Your humble blogger has been traveling a lot, so it was only this a.m. that I got around to reading Marc Lynch's blog post on "How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring." It's pretty gripping stuff:
[T]he Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria's highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.
Now, Marc knows way more than I do about the region and has literally written the book on understanding the Arab Spring. His points about the changing media landscape in the region are fascinating. But if I could go all blogger for a second, can I point out the ways in which I think there's some gross exaggerating going on in this post?
First of all, let's be clear that Syria was hardly the only Middle Eastern country to experience a violent blowback to the uprisings. Iran cracked down almost immediately after the first protest broke out in early 2011 -- indeed, it cracked down so effectively that after that January the country disappeared from the Arab Spring narrative.
Now, one could argue that Iran is not an Arab country, so what happens in Persia stays in Persia and doesn't taint the Arab Spring. Bahrain certainly is Arab, however, and there was a pretty brutal crackdown there as well. It was far less bloody than in Syria, but it was a crackdown nonetheless and a significant part of the counter-revolutionary trend that Lynch highlights. And what happened in Bahrain was merely the most egregious example of repressive acts that occurred across the Persian Gulf.
Second, Lynch argues that "the Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not." This is likely true with respect to Tunisia and Egypt ... but it is less true with respect to Libya. And if the counterfactual is a world in which Syria doesn't descend into civil war, one could envision a scenario where al Qaeda elements simply decided to target the next-weakest state in the region instead. That likely would have simply meant a larger AQ presence in Libya.
Third, Lynch notes that Syria transformed the media narrative from one of spontaneous revolutions to one of bloody internecine warfare, tarnishing the image of the Arab Spring. It's true that war tends to drown out other forms of news, but I wonder if the absence of a Syrian conflict would have led to such a great change in news coverage. Absent Syria, the leading narrative in the region would likely be the myriad ways in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has morphed into the very Arab dictator that he replaced. And I'm not sure that narrative would be any more upbeat.
I suspect that the proxy warfare and media transformation are likely Syria-specific, so I don't want to say that I completely disagree with my FP colleague. Still, the Arab Spring narrative was never quite so pristine as it seems now, and there are plenty of other ways the narrative would have been sullied absent Syria.
Am I missing anything ... asked the IR generalist prepared to be smacked down by the better-informed area expert?
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Now that the first news cycle has passed, we can get to the more interesting question of assessing Venezuela's future. There was always a fundamental irony to Hugo Chavez's foreign policy. Despite his best efforts to chart a course at odds with the United States, he could never escape a fundamental geopolitical fact of life: Venezuela's economic engine was based on exporting a kind of oil that could pretty much only be refined in the United States.
So, with Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. After all, Chavez's "Bolivarian" foreign policy was rather expensive -- energy subsidies to Cuba alone were equal to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for example. With U.S. oil multinationals looking hopefully at Venezuela and Caracas in desperate need of foreign investment, could Chavez's successor re-align foreign relations closer to the U.S.A.?
I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories.
International relations theory doesn't talk a lot about conspiracy thinking, but I've read up a bit on it, and I'd say post-Chavez Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground. Indeed, the day of Chavez's death his vice president/anointed successor was already accusing the United States of giving Chavez his cancer.
Besides that, here's a recipe for creating a political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States:
1) Pick a country that possesses very high levels of national self-regard.
2) Make sure that the country's economic performance fails to match expectations.
3) Create political institutions within the country that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian.
4) Select a nation with a past history of U.S. interventions in the domestic body politic.
5) Have the United States play a minor supporting role in a recent coup attempt.
8) Finally, create a political transition in which the new leader is desperate to appropriate any popular tropes used by the previous leader.
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
Oh, and by the way: Those commentators anticipating a post-Castro shift by Cuba toward the U.S., should run through the checklist above veeeery carefully.
Am I missing anything?
A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites. Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well:
Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.
In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia. On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control. Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result. Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus.
On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections. First, they can use this election as a wake-up call. By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty. Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory. In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning.
Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state. I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists. Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either. The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past. These are not really desirable alternatives.
Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections. What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition.
What do you think?
In my last post I mentioned how China was encountering resistance to its rising power. Now, via Kindred Winecoff, I see a whole mess of reportage about China's mounting internal difficulties. In no particular order:
1) Nouriel Roubini has focused his Dr. Doom-O-Vision on the Middle Kingdom, and doesn't like what he sees:
China’s economy is overheating now, but, over time, its current overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally. Once increasing fixed investment becomes impossible – most likely after 2013 – China is poised for a sharp slowdown. Instead of focusing on securing a soft landing today, Chinese policymakers should be worrying about the brick wall that economic growth may hit in the second half of the quinquennium....
