it likely that they will accomplish much less than might otherwise have been the case.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Stability..for Whom?

Accuracy of definitions*** lies at the core of any effort to understand reality and do science. The term that may be the single most critical term in international relations (IR), is "stability." Tragically, we either do not know what the word "stability" means or we intentionally twist its meaning for our personal profit.

Scrutinize very carefully politicians’ glib references to bringing stability to the world, the context in which they make the remarks, and the resulting policies:

  • Bush: "Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. Yet, that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime's torture chambers and poison labs in operation"
  • Bush: at the United Nations, senior officials from many countries will meet to discuss the design and deployment of the multinational force. Prime Minister Blair and I agree that this approach gives the best hope to end the violence and create lasting peace and stability in Lebanon
  • Cheney: "For sixty years before September 11, we believed that we had to choose either freedom or stability, either democracy or security. We believed, in the case of the Arab world, that we could either uphold our principles or advance our policies. We were wrong. By purchasing stability at the price of liberty, we achieved neither."
Everyone of course would claim to know exactly what “stability” in IR means. In fact, the meaning is so obvious it is axiomatic. But, on this academic, hair-splitting definitional exercise rests the very lives of millions of living, breathing human beings: not hundreds or thousands but millions and not millions over the course of history but millions in our lifetime.

More importantly—at least in the minds of some members of various elites, defining stability wrong costs a lot of money.

A country is presumably stable if it experiences domestic peace and the regime type is maintained. From that simple definition, much follows. If outside powers desire stability as a basis for investment or, indeed, as a basis for bases, they check to see if domestic peace exists and the political system has some staying power, then implement their policy, which will surely include steps to reinforce that stability.

But how is a system to respond to a changing environment without changing itself?
If globalization requires efficient competitive practices, does this mean that a socialist dictatorship must evolve enough to allow businessmen the freedom to make decisions and develop a rule of contract law sufficient to attract foreign investment? How much such evolution can occur before the system has turned into a new system in which policy process and control mechanisms are fundamentally different? If a third world dictatorship in which the army can commit atrocities against its own people at will is undermined by an international financial crisis to the point that the people can assert sufficient political power to bring army officers who have violated civil rights to trial, does this mean a new system has evolved? Both the jailed army officer and the empowered villager could be forgiven for thinking so.

A more accurate picture of political stability is that of a system in which information flows into the system, which makes decisions leading to the implementation of new policies, which in turn modify the system. This system will, over the long run, have a good chance at achieving far more stability in our contemporary world environment of intense evolutionary pressures than the unchanging pressure cooker system, as any old-fashioned cook who puts the lid on too tight will understand.

But what have I just done? We began by stating that stability meant maintaining the system, while I have just said that an evolutionary system—one which by definition changes into something new—leads to greater stability.

Herein lies the point of belaboring the definition of “stability.” The first definition of stability as "screwing the lid on tight" is based on a definition of the stability of the political system that focuses on the governing elite. As long as the army protects the elite and the leader either endures indefinitely or is replaced on schedule and without violence (especially violence that affects the elite), stability is claimed, regardless of seething frustrations and desperate daily struggles for survival among the populace; secret police arrests of civil rights activists; paramilitary massacres of villagers; or persistent, low-scale civil war in remote rural regions.

An alternative definition of stability might respond to the question, “Stability for whom?” and require that the term “stability” be reserved as the term for a society that is stable for the majority of its population. Such a definition would be broadened to include the degree of tension, time, and direction. How long will stability last (e.g., only as long as popular demands are repressed?) and whether current policies are solidifying or imperiling that stability are crucial considerations. To call a volcano stable when the pressure just beneath the surface is rising may have some value for a day hiker but is a statement of no utility for local villagers.

A “level of analysis” problem lies at the root of this confusion over the meaning of “stability.” Is a country stable as long as the political system endures, even though the lives of individuals are in perpetual chaos? The answer depends on how closely you look, as shown in the figure “Level of Analysis.” But a political system is dynamic, so the answer also depends on the timeframe.

The effects from one level to another may be obscured by time delays, e.g., the causal link between a regime atrocity such as bombing a city and the formation of a fundamentalist insurgency weeks or months later.

Recognition that stability need not mean stasis opens the door to fundamentally new policies. Dictatorships no longer need to be propped up by foreign powers interested in establishing commercial or military ties because one’s imagination is opened to the possibility of a new system that would both address the desires of the population for, say, social justice or political participation and address the foreign power’s interests.

  • An oppressed population helped to gain social justice by a foreign power might well find it had no problem selling oil to that power.
  • A foreign power that chose to support a rise in the wages of banana pickers against the wishes of international corporations might find the new country a much more stable source of bananas.

Definitions matter because definitions influence perceptions and perceptions influence, to put it mildly, behavior. We may all agree that instability read as chaos, disease, and war is bad, while stability read as peace, progress, economic development is good. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between saying A.) that stability requires that the current leaders, current customs, and current inequities remain in place and B.) that stability permits all desired changes at whatever desired speed in leadership, custom, law, power relationships as long as those changes are achieved peacefully and with tolerance.

