China’s Accumulating Risk of Crisis

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer has a long piece in the new issue of The National Interest that foretells continued political stability in China in spite of all the recent turbulence in the international system and at home. After cataloging various messes of the past few years—the global financial crisis and U.S. recession, war in Syria, and unrest in the other BRICS, to name a few—Bremmer says

It is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months.

Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.

Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke.

Me, I’m not so sure. Every time I peek under another corner of the “authoritarian stability” narrative that blankets many discussions of China, I feel like I see another mess in the making.

That list is not exhaustive. No one of these situations seems especially likely to turn into a full-blown rebellion very soon, but that doesn’t mean that rebellion in China remains unlikely. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

To see why, it helps to think statistically. Because of its size and complexity, China is like a big machine with lots of different modules, any one of which could break down and potentially set off a systemic failure. Think of the prospects for failure in each of those modules as an annual draw from a deck of cards: pull the ace of spades and you get a rebellion; pull anything else and you get more of the same. At 51:1 or about 2 percent, the chances that any one module will fail are quite small. If there are ten modules, though, you’re repeating the draw ten times, and your chances of pulling the ace of spades at least once (assuming the draws are independent) are more like 20 percent than 2. Increase the chances in any one draw—say, count both the king and the ace of spades as a “hit”—and the cumulative probability goes up accordingly. In short, when the risks are additive as I think they are here, it doesn’t take a ton of small probabilities to accumulate into a pretty sizable risk at the systemic level.

What’s more, the likelihoods of these particular events are actually connected in ways that further increase the chances of systemic trouble. As social movement theorists like Sidney Tarrow and Marc Beissinger have shown, successful mobilization in one part of an interconnected system can increase the likelihood of more action elsewhere by changing would-be rebels’ beliefs about the vulnerability of the system, and by starting to change the system itself.

As Bremmer points out, the Communist Party of China has done a remarkable job sustaining its political authority and goosing economic growth as long as it has. One important source of that success has been the Party’s willingness and capacity to learn and adapt as it goes, as evidenced by its sophisticated and always-evolving approach to censorship of social media and its increasing willingness to acknowledge and try to improve on its poor performance on things like air pollution and natural disasters.

Still, when I think of all the ways that system could start to fail and catalog the signs of increased stress on so many of those fronts, I have to conclude that the chances of a wider crisis in China are no longer so small and will only continue to grow. If Bremmer wanted to put a friendly wager on the prospect that China will be governed more or less as it is today to and through the Communist Party’s next National Congress, I’d take that bet.

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.

More Shots Fired in Egypt’s Transitional “Truel”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets on June 30 to press for the resignation of President Morsi and his government, and the impending confrontation between these protesters, the government’s supporters, and state security forces has lots of people on edge. Here’s how Tarek Radwan set the scene in a recent post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel blog:

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod — or “Rebel” campaign — has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi’s removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt’s transitional drama now recognize the campaign’s significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod’s goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi’s government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod — or “Impartiality” — to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign’s attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country’s deeply divided polity.

Meanwhile, the army has responded ominously to the planned mass protests, issuing a public warning that it will “not allow an attack on the will of the people” and a calling instead for dialogue and (ha!) consensus.

tamarod.campaign.in.action

In a recent column for Egypt’s online Daily News, activist and one-time candidate for parliament Mahmoud Salem sketched three scenarios for how this latest confrontation ends: 1) a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), 2) a clear victory for the Tamarod campaign, or 3) a military coup. The forms the latter two outcomes would take are clearest: the government resigns and fresh elections are held, or the military tosses out the government and installs itself or a government of its choosing in power. It’s less clear to me what an “outright victory” for the MB would look like, but Salem seems to have in mind a violent routing of the organized opposition with the cooperation or at least complicity of the military. Salem sees the third scenario (military intervention) as the most likely one but acknowledges that the situation is highly uncertain.

