A Forecast of Global Democratization Trends Through 2025

A couple of months ago, I was asked to write up my thoughts on global trends in democratization over the next five to 10 years. I said at the time that, in coarse terms, I see three plausible alternative futures: 1) big net gains, 2) big net losses, and 3) little net change.

  • By big net gains, I mean a rise in the prevalence of democratic regimes above 65 percent, or, or, because of its size and geopolitical importance, democratization in China absent a sharp decline in the global prevalence of democracy. For big net gains to happen, we would need to see a) one or more clusters of authoritarian breakdown and subsequent democratization in the regions where such clusters are still possible, i.e., Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East and North Africa (or the aforementioned transition in China); and b) no sharp losses in the regions where democracy is now prevalent, i.e., Europe, the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa. I consider (a) unlikely but possible (see here) and (b) highly likely. The scenario requires both conditions, so it is unlikely.
  • By big net losses, I mean a drop in the global prevalence of democracy below 55 percent. For that to happen, we would need to see the opposite of big net gains—that is, a) no new clusters of democratization and no democratization in China and b) sharp net losses in one or more of the predominantly democratic regions. In my judgment, (a) is likely but (b) is very unlikely. This outcome depends on the conjunction of (a) and (b), so the low probability of (b) means this outcome is highly unlikely. A reversion to autocracy somewhere in Western Europe or North America would also push us into “big net loss” territory, but I consider that event extremely unlikely (see here and here for why).
  • In the absence of either of these larger shifts, we will probably see little net change in the pattern of the past decade or so: a regular trickle of transitions to and from democracy at rates that are largely offsetting, leaving the global prevalence hovering between 55 and 65 percent. Of course, we could also wind up with little net change in the global prevalence of democracy under a scenario in which some longstanding or otherwise significant authoritarian regimes—for example, China, Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia— break down, and those breakdowns spread to interdependent regimes, but most of those breakdowns lead to new authoritarian regimes or short-lived attempts at democracy. This is what we saw in the Arab Spring, and base rates from the past several decades suggest that it is the most likely outcome of any regional clusters of authoritarian breakdown in the next decade or so as well. I consider this version of the little-net-change outcome to be more likely than the other one (offsetting trickles of transitions to and from democracy with no new clusters of regime breakdown). Technically, we could also get to an outcome of little net change through a combination of big net losses in predominantly democratic regions and big gains in predominantly authoritarian regions, but I consider this scenario so unlikely in the next five to 10 years that it’s not worth considering in depth.

I believe the probabilities of big net gains and persistence of current levels are both much greater than the probability of big net losses. In other words, I am generally bullish. For the sake of clarity, I would quantify those guesses as follows:

  • Probability of big net gains: 20 percent
  • Probability of little net change: 75 percent
    • With regime breakdown in one or more critical autocracies: 60 percent
    • Without regime breakdown in any critical autocracies: 15 percent
  • Probability of big net losses: 5 percent

That outlook is informed by a few theoretical and empirical observations.

First, when I talk about democratization, I have in mind expansions of the breadth, depth, and protection of consultation between national political regimes and their citizens. As Charles Tilly argues on p. 24 of his 2007 book, Democracy, “A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.” Fair and competitive elections are the most obvious and in some ways the most important form this consultation can take, but they are not the only one. Still, for purposes of observing broad trends and coarsely comparing cases, we can define a democracy as a regime in which officials who actually rule are chosen through fair and competitive elections in which nearly all adult citizens can vote. The fairness of elections depends on the existence of numerous civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, and the presence of a reasonably free press, so this is not a low bar. Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies is a useful proxy for this set of conditions.

Second, we do not understand the causal processes driving democratization well, and we certainly don’t understand them well enough to know how to manipulate them in order to reliably produce desired outcomes. The global political economy, and the political economies of the states that comprise one layer of it, are parts of a complex adaptive system. This system is too complex for us to model and understand in ways that are more than superficial, partly because it continues to evolve as we try to understand and manipulate it. That said, we have seen some regularities in this system over the past half-century or so:

  • States are more likely to try and then to sustain democratic regimes as their economies grow, their economies become more complex, and their societies transform in ways associated with those trends (e.g., live longer, urbanize, and become more literate). These changes don’t produce transitions, but they do create structural conditions that are more conducive to them.
  • Oil-rich countries have been the exceptions to this pattern, but even they are not impervious (e.g., Mexico, Indonesia). Specifically, they are more susceptible to pressures to democratize when their oil income diminishes, and variation over time in that income depends, in part, on forces beyond their control (e.g., oil prices).
  • Consolidated single-party regimes are the most resilient form of authoritarian rule. Personalist dictatorships are also hard to topple as long as the leader survives but often crumble when that changes. Military-led regimes that don’t evolve into personalist or single-party autocracies rarely last more than a few years, especially since the end of the Cold War.
  • Most authoritarian breakdowns occur in the face of popular protests, and those protests are more likely to happen when the economy is slumping, when food or fuel prices are spiking, when protests are occurring in nearby or similar countries, and around elections. Signs that elites are fighting amongst themselves may also help to spur protests, but elite splits are common in autocracies and often emerge in reaction to protests, not ahead of them.
  • Most attempts at democracy end with a reversion to authoritarian rule, but the chances that countries will try again and then that democracy will stick improve as countries get richer and have tried more times before. The origins of the latter pattern are unclear, but they probably have something to do with the creation of new forms of social and political organization and the subsequent selection and adaptation of those organizations into “fitter” competitors under harsh pressures.

Third, whatever its causes, there is a strong empirical trend toward democratization around the world. Since the middle of the twentieth century, both the share of regimes worldwide that are democratic and the share of the global population living in democratic regimes have expanded dramatically. These expansions have not come steadily, and there is always some churn in the system, but the broader trend persists in spite of those dips and churn

The strength and, so far, persistence of this trend lead me to believe that the global system would have to experience a profound collapse or transformation for that trend to be disrupted. Under the conditions that have prevailed for the past century or so, selection pressures in the global system seem to be running strongly in favor of democratic political regimes with market-based economies.

Crucially, this long-term trend has also proved resilient to the global financial crisis that began in 2007-2008 and has persisted to some degree ever since. This crisis was as sharp a stress test of many national political regimes as we have seen in a while, perhaps since World War II. Democracy has survived this test in all of the world’s wealthy countries, and there was no stampede away from democracy in less wealthy countries with younger regimes. Freedom House and many other activists lament the occurrence of a “democratic recession” over the past several years, but global data just don’t support the claim that one is occurring. What we have seen instead is a slight decline in the prevalence of democratic regimes accompanied by a deepening of authoritarian rule in many of the autocracies that survived the last flurry of democratic transitions.