It would be difficult to imagine how to conduct a serious evaluation of the performance of any system without considering the concept of stability. In international relations, a misunderstanding of stability lies at the root of much of our constant surprise at the "sudden" onset of crises that were so typically forewarned for years by the distress suffered by some oppressed or marginalized group.

***My thanks to my departed friend and colleague, Professor Lee Frost-Kumpf, for stimulating me toward the line of thinking in this blog mere days before his tragic death.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fundamentalisms Preying on Lebanon

A force roams the world searching out opportunities to weaken democracy, to undermine moderates, and to spread its belief in a fundamentalist, messianic, violence-worshiping version of politics justified by a particular interpretation of some religion. Appearing in many forms, these twisted, extremist perspectives on global affairs hunt for victims and power in the dark jungle of global affairs. They function in part as sad, desperate answers to problems seen with some reason as insoluable by any moderate means and in part as carnivores exploiting the imperfections of a world of winners and losers, where winners increasingly seem to gloat and rub it in rather than extending a helping hand to those less fortunate. This force opposes democracy because democracy means debate, choice, and variety--all anathema to the fundamentalist self-image of perfection. This force thrives on chaos and searches for weak points in the global system of governance where chaos can be fomented.

The Islamic version, which although hardly the only or even the most powerful version of political fundamentalism, is certainly the one most Americans tend to worry about; it may be referred to by the shorthand "al Qua’ida (al Queda)," though the extent to which al Qua'ida remains a single, unified organization is open to question. When al Quai’da surveys the world searching for new opportunities to "make friends and influence people," what land could look more fertile for sowing its violent seed than Lebanon?

Lebanon has been shattered by a vicious, multi-sided, two-decade-long civil war; victimized by repeated Israeli invasions that seem, judging from Israeli tactics, to have been designed to destroy the cohesion of Lebanese society and prevent any real Lebanese independence from ever emerging; strangled by Syrian occupation; and exploited by a host of others, from Palestinian refugees driven out of their homeland to rich countries on all sides. On top of everything else, Lebanese rich and poor cannot find a way to share the political space, and outsiders keep egging the two sides on like spectators at a cock fight.

With this as the context, through the smoke of the current fighting in Tripoli, what useful analysis can be undertaken?
  • Demographics: 10% Palestinian refugees ; 30% Shi’a
  • Political Participation: effectively denied to the above 40% of the population
  • Governance: minimal government provision of services for the above 40% of the population (for the Shi'a, local government provided by Hezballah).

Given such circumstances, pressure by foreigners on their Lebanese allies/clients to reject compromise in favor of hardline policies enforced by violence can only be expected to generate endless violence. Such pressure obstructs the inclusion of marginalized Lebanese groups from participating in Lebanese politics and opens the door to advocates of extremism.

Careless remarks about "reining in" extremists, like that made by President Bush this week that ignore the underlying conditions and implicitly endorse violence by the military which can only further antagonize already marginalized groups (in this case, the Palestinian refugees) pour gasoline on the fire. Why? Because they serve as evidence the extremists can use to persuade Lebanese to join them. "You see," they can and will say, "no one cares about your problems. No one is listening, no one will help. The government attacks you, and foreigners support the government. No one cares that you are endangered or out of food. Your only hope is to join us and fight back." Whether or not this message may be true is not the point: the issue is perceptions, and in Lebanon advocates of democracy do not appear to be winning that battle.

Whatever the particular spark that caused this week’s violence to flame up, it is the gasoline-soaked rags in every political corner of Lebanon about which we should be concerned. The surprise is not the violence this week. The surprise is that the Hezbollah-led protest movement against the current government has remained peaceful for the roughly six months it has so far endured. The surprise is that it has taken al Qua’ida so long to figure out a way to exploit Lebanese conditions to its own advantage. The surprise is that the long-suffering Palestinians remain quiet in their camps. The surprise is that Lebanon’s civil war ended despite its failure to resolve the issues that caused it in the first place.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Future Analysis

History may not repeat, but historical patterns do. Although the future cannot be foreseen, rigorous analytical methods can systematically reveal forces that will form the future and help us form logical judgments about how those forces can be expected to interact under specified circumstances.
  • When the battle against extremism is fought with military means, governance suffers.

  • Garrison states and hegemony provoke resistance.

  • Injustice not only radicalizes the desperate but begs for exploitation by those who are already radical.

  • Isolation provokes military buildup, and that provokes everyone else to do the same.

  • Treating bilateral ties as a zero-sum game is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Refusing to talk to opponents is self-defeating.

  • Failure to define a coherent policy leads to loss of control.

  • Hostility empowers hardliners.

Historical patterns exist. To get an idea of what the future may hold, it is valuable to identify patterns that are dominant, but if the underlying causal dynamics are not understood, a tipping point can arrive with little warning, and flip the situation over, leading to sudden dominance by a different dynamic: a sudden loss of popular confidence in leadership, an explosion of violence, or a run on the banks. So looking at the future entails both studying patterns and dynamics.

