Demography, Democracy, and Complexity

Five years ago, demographer Richard Cincotta claimed in a piece for Foreign Policy that a country’s age structure is a powerful predictor of its prospects for attempting and sustaining liberal democracy. “A country’s chances for meaningful democracy increase,” he wrote, “as its population ages.” Applying that superficially simple hypothesis to the data at hand, he ventured a forecast:

The first (and perhaps most surprising) region that promises a shift to liberal democracy is a cluster along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of which has experienced democracy in the recent past. The other area is in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, each of which attained liberal democracy demographically “early” but was unable to sustain it. Interpreting these forecasts conservatively, we can expect there will be one, maybe two, in each group that will become stable democracies by 2020.

I read that article when it was published, and I recall being irritated by it. At the time, I had been studying democratization for more than 15 years and was building statistical models to forecast transitions to and from democracy as part of my paying job. Seen through those goggles, Cincotta’s construct struck me as simplistic to the point of naiveté. Democratization is a hard theoretical problem. States have arrived at and departed from democracy by many different pathways, so how could what amounts to a one-variable model possibly have anything useful to say about it?

Revisiting Cincotta’s work in 2014, I like it a lot more for a couple of reasons. First, I like the work better now because I have come to see it as an elegant representation of a larger idea. As Cincotta argues in that Foreign Policy article and another piece he published around the same time, demographic structure is one component of a much broader and more complex syndrome in which demography is both effect and cause. Changes in fertility rates, and through them age structure, are strongly shaped by other social changes like education and urbanization, which are correlated with, but hardly determined by, increases in national wealth.

Of course, that syndrome is what we conventionally call “development,” and the pattern Cincotta observes has a strong affinity with modernization theory. Cincotta’s innovation was to move the focus away from wealth, which has turned out to be unreliable as a driver and thus as a proxy for development in a larger sense, to demographic structure, which is arguably a more sensitive indicator of it. As I see it now, what we now call development is part of a “state shift” occurring in human society at the global level that drives and is reinforced by long-term trends in democratization and violent conflict. As in any complex system, though, the visible consequences of that state shift aren’t evenly distributed.

In this sense, Cincotta’s argument is similar to one I often find myself making about the value of using infant mortality rates instead of GDP per capita as a powerful summary measure in models of a country’s susceptibility to insurgency and civil war. The idea isn’t that dead children motivate people to attack their governments, although that may be one part of the story. Instead, the idea is that infant mortality usefully summarizes a number of other things that are all related to conflict risk. Among those things are the national wealth we can observe directly (if imperfectly) with GDP, but also the distribution of that wealth and the state’s will and ability to deliver basic social services to its citizens. Seen through this lens, higher-than-average infant mortality helps us identify states suffering from a broader syndrome that renders them especially susceptible to violent conflict.

Second, I have also come to appreciate more what Cincotta was and is doing because I respect his willingness to apply his model to generate and publish probabilistic forecasts in real time. In professional and practical terms, that’s not always easy for scholars to do, but doing it long enough to generate a real track record can yield valuable scientific dividends.

In this case, it doesn’t hurt that the predictions Cincotta made six years ago are looking pretty good right now, especially in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the late 2000s on the prospects for democratization in North Africa. None of the five states he lists there yet qualifies as a liberal democracy on his terms, a “free” designation from Freedom House). Still, it’s only 2014, one of them (Tunisia) has moved considerably in that direction, and two others (Egypt and Libya) have seen seemingly frozen political regimes crumble and substantial attempts at democratization ensue. Meanwhile, the long-dominant paradigm in comparative democratization would have left us watching for splits among ruling elites that really only happened in those places as their regimes collapsed, and many area experts were telling us in 2008 to expect more of the same in North Africa as far as the mind could see. Not bad for a “one-variable model.”

The Green Lantern Theory of State-Building

In a recent post on Human Rights Watch’s World Policy Blog, Hanan Salah nicely summarizes the poor state of state-building in post-Qaddafi Libya:

The main problem affecting both justice and security is that armed militias still maintain the upper hand. They have various agendas—financial, territorial, political, religious—and operate with impunity two years after the Qaddafi regime ended. Successive interim governments have failed to assert control over these militias, preferring to contract them as parallel forces to the army and police. Consequently, they retain a stranglehold over key security objectives, such as protecting Libya’s oil fields, making it ever harder for the government to break their financial dependency and hold on these lucrative opportunities. The structure of the militias and related armed groups, their shared interests, political aspirations, and the tribal nature of Libyan society are further complicating factors.

This passage gets at the chicken-and-egg problem that makes state-building so hard, not just in Libya but everywhere. “Justice and security” are the chief public goods a state exists to provide, but the provision of those goods depends on widespread obedience of state authority, and that authority is hard to construct.

What bugged me about Salah’s otherwise excellent post was the use of the verb “prefer” to indicate why this authority isn’t cohering faster in Libya. “Prefer” connotes choice, and I’m not convinced that the officials comprising Libya’s internationally recognized government have very much of that. They face an array of entrenched militias that are probably profiting handsomely from control of their various fiefdoms. Those officials supposedly command an army and police force of their own, but those organizations are still small and under-resourced. Worse, the revenue streams that could make the national army and state police stronger—including oil—are often controlled by the very militias those forces are supposed to be beefing up to defeat. Under these circumstances, how exactly are Libyan officials supposed to persuade these militias to cooperate? Give them a stern talking-to?

