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.

A Faith-Based Initiative of Another Kind

According to AP, the U.S. government is considering deepening its ties with Myanmar’s military again, to include a re-up of the human-rights training programs American soldiers and lawyers do with scores of other countries and have done in Myanmar before.

With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. defense legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and the rule of law…

With a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking “soldier-to-soldier” with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the U.S. build ties with a military it knows little about…

Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn’t serve U.S. interests. “We need to reach into the organization of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas,” she said.

The idea that these training programs deepen the recipient military’s commitment to democracy and human rights is essentially a matter of faith. As a GAO report referenced in the AP story makes clear, we have no idea how effective these programs are because we haven’t really tried to measure their impact.

Since 1976, the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has provided education and training to foreign military personnel. The program’s objectives include professionalizing military forces and increasing respect for democratic values and human rights…

State and DOD’s ability to assess IMET’s effectiveness is limited by several weaknesses in program monitoring and evaluation. First, State and DOD have not established a performance plan for IMET that explains how the program is expected to achieve its goals and how progress can be assessed through performance measures and targets. Second, State and DOD have limited information on most IMET graduates, due to weaknesses in efforts to monitor these graduates’ careers after training…Third, the agencies’ current evaluation efforts include few of the evaluation elements commonly accepted as appropriate for measuring progress of training programs, and do not objectively measure how IMET contributes to long-term, desired program outcomes.

Even in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation, a cursory review of relevant cases makes it hard to accept the premise that these programs are having the presumed effect. Egypt’s military has been the beneficiary of these programs (and much, much more) from the U.S. for many years, and they’ve just perpetrated a coup and a mass killing in the span of a single summer. As the Washington Post reported last year, the leader of Mali’s 2012 coup, then-Capt. Amadou Sanogo, “received military training in the U.S. on ‘several occasions’,” as did many of his compatriots. A high-profile murder trial underway right now in Indonesia involves a dozen troops from a special-forces unit that received training and assistance from the U.S. for many years, even as they were committing gross human-rights violations. So far, I haven’t even mentioned the School of the Americas. The list goes on and on and on.

And, of course, there’s the profound irony that the U.S. did exactly this kind of training in Myanmar before, for eight years. As that AP story notes,

The U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales delivered to Myanmar between 1980 and 1988, and trained 167 officers at American military schools under [IMET].

Why did those sales and training suddenly stop in 1988? Oh, yeah

Near the start of this post, I claimed that American officials’ and officers’ belief in these programs’ effectiveness is a matter of faith. A cynic might point out that effectiveness depends on the goal. If the goal is to discourage military partners from intervening in their home countries’ politics and committing gross human-rights violations, the litany of historical counter-examples makes it hard for a civilian social scientist like me to understand how that faith is sustained. If, however, the goal is to provide a fig leaf for partnerships our government pursues for other reasons, then IMET seems to be working just fine.

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.

Coup Forecasts for 2013

Last January, I posted statistical estimates of coup risk for 2012 that drew some wider interest after they correctly identified Mali as a high-risk case. Now that the year’s almost over, I thought it would be a good time to assess more formally how those 2012 forecasts performed and then update them for 2013.

So, first things first: how did the 2012 forecasts fare on the whole? Pretty well, actually.

For purposes of these forecasts, a coup is defined as “as a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime.” That language comes from Monty Marshall’s Center for Systemic Peace, whose data set on coup events serves as the basis for one of the two models used to generate the 2012 forecasts. Those forecasts were meant to assess the risk of any coup attempts at some point during the calendar year, whether those attempts succeed or fail. They were not meant to anticipate civil wars, non-violent uprisings, voluntary transfers of executive authority, autogolpes, or interventions by foreign forces, all of which are better thought of (and modeled) as different forms of political crisis.

Okay, so by that definition, I see two countries where coup attempts occurred in 2012: Mali (in March) and Guinea-Bissau (in April). As it happens, both of those countries ranked in the top 10 in January’s forecasts—Guinea-Bissau at no. 2 and Mali at no. 10—so the models seem to be homing in on the right things. We can get a more rigorous take on the forecasts’ accuracy with a couple of statistics commonly used to assess models that try to predict binary outcomes like these (either a coup attempt happens or it doesn’t):

  • AUC Score. The estimated area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curve, used as a measure of the ability of a binary classification model to discriminate between positive and negative cases. Specifically, AUC represents the probability that a randomly selected positive case (here, a country-year with coup activity) will have a higher predicted probability than a randomly selected negative case (e.g., country-year with no coup activity). Ranges from 0.5 to 1, with higher values indicating better discrimination.
  • Brier Score. A general measure of forecast performance, defined as the average squared difference between the predicted and observed values. Ranges from 0 to 1, with lower values indicating more accurate predictions.

