Two weeks, dismay and horror

I have spent the last two weeks attending three conferences and various lectures in Russia and the UK, on issues including Public Policy, International Security, and using history to forecast and explain events.

Sadly, it seems clear that neither public policy nor those who study international security have been doing a good job, or paying much attention, to using history to forecast and explain events.

Back in late January, about 3 weeks before the Maidan uprising in Ukraine, I wrote a draft paper that I sent to FOREIGN AFFAIRS (which they declined).  It was responding to an article they published in Jan/Feb  by Michael Mazaar.  Mazaar argued that the US had wasted a decade worrying about failed states, saying that fixing failed states is not the best way to fight terrorism and that we should stop worrying about them.

I argued that Mazaar had it all wrong — the purpose of trying to help strengthen failed states was not to stop terrorism, but to stop widespread regional crises that would produce collapsed governments and international conflicts.  I wrote:

“Ukraine’s decade since the Orange Revolution as an increasingly weak state rent by corruption and declining legitimacy has left it on the brink of civil war and a major source of tension between Europe and Russia. Unmanaged Shi’a-Sunni conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria not only brought on civil wars; they continue to polarize the entire region into a confrontation between Sunni powers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia and an Iranian-led Shi’a axis that plays out through proxy wars and may lead to even greater conflicts.”

In the last few weeks, we have seen civil war in fact break out in Ukraine, which has caused the most serious Russian/NATO crisis since the end of the Cold War; and we are now seeing a collapse in Iraq that in conjunction with events in the failed state of Syria threatens to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East.  And in addition, we have seen a coup overturn the once-promising democracy in Thailand.  Regarding which I wrote, in a paper published in 2012, regarding the “Red shirt” protests:

“In the end, massive military violence ended the protests.  Yet that mode of response makes it unlikely that Thailand will emerge from authoritarian rule anytime soon.  The government has been discredited and relied on force rather than legitimacy to stay in power;  once that step is taken, governments are generally committed to that path.”

Sure enough, despite the hopeful election of Yingluck Shinawatra, once popular pressures for change arose, the military turned to force and staged a coup to depose the Shinawatra regime.

I don’t claim to be a soothsayer; I don’t have a crystal ball and expert predictions are notoriously weak in identifying rapid changes from the status quo.  But it takes no great prophetic powers, just a basic knowledge of history and revolutions, to realize that fragile states periodically collapse, creating regional and international disorder!  That is what “fragility” entails and why it is important to worry about it.

Yet policy-makers seem to have decided that, once the US extracted its troops from Iraq and almost from Afghanistan, that state fragility was no longer our problem.  So when states collapsed in Ukraine, Thailand, and now Iraq, we were wretchedly unprepared and “shocked, simply shocked” to see that we were reaping what we had sown.   Nigeria is also in the process of melting down in the north under assaults from Boko Haram that have exposed the inability of that state to protect its people.  That all of this happened just after we saw the wave of state breakdowns in the Arab Spring is just more reason to be dismayed — we should have been MORE alert to the risks of fragile and failing states, not less!

Still, ignoring the evidence is hardly unique to dealing with fragile states.  The  evidence is strong that immigration is helpful to countries — yet the US  and Europe and Japan refuse to embrace immigration, instead trying to roll up their borders (and people demand they do so, as shown by the defeat of Eric Cantor in the US and the rise of the UK Independence Party and other anti-immigration parties in Europe).  The evidence is overwhelming that the climate is changing in dangerous ways — yet people refuse to take any actions to ameliorate it.

I could add that action is needed on pensions to avoid debt explosions of the kind that felled Detroit and that will derail the state of Illinois and threaten other jurisdictions; that providing universal health care at reasonable costs is vital to keeping the US economy competitive; and that the U.S is becoming a sharply stratified society returning to gilded age levels of inequality but that could be stopped simply by going back to the same estate tax laws we had under Ronald Reagan.  Yet people prefer to turn away from these problems rather than solve them.