Meanwhile, some authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa broke down in the face of uprisings demanding greater popular accountability, and some of those breakdowns led to attempts at democratization—in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in particular. Most of those attempts at democratization have since failed, but not all did, Tunisia being the notable exception. What’s more, the popular pressure in favor of democratization has not dissipated in all of the cases where authoritarian breakdown didn’t happen. Bahrain, Kuwait, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia are notable in this regard.

Rising pressures on China and Russia suggest that similar clusters of regime instability are increasingly likely in their respective neighborhoods, even if they remain unlikely in any given year. China faces significant challenges on numerous fronts, including a slowing economy, a looming real-estate debt crisis, swelling popular frustration over industrial pollution, an uptick in labor activism, an anti-corruption campaign that could alienate some political and military insiders, and a separatist insurgency in Xinjiang. No one of those challenges is necessarily likely to topple the regime, but the presence of so many of them at once adds up to a significant risk (or opportunity, depending on one’s perspective). A regime crisis in China could ripple through its region with strongest effect on the most dependent regimes—on North Korea in particular, but also perhaps Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Even if a crisis there didn’t reverberate, China’s population size and rising international influence imply that any movement toward democracy would have a significant impact on the global balance sheet.

The Russian regime is also under increased pressure, albeit for different reasons. Russia is already in recession, and falling oil prices and capital flight are making things much worse without much promise of near-term relief. U.S. and E.U. sanctions deserve significant credit (or blame) for the acceleration of capital flight, and prosecution of the war in Ukraine is also imposing additional direct costs on Russia’s power resources. The extant regime has survived domestic threats before, but 10 more years is a long time for a regime that stands on feet of socioeconomic clay.

Above all else, these last two points—about 1) the resilience of existing democracies to the stress of the past several years and 2) the persistence and even deepening of pressures on many surviving authoritarian regimes—are what make me bullish about the prospects for democracy in next five to 10 years. In light of current trends in China and Russia, I have a hard time imagining both of those regimes surviving to 2025. Democratization might not follow, and if it does, it won’t necessarily stick, at least not right away. Neither regime can really get a whole lot more authoritarian than it is now, however, so the possibilities for change on this dimension are nearly all on the upside. (The emergence of a new authoritarian regime that is more aggressive abroad is also possible in both cases, but that topic is beyond the scope of this memo.)

Talk about the possibility of a wave of democratic reversals usually centers on the role China or Russia might play as either an agent of de-democratization or example of an alternative future. As noted above, though, both of these systems are currently facing substantial stresses at home. These stresses both limit their ability to act as agents of de-democratization and take the shine off any example they might set.

In short, I think that talk of Russia and China’s negative influence on the global democratization trend is overblown. Apart from the (highly unlikely) invasion and successful occupation of other countries, I don’t think either of these governments has the ability to undo democratization elsewhere. Both can and do help some other authoritarian regimes survive, however, and this is why regime crisis or breakdown in either one of them has the potential to catalyze new clusters of regime instability in their respective neighborhoods.

What do you think? If you made it this far and have any (polite) reactions you’d like to share, please leave a comment.

Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

Yesterday, Marc Lynch posted a thoughtful and candid set of reflections on how political scientists who specialize in the Middle East performed as analysts and forecasters during the Arab uprisings, not before them, the subject on which most of the retrospectives have focused thus far. The background to the post is a set of memos Marc commissioned from the contributors to a volume he edited on the origins of the uprisings. As Marc summarizes, their self-criticism is tough:

We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

Social scientists and other professional analysts of world affairs should read the whole thing—if not for the specifics, then as an example of how to assess and try to learn from your own mistakes. Here, I’d like to focus on three points that jumped out at me as I read it.

The first is the power of motivated reasoning—”the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood. After noting that he and his colleagues over-predicted democratization, Marc observes:

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment.

That pattern sounds a lot like the one I saw in my own thinking when I realized that my initial forecasts about the duration and outcome of the Syrian civil war had missed badly.

This tendency is probably ubiquitous, but it’s also one about which we can actually do something, even if we can’t eliminate it. Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Second, Marc’s reflections also underscore our tendency to underestimate the prevalence of inertia in politics, especially during what seem like exceptional times. As I recently wrote, our analytical eyes are drawn to the spectacular and dynamic, but on short time scales at least, continuity is the norm. Observers hoping for change in the countries touched by the Arab uprisings would have done well to remember this fact—and surely some did—when they were trying to assess how much structural change those uprisings would actually produce.

My last point concerns the power of social scientists to shape these processes as they unfold. In reflecting on his own analysis, Marc notes that he correctly saw how the absence of agreement on the basic rules of politics would complicate transitions, but he “was less successful in figuring out how to overcome these problems.” Marc aptly dubs this uncertainty Calvinball, and he concludes:

I’m more convinced than ever that moving beyond Calvinball is essential for any successful transition, but what makes a transitional constitutional design process work—or fail—needs a lot more attention.

Actually, I don’t think the problem is a lack of attention. How to escape this uncertainty in a liberal direction has been a central concern for decades now of scholarship on democratization and the field of applied democracy promotion that’s grown up alongside it. Giuseppe di Palma’s 1990 book, To Craft Democracies, remains a leading example on the kind of advocacy-cum-scholarship this field has produced, but there are countless “lesson learned” white papers and “best practices” policy briefs to go with it.

No, the real problem is that transitional periods are irreducibly fraught with the uncertainties Marc rightly spotlighted, and there simply are no deus-ex-machina resolutions to them. When scholars and practitioners do get involved, we are absorbed into the politics we mean to “correct,” and most of us aren’t nearly as adept in that field as we are in our own. After a couple of decades of closely watching these transitions and the efforts of various parties to point them in particular directions, I have come to believe that this is one of those things social science can help us understand but not “fix.”

Two Tidbits on Social Unrest

1. We like to tell tidy stories about why social unrest happens, and those stories usually involve themes of grievance or social injustice—things like hardship, inequality, corruption, discrimination, and political repression. One or more of those forces probably plays a role in many bouts of unrest, especially the ones that emerge from or evolve into sustained action like we’re seeing right now in Hong Kong and Ferguson.

Still, a riot over the weekend at a pumpkin festival in semi-rural Keene, New Hampshire, reminds us that you don’t need those big issues or themes to get to social unrest. According to the L.A. Times, in Keene,

Young people chucked beer cans and cups at each otherjumped off roofstore down, kicked and smashed road signsset a large fire and chanted profanitycelebrated on top of a flipped cartook selfies in front of lines of riot policegot the attention of a police helicopterchanted “U-S-A!”pushed barricades and threw a street sign at policethrew bottles at the police after the police threw tear gas, and left behind a huge mess.