Assuming that Mali and Guinea-Bissau were the only countries to see coup activity this year, my 2012 coup forecasts get an AUC score of 0.97 and a Brier score of 0.01. Those are really good numbers. Based on my experience trying to forecast other rare political events around the world, I’m pretty happy with any AUC above the low 0.80s and any Brier score that’s better than an across-the-board base-rate forecast. The 2012 coup forecasts surpass both of those benchmarks.

Of course, with just two events in more than 150 countries, these statistics could be very sensitive to changes in the list of coup attempts. Two possible modifications come from Sudan, where authorities claim to have thwarted coup plots in November and December, and Paraguay, where right-wing legislators pushed leftist President Lugo out of office in June. I didn’t count Sudan because country experts tell me those events were probably just a political ploy President Bashir is using to keep his rivals off balance and not actual coup attempts. I didn’t count Paraguay because President Lugo’s rivals used legal procedures, not force, to oust him in a rushed impeachment. I’m pretty confident that neither of those cases counts as a coup attempt as defined here, but for the sake of argument, it’s worth seeing how the addition of those cases would affect the accuracy assessments.

  • Sudan ranked 11th in the 2012 forecasts, just behind Mali, so the addition of an event there leaves the accuracy stats essentially unchanged at 0.96 and 0.02, respectively.
  • Paraguay would definitely count as a surprise. It ranked in the 80s in the 2012 forecasts, and counting its June events as a coup would drop the AUC to 0.80 and the Brier score to 0.02.
  • If we count both cases as yeses, we get an AUC of 0.84 and a Brier score of 0.02.

All of those are still pretty respectable numbers for true forecasts of rare political events, even if they’re not quite as good as the initial ones. Whatever the exact ground truth, these statistics give me some confidence that the two-model average I’m using here makes a useful forecasting tool.

So, without further ado, what about 2013? The chart below plots estimated coup risk for the coming year for the 30 countries at greatest risk using essentially the same models I used for 2012. (One of the two models differs slightly from last year’s; I cut out a couple of variables that had little effect on the estimates and are especially hard to update.) I picked the top 30 because it’s roughly equivalent to the top quintile, and my experience working with models like these tells me that the top quintile makes a pretty good break point for distinguishing between countries at high and low risk. If a country doesn’t appear in this chart, that means my models think it’s highly unlikely to suffer a coup attempt in the coming year.

2013 Coup Risk Estimates

2013 Coup Risk Estimates

The broad strokes are very similar to 2012, but I’m also seeing a few changes worth noting.

  • Consistent with 2012, countries from sub-Saharan Africa continue to dominate the high-risk group. Nine of the top 10 and 22 of the top 30 countries come from that part of the world. One of those 22 is South Sudan, which didn’t get a forecast in early 2012 because I didn’t have the requisite data but now makes an ignominious debut at no. 20. Another is Sudan, which, as Armin Rosen discusses, certainly isn’t getting any more stable. Mali and Guinea-Bissau also both stay near the top of the list, thanks in part to the “coup trap” I discussed in another recent post. Meanwhile, I suspect the models are overestimating the risk of a new coup attempt in Niger, which seems to have landed on firmer footing after its “democratizing” coup in February 2010, but that recent history will leave Niger in the statistical high-risk group until at least 2015.
  • More surprising to me, Timor-Leste now lands in the top 10. That’s a change from 2012, but only because the data used to generate the 2012 forecasts did not count the assassination attempts of 2008 as a coup try. The latest version of CSP’s coup list does consider those events to be failed coup attempt. Layered on top of Timor-Leste’s high poverty and hybrid political authority patterns, that recent coup activity greatly increases the country’s estimated risk. If Timor-Leste makes it through 2013 without another coup attempt, though, its estimated risk should drop sharply next year.
  • In Latin America, Haiti and Ecuador both make it into the Top 20. As with Timor-Leste, the changes from 2012 are artifacts of adjustments to the historical data—adding a coup attempt in Ecuador in 2010 and counting Haiti as a partial democracy instead of a state under foreign occupation. Those artifacts mean the change from 2012 isn’t informative, but the presence of those two countries in the top 20 most certainly is.
  • Syria also pops into the high-risk group at no. 25. That’s not an artifact of data revisions; it’s a reflection of the effects of that country’s devastating state collapse and civil war on several of the risk factors for coups.
  • Finally, notable for its absence is Egypt, which ranks 48th on the 2013 list and has been a source of coup rumors throughout its seemingly interminable transitional period. It’s worth noting though, that if you consider SCAF’s ouster of Mubarak in 2011 to be a successful coup (CSP doesn’t), Egypt would make its way into the top 30.