I should say that  one thing which was obvious is that I was the only person who was  at BOTH the policy and international security conferences AND the very academic conference on using history for forecasting and explanation.  I understand that; the latter conference had  papers on topics such as whether mathematical models of history can cope with important individual events, the collapse of Mayan civilization, the future of youth in Iranian politics, and other topics that seem to abstract or too far past or too much in the future to capture the interests of policy analysts or those studying current international relations.

Yet unless we do a better job bringing historical and theoretical knowledge of social dynamics to bear, we are not going to be prepared to deal with the dynamics of the world around us.

Sadly, that is where we are now, as we watch in dismay and horror at events unfolding in Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria, Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and will watch again in future collapses in other fragile states.

What did Santayana say?  That those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it?





About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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8 Responses to Two weeks, dismay and horror

  1. Pauline H. Baker says:


    Right on! Mazaar’s article in Foreign Affairs was really naive. (And Foreign Affairs did not provide adequate space for a proper reply. I also inquired about a response, but I did not even hear back! Jim Shear wrote a letter which was published, but he argued that the interventions the Bush Administration made in fragile states were selective, and in the national interest, He did not take on Mazaar’s central line of thinking that held that the paradigm of state fragility should be dismissed and never was that important or useful.) When he states that we cannot fix failing states, he assumes that we must do everything. In fact, we can do a lot to strengthen fragile states before they fail, not by sending in the Marines, occupying the country or running their economy,but by helping local elites build institutions, promoting economic equality,empowering women (who often are the bedrock of resiliency) and advancing accountability and transparency under the rule of law. That is not easy, but it is worth doing many places.

    As you point out, the sooner we address the problem of state fragility, the less costly it will be for us and the sooner we will reduce the number of atrocities around the world. Some divided societies may be too far down the road to civil war to intervene, even if our response is confined to diplomatic and economic assistance. Some conflicts probably could end with agreed partition (not like South Sudan). Still others can get back on their feet through patient state building and peace building strategies. The UN actually has a number of success stories in this regard. But ignoring the problem or saying it does not affect us, as Mazaar does, is myopic. You are correct that the object is to build strong and responsive states, not to reduce terrorism. But it is also true that healing societal wounds and ameliorating the legitimate group grievances can go far in reducing terrorism, stemming the tide of refugees, enhancing economic growth, opening up markets, gaining access to resources for global commerce, and eliminating poverty. Not a bad list of accomplishments, especially given the alternatives.

    Mazaar and others of his ilk should take a cold hard look around the world. From Ukraine to Iraq, many of the problems we are confronting now arise in fragile states. It is high time we drew the right lessons from our past misadventures and stop sticking our heads in the sand. Probably our biggest recent turning too far inward toward domestic issues (and we are not doing such a great job on that score either). Sure, we have a lot of problems to address at home. And, sure, Iraq and Afghanistan worsened them, among other things, by helping drive our economy into a deep recession. And, sure, no one wants the US to get entangled in other peoples’ civil wars. But neither can we afford to turn our backs on the world, especially fragile states, or their problems will eventually result in larger ones lapping at our shores.

  2. Tim McCandless says:

    I could not agree more with you more on the usefulness of history in forecasting and explaining current events! I was a student of yours at GMU…

    I have to comment however, that our ability to assist “failed states” — term needs to be clearly defined as to what constitutes a “failure” — in the area of security at least, will be severely challenged in the next few years. Considering defense cuts (budget and billets), especially to ground forces, we should be very choosy in terms of which countries are strategically important enough to us, economically or otherwise, to assist. Secretary Hagel has to meet a 25% “budget bogey” and the U.S. armed forces (especially ground forces read Army and Marine Corps) are being reduced significantly. If “boots on the ground” is what it takes to help a failed state secure its borders, eliminate terrorist footholds and maintain the rule of law, then we have far fewer boots to place on the ground. We cannot (and should not) be the World’s Policeman tacking any and all failing or failed states…