Dynamics are not events but processes and as such exert continuous influence over behavior. Since they are continuous, they can have a huge impact even though building slowly and sometimes long remaining hidden beneath the more obvious surface events. If, using the ocean as an analogy, tides, currents, wind, and gravitation are dynamics, then events are the individual waves: not very significant unless you happen to get smashed by one. Since dynamics are cyclical (A causes B, which in turn causes more A, which…), the effect can be exponential change, leading to surprising cumulative impact. Since in practice patterns are both hard to identify and hard to separate when several are interacting, a good starting point is to look for one of a dozen or so classic patterns, "system archetypes," that tend to take people by surprise.

One such system archetype that applies in all walks of human endeavor is "fixes that fail." Global affairs is filled with examples. The "Fix that Fails" pattern is a problem that is "fixed" in a way that works at first but slowly generates an unexpected consequence that causes ultimate failure (the classic case being a medicine that cures the disease but kills the patient).

A good question to ask when trying to figure out whether a new plan will work is, "Even if the proposed solution works as promised over the short term, does it contain the seeds of future problems?" The answer, by the way, is "yes," and that’s life, so the trick is not to search for a perfect solution but to be aware that short-term and long-term consequences are seldom in sync. Good planning requires recognition of and preparation for the long-term consequences.

A symptom is identified, a fix applied, and the symptom is alleviated,
but the underlying problem continues and perhaps be worsened by an
unintended consequence resulting from the fix.

One example is a country bedeviled by corrupt, feuding parties and an extremist protest group. External forces attempt to fix this problem by supporting the corrupt establishment parties in a domestic context where the extremist reformers are being cut out of the political scene. This "fix," in black below, may work for a time, as external aid strengthens the establishment parties and enables them to form a government without the extremist group’s participation. However, this development may generate two additional outcomes – frustration within the extremist group driving it to even more extremism and, if the other parties ignore the interests of those represented by the extremist group, popular frustration from poor governance that raises the extremists’ popularity. These two trends in combination could result in rising extremism, a cycle of violence, and civil war. Sketching dynamics focuses the mind on the underlying forces governing behavior and begs critical questions about relative strength, when and how relative strength might shift (leading to a surprising reversal of behavior), and the logical completeness of one’s explanation.

Sketching dynamics focuses the mind on the underlying forces governing behavior and begs critical questions about relative strength, when and how relative strength might shift (leading to a surprising reversal of behavior), and the logical completeness of one’s explanation. The "Fixes that Fail" concept is one of numerous tools that can help us to look beneath the misleading headlines and decipher what is really happening.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Statesmen Do Not Play Chess

Chess is a grand image for self-important world actors: their armies march across the stage, rooks and bishops plot devious pincer movements, queens sweep through to deliver the coup de grace. But international competition for influence over the Mideast is no game. The dead in the World Trade Center and Jenin and Beirut and Fallujah attest to that.

If one chooses to use game imagery, then chess should certainly not be the game in mind. The modern, interconnected, interdependent, nuclear world needs a much more sophisticaly metaphor than the Dark Ages "exterminate thine enemy" nonsense of chess. The game of politics, played skillfully, rests on a vision of compromise, but compromise in a very special sense.

Power is the issue, but power has attributes little appreciated by your average power-hungry but politically inept and testosterone-blinded political actor. Power is infinitely maleable. It can of course run out; it can be monopolized…but it need not be. Power can be transformed. Therefore, political compromise need not be a mindless and frustrating redivision of the same old pie. Handled skillfully—and herein lies the distinction between ‘politician’ and ‘statesman’, political compromise is the art of transformation: not only can the pie get bigger but multiple pies can be baked.

If a resource-rich but economically less developed country sold some of its resources to an industrial country and took the profits for honest national purposes, say, the creation of a modern educational system and an egalitarian economy, while the industrial country in turn built up its own economy, the pie would be bigger. Each country would end up with more "power"—more capability to do things.

If our two utterly mythical countries had started out in a military competition (e.g., the industrial country being intent on colonizing the other and stealing its resources or the less modernized country intent on overtaking the industrial country as the preeminent power in its own region), then the above scenario with its peaceful, cooperative and mutually-beneficial outcome would have effectively baked new pies. Rather than one military power pie, where the bigger Side A's piece, the smaller Side B's piece, the result would be additional pies.

An economic pie would be shared in some manner, no doubt not really 50-50, but that pie would be growing, with benefits on both sides. An intellectual pie might grow as well, with a new population receiving a modern education, cultural exchanges, and a general increase in knowledge occurring.

These are simple examples to make the point that skillful management of international affairs can replace the politician’s dangerous, zero-sum approach to international affairs with a safer, positive-sum approach in which compromise is the process of transformation of the competition. With multiple, growing pies, the two sides no longer need to compete to take each other’s share. One side may retain most of the military power, while the other gains, say, economically or in terms of status.