For reasons that are probably narcissistic but I’d like to think are intellectual, I’m struck by how closely Salem’s scenarios and outcomes match up with the game-theoretic model I use to analyze the politics of democratic consolidation and breakdown. This model portrays politics in newer democracies as a kind of “truel“—a lousy neologism for a three-way version of a duel—involving two rival political factions and the military. In principle, any of those three groups can usurp power at at any time. Election winners can rig the game to ensure that they keep winning; election losers can overthrow the government by revolutionary means; and the military can carry out a coup.

In the metaphor of a truel, attempts to usurp or defend power are like shots fired at different rivals. As in a real gunfight, those shots don’t always hit or kill, and rivals can also choose not to fire. In many new democracies and other “transitional” cases, it’s easy to imagine one or two or even all three of these actors attempting to hoard or usurp power (i.e., take a shot) at almost any time, and it’s also easy to imagine most of those attempts failing.

Democracy is effectively consolidated when all of those actors routinely abide by and uphold democratic procedures, especially but not limited to fair elections and freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The risk of these usurpations of power never gets to zero, but in some long-standing democracies it’s awfully close to it. That’s the truel equivalent of everyone agreeing to put their guns away and resolve their disputes in other ways. In the real world, military coups have become less common than they were during the Cold War, and revolutions rarely succeed in overthrowing elected governments. Consolidations of incumbent advantage aren’t hard to find, though, and attempts at all three forms of usurpation are still common in the “life courses” of newer democracies.

So what can the truel metaphor tell us about Egypt? First, it’s evident that Salem’s three scenarios exclude an important fourth scenario in which everyone either misses or holds his fire. If the June 30 protests don’t force out the Morsi government, inspire a military coup, or lure MB supporters into widespread counterrevolutionary violence, this latest round could come and go without producing dramatic changes in the political landscape. Based on the outcome of the last couple of confrontational moments in Egyptian politics and the fractiousness of the Tamarod coalition, I’d say this is probably the most likely outcome.

The truel metaphor also raises some questions about the wisdom of the opposition’s decision to press revolutionary demands through mass unrest. This is the political equivalent of shooting at the incumbent, but game theorists will tell you that the optimal strategy for the weakest player in a truel is often to hold fire or to miss on purpose. That’s because the dominant strategy for the two strongest players is usually going to be to try to eliminate the other, so the weakest player can often do well by letting that confrontation play out, leaving him in a showdown with the lone survivor, possibly even with the advantage of getting to shoot first at a now-damaged rival.

In Egypt right now, I’d say the MB and the military are clearly the two strongest players, while the groups behind the Tamarod campaign are still the weakest. If that’s right, then the maximalist strategy Salem and his cohort are pursuing is probably quixotic. As Salem acknowledges, this attempt to oust the MB is unlikely to succeed, but the act of trying is probably increasing the risks of both a military coup and a deeper consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power by strengthening those groups’ fear of a revolution, and thus their incentives to preempt or respond to that threat with a crackdown or coup of their own.

Of course, that might be exactly what some of the participants in the Tamarod campaign are hoping for. Some of the MB’s rivals have openly called for a military coup against the Morsi government as their best hope for a “reset” of Egypt’s transition, and the occurrence of sustained mass unrest is, at this point, probably the only thing capable of making that happen. By attempting another revolution—or a counter-counterrevolution, depending on whom you ask—these factions are probably looking to draw the Brotherhood’s supporters into a fight that would, in turn, lure the military into a coup. What looks a little crazy on the surface may turn out to be crazy like a fox.

Last but not least, careful consideration of the current moment in Egyptian politics shows how the truel metaphor elides the possibility of bargaining among the players. After writing a draft of this post yesterday, I discussed it with Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. As Michael pointed out to me, there’s really a fifth scenario here, too, in which the military uses the credible threat of a coup to compel the MB government into a political deal designed to halt the spiral of polarization that keeps producing these showdowns. The military seems like it really doesn’t want to be responsible for governing Egypt right now, but it probably wants even less to see the country descend into a period of sustained mass violence. One way to try to achieve both of those goals would be to give the government an ultimatum: accept a compromise with the opposition or get shot at from two sides at once. If I had to lay odds, I’d say this is probably the second-most-likely outcome, after the “everyone misses or holds his fire” scenario described earlier.