Why? Who knows, but the main ingredients in this instance seem to have been youth, alcohol, numbers, and the pleasure of transgression:

The description of the scene in Keene reminded me of the riots that sometimes erupt in college towns and sports-mad cities after big games, some of which have proven extremely destructive. These riots differ qualitatively from the rallies, marches, sit-ins, and the like that social scientists generally study. For two things, they usually aren’t planned in advance, and the participants aren’t making political claims. Still, I think our understanding of those ostensibly more political forms of collective action suffers when we make our causal narratives too tidy and ignore the forces that also produce these other kinds of outbursts.

2. Contagion is one of those forces that seems to operate across many forms of unrest. We’re sure that’s true, but we still don’t understand very well how that process works. Observers often use dominoes as a metaphor for contagion, implying that a given unit must fall in order for the cascade to pass through it.

A new paper on arXiv proposes another mechanism that allows the impulse to “hop” some units—in other words, to pass through them without producing the same type of event or effect. Instead of dominoes, contagion might work more like a virus that some people can catch and transmit without ever becoming symptomatic themselves. The authors think this mechanism could help to explain the timing and sequencing of protests in the Arab Spring:

In models of protests and revolutions, populations can have two stable equilibria—the size of the protest is either large or negligibly small—because of strategic complementarities (protest becomes more attractive as more people protest). During the Arab Spring, each country had unique grievances and agendas, and we hypothesize that each country had a unique proximity to a tipping point beyond which people would protest. Once protests began in one country (Tunisia), inspiration to protest spread to other countries via traditional media (such as newspapers) and via social media (such as Twitter and Facebook). This cross-border communication spread strategies for successful uprisings, and it increased expectations for success. Consequently, the uprisings began within a short window of time, seemingly cascading among countries more quickly than earlier revolutions did.

In coarse-grained data on the number of Facebook friendships between countries, we find evidence of the “cascade hopping” phenomenon described above. In particular, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to play the role of an intermediate country Y that propagated influence to protest from protesting countries to non-protesting countries, thereby helping to trigger protest in the latter countries, without themselves protesting until much later. Attributes of these intermediate countries and of the countries that they may have influenced to protest suggest that protests first spread to countries close to their tipping points (high unemployment and economic inequality) and strongly coupled to other countries via social media (measured as high Internet penetration). By contrast, we find that traditional measures of susceptibility to protest, such as political freedoms and food price indices, could not predict the order in which protests began.

As with the structural and dynamic stuff discussed around this weekend’s riot in Keene, this hopping mechanism will never be the only force at work in any instance of social unrest. Even so, it’s a useful addition to the set of processes we ought to consider whenever we try to explain or predict where and when other instances might happen.

The Arab Spring and the Limits of Understanding

Last week, the online magazine Muftah ran a thoughtful piece by Scott Williamson and Caroline Abadeer about “why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others.” As they see it,

Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.

Their essay is grounded in careful study of relevant theory and the societies they describe, and the array of contingent effects they identify all seem plausible. Still, I wonder if the authors are too confident in the explanatory power of their discoveries. As it happens, the Arab Spring has largely followed gross patterns in democratization from the past century or so. Popular uprisings rarely occur in consolidated authoritarian regimes, and when they do, the regime usually survives. When authoritarian regimes break down, another autocracy usually ensues. In cases where an attempt at democracy does happen, it usually fails, either by military coup or by the ruling party’s unfair consolidation of power.

The rules of thumb I just described overlook a lot, including virtually all of the features that people who live in or closely follow politics in those societies would care deeply about. That gross simplification doesn’t make them wrong, though. In fact, their absurd simplicity may be a more accurate representation of the limits of our knowledge than the more elaborate maps we draw with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes we can grasp the generalities but still struggle with the specifics.

This state of affairs is not unique to the social sciences. A while back, the Guardian carried a story about the problem of limestone rot in historic British buildings. As the piece described,

The gargoyles at York Minster are losing their grimaces, pinnacles are turning to powder at Lincoln Cathedral and Wells Cathedral in Somerset has already lost most of its beautiful statues on the west face. Hundreds of years worth of grime and British weather are taking their toll on these treasured historic buildings, with the limestone they are made from simply being eaten away.

Because these structures are treasured, scientists set to work on trying to learn more about this rot in hopes of finding ways to slow or stop it. Even in the supposedly more predictable world of the “natural” sciences, though, this puzzle turns out to be quite a challenge.

[Researchers] already know what makes limestone decay. Chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from air pollution react with the stone to make it dissolve. This sometimes creates a hard, black, gypsum crust on the outside, leaving a soft, crumbly stone underneath. Road salt is a modern-day scourge, spraying on to the base of walls and eating into the stone. And rain, wind and snow can also cause problems, with winter freeze-thaw cycles forcing open cracks.

But the manner in which limestone erodes is puzzling. “We often see a single block of limestone get hollowed out, while others around it remain fresh,” said Dr Viles. It is not clear what makes one block more vulnerable than another.

The struggles of these researchers who understand the relevant causal mechanisms much better than we political scientists do remind us that we should remain open to the possibility of constrained randomness. The odds of a revolutionary moment vary in grossly visible ways, but they are still just odds. As sailors and cyclists can tell you, sometimes a squall hits when the weatherman said it would almost certainly stay dry. That doesn’t mean the models behind that forecast were fundamentally flawed, and our ability to see in retrospect how that storm arose doesn’t always make future ones any more predictable. Maybe the scientists studying limestone rot have finally figured out what makes one block more vulnerable than another and can now accurately predict which stones and statues will go soonest. Given the limited state of our knowledge about human social dynamics and the extreme complexity of the systems involved, I am not optimistic that social scientists will soon achieve a similar level of understanding, and thus foresight, about the transformation of political institutions.

To be clear, I do not think that the kind of post hoc analysis in which Williamson and Abadeer engage is fruitless. On the contrary, after-the-fact process-tracing and comparative analysis, be it narrative or statistical, is fundamental to the development of new ideas about what causes the phenomena we study. We may not understand a lot, but we certainly understand a lot more than we did a few hundred years ago, and this repetitive and meandering interplay of deduction, prediction, and observation is why. We just need to be careful not to get too cozy with the stories we spin when we look backwards, to succumb to what Daniel Kahneman aptly calls “the illusion of understanding.” The real test of our discoveries’ explanatory power isn’t their ability to make sense of the cases from which they were constructed; it’s their ability to help anticipate the occurrence and outcomes of the next batch. If authors like Williamson and Abadeer really want to test the inferences they’re drawing from the Arab Spring, they should start telling us what those inferences foretell about the prospects for, and outcomes of, future tumult in that part of the world.

