Beauty of Gray

Friday, September 05, 2003

Nation-building in a multi-ethnic society

This post over at Uncertain Principles expresses a pessimistic view on the possibility of a non-oppressive government in Iraq:

I've long had a nagging worry that Saddam ran Iraq the way he did because it was the only way anyone could run Iraq, if you accepted the existence of "Iraq" in the first place - if your priority was holding that absurdly geometrical container of fissiparous faiths and fealties together in that neighborhood, with those rivals.

While that’s an extreme view, and one that I hope is wrong, there may be some truth to it. Robert D. Kaplan, while not writing specifically about Iraq, has danced around the issue in a number of other countries, areas where democracy has produced regional discord and ethnic separatism, culminating in civil war. While authoritarian governments have at least produced stability. While they oppress their people, the stability the provide is necessary to make any progress, and perhaps eventually lead, via reforms, to a more liberal and open society.

I’d like to think this view is overly pessimistic, but it is clear that simply trying to graft a version of the modern US Constitution and government onto another society is not likely to work. The US Constitution arose out of a series of political negotiations and compromises relating to the specific conditions in the United States. If you want to form a successful government somewhere else, you need to have a similar engagement with their local issues.

However, taking this a step further, while a broad-based democracy might be the ultimate goal, I don’t think the immediate imposition of such a system is the best approach. How many times have democracies failed in tribal societies, where interest group ethnic parties come to prominence, and ending either with a coup or a civil war? Most of Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia all show the perils of trying to jump from zero to full democracy. India is the only success story I can think of, in the imposition of democracy on ethnically divided former colonies.

However, I’m not as pessimistic as Jim Henley (or, perhaps, Kaplan.) There is a middle ground here between authoritarianism and full democracy with a broad franchise. And that’s by limiting the franchise, essentially putting an additional representative layer between the people and the elected government. It’s worth remembering that this is, in fact, how democracy developed in both the US and in England. Only gradually have voting requirements been eliminated, the Senate become directly elected, the franchise extended. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a solution to the problem, but I think it’s worth trying, especially as the US could establish such an approach as an interim government—local leaders and elites from each group would be franchised to then elect the national figures.

Since the elites might be less susceptible to manipulation and simple ethnic rabble rousing, and would have more vested in the status quo, it would seem that this could produce a more stable government. Then, as democratic habits took root and the government acquired legitimacy, you could move towards a full democracy by expanding the franchise. I don't know if it would work, but it would seem more promising and history would suggest it's more likely to succeed than immediate mass democracy.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:35 PM

Thursday, September 04, 2003
Integrating with the second and third world

As long as I’m dealing in analogies, here’s another one. The increasing interconnectedness of the world economy is, essentially, putting the entire world through German reunification writ large. In each case a large, prosperous block is connected to another area stuck in the second world, and forced to try and unify with them. Just as the hiccups with the reunification held down the advance of the West German economy for a decade and counting, the forging of ever closer connections between the first, second, and third world is likely to involve a similar drag on first world economies.

While in the German case, the bonds were much tighter, West Germany also was much larger in size and population than East Germany. While the first world is much smaller in terms of size and population than the third world. So while it isn’t integrating as closely, the inertial forces are much larger, trying to bring not just East Europe, but all the Asian Rim, India, China, Indonesia, Latin America, etc. up to economic speed. I’d be curious to hear from any professional economists about why this is a stupid comparison, or alternatively why it’s not.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:34 PM

Finding something to fight about

Each successive age of the world has found something new to spark their wars. The one constant is the warfare. First is was territorial expansion, then religion, then nationalism, then ideology (mixed with nationalism and tribalism), and now we’ve moved on to tribalism as the dominant source if discord across much of the globe. The fact that the advance past one justification for war either seems to require or produce a new one can cause pessimism, although it’s possible the recent stability in Western Europe might really be pointing towards an ultimate way out, rather than being an exceptional calm between storms.

Regardless, when looking at these broad ages of warfare, it strikes me that, that the war in the Congo is analogous to the 30 Years War. Instead of the underlying protestant/catholic split, you have the tapestry of ethnicities in central Africa. The battleground remains a single country, but rather than a real Civil War, it has instead become a proxy war involving multiple neighboring countries who have taken advantage of the chaos to try and seize some ground and advance their own interests. And with each additional player and competing interest involved, the possibility of making a lasting peace decrease exponentially. Nobody wins, while the people of Congo (like the German peasant) pay a terrible price.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:34 PM

Back with some book reviews

After a long lay-off, I’m back, and will hopefully be writing with a little more frequency. My plan is to dial down my entries, writing shorter posts rather than long essays. I hope this will prevent me from avoiding posting just because I’m daunted at the prospect of sitting down and writing out what I was thinking of. More posts laying out simple ideas or connections that have occurred to me, and fewer big long books trying to fully justify everything starting with Adam to the present day.

Let me start of with a few quick book reviews of my recent reading, which will be stimulating some of my upcoming posts:

1421: the Year the Chinese Discovered America. Very interesting speculative account of the last voyage of the great Ming Chinese treasure fleets. While suggestive, Menzies’s thesis rests on a lot of circumstantial evidence and is hence not that convincing. I’d be curious to see what some professional historians have to say about the book. Probably the most interesting bits he presents are direct writing from Columbus and other explorers which mention that they had pre-existing maps which showed the areas they purportedly discovered. I’m amazed these pieces from their journals are not better known, as they substantially alter the entire understanding of their exploratory voyages. Regardless who got their first, if these excerpts are correct somebody did, and they left maps which helped guide later explorers. As for the Chinese, they may or may not have gotten there first, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to have mattered, as they retreated from the world and destroyed all their records. (The book has its own website, which I haven’t perused.)

The Saudis. I found the book to be a very interesting portrait of Saudi society, but there are a number of Amazon reviews from other people who lived in Saudi Arabia for a more extended period of time panning the work. Unfortunately, they don’t give too many details, so I don’t know what specifically they objected to. I found Mackey’s over-al political and social explication provided a good framework which explained Saudi actions. That is, it fits the external facts and seems to have predictive value, even if it is wrong.

The Reckoning: A basic overview of Iraqi history from the ancients to today. Nothing special, but it hits the main points, and provides the grounding necessary for any understanding of the situation in the country today.

Eastward to Tartary: Not quite finished with this book by the pessimistic travel writer Kaplan, but it fits the mold of most of his previous work. Travels to unpleasant 3rd world locales, full of interesting characters and insightful comments, leading to the conclusion that ethnic tensions will spiral out of control and send everything to hell. He was right about that in Balkan Ghosts, and has become a bit of a one trick pony on that thesis ever since. The depressing bit is that he might be right.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:34 PM

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