The brilliance of politics lies in the quest for transformation. Chessmen don’t transform: they conquer or die. The art of politics is to redefine an insoluable issue into an issue that is soluable. The possibilities are limited only by the human mind:

  • Once there were two superpowers who ruled the world, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons aimed at each other and sufficient to destroy the opponent, themselves, and all the rest of mankind several times over. Sensing that something was amiss, they managed to transform the competition just enough to avoid open war…engaging, for example, in an intense competition over Gold Medals.
  • Could one imagine Tel Aviv replacing its generation-long history of invading Lebanon and destroying the livelihoods of Lebanon's poor with an economic assistance program designed to enable them to become part of Lebanon's political system - with a stake in preserving it?
  • Could one imagine India and Pakistan agreeing that each of those countries has more than enough problems and potential without Kashmir as a possession and deciding that helping the Kashmiri people to develop their homeland as a friendly neighbor might not be so unbearable after all?
  • Could one imagine Colombians deciding that it might be worth the price to give Colombia's poor peasants control over their own land in an effort to end a half century of civil war?
  • Could one imagine Washington and Tehran renouncing violence and focusing their competition for Mideast influence instead on a cultural level by, say, funding competing educational systems?

Good leaders accomplish such redefinition.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Evil Decade (Injustice, Missed Opportunity, Terrorism)

The Cold War’s end turned out not to be the end of history but the beginning of a fundamentally new and complicated phase, or perhaps more realistically, a return to the normal historical processes that had been gaining speed since at least the French Revolution. Fukuyama’s forecast might have been more accurate had we all been more thoughtful, had we realized and acted on our opportunity for collective action that the end of the Cold War presented.

The Cold War had bottled up and distorted a number of trends. The end of colonialism, which should have left the new states free to organize themselves, was instead replaced by pressures to join sides in the new global conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The move toward equality of peoples regardless of ethnic background or geographic location was subverted by the shifting of focus to this new conflict as well. Efforts to achieve North-South equality within capitalism took second place to the perceived need to win the world for capitalism.
Democratization was seen either as a luxury that could not be afforded or an outright threat by superpoweers more concerned with lining up allies among the ruling elites.

The Cold War’s end removed these artificial constraints on the process of liberation. It removed the need for all to march in lockstep in a global campaign—there was no more global campaign. Local political disturbances in new states were no longer a threat to the world system because there was no longer an outside power looking for opportunities to take advantage of these disturbances. So the end of the Cold War allowed a return to the process of liberating and enfranchising people worldwide.

The Cold War’s end—and, in particular, the nature of the Cold War’s end—gave the world an historic opportunity. The war ended calmly and peacefully; no one was defeated, and the two sides ended up shaking hands, albeit gingerly, and agreeing that working together would make the world a better place. Previous wars—World War II, World War I, the Napoleonic wars, the Thirty Years’ War—had ended with stunned populations impoverished and desperate, economies and infrastructures shattered. The Cold War, by comparison, ended as an opportunity.

For a brief moment in time, it would not be too far from the truth to say that, on a global scale, money and goodwill were plentiful, and security was no longer an issue. The major masses of organized populations—the U.S., West Europe, Russia, China—were beginning a decade of economic growth with no significant security threat. No fundamental ideological debate was hindering cooperation. Fukuyama had a point – if history did not end, at least it hesitated. We had a chance—and it was a clearly visible chance at the time, not just in hindsight—to do things better.

It was not lack of economic ability or lack of technical ability or security concerns that stood in the way. Courage, imagination, and a willingness to insist on principle could at the beginning of the 1990’s have enabled the world to start moving down a fundamentally new path: a path of slow, careful, tedious, little steps designed incrementally to bring justice and a sense of being respected to all the world’s various groups whose legitimate concerns had been marginalized for so long in the name of winning the Coold War, or winning WWII, or winning WWI. This, of course, would have amounted to a realization of Fukuyama’s vision: a world of slow, perhaps dull, steps toward justice for all without the distortions of the past ideological campaigns against communism, fascism, expansionism, capitalism. We should read Fukuyama as offering not a prediction (for who after all can ever predict history?) but as an opportunity. He told us, in effect, that we had at the end of the Cold War a very unusual chance to shift the course of history onto a new path.

During the Cold War and, indeed, throughout known human history, the predominant model has been to build a society and then to expand its power by forcing others to join. The opportunity at the end of the Cold War was to begin developing societies on the principle of making those societies so attractive that others would want to join. Russia took a laudable step in this direction in letting the ethnic republics go free and then trying to entice them back. Unfortunately, ruling elites could not break old habits, and movement down this road came to a screeching halt in a tiny place almost no one, except perhaps readers of the 19th century Russian writer Lermontov, had ever heard of: Chechnya.

A fundamental change had occurred in the course of world history by 1990: suddenly, now, for the first time, everyone knew everything. Faxes, CNN, and then the Internet meant there were effectively no more secrets. We still have no real idea of the impact of modern communications on world developments, but the well-known impact of faxes on the Tiananmen Crisis and the abortive coup attempt by the Soviet old guard provides clues. It must surely have become obvious to virtually every repressed individual across the globe by the end of the 20th century that whatever excuses had ever been used in the past to justify ignoring, oppressing, disenfranchising, and robbing them no longer held any validity whatsoever.