Personally, I remain optimistic about broad trends and uncertain of the details. Many of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa may still look firm, but that doesn’t mean their foundations aren’t rotting. When those blocks do visibly crumble, the same meso– and macro-level systemic forces that have been driving the spread of democratic institutions for a while will probably drive these societies in that direction, too. As with the Arab Spring, we can expect a lot of variation in the timing and details, and we can expect some reversions to authoritarian rule to follow, but nothing yet leads me to believe that the now-familiar rules of thumb have stopped working.

There Are No “Best Practices” for Democratic Transitions

I’ve read two pieces in the past two days that have tried to draw lessons from one or more cases about how policy-makers and practitioners can improve the odds that ongoing or future democratic transitions will succeed by following certain rules or formulas. They’ve got my hackles up, so figured I’d use the blog to think through why.

The first of the two pieces was a post by Daniel Brumberg on Foreign Policy‘s Middle East Channel blog entitled “Will Egypt’s Agony Save the Arab Spring?” In that post, Brumberg looks to Egypt’s failure and “the ups and downs of political change in the wider Arab world” to derive six “lessons or rules” for leaders in other transitional cases. I won’t recapitulate Brumberg’s lessons here, but what caught my eye was the frequent use of prescriptive language, like “must be” and “should,” and the related emphasis on the “will and capacity of rival opposition leaders” as the crucial explanatory variable.

The second piece came in this morning’s New York Times, which included an op-ed by Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Can Egypt Learn from Thailand?” As Tepperman notes, Thailand has a long history of military coups, and politics has been sharply polarized there for years, but it’s still managed to make it through a rough patch that began in the mid-2000s with just the one coup in 2006 and no civil war between rival national factions. How?

The formula turns out to be deceptively simple: provide decent, clean governance, compromise with your enemies and focus on the economy.

This approach is common in the field of comparative democratization, and I’ve even done a bit of it myself.  I think scholars who want to make their work on democratization useful to policy-makers and other practitioners often feel compelled to go beyond description and explanation into prescription, and these lists of “best practices” are a familiar and accessible form in which to deliver this kind of advice. In the business world, the archetype is the white paper based on case studies of a one or a few successful firms or entrepreneurs: look what Google or Facebook or Chipotle did and do it, too. In comparative democratization, we often get studies that find things that happened in successful cases but not in failed ones (or vice versa) and then advise practitioners to manufacture the good ones (e.g., pacts, fast economic growth) and avoid the bad (e.g., corruption, repression).

Unfortunately, I think these “best practices” pieces almost invariably succumb to what Nassim Taleb calls the narrative fallacy, as described here by Daniel Kahneman (p. 199):

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.

The narrative fallacy is intertwined with outcome bias. Per Kahneman (p. 203),

We are prone to blame decision makers for good decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact… Actions that seem prudent in foresight can look irresponsibly negligent in hindsight [and vice versa].

When I read Tupperman’s “deceptively simple” formula for the survival of democracy and absence of civil war in Thailand, I wondered how confident he was seven or five or two years ago that Yingluck Shinawatra was doing the right things, and that they weren’t going to blow up in her and everyone else’s faces. I also wonder how realistic he thinks it would have been for Morsi and co. to have “provide[d] decent, clean governance” and “focus[ed] on the economy” in ways that would have worked and wouldn’t have sparked backlashes or fresh problems of their own.

Brumberg’s essay gets a little more distance from outcome bias than Tepperman’s does, but I think it still greatly overstates the power of agency and isn’t sufficiently sympathetic to the complexity of the politics within and between relevant organizations in transitional periods.

In Egypt, for example, it’s tempting to pin all the blame for the exclusion of political rivals from President Morsi’s cabinet, the failure to overhaul the country’s police and security forces, and the broader failure “to forge a common vision of political community” (Brumberg’s words) on the personal shortcomings of Morsi and Egypt’s civilian political leaders, but we have to wonder: given the context, who would have chosen differently, and how likely is it that those choices would have produced very different outcomes? Egypt’s economy is suffering from serious structural problems that will probably take many years to untangle, and anyone who thinks he or she knows how to quickly fix those problems is either delusional or works at the IMF. Presidents almost never include opposition leaders in their cabinets; would doing so in Egypt really have catalyzed consensus, or would it just have led to a wave of frustrated resignations a few months down the road? Attempting to overhaul state security forces might have helped avert a coup and prevent the mass killing we’re seeing now, but it might also have provoked a backlash that would have lured the military back out of the barracks even sooner. And in how many countries in the world do political rivals have a “common vision of political community”? We sure don’t in the United States, and I’m hard pressed to think of how any set of politicians here could manufacture one. So why should I expect politicians in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya to be able to pull this off?

Instead of advice, I’ll close with an observation: many of the supposed failures of leadership we often see in cases where coups or rebellions led new democracies back to authoritarian rule or even state collapse are, in fact, inherent to the politics of democratic transitions. The profound economic problems that often help create openings for democratization don’t disappear just because elected officials start trying harder. The distrust between political factions that haven’t yet been given any reason to believe their rivals won’t usurp power at the first chance they get isn’t something that good intentions can easily overcome. As much as I might want to glean a set of “best practices” from the many cases I’ve studied, the single generalization I feel most comfortable making is that the forces which finally tip some cases toward democratic consolidation remain a mystery, and until we understand them better, we can’t pretend to know how to control them.

N.B. For a lengthy exposition of the opposing view on this topic, read Giuseppe Di Palma’s To Craft Democracies. For Di Palma, “Democratization is ultimately a matter of political crafting,” and “democracies can be made (or unmade) in the act of making them.”

Reports of the Death of the Arab Spring Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sheri Berman has penned a postscript to a recent Foreign Affairs article of hers that had me nodding my head and then shaking it.

The dismay at what is happening in the Middle East is legitimate, but the general analysis of its causes and implications is hogwash…This is what political development in the real world actually looks like, and anybody who expected smooth, quick, linear progress from tyranny to liberal democracy was naïve or foolish.

So far, so good. As I wrote here nearly two years ago, most attempts at democratization everywhere have eventually led back to authoritarian rule, and there is no reason to expect countries in the Middle East and North Africa to fare differently.

I’m also with her 100 percent on the deep causes of that turbulence in the democratization process.

The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies in the society, economy, and culture as well. This is almost always an incredibly difficult, exhausting, and protracted process.

What had me shaking my head at the end, though, was the teleology implicit in her long-term outlook.

What is going on in the Middle East today is not a bug in political development but a feature of it. History shows that illiberal democracy is often a precursor to liberal democracy. What has happened time and again is that a country begins with a nondemocratic regime, proceeds through a phase (or several phases) of minimal or illiberal democratic experience, and eventually emerges with a consolidated liberal democracy.