To be fair, Salah’s post is hardly the first place I’ve seen this line. Actually, I think it’s fair to say that this is comparative politics’ version of the Green Lantern Theory that Matt Yglesias coined to describe neoconservative U.S. foreign policy and Brendan Nyhan has since extended to the American presidency. In the Green Lantern Theory, political outcomes are mostly a matter of will. If the state doesn’t cohere, it’s because the people tasked with doing it lack the spine to fulfill their charge as duly chosen leaders.

If we reject the Green Lantern Theory of state-building and recognize that power is at least as important as will, it’s tempting to think that outsiders can goose the process with an infusion of armed forces, or at least the money and training an internationally recognized government needs to build up its own. The growth of the state is stunted, so a few costly doses of hormone therapy should do the trick. In fact, as Reuters reported, Libya’s prime minister recently made just this plea at an investment conference in London:

If the international community does not help in the collection of arms and ammunition, if we don’t get help in forming the army and the police, things are going to take very long… The situation is not going to improve unless we get real and practical assistance.

In fact, politics isn’t nearly as mechanical and modular as this idea implies. Before embarking on a new state-boosting mission in Libya, foreign governments would do well to take another look at Somalia, which has been the target of similar treatments for the past two decades. As Alex de Waal describes in a recent post on the LRB Blog,

[President] Hassan’s Western backers have not yet squared the circle of pouring money and guns into a client government to fight a counterinsurgency, and preventing that government from becoming rentierist, militaristic and corrupt. Rent-seeking pervades the whole system: the president or defence minister must bargain separately with each military unit to secure its loyalty for each operation. And even then, he cannot order a Somali unit to enter a ‘liberated’ town where the locals won’t welcome it. It’s no surprise that Somalis hedge their bets against the time when the [Somali Federal Government's] international sponsors tire of a Sisyphean counterinsurgency and sell out their erstwhile proxies. Even if al-Shabab were defeated, it wouldn’t solve Somalia’s problems. The corrupt rentierist system of government, which gave rise to al-Shabab in the first place, would be more entrenched than before.

Much the same could be said of Afghanistan, too.

And this is the Great Frustration of applied social science: prescription doesn’t always follow from explanation. Even if we can understand pretty well why state-building is so hard, we still can’t figure out how to control it. Whether that’s a curse or a blessing will depend on whom you ask, and therein lies the essence of politics.

Watch Locally, Think Globally

In the Central African Republic, an assemblage of rebel groups has toppled the government and installed a new one but now refuses to follow its writ. As those rebels loot and maraud, new armed groups have formed to resist them, and militias loyal to the old government have struck back, too. All of this has happened on the watch of a 2,000-person peacekeeping force from neighboring states. With U.N. backing, those neighbors are now sending more men with guns in hopes that another 1,500 soldiers will finally help restore some sense of order.

This is what full-blown state collapse looks like—as close to Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” as you’re ever likely to see. As I wrote at the start of the year, though, CAR is hardly the only country in such shambles. By my reckoning, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia still, and maybe DRC and South Sudan qualify as collapsed states, too, and if Mali doesn’t anymore, it only just squeaked back over the line.

As the very act of listing implies, we often think of these situations as discrete cases. In our social-scientific imaginations, countries are a bit like petri dishes lined up on a laboratory countertop. Each undergoes a similar set of experiments, and our job is to explain the diversity of their outcomes.

The longer I watch world affairs, though, the less apt that experimental metaphor seems. We can only really understand processes like state collapses—and the civil wars that usually produce them, and the regime transformations that  often precede and succeed them, and virtually everything else we study in international studies—by thinking of these “cases” as local manifestations of system-level dynamics, or at least the product of interactions between local and global processes that are inseparable and mutually causal.

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected. These streams of change are distinct in some ways, but they also shape each other and share some common causes.

And what are those common causes? The 2007 financial crisis surely played a significant role. The resulting recessions in the U.S. and Europe rippled outward, shrinking trade flows and remittances to smaller and poorer countries and pulling down demand for commodities on which some of their economies heavily depend.

Those recessions also seem to have accelerated shifts in relative power among larger countries, or at least perceptions of them. Those perceptions—see here and here, for example—may matter even more than the underlying reality because they shape governments’ propensity to intervene abroad, the forms those interventions take, and, crucially, other governments’ beliefs about what kinds of intervention might occur in the future. In this instance, those perceptions have only been reinforced by popular concerns about the cost and wisdom of foreign intervention when so many are suffering through hard times at home. This amalgamation of forces seems to have found its sharpest expression yet in the muddled and then withdrawn American threat to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, but the trends that crystallized in that moment have been evident for a while.

The financial crisis also coincided with, and contributed to, a global run-up in food prices that still hasn’t abated by much (see the chart below, from the FAO). As I mentioned in another recent post, a growing body of evidence supports the claim that high food prices help produce waves of civil unrest. This link is evident at the level of the global system and in specific cases, from the countries involved in the Arab Spring to South Africa. Because food prices are so influential, I think it’s likely that climate change is contributing to the current disorder, too, as another force putting upward pressure on those prices and sometimes dislodging large numbers of people who have to pay them.

As Peter Turchin and others have argued, it’s possible that generic oscillations in human social order—perhaps the political analogue of the business cycle—are also part of the story. I’m not confident that these patterns are distinct from the forces I’ve already mentioned, but they could be, at least in part. In any case, those patterns seem sufficiently robust that they deserve more attention than most of us give them now.