The Cold War had been used to justify ignoring a vast array of injustices against "marginal" groups, from truly marginal minorities to the vast majority of the population in some countries. As chance would have it, however, the test case for the new era in world affairs turned out to be Chechnya, where a tiny population that had been resisting Russian expansionism for two centuries took the new world political atmosphere at face value and announced that, "Well, yes, thank you very much for the offer, we will be most pleased to become independent. After all, we have been saying that for two centuries. So nice of you to pay attention." The Russian response did not go over well: "Ah, well, we…ah…actually didn’t have you specifically in mind; you’re not a "republic," you see, you’re part of "us" and…well…there’s the oil…and those other internal minorities…Dagestan, and what all…" In the event, two Russian-Chechen wars, near genocide of the Chechen people, heroic attempts at exposure by Politkovskaya (since murdered) and other reporters [see Politkovskaya, A Dirty War; Nivat, Chienne de guerre; Smith, Allah’s Mountains], freedom fighters portrayed as terrorists, and, a generation later, with Chechnya shattered and devastated, and with all sides radicalized, the sad story continues. The world protested a bit but essentially made it clear that it had other priorities. Realpolitik still outbid morality.

The next big test for the post-Cold War ruling elites came in an equally remote location, the jungles of southern Mexico, where the plight of marginalized Mayan peasant farmers who were not connected to the world economy via the appetite of Americans for their melons, was ignored by the American and Mexican elites as they negotiated the new NAFTA arrangement. The people of Chiapas stood up and demanded to be heard, as they had done repeatedly over the previous 150 years, but this time the repercussions led to the 1994 Mexican peso crisis and a $20 Billion loan guarantee by Washington: a very big bill for ignoring the price of melons.

One could continue by citing Palestine, Kashmir, Aceh, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, but one sees the pattern...A vast array of highly diverse events, all with long histories but also with some essential similarities:
  • Marginal people demanding to be heard…and respected;
  • Despite the post-Cold War opportunity, the initial reaction across the board was to clamp down, control, use force;
  • But, in the new interconnected world, the local events had global consequences.

The marginal people were no longer alone, and they knew it. And, somehow, the force used against them no longer seemed as effective.
The 1990’s were not a decade of evil because injustice was found to exist in the world; that injustice had always existed. The 1990’s were a decade of evil because the world’s elites had the opportunity to address that injustice and they chose instead to look the other way.

Why does this matter? Because we are now paying the price.
History may not be predictable but it is predictable that the pattern of long-term injustice against marginalized minorities leading to unforeseen major problems for the world has not ended. The list of candidates for the next disaster is endless. Indeed, the poor record since the Cold War of listening to mistreated peoples and responding to their pleas for justice has, with a few exceptions (East Timor, perhaps Kosovo and Ireland), only gotten longer.
So…step right up. Yes, you: because you are the one who must pay the piper.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Defense...The Devil is in the Details

Diagnosing the Health of the Global Political System. As I have argued elsewhere, the existence of an analytical framework for diagnosing the health of the international political system would help us understand where we are and where we are going in terms of world affairs. One aspect of such a framework might well be the capacity of the system to defend itself and, it follows from that, the nature of the defensive policies that are implemented.

Defending a Political System. Any system (e.g., family, country) must be able to defend itself. The critical issue is in identifying the tipping point where defensive measures begin to undermine the system more than preserve it. When a political system employs irregular, informal defensive organizations that do not have legitimacy such as secret informers, personal armies, lynch mobs, paramilitaries, or mercenaries, the system’s viability is called into question. Such may be the case even for completely legal defensive forces allowed to overreach a reasonable level of authority. For example, Roman Emperor Augustus sowed the seeds for the murder of future emperors when he gained the right to keep his personal guard in Rome.

In theory, one could imagine such irregular organizations functioning in a responsible manner, but to the degree they operate without transparent oversight or accounting they are more vulnerable to abuse than official state organs. The same applies to official defense units, like Augustus’ Praetorian Guards, that overreach normal defensive practices. To the degree that a regime’s security services or paramilitary organizations threaten the people they claim to be protecting, the system becomes endangered over the long-term. To the extent that such behavior is either increasing or becoming increasingly accepted as legitimate behavior on the part of a regime, a colonial power, or an invading force, the system is becoming more dysfunctional. Simply put, a larger proportion of people are experiencing degraded living conditions. But of course it is in reality not that simple. The resultant flow of internal or international refugees puts economic and security strains on the whole system and may feed rebellion; the feedbacks are incalculable.

Use of irregular methods—midnight visits to people’s homes by the police; assassinations of leaders or categories of people (e.g., teachers, union leaders, human rights activists, reporters); displacements of populations, especially those which are intentional; military attacks on whole segments (e.g., peasants or an ethnic minority) of the population; collusion between the military and groups advocating violence--means the political system is in desperate shape. Removing governing authority from local civilian leaders to give it to the military is a significant indicator of the breakdown of normality; for such special authority to continue to be exercised in practice by the military even after being ruled illegal is even worse – a sign that the military is operating on its own and the rule of law is collapsing. Another major set of indicators that the system’s defensive mechanisms are failing concerns the presence of foreign military and the nature of their participation in internal military operations (e.g., as advisors, participants, or in command).

Pathological Defense. Since all of the above measures are justified by those who advocate them as measures to enhance the ability of the system to defend itself, why should they be considered indicators of system pathology? At least two reasons exist:

  • misuse of these purportedly defensive steps for ulterior purposes;
  • timeframe.