As a grossly simplified description of the democratization trajectories followed by the United States and much of Western Europe, I think this works. As a road map that the rest of the world will eventually follow, however, I’m not so sure. In historical terms, the period during which the U.S. and Europe could confidently be described as “consolidated liberal” democracies has been relatively brief, and some thoughtful observers argue that that era has already passed. What’s more, the geopolitical, economic, demographic, and environmental context in which political development is now occurring differs sharply from the context in which those earlier arcs unfurled, and the pace of change in that context seems to be accelerating still.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still optimistic that global politics in the twenty-first century will continue to evolve in a more democratic direction. The tumult occurring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, and other corners of the Arab world is just the latest evidence that it’s getting harder and harder to sustain the kind of full-blown, paternalistic authoritarian rule that was the prevailing form of national politics around the globe throughout the twentieth century. I’m just not as certain as Berman seems to be about exactly what institutional forms that tumult will eventually produce.

“Muslim Rage!” as an Availability Cascade

How do we make sense of sensationalism like the “MUSLIM RAGE” headline on this week’s Newsweek cover? Here’s one idea:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

That’s Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 142), and I think this vignette nicely describes the frenzied American reaction to the wave of violent attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts that began a few days ago. The term “availability cascade” was coined in a 1999 paper by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein, and it’s rooted in a cognitive bias psychologists call the availability heuristic: a human tendency to judge the risk of an event by the ease with which vivid examples spring to mind. Recent and dramatic events are easier to recall, and wall-to-wall multimedia coverage keeps those events fresh in our minds. The resulting cascade is a form of herd behavior, the complex process that also contributes to things like bubbles and crashes in the stock market—and, arguably, the anti-American riots that have the U.S. in a tizzy right now.

By describing our response as an availability cascade, I don’t mean to imply that these events are unimportant. Attacks on diplomatic posts are a big deal in international politics, and numerous people have died in the ensuing violence, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. As such, these events will and should have real consequences, hopefully to include fresh thinking about how to conduct diplomacy in environments with weak or fragmented security services and powerful anti-American groups.

Rather, my point is that these events probably aren’t the political earthquake we’re making them out to be, and our herd-like response may lead us further astray. For starters, most of the recent protests haven’t been that large. In a very helpful blog post, political scientist Megan Rief compares the size of the protests in the past week to the size of the early gatherings in the s0-called Arab Spring and shows that the recent events have generally been much smaller. She also spotlights a specific choice being made by media outlets—the chief “availability entrepreneurs” in this cascade—that is shaping our impressions of the threat these events pose:

It is interesting to observe how media images of the crowds at Tahrir square in early 2011 were presented in wide-angle format, while the current spate of protest images are closely cropped around smaller, violent groups of people, giving the impression that the crowds are large and menacing.

I think it’s also useful to keep in mind that we’ve seen similar waves of unrest a couple of times in the past several years, and each time, things have returned more or less to normal within a couple of weeks. The first wave occurred in 2006 over the publication of “blasphemous” cartoon, and another struck in 2010 over American “pastor” Terry Jones’ call to mark the anniversary of 9/11 by burning the Koran. The short life span of those previous waves doesn’t guarantee that the current one won’t drag on or even escalate further, but it suggests that escalation is unlikely.

Meanwhile, the frenzied reaction is having real-world consequences. On his blog a couple of days ago, longtime Middle East observer Juan Cole lists the “top ten likely consequences of Muslim anti-U.S. embassy riots,” including further declines in tourism to Egypt and Tunisia, countries whose already-struggling economies depend heavily on those foreign visitors, and deeper U.S. entanglement in the domestic politics of Yemen. At Foreign Policy, Josh Keating discusses the effects of terrorism on the design of America’s overseas outposts and asks if the U.S. can keep its diplomats safe without walling them off from the societies they’re supposed to be engaging.

More broadly, this cascade is threatening to reconfigure American public opinion, and through it American foreign policy, in ways that we might later regret. In the online magazine Jadaliyya, Bassam Haddad appropriately bemoans the spate of stories questioning support for recent changes in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa under “casually barbaric” headlines like, “Was the Arab Spring really worth it?” If anything, the U.S. government is traditionally guilty of overreach in these parts of the world: deeply enmeshing itself in the domestic politics of many Arab countries, striking at targets imperfectly identified in secret, and even trying desperately to “reshape the narrative” in societies where anti-Americanism runs deep and wide. Still, I think we also risk under-reaching if we let the opportunistic behavior of a few “availability entrepreneurs” in predominantly Muslim countries and in our own media reconfigure our government’s approach to whole swathes of the world at the very moment those societies are struggling to the institutionalize the political values we so loudly claim to espouse.

Here’s hoping that cooler heads prevail.

In Defense of Political Science and Forecasting

Under the headline “Political Scientists Are Lousy Forecasters,” today’s New York Times includes an op-ed by Jacqueline Stevens that takes a big, sloppy swipe at most of the field. The money line:

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money.

As she sees it, this poor track record is an inevitability. Referencing the National Science Foundation‘s history of funding research in which she sees little value, Stevens writes:

Government can—and should—assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines. Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail. At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.

I don’t have much time to write today, so I was glad to see this morning that Henry Farrell has already penned a careful rebuttal that mirrors my own reactions. On the topic of predictions in particular, Farrell writes:

The claim here—that “accurate political prediction” is the “field’s benchmark for what counts as science” is quite wrong. There really isn’t much work at all by political scientists that aspires to predict what will happen in the future…It is reasonable to say that the majority position in political science is a kind of soft positivism, which focuses on the search for law-like generalizations. But that is neither a universal benchmark (I, for one, don’t buy into it), nor indeed, the same thing as accurate prediction, except where strong covering laws (of the kind that few political scientists think are generically possible) can be found.

To Farrell’s excellent rebuttals, I would add a couple of things.

First and most important, there’s a strong case to be made that political scientists don’t engage in enough forecasting and really ought to do more of it. Contrary to Stevens’ assertion in that NYT op-ed, most political scientists eschew forecasting, seeing description and explanation as the goals of their research instead. As Phil Schrodt argues in “Seven Deadly Sins of Quantitative Political Science” (PDF), however, to the extent that we see our discipline as a form of science, political scientists ought to engage in forecasting, because prediction is an essential part of the scientific method.

Explanation in the absence of prediction is not somehow scienti cally superior to predictive analysis, it isn’t scienti c at all! It is, instead, “pre-scientific.”

In a paper on predicting civil conflicts, Mike Ward, Brian Greenhill, and Kristin Bakke help to explain why:

Scholars need to make and evaluate predictions in order to improve our models. We have to be willing to make predictions explicitly – and plausibly be wrong, even appear foolish – because our policy prescriptions need to be undertaken with results that are drawn from robust models that have a better chance of being correct. The whole point of estimating risk models is to be able to apply them to specific cases. You wouldn’t expect your physician to tell you that all those cancer risk factors from smoking don’t actually apply to you. Predictive heuristics provide a useful, possibly necessary, strategy that may help scholars and policymakers guard against erroneous recommendations.