Last but not least, the systemic character of these processes is also evident in the forms of negative and positive feedback that arise to try to reverse or accelerate the slide into entropy. Powerful players with a stake in extant structures—mostly states, but also private corporations and even transnational NGOs—work to restore local forms of order that reinforce rather than challenge those structures. At the same time, other actors try to leverage the entropy to their own advantage. Governments less invested in the prior order may see new opportunities to weaken rivals or husband allies. Transnational criminal enterprises often find ways to expand revenue streams and develop new ones by smuggling arms and other contraband to and through societies that have fallen apart. Since the late 2000s, for example, “there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on vessels by pirates,” Interpol claims, and I don’t think this concurrence of this trend with the spikes in popular unrest and state collapse is purely coincidental.

This system-level view finds linkages between a host of recent trends that we usually only consider in isolation from each other. It also suggests that this, too, shall pass—and then occur again. If Turchin & co. are correct, the current wave of disorder won’t peak for another several years, and we can expect the next iteration to arrive in the latter half of the current century. I’m not convinced the cycles are as tidy as that, and I wonder if the nature of the system itself is now changing in ways that will produce new patterns in the future. Either way, though, I hope it’s now clear that the miseries besetting CAR aren’t as disconnected from the collapses of Libya, Syria, and Yemen or the eruptions of mass protest in a host of countries over the past several years as our compartmentalized reading and theorizing usually entices us to think.

Did Libya Cause Mali?

Did the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya cause the ongoing crisis in Mali?

A lot of people seem to think so. Number 4 on Max Fisher’s “Nine Questions about Mali You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask” is: “I heard that this whole crisis happened because of the war in Libya. Is that true?” Yesterday on the BBC’s This Week, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed to answer in the affirmative when he described Mali as “collateral damage” from Libya.

The accounts I’ve read from people who closely study the country generally attribute the crisis in Mali to two things: 1) the resumption of armed rebellion in northern Mali in January 2012; and 2) the mutiny and coup that ensued in March. As I understand those experts’ arguments, the scale of the current crisis is due to the intersection of these two. Neither the rebellion nor the coup alone was sufficient to produce the state collapse that is compelling the large-scale international response. If neither was sufficient alone, then both were necessary.

Did Libya’s collapse cause one or both of these events? It certainly seems to have played some role. As proponents of the “Libya caused Mali” line have pointed out, the resumption of rebellion in the north was driven, in part, by an inflow of fighters and arms fleeing Libya after the fall of their patron and purchaser, Moammar Qaddafi. The resumption of the Tuareg’s rebellion, in turn, appears to have helped trigger the military coup. After seizing power, the putschists sometimes identified the government’s weak support for their fight against the rebels as the motivation behind the mutiny that evolved into a coup when it encountered little resistance.

To make strong claims about the importance of Libya to Mali, though, we have to believe that one or both of these things—the rebellion and the coup—would not have happened if Libya hadn’t imploded. Here, I think the assertion that “Libya caused Mali” gets much weaker.

On the fight in the north, a recent Think Africa Press piece by Andy Morgan asserts that the resumption of rebellion had been planned for some time, suggesting that Libya’s collapse was not a necessary condition for its occurrence. “In truth, neither Gaddafi’s fall nor AQIM nor drugs and insecurity are the prime movers behind this latest revolt,” Morgan writes. “They are just fresh opportunities and circumstances in a very old struggle.” Morgan’s account isn’t gospel, of course, but it does imply that rebellion could have and probably would have recurred in the north regardless of Gaddafi’s fate. Libya’s collapse seems to have affected the timing and possibly the strength of that assault, but it doesn’t appear to have been necessary for its occurrence.

The connection between Libya and the March 2012 coup is even more tenuous. Statistical models I developed to forecast coups d’etat identified Mali as one of the countries at greatest risk in 2012 before the coup happened, and that assessment was not particularly sensitive to events in Libya. The chief drivers of that forecast were Mali’s extreme poverty (as captured by its infant mortality rate) and the character of its pre-coup political institutions. One of the models takes armed conflict in the region into account, but it’s not an especially influential risk factor, and the impact of Libya’s civil war on the final forecast is negligible.

This forecast suggests that a coup in Mali was entirely plausible absent the rebellion in the north, and that impression is bolstered by the reporting of Bruce Whitehouse from Bamako in a March 2012 blog post:

The way [coup leader Capt.] Sanogo went on to justify the coup was inconsistent and wide-ranging. His initial responses to questions about his troops’ demands indicated that their primary concerns centered around living conditions, pay, and education and job opportunities for their children. When prompted about insecurity in northern Mali, however, he claimed that this issue “occupied 70 percent of their preoccupations.” (During a later interview, Sanogo again had to be reminded about the rebellion after listing the factors that led to the coup.)

The statements of actors engaged in the politics in question aren’t always (often? ever?) honest or reliable, but in this case they align with the information we get from the statistical model. It really isn’t that hard to imagine a coup occurring in Mali in 2012 regardless of events in Libya.

In retrospect, it’s easy to construct narratives that connect Mali to Libya. What’s harder is to imagine the other ways things might have unfolded and assess how likely those counterfactual histories are. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but I think this quick accounting shows that we could have arrived at something very much like the current crisis in Mali even if the Gaddafi regime had never collapsed. That doesn’t mean events in Libya have had no effect on the crisis in Mali, but it does suggest that the one is not the cause of the other.

A Rumble of State Collapses

The past couple of years have produced an unusually large number of collapsed states around the world, and I think it’s worth pondering why.