So that’s what my analytical self makes of this remarkable moment. All the while, my emotional self continues to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the many people who keep struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity to democratize Egypt, and to sympathize with the fatigue and frustration this seemingly endless transition and its accompanying economic woes must be producing. Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like, and it’s infinitely easier to comment from afar.

Baltic Protest in the Gorbachev Era: Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences

I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s on ethno-nationalist mobilization in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Gorbachev years. In 2008, I met an editor from an academic press who invited me to dust off that dissertation and publish it as a book. After recovering the file from a floppy disk with a disk drive at my town’s public library (seriously), I reformatted and lightly edited the manuscript to ready it for publication.

In the end, I decided not to publish the book after a couple of colleagues whose work I admire took a look at it and said they didn’t think it was quite ready for academic prime time. Still, in hopes that the work might still be useful to other researchers, I’ve gone ahead and posted the lightly revised manuscript on the Web. You can find it here.

A Cautionary Note on Increased Aid to Syrian Rebels

According to today’s Washington Post, the U.S. government is starting to supply food and medicine directly to selected Syrian rebel groups. Meanwhile, “Britain and other nations working in concert with the United States are expected to go further to help the rebel Free Syrian Army by providing battlefield equipment such as armored vehicles, night-vision devices or body armor.”

The point of all this assistance, of course, is to hasten the fall of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. According to newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry, Assad is “out of time and must be out of power.”

220px-Ford_assembly_line_-_1913

Best I can tell, the logic behind this stepped-up support for the Syrian rebels Western governments “like” follows the logic of an assembly line. To increase desired outputs, increase relevant inputs.

But civil wars aren’t like factories. They’re more like ecosystems, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our attempts to manage ecosystems, it’s that they often have unintended consequences. Consider this 2009 story from the New York Times:

With its craggy green cliffs and mist-laden skies, Macquarie Island — halfway between Australia and Antarctica — looks like a nature lover’s Mecca. But the island has recently become a sobering illustration of what can happen when efforts to eliminate an invasive species end up causing unforeseen collateral damage.

In 1985, Australian scientists kicked off an ambitious plan: to kill off non-native cats that had been prowling the island’s slopes since the early 19th century. The program began out of apparent necessity — the cats were preying on native burrowing birds. Twenty-four years later, a team of scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania reports that the cat removal unexpectedly wreaked havoc on the island ecosystem.

With the cats gone, the island’s rabbits (also non-native) began to breed out of control, ravaging native plants and sending ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology online in January.

“Our findings show that it’s important for scientists to study the whole ecosystem before doing eradication programs,” said Arko Lucieer, a University of Tasmania remote-sensing expert and a co-author of the paper. “There haven’t been a lot of programs that take the entire system into account. You need to go into scenario mode: ‘If we kill this animal, what other consequences are there going to be?’”

I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between the human beings fighting and being murdered in Syria and the rabbits and cats and birds on Macquarie Island. I do mean to suggest that attempts to manipulate systems like these almost always underestimate the complexity of the problem. What scientist Barry Rice said to the New York Times for that 2009 article on the difficulty of managing invasive species applies just as well to attempts by outside powers to manufacture desired outcomes in civil wars:

When you’re doing a removal effort, you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be. You can’t just go in and make a single surgical strike. Every kind of management you do is going to cause some damage.

I hope Syria gets to a better place soon. Like Dan Trombly and Ahsan Butt, however, I am not confident that increased support for selected rebel factions will help that happen, and I am worried about the unintended consequences it will bring.

Enough about Inequality and Unrest Already!

Can we please, PLEASE stop it with the assertions that a country’s income inequality tells us a lot about its propensity for social unrest?

This claim pops up all the time. Exhibit A from an article I read this morning, on China’s official Gini coefficient for 2012:

China’s reality of inequality – and the challenge to narrowing the gap – remains unchanged: the current coefficient of 0.474 poses a high risk for social unrest.