Second, I think Stevens actually gets the historical record wrong. It drives me crazy when I see people take the conventional wisdom about a topic—say, the possibility of the USSR’s collapse, or a wave of popular uprisings in Middle East and North Africa—and turn it into a blanket statement that “no one predicted X.” Most of the time, we don’t really know what most people would have predicted, because they weren’t asked to make predictions. The absence of a positive assertion that X will happen is not the same thing as a forecast that X will not happen. In fact, in at least one of the cases Stevens discusses—the USSR’s collapse—we know that some observers did forecast its eventual collapse, albeit usually without much specificity about the timing of that event.

More generally, I think it’s fair to say that, on just about any topic, there will be a distribution of forecasts—from high to low, impossible to inevitable, and so on. Often, that distribution will have a clear central tendency, as did expectations about the survival of authoritarian regimes in the USSR or the Arab world, but that central tendency should not be confused with a consensus. Instead, this divergence of expectations is precisely where the most valuable information will be found. Eventually, some of those predictions will prove correct while others will not, and, as Phil and Mike and co. remind us, that variation in performance tells us something very useful about the power of the explanatory models—quantitative, qualitative, it doesn’t really matter—from which they were derived.

PS. For smart rebuttals to other aspects of Steven’s jeremiad, see Erik Voeten’s post at the Monkey Cage and Steve Saideman’s rejoinder at Saideman’s Semi-Spew.

PPS. Stevens provides some context for her op-ed on her own blog, here. (I would have added this link sooner, but I’ve just seen it myself.)

PPPS. For some terrific ruminations on uncertainty, statistics, and scientific knowledge, see this latecomer response from Anton Strezhnev.

Cats and Mice, Regimes and Oppositions

On Monday, Russian provocateur Alexei Navalny posted something on his English-language blog that caught my eye. Over the weekend, more than 100,000 Russians had gathered in a Moscow stadium to support President Putin’s re-election bid. You could forgive a Putin opponent for being disheartened by the scene, but where others might see these massive pro-Putin rallies, or “putings,” as signs of an impending defeat, Navalny saw opportunity:

All these putings are a great gift to us.

Look: 200 thousand people gather in one location. And 80 per cent of them are those very ‘people of the off-line’ whom we can’t reach via the Internet.

Now there’ll be no need to drop leaflets into mail boxes, or stick them in doorways, or hand them out near subway stations. They’ve gathered 200 thousand voters together in one place and nudged them to talk politics.

We are unaware whether they’re pro- or antiputinists, we only know that they’re employees of state-financed business or state-run companies.

And now it’s us who’re getting the inside track: these people have already faced the bold lie and hypocrisy of the Chief Thief Putin & Co. They know quite well that they’ve been forced to attend the rally. They know how they’ve been fixed. How they’ve been carried by buses. They’re discussing that “at the head office they’ve given the staff two compensatory days off, while at out branch, only one”. The’re discussing, “At Moscow Electric Power Co. they’ve been paid a 3000 roubles bonus for the rally, and we – 1500. What an outrage”.

200 thousand people as well as their families (one million all in all) know for sure how they’ve been gathered and delivered; yet at the rally they hear from the stage, “We’ve gathered here with our own motion, in order to support blah blah blah”, and afterwards they listen with a grin to TV reports: “Tens of thousands of excited Moscovites, as one man, have come to the rally”.

All this creates favourable conditions for anti- Crooks And Thieves’ campaign, as it would be carried out amid shamelessly foul play.

So in case there are volunteers to go to the puting and agitate against Putin there, that would be a great idea.

Navalny’s judo-like attempt to redirect the force of pro-Putin mobilization against the regime is a brilliant example of the creativity, learning, and strategic adaptation that makes political mobilization so interesting to study and yet so difficult to explain and predict.

For the sake of convenience (and, perhaps, sanity), social scientists usually think of the phenomena we study as occurring in independent “cases,” which can be analyzed, compared, and contrasted as distinct and largely independent episodes. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The USSR in the 1980s vs. China today. Democratization in Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt.

This independence, however, is often an illusion born of our need to simplify in order to understand. That’s especially true for phenomena that involve rapid and deliberate imitation and adaptation. Marc Beissinger calls these “modular” phenomena, where modular refers to “action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others.” In his incisive analysis of the wave of “color” revolutions that swept the post-communist states in the 2000s, Beissinger points out that modular phenomena

present a challenge for social science theorizing, because the cross-case influences that in part drive their spread violate the assumption of the independence of cases that lies at the basis of much social scientific analysis…Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another. Not all social phenomena are modular, and Galton’s problem [of inferring causes from comparisons of interdependent cases] is not a universal one. But in a globalizing, electronic world in which local events are often monitored on a daily basis on the other side of the planet, the challenges posed to social scientific analysis by Galton’s problem (and by modular behavior in particular) are growing in many spheres of activity.

Beissinger goes on to show how modularity was evident not only in the diffusion of protest strategies and tactics across countries and over time, but also in the diffusion of authoritarian regimes’ responses to those protests:

Example exercises its effects not only on those who would look to it in support of change, but also on those who would potentially oppose it…Established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further…This is evident in the growing restrictions on civil society organizations in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan…Moreover, regimes have increasingly turned to manipulating elections without engaging in outright fraud, thereby avoiding aspects of the model that might fuel opposition mobilization…The role of democracy-promoting NGOs like Soros and Freedom House in fostering modular democratic revolution has also precipitated a backlash against them from a number of post-Soviet states, which have begun to view them as revolutionary organizations and to restrict their activities.

These processes of imitation and adaptation can be powerful enough to help popular uprisings overwhelm structural conditions that would seem to tilt heavily against them. At the same time, these processes can also help apparently frail authoritarian regimes stifle and survive those challenges. In an article in the latest issue of Democratization, Evgeny Finkel and Yitzhak M. Brudny see the Russian government’s response to the uprisings that happened around it in the 2000s as a quintessential example of successful authoritarian counter-adaptation. They write:

The colour revolutions, and especially the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, are widely perceived as major international setbacks to Putin’s Russia. The Ukrainian events alarmed Russian elites, who feared the possibility of a local colour revolution during the 2007–2008 electoral cycle. To thwart the perceived colour revolution threat, Russian authorities adopted strategies that combined a political, administrative and intellectual assault on the opposition and Western ideas of democracy promotion. An integral part of this assault was, first, an attempt to create a mass youth movement, Nashi, as a counterweight to the various youth movements that were the driving forces behind the colour revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Second, it was an attempt to delegitimize the idea of liberal democracy itself, labelling it subversive and alien to the Russian national character.