As noted in a previous post, when I say “state collapse,” I mean this:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

The concepts used in this definition are very hard to observe, so I prefer to make probabilistic instead of categorical judgments about which states have crossed this imaginary threshold. In other words, I think state collapse is more usefully treated as a fuzzy set instead of a crisp one, so that’s what I’ll do here.

At the start of 2011, there was only state I would have confidently identified as collapsed: Somalia. Several more were plausibly collapsed or close to it—Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR), and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) come to mind—but only Somalia was plainly over the line.

By my reckoning, four states almost certainly collapsed in 2011-2012—Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen—and Central African Republic probably did. That’s a four- or five-fold increase in the prevalence of state collapse in just two years. In all five cases, collapse was precipitated by the territorial gains of armed challengers. So far, only three of the five states’ governments have fallen, but Assad and Bozize have both seen the reach of their authority greatly circumscribed, and my guess is that neither will survive politically through the end of 2013.

I don’t have historical data to which I can directly compare these observations, but Polity’s “interregnum” (-77) indicator offers a useful (if imperfect) proxy. The column chart below plots annual counts of Polity interregnums (interregna? interregni? what language is this, anyway?) since 1945. A quick glance at the chart indicates that both the incidence and prevalence of state collapse seen in the past two years—which aren’t shown in the plot because Polity hasn’t yet been updated to the present—are historically rare. The only comparable period in the past half-century came in the early 1990s, on the heels of the USSR’s disintegration. (For those of you wondering, the uptick in 2010 comes from Haiti and Ivory Coast. I hadn’t thought of those as collapsed states, and their addition to the tally would only make the past few years look that much more exceptional.)

Annual Counts of Polity Interregnums, 1946-2010

Annual Counts of Polity Interregnums, 1946-2010

I still don’t understand this phenomenon well enough to say anything with assurance about why this “rumble” of state collapses is occurring right now, but I have some hunches. At the systemic level, I suspect that shifts in the relative power of big states are partly responsible for this pattern. Political authority is, in many ways, a confidence game, and growing uncertainty about major powers’ will and ability to support the status quo may be increasing the risk of state collapse in countries and regions where that support has been especially instrumental.

Second and related is the problem of contagion. The set of collapses that have occurred in the past two years are clearly interconnected. Successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt spurred popular uprisings in many Arab countries, including Libya, Syria, and Yemen . Libya’s disintegration fanned the rebellion that precipitated a coup and then collapse in Mali. Only CAR seems disconnected from the Arab Spring, and I wonder if the rebels there didn’t time their offensive, in part, to take advantage of the region’s   current distraction with its regional neighbor to the northwest.

Surely there are many other forces at work, too, most of them local and none of them deterministic. Still, I think these two make a pretty good starting point, and they suggest that the current rumble probably isn’t over yet.

Libya Revisited

Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime a little more than a year ago, Libya has served as a Rorschach test for American and European observers of international relations—a complex and disorderly swirl of political events onto which we typically project our prior beliefs about the circumstances under which military intervention in other country’s conflicts is smart and just. Where observers whose biases tilt toward the “justice” part of that equation tend to see averted atrocities and nascent democracy, self-described “realists” usually spotlight the persistence of militia-fed violence and the secondary effects of Libya’s collapse on its neighbors in the Sahel as grounds for arguing that NATO should never have stepped in.

A recent article in the Economist offers fresh support for proponents of that intervention. In a dispatch entitled “Rising from the Ruins,” a magazine not known for its bleeding heart informs us that,

Since the colonel’s death in October last year at the hands of rebel fighters, Libya has not only held national elections, followed a fortnight ago by the presentation of a diverse government, albeit that not all of its members have been endorsed. It has also started to build a new system of civil administration that may one day form the backbone of a law-abiding and prosperous society.

The piece nods in the direction of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the fears of terrorism and religious extremism that were amplified by that assault, but it goes on to suggest that those fears may be misplaced.

On the ground, the picture, though far from uniformly rosy, is more hopeful. Many of the new state structures and services…are being created from the bottom up rather than handed down by a central government that is still only embryonic. The new powers in the land are council leaders, a sort of cross between mayors and regional governors. Some are doing well.

By “doing well,” the author seems to mean “doing what governments are supposed to do,” namely, providing order and delivering basic public goods:

Regional structures are taking shape. Rickety they may be, but they increasingly trump those in the capital, where political rivalries and the fear of being accused of corruption have led ministers to duck hard decisions. Some cities are creating their own economic links with the outside world…Dynamic local leaders have improved services. The streets of a range of coastal towns are far cleaner than in Cairo or Tunis. Rubbish-collecting lorries and street sweepers in tidy overalls are out every morning. Hospitals have reopened. Most important for ordinary Libyans, services such as tap water and electricity—disrupted during the rebellion—are working just about everywhere. Children are back at school.

I’m not a Libya pro, and I can’t offer any first-hand accounts of developments there from my desk in suburban Maryland. What I can bring to the table is the perspective of a longtime observer of democratization and state collapse. From that perch, I think the skeptics are mostly wrong. Critics of NATO’s intervention are right to bemoan the violence and injustice and spillover that Libya’s collapse has brought. The mistake they make, I think, lies in their failure to consider a realistic set of alternatives to NATO intervention and where they would have led.

My sense of the plausible alternatives starts from the observation that the Libyan state under Gaddafi was a personalist regime—a system in which political authority is almost wholly concentrated in the hands of single individual—and all personalist regimes collapse eventually. As Barbara Geddes has shown in her excellent work on authoritarian breakdown, personalist regimes rarely survive the death of their “big man,” and the ensuing breakdowns are often bloody.