Concerning misuse, the danger is that a regime will take advantage of its legitimate right to defend the system to eliminate political opponents. Measures that circumvent standard legal protections put in place precisely for the purpose of preventing abuse of power, such as indefinite detention without trial or closed trials by military court, are indicators that such intentional abuse is occurring with “defense” as the excuse.

The second reason for considering the above-mentioned defensive steps as indicators of system pathology is one of timeframe. This essay is concerned with how one measures the fundamental, long-term ability of a system to continue functioning at an optimal level. Any of the above defensive measures may indeed temporarily shore up defenses, at least from the perspective of the actors who implement them. A politician may well survive his term in office on the strength of such short-term measures.

More positively, a genuine threat may be met, just as a person with a severed artery can survive by using a tourniquet. But what is the subsequent quality of system performance? If the tourniquet is not removed within a few minutes, the patient may die of gangrene. Similarly, emergency measures lacking clearly defined temporal and procedural limits would be indicators of system pathology. Do the measures make short-term progress at the expense of long-term degradation of performance (e.g., "cleansing" of dissident minorities or coca-growing peasants provoking a rebellion in the future)? And if not, do the short-term defensive measures throw the baby out with the bathwater? If a democracy defends itself by converting itself into a military dictatorship, the elites may win (at least temporarily), but the population and the system have lost: the democracy is dead.

Moreover, the future of the system will be questionable for any number of reasons if the elites win by alienating the rest of the population. Aside from obvious threats such as civil war and revolt lie other perils for a system with internal divisions that make the masses apathetic.

Evaluation of the quality of defense must consider the relevance of the defensive measures. In a word, do the defensive steps taken actually serve to protect the system? A now-classic example of how easy it is to take supposedly defensive measures that harm rather than protect the system is the discredited idea of suppressing all forest fires to protect the forests. In the Western U.S., some tree seeds actually require fire for germination: forest fires are not an attack on the system but a necessary part of it.

The impact of time delays on this process is fundamental because the short-term and long-term impacts of an action may be opposite (exactly opposite to the typical assumption that if X is good, then more X will be better). It must be kept in mind that an action will have a set of effects, perhaps the desired one and almost certainly a number of others that will be surprises, some nasty, but all are equally results of the action, whether anticipated or not. A tourniquet has two effects: it stops the bleeding, and it rots the limb. As system dynamics expert John Sterman put it in his text Business Dynamics, “there are no side effects, there are just effects. (p 11) It is not legitimate to brag about stopping the bleeding and then to blame “bad luck” for rotting the limb. The political equivalents are endless.

Monday, May 7, 2007


The United Nations working group on mercenaries has issued a report that merits close reading by everyone concerned with the quality of our lives, the state of democracy, and governance of our world. My thanks to Cyril Mychalejko at Dissident Voice for alerting me to this important report. Since the report speaks for itself, I shall simply provide a few quotes.

1) "PMSCs [private military and private security companies] in
Iraq commonly operate without control, without visibility, without being accountable beyond the private company itself, and in complete impunity."

2) "In Iraq, PMSC employees account for 3 of 10 soldiers deployed by the regular armed forces of the coalition. During the first Gulf War, in the early 1990s, only 1 of 100 was employed by a PMSC. The exponential expansion of PMSCs is not only reflected in the number of employees, but also in the quantity of contracts, which amounted to more than US$ 100 billion in 2006.7" (p 11)

3) "In its report to the General Assembly, the Working Group expressed its concern at the participation of the employees of two PMSCs in violating human rights, which occurred in the prison of Abu Ghraib (A/61/341, para. 69). These employees held key functions without being accountable to effective regulatory and control mechanisms, as the employees allegedly implicated have not been subject to any investigation nor sanctioned. Their alleged involvement, with others, in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal "has increased suspicion, especially from the United States military, of the reliability of (private) contractors" and contributed to hamper reconstruction efforts in Iraq.10 The Working Group is oncerned that these cases are not isolated, and could represent only a fraction of all cases." (p12)

4) "Another phenomenon of interest to the Working Group is the increasing use of force by PMSCs and private groups that are exercising domestic police functions in Latin American countries. This trend has led to a situation where in many countries the employees of PMSCs have surpassed the numbers of the police forces. For example, in Honduras, estimates vary that PMSCs, whether legally registered or illegal, effectively employ between 12,500 and 70,000 security guards, compared to the national police which has an estimated 8,000 police
(p 18)

5) "...the Working Group issues the following recommendations:
- The Working Group calls upon all States that have no yet done so to consider taking the necessary action to accede to or ratify the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (entered in force in 2001). It encourages States parties to introduce national level legislation against mercenarism, through introducing and adopting specific provisions in the national criminal codes, or to introduce separate legislation on mercenaries. The Working Group also invites Member States to consider also regional standards for possible incorporation in domestic legislation, notably
where such instruments are adopted by subregional organizations, as is the case with African Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Economic Community of West African States;

