Thursday, March 02, 2006

Kaplan, Stability, Marmite and the Lurking Cold Worriers

Robert D. Kaplan is really smart and has this piece in the Washington Post to show for it -- but he is, of course, also wrong in the end. His basic claim is that democracy doesn't mean stability, and that stable, undemocratic states are a) better for us, and b) can still be legitimate regimes in both the eyes of their citizens and from an olympian point of view. The legitimacy argument is very clever and true to a degree. But the choice of stability over "democracy" risks including a dangerous return to rigid realism.

To support his argument, Kaplan presents us with an ultrabrief version of an academic discussion of regime legitimacy, which might easily have extended for weeks without getting any clearer than he is here. To Kaplan, legitimacy is the connector between the two elements that are pursued with regard to the Middle East in particular, and the Rest of the world in general. These are first stability and second that other element which might be "the magnanimous use of power", "squaring state functions with the people's aggregate sense of equity", as such "representativity" and, in a way, "democracy as outcome", not just formal decision-making mechanics.

Kaplan's initial analysis of the American Experience With Democracy hits bulls eye:
President Bush has posited that the American experience with democracy is urgently useful to the wider world. True, but there is another side of the coin: that America basically inherited its institutions from the Anglo-Saxon tradition and thus its experience over 230 years has been about limiting despotic power rather than creating power from scratch. Because order is something we've taken for granted, anarchy is not something we've feared. But in many parts of the world, the experience has been the opposite, and so is the challenge: how to create legitimate, functioning institutions in utterly barren landscapes.

"[B]efore the names of Just and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power," Thomas Hobbes wrote in "Leviathan." Without something or somebody to monopolize the use of force and decide right from wrong, no man is safe from another and there can be no freedom for anyone. Physical security remains the primary human freedom. And so the fact that a state is despotic does not necessarily make it immoral. That is the essential fact of the Middle East that those intent on enforcing democracy abroad forget. (...) Monarchy was the preferred political ideal for centuries, writes the late University of Chicago scholar Marshall Hodgson, precisely because the monarch's legitimacy -- coming as it did from God -- was seen as so beyond reproach that he could afford to be benevolent, while still monopolizing the use of force. To wit, the most moderate and enlightened states in the Middle East in recent decades have tended to be those ruled by royal families whose longevity has conferred legitimacy (...)

The lesson to take away is that where it involves other despotic regimes in the region -- none of which is nearly as despotic as Hussein's -- the last thing we should do is actively precipitate their demise. The more organically they evolve and dissolve, the less likely it is that blood will flow. That goes especially for Syria and Pakistan, both of which could be Muslim Yugoslavias in the making, with regionally based ethnic groups that have a history of dislike for each other. The neoconservative yearning to topple Bashar al-Assad, and the liberal one to undermine Pervez Musharraf, are equally adventurous. (...) Globalization and other dynamic forces will continue to rid the world of dictatorships. Political change is nothing we need to force upon people; it's something that will happen anyway. What we have to work toward -- for which peoples with historical experiences different from ours will be grateful -- is not democracy but normality. Stabilizing newly democratic regimes, and easing the development path of undemocratic ones, should be the goal for our military and diplomatic establishments. The more cautious we are in a world already in the throes of tumultuous upheaval, the more we'll achieve."
Kaplan is right about patiently prodding and supporting rather than (attempted) quickie solutions, and that nothing good will come of change if it doesn't somehow take into account the historical experience of the population in question. This means not ascribing to them those elements of our creed that are not universal, but rather particular to our own experience. Concerning the Brits e.g.:

* Exporting Magna Carta: OK
* Exporting Marmite: Not OK.

But behind all this apparent (battle over a possible) fine-tuning of the present
course there is one thing those afraid of too much change must remember. Behind the push for focusing more on stability and less on transformation are a mixed choir of moderates and isolationists who want to either slow down or get off the fast-moving world entirely, and the defense-oriented realists -- whom Tom Barnett christened the "Cold Worriers" -- who have the same inclination, because they wish to return to more well-known Cold War antics of waiting for brewing trouble with China over Taiwan. And they like their security old fashioned just like Strategic Command: big, deadly and flying -- as opposed to the gritty reality of having boots on the ground, whether in uniform or not.

It might well be to everyone's advantage with foreign policy banners a bit less brazen. Yet accepting the stability-over-democracy argument wholesale is wasting a great opportunity to make security work for development, and dangerous too, because development already works to the benefit of security: if we let go of this and return to worrying about China it will come back and bite us. Which is why the Long War will be far more political than Pentagon envisions (and probably far more military than State wants, but that is another story).

Later UPDATE: The Washington Post seems to agree with the analysis.

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