Given these facts, the idea that would-be interveners were choosing between fomenting instability or returning to authoritarian stability is false. Without any nudge from NATO forces, Libya in 2011 had already slipped into civil war. At that point, its possible futures included a quick and brutal restoration of order under Gaddafi, a quick rebel victory, or a protracted civil war. Absent foreign intervention, either brutal repression or a protracted civil war appeared to be the most likely trajectories, while a quick rebel victory seemed highly unlikely.

It’s easy to see that every one of these scenarios would have been bloody. What’s more often overlooked, I think, is that every one of these scenarios would also have led to state collapse followed by a long and messy period of state-building. The only real difference is in the timing. Even if the Gadaffi regime had managed to restore control in 2011, Geddes’ research suggests that it would merely have postponed its day of reckoning; the factional scrambles we’re seeing today would have occurred eventually, only after another episode of brutal repression and probably after another eruption of civil war. Meanwhile, a prolonged version of the conflict that started in 2011 would have entailed its own form of state collapse, de facto partition, that would have produced many of the same negative repercussions we’re now lamenting (militia justice, spillover effects) while merely delaying the arrival of the positive ones. By helping to hasten the rebels’ victory in a fight that started without them, NATO’s intervention merely accelerated the arrival of a tumultuous but inevitable period of political transformation.

Some critics of the NATO intervention are comfortable with the decision to intrude in Libya’s civil war but critical of the hands-off approach the United States and Europe have taken to state-building. What I think we’re seeing in dispatches like the one in this week’s Economist, however, is that the absence of a heavy foreign footprint in post-Gaddafi Libyan politics is actually serving the country pretty well. Rather than weakly empowering a favored cadre and encouraging massive rent-seeking, the less intrusive posture the United States and Europe have adopted in Libya is allowing state-building to proceed of its own accord.

Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.

The Libyan Surprise

Libya doesn’t have a democratic government yet, but after yesterday’s elections, it’s awfully close. As Juan Cole summarizes, turnout for the national vote was good, violence was scarce, and voters were ebullient. If the national assembly these elections were choosing manages to convene and to appoint a government, Libya will have crossed the threshold to electoral democracy for the first time in its history.

According to prevailing theories of democratization, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Libya is an oil-rich country with no democratic experience in a part of the world where democratic development has lagged badly. Because of its oil, Libya is not poor, but decades of punitive rule by the Gaddafi regime left the country without the kind of organized “civil society” often cast as the workhorses of democratization. Theories of authoritarian breakdown predicted correctly that Gaddafi’s personalistic regime would end with a bang, but they also told us that democracy was unlikely to follow. Contrary to theories that see European and American democracy-promotion schemes as crucial catalysts of reform, democratization is occurring in Libya with virtually no outside prodding. Foreign forces helped tip the revolution against Gaddafi, and the U.N. has provided important technical assistance for the elections, but the impetus to the transition has really been domestic. Reflecting many of these conventional views, a statistical model I built to forecast when countries with authoritarian regimes would cross this threshold pegged Libya’s prospects for a transition in 2012 pretty close to zero.

Libya is also unusual in that it isn’t really a state right now, at least not a functional one. The National Transitional Council (NTC) that is supposed to step aside when the new assembly appoints a government is recognized internationally as Libya’s sovereign authority, but its domestic recognition is much weaker. By my reckoning, the Libyan state collapsed in 2011, and the NTC’s bumbling rule hasn’t reversed that process. I can’t think of another modern case where national elections were held successfully in a country that was as politically fragmented as Libya is today. The NTC is the nominal national government, but the country is largely being run by a melange of city and neighborhood councils and the revolutionary militias that midwifed their birth.

What the faithful might call a miracle, statisticians would call an outlier. Whatever tag we apply, this is clearly a happy surprise.

I don’t have much to say (yet) about why this surprise has happened. I will say that grand theories of democratization have failed plenty of times before, and efforts to construct new mid-range theories probably ought to wait a few more years for new patterns to cohere—not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia—before attempting to assert any new patterns with confidence.

Of course, even a successful transition would not put Libya on a glide path to a democratic future. As I discussed on this blog last year, most first attempts at democracy fail, usually within a decade of their start. At this early stage, there’s no reason to assume that Libya will also buck the trend on this side of the imaginary wall.

It might, though, and the fact that this possibility even exists is a welcome and delightful surprise—for the world, yes, but for Libyans most of all.

“State Failure” Has Failed. How About Giving “State Collapse” a Whirl?

Foreign Policy magazine recently published the 2012 edition of the Fund for Peace‘s Failed States Index (FSI), and the response in the corner of the international-studies blogosphere I inhabit has been harsh. Scholars have been grumbling about the Failed States Index for years, but the chorus of academic and advocacy voices attacking it seems to have grown unusually large and loud this year. In an admirable gesture of of fair play, Foreign Policy ran one of the toughest critiques of the FSI on its own web site, where Elliot Ross of the blog Africa is a Country wrote,

We at Africa is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can’t take it seriously: It’s a failed index.