- The Working Group recommends the urgent need to embark on a process of determining the future of the monopoly of States on the use of force, and suggests a process of regional preparatory round tables during 2007 to lead to a global round table in 2008;
- The Working Group urges States to meet the challenge of regulating and attributing the responsibility that arises from the structure and transnational nature of the PMSC industry and its global reach, as well as the exponential growth of the numbers and activities of PMSCs in different regions. To this end, the Working Group urges States to avoid granting blanket immunity, leading to effective impunity, to PMSCs and their personnel;
- The Working Group recommends thresholds of permissible activities, enhanced regulation and oversight of PMSCs at the national levels, including the establishment of regulatory systems of registration and licensing of PMSCs and individuals working for them. Such regulation should include defining minimum requirements for transparency and accountability of firms, screening and vetting of personnel, and establish a monitoring system including parliamentary oversight. States should impose a specific ban on PMSCs intervening in internal or international armed conflicts or actions aiming at destabilizing constitutional regimes;
- The Working Group recommends human rights components in ducation and training programmes to be offered to the staff of PMSCs, including on international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and United Nations standards on the use of force;"
(p 24-25).

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Methodological Lenses for Viewing Global Affairs

One goal of this blog is to explore ways to design effective foreign policy. Comments, some of which have already appeared in previous posts, on principles that should serve as guidelines for foreign address the issue of how to design effective foreign policy.

A second goal is to explore how global affairs are developing, how the international political system is evolving. This is of course closely related to the first since the foreign policies pursued by various countries affect the evolution of the system. But a fundamental distinction exists between what policies ought to be pursued and the actual course of events. For the second, two conceptual approaches (or, if one wishes, "lenses" for viewing international relations) of central concern are:

1) underlying causal dynamics and
2) the international political system as a complex system.

Needless to say, the second goal feeds back into the first since it would be difficult to design foreign policy for longterm effectiveness in the modern world without viewing the system through each of these two lenses. Future posts will expand on these points.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


When two sides have an issue to resolve and one side has great military superiority, it is tempting for that side to rely on force to decide the issue. In the days of the Roman empire, this approach worked quite effectively. Such is no longer necessarily the case, but the post-9/11 tendency in various capitals to engage in such behavior suggests that many politicians still do not understand the risky nature of their traditional approach to foreign policy.

A recent example was reported by the pro-Israeli website DEBKA, Apr 16: "In the face of negative Arab responses, prime minister Ehud Olmert again proposed at the weekly cabinet session in Jerusalem Sunday, April 15, that Israel enter into talks with any available combination of Arab governments. That same morning, Dep. PM Shimon Peres said he objects to contacts with any of the Arab League members before they recognize Israel."

Presumably, at least for peace-loving Israelis (as opposed to those who prefer expansion), Israel’s ultimate goal is Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Yet here we have an Israeli leader demanding Israel’s ultimate goal before Israel even sits down to talk with its opponents, i.e., total surrender by the Arabs of their complete negotiating position first, and then…what? Assuming the Arabs totally trusted Israel’s good will and gave Israel everything it wanted before negotiating, then, what would there be to negotiate about? Why would any Israeli leader make concessions to its neighbors after it had already realized its maximum goals up front and for free?

Two obvious alternative interpretations of this idea of getting total surrender by the opponent before the competition even starts exist: 1) there is no logical foundation whatsoever for the policy or 2) the whole point is to avoid agreement, to force the opponent to adopt a hardline stance.

Now, if an outsider can see the implications of demanding "surrender first, talks later," what must Israel’s opponents think of it? Can anyone seriously expect that such an attitude is likely to persuade an opponent to take a trustful, compromising stance? Preconditions to talks may have their place when they are small steps taken by both sides to build trust, but when the militarily dominant side demands that a weaker opponent surrender its major card for nothing except the "privilege" of being invited to the table, the offer is clearly insincere. The expectation is that the weaker player will reject the offer, leaving the dominant side free to continue its policy of violence.

To naïve, trustful voters, "give me everything I want up front and then I’ll condescend to talk to you" may sound like, "I am willing to talk because I am a man of peace," but in fact, it surely means "Surrender or fight: the only language we speak is violence." More to the point, whether that is the real message or not, that is exactly how it will be understood by the other side and by neutral observers.

The comment reportedly made by Peres is a relatively minor issue. The point of drawing attention to it lies in pointing out the implications of this kind of behavior. Whether Peres in this instance truly believes he had morality on his side and was thus justified in taking such a hardline stance, the fact remains that such behavior--which is all too common--has costly long-term implications and goes far toward explaining why it is so difficult for countries to adjudicate their differences in a civilized manner.

Efforts by the militarily dominant (in a traditional force-on-force sense) to win the contest either through force or the threat of force rather than meeting at the negotiating table in a sincere effort to achieve a negotiated compromise that would leave each side at least minimally satisfied sets up a dangerous cycle. The weaker side learns that the strong "understand only force," are unwilling to compromise, and have no interest in understanding the grievances of the weak.

