A New World Disorder

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.

The Coup in Egypt: Ten Questions and Answers

Mohammed Morsi is out in Egypt, and the military is busy trying to put together a new government. I am no Egypt expert, but I have a decent theoretical background in foreign affairs, so I’ll grapple with the crisis on that level. If the conclusions are depressing, well, welcome to the world of foreign affairs. Here are ten questions and answers about the recent events along the banks of the Nile.

(Also, a special thanks to my old college classmate, A.L., who has done an excellent job of trying to weigh the various arguments from a critical distance while many of his fellow Egyptians seize upon certain talking points and run with them. He’s done as good a job as any news source of collecting information and doing what he can to explain things to the rest of us.)

1. Is this really a coup d’etat?

Some defenders of Morsi’s overthrow have been leery of this word, and it certainly has a sinister air to it. But it very much meets the standard definition of a coup; the real question is whether the different circumstances surrounding this one make it any more justified. This one had plenty of popular support—a circumstance that, while not unheard of, is not common of coups. The military also hasn’t shown any desire to (directly) hold power via a military junta. Not all coups are created equal; they simply involve the military removing the head or heads of state. They can be bloodless and immediately hold elections, or they can be brutal and lead to a junta, but they’re still coups.

2. By that definition, wasn’t the initial overthrow of Hosni Mubarak also a coup?

Yes. During the initial uprising, many protesters claimed “the army and the people are one.” They quite clearly knew the military had the power to play kingmaker in Egypt. The problem is, the army and the people are not one: the military is an institution with its own set of interests that may or may not align with the rest of the population. When Mubarak finally lost his legitimacy amid the Arab Spring, their interests did align, and the army was all too happy to oblige the protesters and show the autocrat the door. They were allies of convenience.

3. So is this a revolution or not?

By the technical definition of a revolution, no, not at all. A true revolution doesn’t just throw out the man at the top; it fundamentally alters the power structure of the regime. It tosses out the old ruling class and puts a new one in place. There has not been any of that in Egypt. Mubarak, after all, was a military man who kept order in Egypt for decades. He was forced out by the military when he became a liability to maintaining that order. He may have fallen of his own accord had the protests gone on, but the military (for very understandable reasons, even if one is skeptical of the role of the military), sought to make the transition as smooth as possible. It wasn’t easy, and the generals went on to oversee an election that ostensibly transferred power to a new leadership. But through it all, the generals held the trump card.  Morsi committed the fatal error of believing it was a revolution, and that the social order had been upended. It was not. Had he stayed in power long enough to further consolidate his position, he might have been able to strip the military of its political role, as occurred in a number of Latin American countries over the past few decades. But even so, that would have been more of an ordered transition than a revolution.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Revolutions are, frankly, overrated. The U.S.’s worked, though it required an incredibly bloody civil war some 90 years later to properly consolidate itself. A few in eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War produced happy democracies, though they came under some very unique geopolitical circumstances. Just about all the others have killed a lot of people and resulted in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Most democracies emerge through a careful, perhaps even frustratingly slow, managed transition.

4. Is the coup a threat to Egyptian democracy?

More than anything, it just reinforces the fact that, in spite of that one election, Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes democratic in any real sense of the word. Opponents of the coup are quick to claim it undermines the democratic transition. Surely, they argue, it would have been better to wait, allow Morsi to continue to discredit himself, and let him be voted out in the next election. The problem was that it was hard to tell if Morsi had much interest in an actual democracy. The Brotherhood did an excellent job of convincing people (the military included) that it was going to play by the same rules as everyone else. Many of their actions since—running a presidential candidate when they said they would not, ramming through a new constitution, purging the judiciary—suggest otherwise. The difficulty comes in trying to figure just how far they were planning to go in flouting these rules, and there is no clean line between “democratic” and “autocratic” actions (people accuse American presidents of the latter just about every day, and not always without reason). I will defer to people with more knowledge of the situation to answer the question, but one’s opinion on the coup will turn on one’s beliefs about the Muslim Brotherhood’s motives. Now that they are out of power, we may never know how far they planned to go.