That strategy seemed to work well for several years, but the reformist movement that has emerged in Russia in the past few months reminds us that these victories are never permanent. And, if Navalny’s blog post is any indication, the cunning regime is now confronting some equally shrewd opponents.

Political sociologists Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow see similar dynamics at play in protests against global trade and financial regimes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a fascinating recent paper, they write about the transnational diffusion not just of new forms of protest behavior, but also of police practices in response to them, and of the interplay between those two streams of learning. Intriguingly, the authors–two of the greats in the study of social movements–find that

the mechanisms that cause protester and police innovations to diffuse are remarkably similar, even though they can combine in different ways at different moments: promotion, the proactive intervention by a sender actor aimed at deliberate diffusion of an innovation; assessment, the analysis of information on past events and their definition as successes or failures, which leads to adaption of the innovation to new sites and situations; and theorization, the location of technical innovations within broader normative and cognitive frameworks.

As della Porta and Tarrow’s work shows, these dynamics are not unique to authoritarian regimes. Over at Plastic Manzikert, blogger Kelsey Atherton sees evidence of similar learning across police forces in their responses to Occupy encampments in the United States, and he thinks that learning helps explain why the movement has petered out.

What St. Louis did, more effectively and less violently than New York, was unoccupy it’s camp by taking advantage of protester exhaustion and finite capacity to respond. When one side plays nonviolent in the face of an aggressor, the contest becomes one of public perception. When the nonviolent protesters found themselves outmaneuvered by nonviolent police, there was no battle of public perception to be had. The violence and resistance of Zuccotti made for compelling media–unusual tactics, contended public space, seemingly out of proportion crackdown, and a clumsily aggressive handling of the situation made the action look brutal and the protesters come across more as heroic victims than the public menace the police needed them to be.

But without the violence, there isn’t that narrative. Polite, unthreatening police calmly restoring a public square in shirtsleeves de-escalate the scene, and manage to make protest the one thing it shouldn’t be: boring.

The global interplay of regimes and oppositions evident in all of these “cases” is a bit like a bunch of interconnected games of cat and mouse, all happening at the same time. Within each domain, each family of mice is busily trying to outwit its own cat, and each cat is  diligently trying to catch its own mice. All the while, though, the cats and the mice are learning from what happens everywhere else–sometimes just by watching, but other times by talking and conspiring and even lending a hand. Often that aid passes from mouse to mouse or cat to cat, but sometimes it’s the cat in one arena lending a hand to the mice in another, and vice versa. As communication and international organization get easier, the whole process only thickens and accelerates.

With this much interdependence at work, it’s no wonder we had such a hard time anticipating the Arab Spring (and the “color” revolutions that preceded it, and the collapse of communism that preceded it, and…). As social scientists, we can try to learn things from this latest wave that will help us anticipate where and when the next one will occur. As we do, though, we have to bear in mind that the potential agents of those future events will probably be learning and adapting and evolving even faster.

In Defense of Particularism in American Foreign Policy

I’ve just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s terrific biography of George Frost Kennan, a towering figure in American foreign policy after World War II whom Henry Kissinger described as “one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants.” Apart from recommending the book, which I do without hesitation to anyone with an interest in world affairs, I wanted to talk about how Gaddis’ distillation of Kennan’s ideas helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the conduct of foreign policy.

Nowadays, discussions of grand strategy in U.S. foreign policy are usually framed as a battle between realism, which emphasizes power and encourages statesmen to focus shrewdly on their national self-interest, and liberal institutionalism, which emphasizes cooperation and encourages statesmen to build institutions that facilitate it. Kennan–who was not trained as an academic and apparently didn’t care much for formal theories of international relations–saw the same terrain from a different perspective, and I think his map may be the more useful one.

For Kennan, the crucial divide lay between universalists and particularists. Gaddis spells out this theme most clearly in his discussion of Kennan’s thinking about how the United States ought to respond to the successes of Communist revolutionaries in China in 1947. Mao’s gains posed an early test of the recently pronounced Truman doctrine, which had seemed to pledge the United States to do all it could to prevent Communist advances anywhere in the world. While Kennan was dismayed by that doctrine’s absolutist language, it overlapped with the containment strategy he had begun to advocate as a response to the global ambitions and aggressive nature he saw in the Soviet Union.

Even so, and despite loud calls in the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to defend Chiang’s regime, Kennan convinced Truman to provide only a bare minimum of support to the Nationalists. According to Gaddis (p. 299), Kennan had thought that

Americans had clung too long to the idea of remaking China, an end far beyond their means. The [State Department’s] Policy Planning Staff [which Kennan headed] should determine what parts of East Asia are ‘absolutely vital to our security,’ and the United States should then ensure that these remain ‘in hands which we can control or rely on.’

Kennan framed this recommendation within the need to choose between universal and particularist approaches in foreign policy. Universalism sought to apply the same principles everywhere. It favored procedures embodied in the United Nations and in other international organizations. It smoothed over the national peculiarities and conflicting ideologies that confused and irritated so many Americans. Its appeal lay in its promise to ‘relieve us of the necessity of dealing with the world as it is.’ Particularism, in contrast, questioned ‘legalistic concepts.’ It assumed appetites for power that only ‘counter-force’ could control. It valued alliances, but only if based on communities of interest, not on the ‘abstract formalism’ of obligations that might preclude pursuing national defense and global stability. Universalism entangled interests in cumbersome parliamentarism. Particularism encouraged purposefulness, coordination, and economy of effort–qualities the nation would need ‘if we are to be sure of accomplishing our purposes.’

Kennan’s recommendation on China seemed to contradict his own grand strategy, but this contradiction reflected his deeper beliefs about the importance of particularism. He understood that a Communist victory in China would be a setback for the U.S., but he didn’t think it would be a disaster, and he believed that even massive American assistance was unlikely to stop the Communists from winning.

In this history, I hear echoes of contemporary debates over the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and whether or not the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to stop the mass atrocities occurring there. As in the arguments over China policy in the 1940s, universalists often make the case for intervention in Syria on both moral and strategic grounds. Mass atrocities are morally abhorrent, of course, but acting to stop or prevent them is also an essential function of America’s role as the producer and defender of a liberal global order, a universalist might argue, just as stopping Communism in its tracks was during the Cold War. In a recent call for more forceful U.S. action against Syria, Anne Marie Slaughter, a successor of Kennan’s as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, made just such a case. She wrote:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place…If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty, democracy, and justice.

After reading about his approach to China, it’s easy to imagine Kennan responding to this universalist argument by asking: “Yes, but how likely are we to succeed, and at what cost?”