As always, if you’re interested in the details of the modeling, please drop me a line at and I’ll try to answer your questions as soon as I can.

Update: After a Washington Post blog mapped my Top 30, I produced a map of my own.

The Coup Trap, Mali Edition

Mali had another coup d’etat yesterday, just 10 months after one that brought down the country’s elected civilian government and stunned a lot of observers in the process.

I’m not going to try to analyze the specifics of Mali’s latest coup or its repercussions, a task best left to area experts who actually know about those things, like Gregory Mann. Instead, I want to talk in broadly comparative terms about how and why this second coup is less surprising than the first.

The fact is, coups are often recursive. In a classic of the genre called “Poverty, the Coup Trap, and the Seizure of Executive Power” (alas, behind the dreaded JSTOR paywall), political scientists John Londregan and Keith Poole note that “the aftereffects of a coup include a heritage of political instability in the form of an increased likelihood of further coups.” This is the coup trap their title references; once you’ve had the first event, the risk of the next (and then the next, and then the next…) goes up.

This recursive pattern shows up loud and clear in statistical models I’ve used with some success to assess coup risk in countries worldwide. As noted in a previous post, my assessments are the average of estimated probabilities from two models, one of successful coups and the other of any coup attempts. In the former, the occurrence of a coup attempt at any time in the past five years roughly doubles the risk of a successful coup over the next year. In the latter, I use the natural log of the count of coup attempts in the previous five years minus one, but the strength of the association—and thus the general pattern—is essentially the same.

What’s more, it’s often not just the occurrence of the coup itself that affects the models’ estimates of the risk of a recurrence, but the ripple effects of that event on other risk factors. One of the models I use includes a nonlinear form of a scalar measure of democracy, the Polity scale. According to this model, countries in the mid-range between stark dictatorship and full democracy are at highest risk, and that’s often where countries wind up immediately after a successful coup. The other model uses Polity’s measure of the durability of a country’s political institutions. In this version, it’s the countries with recent institutional ruptures that are at higher risk, but again, the basic effect is the same.

We can see how this plays out in a case like Mali. If we adjust the inputs to our forecasting algorithm to catch up with the March coup and its ripples, Mali’s risk score jumps from about 4 percent, which was already high enough to land it in the Top 20 for 2012, all the way to 10 percent. Ten percent probably sounds small if you’re used to consuming probabilistic forecasts about routine things like the weather, but for rare events like coups, that’s a huge jump. Instead of being 11th on the global list, Mali would be 3rd, behind only Guinea-Bissau and Niger.

These models weren’t designed to test specific hypotheses about why coups recur, so I won’t make any bold assertions on the causal front. For what it’s worth, though, I will say that the patterns highlighted by these and many similar models strengthen my own belief that politics are, in no small part, a matter of confidence.

Whether they succeed or fail, coup attempts often disrupt established relationships among political elites. These disruptions increase elites’ uncertainty about the intentions of their potential rivals, and the proximity of the last attempt may lead them to overestimate the likelihood of the next one. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, this intensification of uncertainty strengthens incentives to try to seize power. In game theoretic terms, the occurrence of a coup attempt pushes political elites out of a world resembling Stag Hunt, where coordination of action is their chief concern, to one more like Prisoner’s Dilemma, where uncertainty about the the other player’s intentions overwhelms incentives to cooperate. Once the original trust network has fallen apart, no one wants to be the sucker who keeps cooperating while the other guys are all planning to fink.

Forget the Coup in Mali for a Moment–Why Wasn’t There a Revolution?

At the Monkey Cage, Stanford Ph.D. student Jessica Gottleib posted yesterday on why “we” (by which I think she means Americans) should care about the recent coup in Mali. Most of the analysis of Mali I’ve read since March has focused on explaining the coup itself, which was widely (though not universally) considered a surprise. The country had chosen its national government through competitive, multiparty elections since 1992, and during that time, it saw a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Those patterns had convinced many observers that democracy in Mali was more or less permanent, and by that reckoning, the March 2012 coup shouldn’t have happened.