As Ross and many others argue, the core problem with the FSI is that it defines state failure very broadly, and in a way that seems to privilege certain forms of political stability over other aspects of governance and quality of life that the citizens in those states may prize more highly. In a 2008 critique of the “state failure” concept [PDF] that nicely anticipated all of the recent sturm und drang around the FSI, Chuck Call wrote that

The ‘failed states’ concept—and related terms like ‘failing’, ‘fragile’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states—has become more of a liability than an asset. Foundations and think tanks have rushed to fund work on ‘failing’ states, resulting in a proliferation of multiple, divergent and poorly defined uses of the term. Not only does the term ‘failing state’ reflect the schoolmarm’s scorecard according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate, but it has also grown to encompass states as diverse as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Iraq, and the Sudan.

In that essay, Call advocates abandoning the now-hopelessly-freighted concept of “state failure” in favor of a narrower focus on “state collapse”—that is, situations “where no authority is recognisable either internally to a country’s inhabitants or externally to the international community.” I agree.

In fact, in 2010, while still working as research director for the U.S. Government–funded Political Instability Task Force, I led a small research project that aimed to develop a workable definition of state collapse and coding guidelines that would allow researchers to know it when they see it. The project stopped short of producing a global, historical data set, but the coding guidelines were road-tested and refined, and I think the end results have some value. In light of the FSI brouhaha, I’ve posted the results of that project on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) in hopes that they might be useful to a broader audience.

In those materials—a concept paper and a set of coding guidelines—I argue that we can get to a more workable concept by moving away from Max Weber’s aspirational vision of modern states as legitimate and orderly bureaucracies. Instead, I think we get further when we recognize that real-world states are a specific kind of political organization associated with a particular realization of global politics. That realization—the “Westphalian order,” or just “the international system”—constitutes states and delegates certain forms of political authority to them, but national governments in the real world vary widely in their ability to exercise that authority. When internationally recognized governments cease to exist, or their actual authority is badly circumscribed, we can say that the state has collapsed. That kind of collapse can happen in two different ways: fragmentation and disintegration.

When the failure to rule involves the national government’s territorial reach, we might call it collapse by fragmentation. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes final authority within a specific territory and international recognition of that authority, so situations in which large swaths of a state’s territory are effectively governed by organized political challengers whose authority is not internationally recognized represent a form of collapse. In practical terms, these situations usually arise in one of two ways: either 1) a rebel group violently pushes state agents out of a particular area, or 2) a regional government unilaterally proclaims its autonomy or independence and becomes the de facto sovereign authority in that region. In either situation, the rival group directly and publicly challenges the national government’s claim to sovereignty and effectively becomes the supreme political authority in that space. State military forces may still operate in these areas, but they do so in an attempt to reassert control that has already been lost, as indicated by the primacy of the rival organization in day-to-day governance…

State collapse also occurs when the national government fails to enforce its authority in the absence of a rival claimant to sovereignty. This type of failure might be called state collapse by disintegration. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes that a central government is capable not just of making rules but also of enforcing them. Dramatic failures of a state’s enforcement capabilities are indicated by widespread lawlessness and disorder, such as rioting, looting, civil violence, and vigilantism. In the extreme, central governments will sometimes disappear completely, but this rarely occurs. More often, a national government will continue to operate, but its rules will be ignored in some portions of its putative territory.

To distinguish state collapse from other forms of political instability and disorder, we have to establish some arbitrary thresholds beyond which the failure is considered catastrophic. Saying focused on the core dimensions of domestic sovereignty—territory and order—I do this as follows:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

If you’re interested, you can find more specific language on how to assess challenger control and lawlessness in the coding guidelines.

Applying this definition to the world today, I see only a handful of states that are clearly collapsed and just a few more that might be. In the “clearly collapsed” category, I would put Libya, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. In the “probably collapsed” category, I would put Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Those judgments are based on cursory knowledge of those cases, however, and I would be interested to hear what others think about where this label does (Chad? Haiti? Ivory Coast? Sudan? South Sudan?) or does not (Afghanistan? Mali?) fit. Either way, the list is much shorter and, I believe, more coherent than the 20-country sets the Failed States Index identifies as “critical” and “in danger.”

More important, this is a topic that still greatly interests me, so I would love to have this conceptual work critiqued, put to use, or both. Fire away!

On the Politics of Time and Memory

The concepts of time, space, and possibility.

Tengo knew that time could become deformed as it moved forward. Time itself was uniform in composition, but once consumed, it took on a deformed shape. One period of time might be terribly heavy and long, while another could be light and short. Occasionally the order of things would be reversed, and in the worst cases order itself could vanish entirely. Sometimes things that should not be there at all might be added onto time. By adjusting time this way to suit their own purposes, people probably adjusted the meaning of their existences. In other words, by adding such operations to time, they were able–but just barely–to preserve their own sanity. Surely, if a person had to accept the time through which he had just passed uniformly in the given order, his nerves could not bear the strain. Such a life, Tengo felt, would be sheer torture.

That passage, emphasis and all, comes from Jay Rubin’s translation for Knopf of Book 1 in Haruki Murakami’s three-part novel, 1Q84.

When I read it, Murakami’s vision of pliable time reminded me, among other things, of political scientist Marc Beissinger’s use of the term “thickened history” to describe particularly eventful periods of political activity. In a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union that has many lessons for the present, Beissinger writes:

In a period of heightened challenge events can ‘begin to move so fast and old assumptions become so irrelevant that the human mind cannot process all the new information’–a phenomenon I refer to in this book as ‘thickened’ history. By ‘thickened’ history, I mean a period in which the pace of challenging events quickens to the point that it becomes practically impossible to comprehend them and they come to constitute an increasingly significant part of their own causal structure. As one Soviet journalist put it in the fall of 1989, ‘We are living in an extremely condensed historical period. Social processes which earlier required decades now develop in a matter of months.’ This heightened pace of contention affects both governing and governed–the former primarily in the state’s growing incoherence and inability to fashion relevant policies, the latter by introducing an intensified sense of contingency, uncertainty, and influence from the examples of others. What takes place within these ‘thickened’ periods of history has the potential to move history onto tracks otherwise unimaginable, affecting the prisms through which individuals relate to authority, consolidating conviction around new norms, and forcing individuals to make choices about competing categories of identity about which they may previously have given little thought–all within an extremely compressed period of time.