5. How will the Brotherhood react?

This is the million dollar question. If they find a way to work with the new government put in place by the military, all may yet end well. History, however, is not encouraging. “Unity” governments that are formed against groups of certain ideologies almost inevitably invite violence, as the excluded group takes up its only remaining means of protest. Given the size and political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, they would prove a formidable opponent. The early returns, with dozens of protesters shot dead, are not encouraging for a civil discourse. This could get very ugly very quickly.

6. So is it best to just trust the military in power and let them crush any opposition as they see fit, a la Pinochet in Chile, then transition back to democracy in an orderly way in a decade or two, once things have settled down?

Well, if you’re willing to live with the inevitable bloodshed and human rights violations and call them regrettable necessities of progress, I suppose it’s an option. There is a key distinction, however: Pinochet was fighting an ideology (communism) that, in time, came to be discredited and ultimately rejected by most of the planet. Barring some truly apocalyptic event, it’s hard to imagine anything that could similarly discredit Islamism, which bases its appeal in an interpretation of the word of God, not the postulates of a nineteenth-century German philosopher. They are entirely different animals. That said, the Islamists do base a lot of their appeal on their organization and effective social programs. If the Egyptian state could actually provide those services, interest in the Brotherhood might wane. But, to my knowledge, rising wealth is not really correlated with decreasing faith, and the process could take decades. This would be quite the gamble, even if the moral issues are left out.

7. In that case, we can’t give the military a carte blanche. Shouldn’t we get it out of politics right now?

No doubt the military has long been an impediment to democratic development in Egypt, and it may continue to be. They exist to perpetuate themselves and keep the military aid from the U.S. flowing in, and little else. But, for all their issues, they do guarantee some measure of order, and it’s impossible to imagine a democracy emerging from utter chaos. And right now, the military probably is the only thing keeping Egypt from utter chaos. To their credit, the generals have made an effort to conduct their coups about as smoothly as possible, and their presence might be needed again if the mobs rise up against some future president, whether to protect that figure or again negotiate a transition. They can’t do this forever, though; sooner or later they will begin to lose legitimacy if their solutions aren’t working. It may already be happening.

8. Wow, this sounds like a mess. Maybe they just should have lived with Mubarak?

This argument commits the conservative fallacy of believing that things will always stay the same. All autocracies come to an end. Mubarak would have died someday, or perhaps committed some even more heinous crime that would have had people after his head. The regime may have appeared quite stable, but sooner or later, its day of reckoning would have come. Even the most brilliantly designed autocracies (Mexico in the 20th century, for example) cannot last forever. Liberal democracy is the only form of government that has proven consistently capable of allowing for peaceable democratic transitions. The problem is that building a robust liberal democracy is very, very hard.

9. What should the U.S. do?

Very, very little. Recognize whoever is in power, encourage them to bring other voices to the table and adhere to international law, and little else. The U.S. is already perceived as meddling in everything, and has been accused of supporting each and every side. In a conflict in which no one has the obvious moral high ground, no good can come of throwing American power around and choosing sides. Egypt’s future belongs to the Egyptians, not the U.S., and recent lessons should have taught the U.S. that there is only so much it can do to shape the course of events in other countries’ domestic politics.

10. What should Egyptians do?

First and foremost, they should remember that national politics is not destined to determine happiness. They should go on with their lives, to the extent that raging mobs allow them, and work together with their neighbors with the full awareness that the state may not be able to provide much of anything—services, food, security—in the immediate future. If they pull together, Egyptians need not descend into some Hobbesian all-against-all state of nature. Back when Mubarak came down, there were stories of neighborhoods banding together to police themselves and maintain some semblance of order. That is the best defense mechanism people have. When it comes to maintaining some semblance of order in life, mobs in the street are nowhere near as effective as boring, local political activity, though I concede that this may not  always be possible under the compulsion of tyranny or amidst a civil war.

That is, I fear, where Egypt is headed. I pray I’m wrong, and hope the military and its transitional government can find some way to bring the Islamists back to the table.