Surprises are crucial opportunities for theory-building, because they tell us that something in our prior models or measures was wrong. I think there’s another aspect of the situation in Mali that’s equally relevant for theories of democratic consolidation, though, and that’s the apparent popularity of the coup after its occurrence. Support for the coup certainly isn’t universal, but it’s higher than we might expect in a country where democratic norms and values were supposed to have taken root. As Gottleib writes,

A budding Malian opinion pollster finds that 64% of his countrymen are satisfied with the coup and 51% blame the current crisis on the deposed regime…Clearly, the majority of Malians were not as satisfied with democracy as the international community once believed.

This support is manifest in street politics. Not long after the coup, a plane carrying a delegation of West African leaders to negotiate with the new junta turned back before it reached Bamako because pro-junta demonstrators were staging a sit-in on the airport tarmac. In May, when those leaders reached a deal with coup leader Capt. Sanogo to keep interim president Dioncounda Traoré in office for a year, thousands of Malians turned out in Bamako to protest the foreign pressure on Sanogo, shouting “Down with Ecowas!” and “Down with Dioncounda!” and eventually attacking Traoré in his office.

Bridges from Bamako blogger Bruce Whitehouse sees the popularity of the coup as “an extreme version of the anti-incumbent fever that periodically sweeps the United States.”

Recently I interviewed a Bamako talk show host who frequently debates politics with listeners phoning in to his program. His callers tend to define politicians as people in power who pursue personal ambitions. “They phone in all the time saying ‘Those people think only of themselves and their interests,’” he told me, “and that’s why some even say ‘We don’t want politicians anymore.’” This sentiment explains strong local support for the junta and its bid to exclude politicians en masse from Mali’s transitional government.

If so many Malians were so fed up with their ruling elites, why wasn’t there a revolution long before the March 2012 coup? I’d be very interested to hear what Malians and area experts have to say about this, but in the meantime, I think social-science theory suggests some promising leads.

One possible answer is what economist Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification.” Writing about the surprising revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Kuran observes that

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts.

In the case of Mali, it was the coup itself that seems to have uncovered a stronger desire for change than many outside observers had seen. A coup is hardly an “insignificant event,” but the basic mechanism is the same.

Kuran’s theory emphasizes the role of uncertainty in the production of a revolution, or the lack thereof. Uncertainty induces caution, but that caution may evaporate when some event signals that it’s finally safe for citizens to reveal their true preferences. I’m sure that’s relevant, but I wonder if more conventional collective-action problems aren’t at least as influential. One of the things I’ve learned from my work on democratic breakdowns and mass mobilization is it’s very hard to organize a popular uprising, even in cases where popular frustration is clear. Where Kuran sees incomplete information as the driving force, I’m more inclined to see a couple of more conventional hurdles to collective action.

The first of these hurdles is the well-known free-rider problem. When the benefits of some course of action will be widely shared, it’s hard to convince people to contribute to its production, because unless lots of people pitch in, each person’s narrow slice of those benefits will often be smaller than the expected costs of producing them. I might rather live in a democracy than this dictatorship, but why should I risk my life and career so a bunch of people who can’t be bothered to do the same can enjoy the fruits of my labor? This problem plagues attempts to organize for all kinds of objectives, from collective bargaining with employers to pot-luck dinners, and organizing for national policy change surely lies near the harder end of this spectrum.

The second hurdle I have in mind has to do with expected gains. When popular uprisings do happen in democracies, they rarely succeed, in part because political outsiders lack the means to directly effect major change without breaking the system–and they usually can’t do that, either. If would-be participants are aware that the odds are against them, then it’s going to be even harder to convince them to rebel, because the expected payoff from their actions is going to be much smaller.

We can see this problem clearly in Ecuador in 1997, when a deepening economic crisis helped to drive millions of Ecuadorians to participate in a general strike aimed at forcing President Abdalá Bucaram to resign. The National Assembly responded to this massive show of force by voting to remove the already-controversial Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity”–and then installed Assembly leader Fabián Alarcón as his replacement. The end result of this tsunami of popular action was a change in the face of power with no attendant change in the system.