Beissinger tells us that it’s “practically impossible” to comprehend the politics of these thick periods when they’re happening, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, “This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” The stories we construct are inevitably gross simplifications and distortions, but we are innately compelled to build them anyway.

According to Murakami’s character, Tengo, we do this to stay sane. In political discourse, these vignettes often serve an external purpose as well.

Take some of the competing narratives about the recent coup in Mali. Surely the true causes of that event are fantastically complex and unknowable, but that does not prevent us from constructing simple stories to serve other political ends. For some opponents of humanitarian intervention, the coup in Mali was caused by escalation of the Tuareg rebellion, which was caused by the abrupt collapse of Libya, which was caused by NATO’s military action. For some advocates of substantive democracy, the coup in Mali was caused by the government’s inattention to poverty, corruption, and inequality. These two narratives compete to define the meaning of the same events, because that meaning is politically empowering.

The power that comes from the construction of memory was a central theme in one of the works that inspired Murakami’s novel, George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s Oceania, the Ministry of Truth literally rewrites history on the fly to help sustain its authority. The power of “shaping the narrative” is not lost on today’s U.S. government, either, which uses “public diplomacy” to try to influence foreign populations and wages an “info war” on groups it sees as threats.

Sometimes, we even produce power by omitting selected segments of time–in other words, by forgetting. Young Americans horrified by atrocities in contemporary wars may not know of the firebombings of German cities during World War II or the destruction of large swathes of countryside during the Vietnam War. In 1Q84, two women characters discuss the sexual abuse one of them suffered as a child at the hands of two relatives.

“Do you ever see this brother and uncle of yours?”

“Hardly ever after I took a job and left the house. But we are relatives, after all, and we’re in the same profession. Sometimes I can’t avoid seeing them, and when I do I’m all smiles. I don’t do anything to rock the boat. I bet they don’t even remember that something like that ever happened.”

“Don’t remember?”

“Sure, they can forget about it,” Ayumi said. “I never can.”

“Of course not,” Aomame said.

“It’s like some historic massacre.”

“Massacre?”

“The ones who did it can always rationalize their actions and even forget what they did. They can turn away from things they don’t want to see. But the surviving victims can never forget. They can’t turn away. Their memories are passed on from parent to child. That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.”

Economic Growth and the Survival of New Democracies

Last week, a senior official in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood warned the U.S. against cutting aid to his country at a time when Egypt is, he suggested, on the brink of economic collapse. In an interview with the Washington Post, Khairat Al-Shater said that reductions in Western aid would exacerbate an economic crisis that could “transform a peaceful revolution into a hunger revolution.”

Al-Shater’s warning reflects a widely held view that new democracies can be made or broken by their economic performance. “It is a cardinal principle of empirical democratic theory,” democratization scholar Larry Diamond writes, “that hard economic times are supposed to mean hard times for democracy.” This principle has been confirmed by a few statistical studies on the survival of democratic regimes: other things being equal, the risk of democratic breakdown does seem to be higher when GDP growth rates are slower. (See here, here, here, and here for affirmative findings and here for a negative one.)

After reading Al-Shater’s warning, I decided to revisit this question with an emphasis on the real-world concerns of the moment. Instead of looking at the entire life course of all democracies, as previous studies generally do, I wondered what economic performance around the time of a democratic transition–like we saw in Tunisia in 2011 and like we might be seeing right now in Egypt and Libya–would tell us about the prospects that a democratic regime will survive well beyond its founding elections. Perhaps these earliest years create impressions and encourage strategies that enable or afflict the ensuing regime during this formative period in ways we can’t see when we lump entire episodes of democracy together.

To test this conjecture, I used a global data set to identify all transitions to democracy that occurred during the period 1955-2008. With that case list in hand, I built a logistic regression model of the relationships between the conditions under which those transitions occurred and the odds that the ensuing regimes would survive for at least five years. (As it happens, surviving for just five years is actually a pretty big deal. Of the 103 transitions to democracy that occurred during that period, only 62 produced regimes that lasted longer.)

From prior research, we know that higher levels of economic development, the absence of political polarization, prior democracy, and the end of the Cold War are all associated with improved prospects for democratic consolidation, so all of those factors were included in the model. To capture the marginal effects of economic performance on prospects for democratic survival–the original point of this exercise–I added measures of annual percent change in GDP per capita for the three years bracketing the transition: the one before, the year of the transition, and the year after. (See the end of the post for more details on the modeling.)

As expected, I found that a new democracy’s survival prospects are indeed better when its economy grows faster around the time of its birth. In contrast to al-Shater’s gloomy prognostication, however, the effects I observed were not large. The marginal effects from GDP growth in the year of the transition are illustrated in the line plot below. As the chart shows, a difference of several percentage points in GDP growth–a large swing in most real-world situations–would produce only a very modest difference in the estimated likelihood of surviving past five years, other things being equal. (I don’t think p-values are as informative as estimates of marginal effects, but for those of you wondering, the p-value in this instance is 0.28; the coefficient is 0.046.) The association with growth on either side of the transition are not captured in that chart, in part because they were even weaker (coefficients of 0.027 and 0.018 and p-values of 0.54 and 0.70, respectively).