In truth, the weak might well be satisfied if treated with respect. Many Palestinians, for example, might well be satisfied with the "right" of return to their homeland, never having the slightest desire actually to live there now that it is controlled by Israel. Many Iranians might well be satisfied with being invited to regional discussions and consulted on regional issues regardless of the details of the actual decisions reached. In other cases, respect plus some minimal concession might suffice. Many more Palestinians might well be satisfied with the "right" to return plus a token monetary payment for the home they lost in return for a promise not to exercise that "right" of return. Many more Iranians might well be satisfied with being consulted as an equal on regional issues plus some verbal recognition of the logic of their point of view. For example, "we recognize your desire for secure borders and we ask that you help ensure the security of Iraq’s border as well. Now, how can we put these fine words into practical, day-to-day policy?" Moreover, those hardliners unwilling to compromise would then have a much harder time gaining political control.

When such a conciliatory stance is replaced by threats and demands for major concessions up front, on the other hand, the weak will search for alternative methods of fighting back. This in turn will persuade the strong that "the weak only understand force." With everyone now pointing to evidence that the other side only understands force, the cycle of rising violence is set in concrete.

The event reported above is only the latest of a string of such demands by the strong in recent years that the weak "give up in advance." The battle between military superpowers (and Washington-supplied Israel without doubt is one in the Mideast) and militarily weak opponents is asynchronous: the weak, unable to compete in traditional military terms, search for nontraditional ways of strengthening their hand.

In other words, when the strong take advantage of their strength, they teach the weak to be creative. Rubbing your opponent's nose in your superior strength may work if it works quickly, but the longer the opponent is able to resist, the greater the likelihood that, like vaccinations, the experience will only strengthen the weak. This is not very smart policy for the strong.

If all sides agree that violence is to be avoided, then the UN can play an invaluable role by putting weak and strong on the same playing field (each side speaking in turn at the General Assembly). But if the militarily dominant insist on using that military power, they essentially compel the weak to find a different weapon. In the contemporary age of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and vulnerability of infrastructure in economically advanced countries, military superpowers may come to wish they had renounced using their military force, granted their opponents "moral equivalency," and met them for an equal contest of words in the General Assembly rather than insisting on deciding the issue by mortal combat.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Violence in a Complex World: Worth the Effort?

Violence Losing Value. If Side A asserts its perfection and blames opponents for all that is wrong and tries to resolve issues through force, threats, and demands but shows itself lacking the ability to prevail, will it not almost inevitably provoke ever more serious opposition?
This simple logic suggests a spiral of rising foreign policy problems covarying with the size, the power of Side A. with its power not translated into actual ability to resolve problems.

Side A may be stymied because the problems are not amenable to solution by the means available to it. Alternatively, Side A may be weakened by internal disagreement over goals or policies to achieve them. Or, Side A may have the ability but not be able to perceive it through rose-colored glasses or a penchant for conservative thinking. Whatever the cause of Side A’s problems, the main consequence in such a scenario is simply to turn Side A into a larger target. In a world of popular participation in foreign policy, rapid communication, asynchronous warfare, and the rise of non-state actors, traditional power wielded via traditional blunt military means may, over the long term, actually harm the user more than the opponent. Such increasingly appears to be becoming the new reality of global international relations...a reality missed by those who wield such power. This is the logic of Principle #1 in the list of foreign policy principles I proposed in the previous post.

Cowboys and Complexity. The explanation for this takes us into the confusing world of complexity, a place where counterintuitive group behavior results from multiple, interacting forces affecting individuals. These forces cannot be simply added or subtracted; rather, the effect of each force varies as a function of the other forces. Removing one force unpredictably alters the impact of the remaining forces. For example,

  • Assassinating the leader of a rebellion may allow the emergence of several new leaders who take the rebellion in new and possibly more extreme directions, as they compete with each other for mastery of the now factionalized movement.
  • Handing the heady concept of "democracy" to a society not ready for it make lead to an explosion of irresponsible articles in public media (something Benjamin Franklin complained about after the American Revolution).
  • Invasion may radicalize a quiescent, conservative population, transforming it into an effective revolutionary movement.

Force remains force, but the pinpoint application of force that is observed and reacted to by a wider audience doesn’t work as it used to. The death of a rebel now becomes a force multiplier for the rebels. It not only brings in new recruits but provokes sympathizers to undertake their own independent, uncoordinated, unauthorized initiatives, i.e., new behavior emerges from the individual level outside of the control of any established organization. A wave of apparently coordinated violence results from numerous, independent actions.

Lethal force may prove useless to resist this wave because no one knows how to apply it against such unpredictable, independent actors. In such cases, standard military calculations of force-on-force will not provide much insight into the likely winner. Instead of carrying the day, cowboy foreign policy may only carry the minute, then backfire badly.

It’s not that we can no longer count weapons and calculate likely winners but that the modern world is being transformed in a way analogous to physics. Neutonian physics has been replaced by quantum physics, in which the very act of measurement affects what is being measured. Similarly, in the 21st century of global public awareness, the process of taking a foreign policy action transforms the situation. It does not matter how accurately the balance of forces was calculated; your action just changed the balance.

Examples are legion, but one of the clearest is putting foreign boots on the ground. When soldiers from a global power intrude into the territory of a weak society that has education and modern communications technology, the power calculus is transformed. People become "stimulated:" they network, adapt, take on new roles. Twentieth century realpolitik may prove to have curious and fatal consequences in the 21st century.