A similar dynamic occurred early this year in the Maldives. After ordering the arrest of the country’s criminal court chief justice, democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed survived several weeks of street protests, only to “resign” when police and military officials allegedly showed up in his office and gave him an ultimatum. According to a Reuters investigation, the immediate beneficiaries of this “coup of opportunity” were not the protesters but the police and soldiers who were allegedly paid off by associates of the ancien regime and the self-same businessmen whose graft cases were thrown out by the criminal court after Nasheed’s departure. Here, protesters played an instrumental role in the termination of democracy, but they seem to have gained little for their efforts.

Citizens were more successful in Bolivia in 2003, when farmers, students, and indigenous groups responded to an unpopular plan to export more natural gas with a wave of strikes, demonstrations, and roadblocks. That uprising drove President Sánchez de Lozada to suspend his plan and then resign, but that resignation had much less impact on national policy than the election several years later of Evo Morales. In other words, it wasn’t until an opposition took power by more conventional channels that it succeeded in changing the system, and even that change has been less radical than many of its agents would like.

The combination of free-rider problems and the inherent difficulties of effecting political change from the outside help to explain why we so rarely see popular uprisings against nominally democratic regimes, even when many citizens are openly dissatisfied or disgusted with the status quo. This pattern matters for theory-building because it suggests that popular attitudes about democracy are less influential than we often presume. Even in democracies, the struggle for national power is primarily an elite affair contested by a small number of fairly insular organizations. Democracies are distinguished by the presence of rules and practices that allow citizens to determine (nominally, at least) the outcome of those contests, to join those organizations, and sometimes even to form new ones, but those rules and practices don’t negate the basic tendency toward oligarchy in all political systems. That’s ironic and sad, but we get better theories when we acknowledge instead of ignoring it.

Has Africa Gone Coup-Crazy in 2012?

Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces violently seized control of the country’s capital yesterday in an apparent coup d’etat. This is the second successful coup in West Africa in the past month–the other happened in Mali in mid-March–and, if my Twitter feed is any indication, this pair of events has a lot of people wondering if 2012 is going to be an unusually “hot” year for coups in that part of the world.

Statistically speaking, the answer seems to be “no”–or “not yet,” anyway, and it still has a ways to go to get there.

To see if 2012 is shaping up to be a weird year for coup activity in Africa, I used the ‘bcp’ package in R to apply a technique called Bayesian change point detection (BCP) to annual counts of successful and failed coup attempts in the region from 1946 through 2012 (so far). BCP treats time-series data as a collection of independent and identically distributed partitions and looks for points in that series where the data’s generative parameters appear to change. My data on coup events come from the Center for Systemic Peace.

The results are shown below. The top half of the chart plots the observed annual counts (the dots) and the posterior means for those annual counts (the line). The real action, though, is in the bottom half, which plots the posterior probabilities of a change point. The higher that number, the more confident we are that a particular year marks a sudden change. In this series, we see evidence of three change points: one in the mid-1960s, a few years after the start of decolonization; another in the early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War; and a third in the late 1990s, when the rate of coups in the region takes a sharp dip. Meanwhile, the pair of events observed so far in 2012 looks perfectly normal, just about average for the past decade and still well below the recent peak of six events in 2008.

If two coup bids in 2012 does not an aberration make, how many would we need to see this year to call it a significant change? I reran the BCP analysis several times using ever-larger counts for 2012, and it took a big jump to start moving the posterior probability of a change point in any appreciable way. At five events, the posterior probability still hadn’t moved much. At six, it finally moved appreciably, but only to around 0.2. In the end, it took eight events to push the posterior probability over 0.5.

In other words, it would take a lot more than two coup bids in 2012 to mark a significant change from the recent past, and what we’ve seen this year so far looks like normal variation in a stochastic process. Event counts are often noisy, but our pattern-seeking brains still try to find meaning in those small variations. It’s also harder to remember less recent events, and our brains tend to confuse that difficulty with infrequency. It helps to remember those biases whenever a new event starts you thinking about a trend.

NOTE: This version of the plot and the scenario analysis corrects an error in the data used in the original post. For the first run, I forgot that my analysis file ended in 2010, so the 0 events shown for 2011 was a mistake. There were actually two failed coups in Africa last year, one in the DRC in February and another in Guinea in July. With those two events added to the data set, the first third of 2012 looks even more typical than it did before.

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.”


“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.”

Why Democracies Fail…or How?