    The limitations in our ability to assist states which are failing in the security arena are best illustrated by looking at the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, published in March, 2014, in which Secretary Hagel reports,
    “The Department of Defense is also facing a changing and equally uncertain fiscal environment.
    Beginning with the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 appropriations, the Department began absorbing
    significant impacts from the $487 billion, ten-year cut in spending due to caps instituted by the
    Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. The BCA also instituted a sequestration mechanism
    requiring cuts of about $50 billion annually. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 provided
    modest immediate relief from sequestration, but unless Congress acts, annual sequestration cuts
    are set to resume in FY2016. To protect the security interests of the United States most
    effectively while recognizing the fiscal imperative of deficit reduction, the President’s FY2015
    Budget reduces projected defense budgets by about $113 billion over five years compared to
    levels requested in the FY2014 Budget. The President’s Budget provides a balanced and
    responsible path forward given continuing fiscal uncertainty. It reflects the strict constraints on
    discretionary funding required by the Bipartisan Budget Act in FY2015, but it does not accept
    sequestration levels thereafter, funding the Department at about $115 billion more than
    projected sequestration levels through 2019.”

    Click to access 2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf

    Our rapid expansion of NATO eastward is partially to blame for awakening the Russian Bear. We have failed miserably with our misguided ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instability in both countries is certain to follow our departure. Our aims should have been limited to counter-terrorism, not nation-building. The evolution to a Jeffersonian democracy was long and hard for the United States. Why should we be so myopic to think other cultures can perform this in months or years? History is important but so is a true understanding of people who are fundamentally different from us. How often have we mistakenly “mirror-imaged” in our intelligence and other estimates by making the assumption that other people think as we do and are motivated the way we are.

    • Tim, you are half-right. Trying to deal with failed states after they have collapsed by using American force is expensive and futile. But that is why we have to support states that are fragile BEFORE they fail, and do it mainly with civilian rather than military means. In fact, our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan came from seeking to build institutions with military means (sort of like trying to build a pontoon bridge using tanks instead of floatation pods). Among other mistakes, we failed to tackle the electric power problems in Iraq, didn’t insist on an inclusive government in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and (except for Petraeus in Anbar, the one example of great success) we tried to subdue adversaries by force rather than talk to them and learn to work with them. I am not saying it’s easy, but we know a lot about building more resilient and inclusive states, and if we emphasized that rather than trying to stand up people we think are “good guys” and putting down people we think are “bad guys” when realities on the ground are never that simple, we can avoid a lot of dangerous an expensive and frankly unmanageable problems down the line.

      • Tim McCandless says:

        Jack, First we need to devise a policy on intervention which clearly answers the golden questions of intervention, especially the why, where, when and how of intervening. Our interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan were misguided. Both came at great cost in terms of treasure and lives and will ultimately prove ineffective. I favor a modified Powell Doctrine as follows:
        Is a vital national security interest threatened?
        Do we have a clear attainable objective?
        Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
        Have all other means been fully exhausted (Diplomatic, Economic etc)?
        Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
        Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
        Is the action supported by the American people?
        Do we have genuine broad international support?

      • I agree Tim — these are excellent guidelines.

  3. FredR says:

    Is it really so obvious that more immigration would be good for America? To offer one potential counter-argument, surely the low skill immigration of the past few decades has been one of the biggest drivers of increasing inequality.

    • Sorry Fred — the evidence says the driver of inequality is the rise in top incomes, not decline at the bottom. Low skill immigration actually fell after the economy tanked, but inequality increased anyway.

      • russell1200 says:

        That is an interesting statement. There is very clear evidence that skilled blue collar folks (with the odd exception of auto mechanics for a while) flat lined in nominal terms some time back in the 1970-1980 period, which meant that real income slowly declined.

        That doesn’t mean that the rise in the top isn’t a key driver, but more than a few folks think that it is wage arbitrage that is keeping the low end folks low. Immigration can act as a form of wage arbitrage.

        Low skill immigration decreasing (actually reversing) would not be a factor if job loses are heavier than the reversal. It would be a case of too little too late. I find it interesting that economist who love to trump the wonders of the invisible hand of supply and demand, seem to go out of their way to argue that it doesn’t really have an effect on job competition/wages.

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