To universalists, that kind of equivocation may seem immoral. Kennan, whom Gaddis portrays as a religious person and a philosopher, was not insensitive to these concerns. His rejection of universalism was not meant as a rejection of moral thinking. Instead, Kennan’s commitment to particularism was informed by his judgment that stark views about right and wrong were poor guides to foreign policy-making.

Could governments behave as individuals should? His preliminary conclusion, sketched out in his diary, was that politics, whether within or among nations, would always be a struggle for power. It could never in itself be a moral act…Foreign policy was not, therefore, a contest of good versus evil. To condemn negotiations as appeasement, Kennan told a Princeton University audience early in October [1953], was to end a Hollywood movie with the villain shot. To entrust diplomacy to lawyers was to relegate power, ‘like sex, to a realm in which we see it only occasionally, and then in highly sublimated and presentable form.’ Both approaches ignored the fact that most international conflicts were ‘jams that people have gotten themselves into.’ Trying to resolve them through rigid standards risked making things worse.” (p. 492)

As a frequent critic of the U.S. government’s attempts to provoke and promote democratic revolutions elsewhere–here and here are some blogged examples–I was particularly interested in how Kennan’s commitment to particularism was evidenced in his frustration with policies aimed at supporting the “liberation” Communist-ruled countries during the Cold War. In Kennan’s view,

“[A policy seeking ‘liberation’ in Communist-ruled countries] is not consistent with our international obligations. It is not consistent with a common membership with other countries in the United Nations. It is not consistent with the maintenance of formal diplomatic relations with another country. It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness. To the extent that it might be successful, it would involve us in heavy responsibilities. Finally the prospects for success would be very small indeed; since the problem of civil disobedience is not a great problem to the modern police dictatorship.” (p. 479)

Those concerns may sound cold, but Kennan was not indifferent to the liberationists’ cause. In fact, his views on the subject were also informed by a conviction that democracy would prevail in the end without active American support. According to Gaddis (p. 495), Kennan believed that

Democracy had the advantage over Communism in this respect, because it did not rely on violence to reshape society. Its outlook was ‘more closely attuned to the real nature of man…[so] we can afford to be patient and even occasionally to suffer reverses, placing our confidence in the longer and deeper workings of history.’

Like Churchill, who famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” Kennan saw many faults in Western society in the 20th century, but he saw the available alternatives as even worse. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that any gains realized by pushing for liberation were not worth the entanglements, lost opportunities, and even wars that might result, especially when war could be nuclear.

Kennan saw himself as more of a “prophet” (his word) than a theorist or practitioner, and his views on “liberation” illustrate how he often thought about international relations on time scales that most people either don’t consider or consider a luxury. His containment policy was founded on the prescient expectation that the Soviet Union’s internal flaws would eventually lead to its own disintegration, but he did not expect to live long enough to see that happen.

When contemplating the plight of actual people suffering under actual dictatorships, the idea that democracy will eventually prevail can seem a little too convenient, like it’s just a way to absolve us of any responsibility for the injustices of the here and now. Is it really more convenient, though, than the belief that righteousness is always right? Where Kennan’s view is materially convenient, implying that we can achieve the desired result through inaction, the liberationist’s view is morally convenient, presuming that well-intentioned actions will always bring good results.

And there’s the matter of the historical record. Long-term trends clearly support Kennan’s expectation that democracy would keep expanding, albeit fitfully and with many reversals. More important, these advances have usually come either without direct U.S. support, or in places where U.S. involvement was incidental to the eventual outcome. The events that precipitated the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe mostly caught the U.S. by surprise, and the U.S. response to them was generally modest and ambivalent.

Likewise with the Arab Spring. The wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 started in Tunisia, where the U.S. had done virtually nothing to promote democracy. It soon spread to Egypt and Bahrain, where U.S. support for military “deep states” vastly outweighed its material and verbal commitments to opposition groups, and to Libya, where the U.S. had actually warmed to the dictator in recent years in response to his decision to give up weapons of mass destruction. In other words, theses revolutions were hardly American-made; if anything, they occurred in spite of American indifference and support for the status quo. In this sense, the Arab Spring supports Kennan’s expectation that American intervention is hardly a prerequisite for democratic revolution, and that democracy will advance on its own through the “longer and deeper workings of history.”

If universal principles aren’t the way to go, how, then, should foreign policy be conducted? For most of his adult life, Kennan owned and worked a small farm in southern Pennsylvania, and he often did the yardwork at his home in Princeton, too. It’s not surprising, then, that he may have best expressed his commitment to particularism and penchant for thinking on long time scales in a horticultural metaphor that envisioned a patient, process-oriented approach as the best way to strike a balance between moral ambitions and animal interests. This metaphor was offered up during a series of four lectures Kennan delivered at Princeton in 1954–lectures that became the book Realities of American Foreign Policy, and I think Gaddis’ summation of those lectures (pp. 494-495) it makes a proper coda to this post.

Americans could no longer afford economic advances that depleted natural resources and devastated natural beauty, Kennan insisted. Nor could they tolerate dependency, for critical raw materials, on unreliable foreign governments. Nor could they tear their democracy apart internally because threats to democracy existed externally. Nor could they entrust defenses against such dangers to the first use of nuclear weapons, for what would be left after a nuclear war had taken place? These were all single policies, pursued without regard to how each related to the others, or to the larger ends the state was supposed to serve. They neglected ‘the essential unity’ of national problems, thus demonstrating the ‘danger implicit in any attempt to compartmentalize our thinking about foreign policy.’

That lack of coordination ill-suited the separate ‘planes of international reality’ upon which the United States had to compete. The first was a ‘sane and rational one, in which we felt comfortable, in which we were surrounded by people to whom we were accustomed and on whose reactions we could at least depend.’ The second was ‘a nightmarish one, where we were like a hunted beast, oblivious of everything but survival; straining every nerve and muscle in the effort to remain alive.’ Within the first arena, traditional conceptions of morality applied; ‘We could still be guided…by the American dream.’ Within the second, ‘there was only the law of the jungle; and we had to do violence to our own traditional principles–or many of us felt we did–to fit ourselves for the relentless struggle.’ The great question, then, was whether the two could ever be brought into a coherent relationship with one another.

They could, Kennan suggested, through a kind of geopolitical horticulture. ‘We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.’ International life was an organic process, not a static system. Americans had inherited it, not designed it. Their preferred standards of behavior, therefore, could hardly govern it. But it should be possible ‘to take these forces for what they are and to induce them to work with us and for us by influencing the environmental stimuli to which they are subjected.’ That would have to be done ‘gently and patiently, with understanding and sympathy, not trying to force growth by mechanical means, not tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to. The forces of nature will generally be on the side of him who understands them best and respects them most scrupulously.’

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