Over at the Center for Global Development‘s Views from the Center blog, visiting fellow Ethan Kapstein looks to the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives for lessons about why democracies fail. Drawing on his book with Nathan Converse, Kapstein starts by refuting a few widely-held notions about the causes of democratic breakdown:

Democracies do not fail for the reasons commonly supposed. They do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance…Nor do democracies reverse while undergoing the process of economic reform…Finally, democracies are no more likely to be sustained by adopting parliamentary instead of presidential institutions.

So far, so good for me. Those claims generally align with findings from my statistical research (see here and here, for example), even though our studies used different data sets to measure democratic transitions and breakdown.

Where Kapstein slips, I think, is when he tries to offers a better explanation.

Why, then, do democracies fail? Our study identified several common factors. First, young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused….Second, young democracies that are unable to constrain the executive branch of power—whether presidential or parliamentary—will find it difficult to sustain participatory forms of government. The usual red flags here are changes—or attempts to change—the constitution, particularly with respect to term limits and electoral cycles…Third, democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building they may be unable to overcome…Fourth, newly democratic states that do not provide adequate supplies of “public goods” like health care and education are unlikely to succeed.

Three items on that list–income inequality, ethnic fragmentation, and inadequate supplies of public goods–apply to most poor countries of any political stripe, and some of them even apply to most rich democracies. Because they are so generic, they don’t really help us distinguish between the democracies that fail and the ones that survive. (I have another problem with claims about the effects of income inequality in poor countries, but I’ll set that aside for now.)

The other item on that list–failure to constrain executive power–describes the very outcome Kapstein is trying to explain. When chief executives rewrite electoral laws or constitutions to ensure that they stay in power, we are witnessing the course of democratic breakdown, not its cause.

I think we can see the causes of democratic breakdown more clearly by focusing not on structural conditions, but on strategic dilemmas. In a book I wrote on the subject, I used a game-theoretic model to explore how leading political parties and the military might be expected to react to the temptations and fears they face in the highly uncertain environment of newly democratic politics. Consistent with conventional wisdom, I found that the spoils of state power will often tempt those organizations to try to seize or cement control of government in undemocratic ways.

More novel, I also found that groups will sometimes try to seize power as a defensive act, a preemptive strike against rivals whom they fear are plotting to do the same. We see this dynamic at work in Thailand in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2007, where military leaders seized power in coups when they feared that incumbent governments were institutionalizing their partisan advantage. We see it in Turkey today, where the ruling Justice and Development Party is arresting journalists and military officers in an overzealous effort to preempt an unlikely coup plot by its ardently secularist rivals.

These defensive pressures appear to have played a role in the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives as well. In Mali, mid-ranking officers seized power just one month before the next presidential election was scheduled to happen, and doubts about the fairness of that impending contest seem to have contributed to the officers’ decision, and to how the public has received it. Referring to the ousted president by his initials, one merchant told the New York Times, “A.T.T. can go to hell! He’s lied too much. Anyway, was he really going to organize elections?” In the Maldives, President Mohammed Hasheed was toppled after he tried to force a prominent judge from the bench, a move his rivals saw as a part of an unconstitutional expansion of his authority.

Combine these fears with the usual temptations of political power, and it’s easy to see why democratic consolidation is so hard. Structural conditions certainly shape the expected payoffs from different courses of action, but strategic uncertainty is the real engine of democratic breakdown.

This distinction matters for our thinking about how to respond to the problem and try to promote the survival of democratic regimes. In his blog post, Kapstein enumerates a few ideas:

What can the international community do to support newly elected regimes? A number of policies should be advanced, but all must have a common purpose: to dilute the existing concentrations of power. This means that foreign assistance should support the development of robust political parties; of inclusive systems of health care and education; and of a vibrant private sector.  Free trade agreements should be extended to new democracies, as well as schemes to promote international collaborative research and cultural engagement.

It’s hard to argue with efforts to expand health care, education, collaborative research, and cultural engagement. What I don’t like on this list is the proposal to “support the development of robust political parties” as a means to “dilute existing concentrations of power.” In practice, this usually means funding opposition parties.

The idea of constraining the government may be normatively appealing, but it’s strategically myopic. In effect, it privileges the opposition’s view. If we try to put ourselves in the shoes of incumbent officials–and, in some situations, military officers–we can see how foreign efforts to boost the strength of a political rival might appear menacing, and how that sense of menace could prompt those officials and officers to take countermeasures that directly erode or demolish democratic procedures. There may be some situations where this kind of assistance is warranted, but foreign governments and aid groups should meddle with caution in political rivalries on which the fate of other democracies may depend.


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