I understand, and am even sympathetic to, the claim that gross disparities in wealth are unjust, particularly in societies where the poorest want for basic needs like food and shelter. I also recognize that organizers of, and participants in, contemporary social unrest often call out economic inequality as one of their chief grievances.

What I’m just not seeing, though, is empirical evidence that countries with higher economic inequality are more susceptible to social unrest.

For starters, there’s the general observation that economic inequality is common and persistent, but large-scale social unrest is uncommon and usually fleeting. What Jim Fearon and David Laitin wrote in 1996 about inter-group tensions and ethnic violence applies just as well here:

Among existing theories of ethnic conflict, accounts focusing on past tensions between groups that are memorialized in narratives of blame and threat tend to dramatic overprediction of violence. Such narratives are almost always present, but large-scale interethnic violence is extremely rare.

The same goes for inequality and popular rebellion. The former is ubiquitous while the latter is scarce, so it’s hard to see how the presence of the one can be said to predict the risk of the other.

Okay, so maybe inequality doesn’t help explain the timing of social unrest, but it does predispose certain societies to erupt when other forces come together. It’s not the spark that starts the fire; it’s the dry tinder that helps the spark catch and spread.

Well, I’m just not seeing this, either.

To look at the association between inequality and unrest, I started by downloading the World Bank’s data on income inequality from Hans Rosling’s Gapminder site. These data summarize occasional national surveys on income or consumption in a Gini coefficient. The higher the Gini coefficient, the more unequal the distribution of incomes in that society. Because the data are only updated occasionally—many countries have just one or two reported values since 1979, the start of the World Bank’s observation period for this measure—I reduced the time series into a single value by taking the maximum (or, in some cases, lone) value for each country. Then I used Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s data on nonviolent uprisings to identify which countries had seen at least one civil-resistance campaign emerge between 1980 and 2006. Finally, I used the ‘sm‘ package in R to produce kernel density plots that visually compare the distribution of Gini coefficients across those two sets of countries.

The results are shown below. As you can see, there seems to be virtually no difference in the level of income inequality among countries that have and have not produced popular uprisings since 1980. In a bivariate logistic regression model estimated from these same data, the coefficient for the Gini index is <0.01. Not exactly the powerful discriminator we keep hearing about, eh?

inequality_and_uprisings

That chart only looks at nonviolent uprisings, but published research on violent conflict suggests that the association isn’t especially strong there, either. In a 2008 paper (h/t Cyrus Samii), political scientist Gudrun Østby finds only a weak link between income inequality among individuals and the risk of civil-war onset in 36 developing counties. Interestingly, she does find evidence that higher levels of inequality between ethnic groups increase the risk of violent rebellion, suggesting that inter-group comparisons play a role in fomenting conflict. Still, this isn’t the rich vs. poor narrative on which the conventional wisdom about inequality and rebellion depends, and on that score, Østby’s analysis only strengthens my prior belief.

In light of that empirical evidence, it’s hard to put much stock in the oft-heard claim that highly unequal countries are especially prone to social unrest. Given how noisy the data on income inequality are, it seems particularly absurd to treat small fluctuations in a single country’s Gini coefficient as a useful indicator of rising or falling prospects for a popular uprising or civil war. I don’t think this blog post is going to do much damage to the conventional wisdom, but if there are any takers out there, I would be happy to bet against anyone who wants to use Gini coefficients to predict where the next rebellion will occur.

Update: In the Comments, Rex Brynen suggested I also compare the distributions of Gini coefficients in a couple of subsets where inequality would arguably have a stronger effect: poorer countries, and poorer countries with no history of democracy before 1980 (the start of my period of observation). The plots below do that, where “poorer” is defined broadly as countries that weren’t OECD members as of 1980. As you can see, there’s still virtually no separation in the broader non-OECD subset (the plot on the left). When we limit our view to non-OECD countries with no democratic experience before 1980 (the plot on the right), we get a little bit of separation in the expected direction, but the difference is still rather marginal. (In a bivariate logistic regression estimated from this subset, the coefficient is 0.03 with an s.e. of 0.04.)

inequality_and_uprisings_subsets

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.