We can also see the weakness of this effect in the modest contribution of those growth rates to the statistical model’s ability to accurately assess risk in the historical cases. The figure below plots Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curves for versions of my model with and without the measures of initial GDP growth. ROC curves summarize a model’s ability to discriminate between cases with and without some feature of interest–in this instance, surviving past five years. The better the model does, the farther the line pushes toward the upper left-hand corner, and the larger the area under the curve (AUC). As you can see, adding measures of GDP growth to the model doesn’t improve the accuracy by a whole lot, producing just about a 2% bump in AUC.

On the whole, I’d say these results run counter to the spirit, if not the letter, of prevailing expectations. The marginal effects of economic performance flow in the anticipated direction, but they don’t have anything close to the kind of “make or break” impact that Al-Shater and Diamond’s statements imply. A new democracy’s level of economic development and the occurrence of acute political polarization tell us the most about its survival prospects, and variations in economic performance around the transition don’t seem to move the needle a whole lot beyond that.

I wonder if the prevailing wisdom about the dire consequences of poor economic performance for democratic consolidation isn’t at least in part a case of the availability heuristic at work. Historical cases of economic crisis followed by democratic collapse easily spring to mind (Weimar Germany, anyone?), and it’s not hard to generate a plausible story linking those two events. What those plausible stories seem to overlook, though, is that many of those attempts at democracy probably would have failed anyway, even in the absence of economic crisis, because that’s the fate of most democracies across a wide range of conditions. Meanwhile, there are plenty of countervailing examples of young democracies that survived sharp economic contractions (say, Greece after military rule, or much of post-Communist Europe), but these null cases seem to be more forgettable.

Even if economic growth had a stronger impact on prospects for democratic survival than my analysis indicates it does, I’m skeptical that this information would be as useful to policy-makers seeking to promote democracy as I suspect they think it is. Assume for a moment that a bump of a few percentage points in GDP growth in the transition year would double the odds in favor of democratic survival. Can anyone tell me what policy interventions will reliably pump growth rates that far, that fast? If foreign aid or economic policy could work that kind of magic, wouldn’t the “developing” world already be a lot richer?

I’ll wrap this post up by going back to where we started, namely, the Middle East after the “Arab awakening.” Even though GDP growth doesn’t contribute much to it, the model’s overall performance isn’t bad. After looking at those ROC curves, I wondered what the model would say about the prospects for the survival of new democracies in three Arab countries on the cusp of new tries at democracy: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Of the three, only Tunisia would already qualify as democratic by my definition, but Egypt and Libya are both in the midst of transitions from authoritarian rule that could put them over the threshold soon. So I took the IMF’s latest projections of their growth rates and plugged them into the model, along with recent data on their levels of economic development and my best guess as to whether or not they would qualify as acutely polarized according to the data set I used for that indicator. Here’s what came back as estimates of the  probability that each of those new democracies would make it to their sixth birthday, assuming that, of the three, only Tunisia would not qualify as acutely polarized:

  • Tunisia: 82%
  • Egypt: 48%
  • Libya:  89%

The contrast between Tunisia and Egypt’s survival prospects did not surprise me, but the high estimate for Libya did. Interestingly, expected economic growth seems to be contributing to this result. According to the IMF, Libya’s economy contracted by more than 60% in 2011, but it’s expected to recoup some of those losses in 2012 with an astonishing annual growth rate of nearly 70%. That value is so unusually large that it packs a lot of wallop, even though the weight for GDP growth in the equation is small. Whether that anomalous leap translates into a tremendous boost for democratic consolidation in the real world is another matter. Color me dubious.

Details of the Modeling

The sample for the statistical analysis described here comprises 103 democratic transitions that occurred in countries worldwide during the period 1955-2008.  These transitions were identified using the same data set on episodes of democracy that was summarized in my book. To focus on transitions most like the ones occurring in the Middle East today, cases where new countries were “born” with democratic regimes were excluded from the analysis. I did not use the well-known and widely-used Democracy and Dictatorship Data Set because, as elaborated in this working paper, I have serious concerns about its utility for survival analysis. (That said, I would be very interested to see how sensitive the results reported here are to the choice of measures of democratic transitions and breakdowns. I’d do it myself if this were an academic paper, but, hey, it’s just a blog post.)

Once I’d assembled a roster of relevant cases, I used the ‘glm’ command in R to estimate a logistic regression model that included the covariates listed below (with sources in parentheses). The analysis file includes one record per transition. The dependent variable in this model was a binary one indicating whether or not a democratic episode lasted more than five years beyond its transition year. As noted above, 62 of the 103 cases did.

  • Annual percent change in GDP per capita in years t-1, t, and t+1, where t is the year in which the democratic transition occurred (World Development Indicators)
  • Infant mortality rate, relative to annual global median and logged (U.S. Bureau of the Census)
  • Political polarization (a.k.a. “factionalism,” indicated by a score of 3 on Polity’s PARCOMP variable)
  • Any prior episodes of democracy
  • Post-Cold War period

The ROC curves were created using ROCR.

If you’d like to replicate and tinker with this analysis, please email me to ask for the data set and R script. My address is ulfelder <at> gmail <dot> com.

Update: The code I used for this analysis is now on Github, here. The data set in .csv form can be downloaded from my Google Drive, here.

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