ISO Revolution, Organized Opposition Not Req’d

In a recent piece for Think Africa Press, freelancer Peter Dörrie surveys politics in Burkina Faso and concludes that the authoritarian elites who’ve held power there for the past 25 years are unlikely to let their grip slip before or by way of elections due in 2015.

The reason for this pessimistic view is simple. There is no opposition movement in Burkina Faso capable of harnessing the disillusionment and frustration of the general population. Most opposition leaders have either been co-opted by Compaoré at some point in their career or have proven themselves unable to rally significant support. Moreover, large parts of Burkinabé society still follow the judgements of their ‘traditional’ rulers who have essentially been bought by Compaoré with political and economic incentives. What remains of the political opposition is fractured and unwilling to cooperate.

I don’t want to pick on Dörrie, whose analysis is always thoughtful and well researched, and whose conjectures about Burkinabé politics sound reasonable to me. I do, however, want to use his piece as the jumping-off point for some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while about the relationship between organized oppositions and prospects for political revolutions.

Dörrie’s essay is hardly the first piece of political analysis in which I’ve seen the idea that an opposition needs to get organized before a revolution can occur.  Recently, it’s also popped up a lot in analysis of post-election protests in Russia and of the potential for radical change in China.

This idea makes sense in a Newtonian model of politics, in which causes must clearly precede effects and change is thought to unfold in distinct sequences that repeat themselves across many cases. As someone who’s probably made this argument myself at one time or another, I’d say the mental narrative goes something like this: By definition, revolutions occur when challengers topple rulers by extra-legal means. For that to happen, a challenger has to exist and be strong enough either to defeat the ruler’s defenders or to dissuade them from fighting back. In all but the weakest states, that kind of strength requires sustained, large-scale organization. Ergo, the odds of a revolution occurring are substantially lower in societies with disorganized oppositions than they are in ones with well-organized challengers, and the organization of a formidable opposition movement is an early milestone past which all revolutions must travel.

But what if the world doesn’t really work like that? Having watched a bunch of these things unfold in real time, I am now convinced that it’s more useful to understand revolutionary situations as an emergent property of complex systems. One of the features of complex systems is the possibility of threshold effects, in which seemingly small perturbations in some of the system’s elements suddenly produce large changes in others. The fragility of the system as a whole may be evident (and therefore partially predictable) from some aspects of its structure, but the timing of the revolutionary moment’s emergence and the specific form it will take will be impossible to anticipate with any precision.

In this version of politics, the emergence of rival organizations is as likely to be a consequence of the system’s failure as a cause of it. In fact, that particular cause/effect distinction might not make sense at all. When surveying authoritarian regimes to contemplate which ones are most susceptible to revolutions, we may be better off thinking of the development of new political organizations and the breakdown of old authority patterns as two aspects of a single, many-faceted process in which the former doesn’t have to precede the latter and sometimes even may not occur at all.

Looking at some of the cases from the so-called Arab Spring, I think it’s clear that authoritarian regimes rarely collapse in the tidy sequence our Newtonian models lead us to expect. In Tunisia, where Ben Ali’s regime had successfully suppressed the organization of any independent opposition for many years, politics swung from the routine to the revolutionary in a matter of days, and upstarts had to scramble to organize for elections after Ben Ali was already gone. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had built itself into a large and capable organization in spite of a steady diet of state repression, but the Brotherhood played only a modest role in the unrest that led directly to Mubarak’s ouster, which probably could have happened without it. In Libya, a loose assemblage of local militias managed to topple and kill longtime ruler Moammar Ghaddafi with a helpful shove from foreign countries, but many of those militias only sprung up and got organized as the conflict intensified, and to this day they remain disorganized and even combative at the national level.

From this quick survey, we can tell that a linear and sequential mental model of authoritarian breakdown isn’t very useful for predicting or explaining what actually happens in many real-world cases. The presence of an uncooperative opposition that can get and stay organized in spite of state repression probably is a useful marker of some near-term potential for regime breakdown, but that doesn’t mean that the inverse is also true. In the non-Newtonian politics of the real world, we should not mistake the absence of a formidable opposition for a sign of the regime’s resilience, and we should sometimes expect to see new political machines scrambling to organize as or only after regimes fall apart, too.

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.

The Geology of Democratization

For the past 25 years, when we’ve talked about democratization, we’ve used the lexicon of transitions. As the prevailing narrative would have it, the breakdown of authoritarian rule launches a process of institution-building that leads eventually to democracy. Political democratization is the conjoined twin of social and economic modernization, and any country moving away from an authoritarian regime can usefully be described as “in transition” to a democratic one.

In geological terms, the transitions approach likens democratization to the production of igneous rock. Over time, pressures build under the crust of an existing authoritarian order. When that pressure becomes too intense, an eruption occurs. The old order is shattered, and fresh material pours onto the surface. That fresh material gradually but inexorably cools and hardens into a new, more modern order. The process might take a while, and parts of the new formation might crack and crumble while young, but the basic process is one of unidirectional transformation through disruption, replacement, and consolidation.

I don’t think the transitions metaphor works very well, and I’m not alone in that view. Ten years ago, Thomas Carothers wrote an essay called “The End of the Transitions Paradigm” that nicely showed how the transitions metaphor misrepresented the messier reality of modern regime change, and how that mismatch had often led Western foreign policy and aid astray.

Carothers’ essay was read widely in professional circles, but it doesn’t seem to have produced the gestalt shift to which its title aspired. Twenty years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, we still talk about the states born of that collapse being “lost in transition.” One of the first things the U.S. Department of State did after the Arab Spring hit was to open a Middle East Transitions Office that could coordinate and oversee U.S. policy toward the three “transition countries” of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) still maintains an Office of Transition Initiatives that motivates its existence with a narrative of disruption, opportunity, and consolidation.

I think the biggest problem with the transitions metaphor is that it misrepresents the nature of the underlying change process. Returning to the language of geology, I think democratization is more like the production of sedimentary rock than igneous. Institutions aren’t destroyed, replaced, and consolidated; as Francis Fukuyama masterfully describes in The Origins of Political Order, they are laid down in layers. New and old abut and sometimes comingle at the edges, but the one does not supplant the other. Instead, many layers coexist, and over time the process of layering interacts with other forces, like gravity and erosion, to produce something different from the sum of its parts. The heart of the process is not disruption but accretion. Change does not occur in a sequence; instead, it occurs through the interaction of multiple processes occurring on different time scales.

We can see this kind of accretive process occurring in “transitional” countries like Egypt, where the dramatic changes that have followed Mubarak’s ouster–the establishment of a new ruling council, the emergence of new political parties, and the convocation of a freshly elected parliament–have been poured atop a political economy that does yet not seem to have cracked or shifted.

We can see the interaction between layering and other forces in “consolidating” countries like Turkey, where the military’s role as political overseer wasn’t ended abruptly but instead shifted gradually as military elites became sandwiched between strengthening Islamist forces and the hardening expectations of its NATO allies.

We can even see these complex and cumulative effects at work in authoritarian regimes like China’s, where traditional kinship groups are the organizational form through which some of the most powerful demands for democratization are being expressed. Those demands, in turn, are arising in response to land grabs driven by the interplay of newer forces of globalization and long-standing forms of elite privilege.

Carothers’ 2002 essay might not have transformed the way we talk about democratization, but it’s not because he was wrong. Where the prevailing metaphor sees disruption and displacement, a closer look at the world suggests a more complex process of accumulation and gradual transformation. Maybe intellectual orders work like political ones, and the shift away from teleological metaphors of transition and consolidation will happen gradually and subtly. However it happens, it would be nice to see it happen soon.

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