[N]o country can be productive enough to reinvest 50% of GDP in new capital stock without eventually facing immense overcapacity and a staggering non-performing loan problem. China is rife with overinvestment in physical capital, infrastructure, and property. To a visitor, this is evident in sleek but empty airports and bullet trains (which will reduce the need for the 45 planned airports), highways to nowhere, thousands of colossal new central and provincial government buildings, ghost towns, and brand-new aluminum smelters kept closed to prevent global prices from plunging.
Commercial and high-end residential investment has been excessive, automobile capacity has outstripped even the recent surge in sales, and overcapacity in steel, cement, and other manufacturing sectors is increasing further. In the short run, the investment boom will fuel inflation, owing to the highly resource-intensive character of growth. But overcapacity will lead inevitably to serious deflationary pressures, starting with the manufacturing and real-estate sectors.
Eventually, most likely after 2013, China will suffer a hard landing. All historical episodes of excessive investment – including East Asia in the 1990’s – have ended with a financial crisis and/or a long period of slow growth. To avoid this fate, China needs to save less, reduce fixed investment, cut net exports as a share of GDP, and boost the share of consumption.
The trouble is that the reasons the Chinese save so much and consume so little are structural. It will take two decades of reforms to change the incentive to overinvest.
Now, Roubini is enough of a persistent doomsayer that it would be easy to discount this argument -- if it wasn't for the fact that this jibes with the opinion of other China economy-watchers. This coming-bust prophesizing comes on top of arguments made by Barry Eichengreen, Donghyun Park and Kwanho Shin that as China hits middle-income status, it will hit a "middle income trap" of slower growth. (One interesting question is whether, as China encounters rampant inflation, its eventual decision to let the RMB appreciate will help ease some of these pressures).
2) Meanwhile, China's political leadership appears to be engaged in a full-fledged freakout over the Arab revolutions and any whisper of a similar phenomenon happening in China. Rising food prices are leading to price controls and an anxious government monitoring if/when more expensive staple goods lead to political unrest. That said, Chinese authorities seem to be on top of the whole crushing dissent thing:
According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an NGO, by April 4th some 30 people had been detained and faced criminal charges relating to the so-called “jasmine revolution”—an inchoate internet campaign to emulate in China recent upheavals in the Middle East and north Africa. Human Rights Watch, another NGO, reports that a further 100-200 people have suffered repressive measures, from police summonses to house arrest. This has been accompanied by tighter censorship of the internet, the ousting of some liberal newspaper editors, and new curbs on foreign reporters in China, some of whom have been roughed up....
Even more worrying, however, is the increasing resort to informal detentions, punishments and disappearances. These are outside the law, offering the victim no protection at all. The government now dismisses the idea that one function of the law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power. On March 3rd a Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman told foreign journalists: “Don’t use the law as a shield.” Some people, she said, want to make trouble in China and “for people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.”
3) As for China's assessment of its external security situation, the State Council released its 2010 White Paper on defense last month. As this East Asia Forum summary suggests, there's a slight change in tone from the 2008 white paper:
The introductory assessment of the ‘security situation’ section notes that the ‘international balance of power is changing,’ that ‘international strategic competition centring on international order, comprehensive national strength and geopolitics has intensified,’ and that ‘international military competition remains fierce.’ Despite this sense of turbulence, and as was the case in 2008, the 2010 paper assesses that ‘the Asia Pacific security situation is generally stable.’ But the additional observation in the 2008 paper, namely, ‘that China’s security situation has improved steadily’ does not appear in 2010. One possible reason is that the 2010 paper reports that ‘suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase.’
In light of all these developments, yesterday's Economist editorial should come as no surprise:
The view from Beijing, thus, is different to the view from abroad. Whereas the outside world regards China’s rulers as all-powerful, the rulers themselves detect threats at every turn. The roots of this repression lie not in the leaders’ overweening confidence but in their nervousness. Their response to threats is to threaten others.
Now, as someone who's pointed out these problems on occasion on this blog, you might think I'm pleased as punch about these developments. Nope. First, from an economic standpoint, a recessionary China eliminates a vital engine of global economic growth. Second, as I wrote back in January:
Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index, just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.
Developing.... in very disturbing ways.
With all the press leaks about covert operatives, high-level defections, and behind-the-scenes negotiations with top Khaddafi aides, I think it's safe to say that the United States is running quite the little psy-ops campaign on the Libyan dictator [Are you trying to spell his name a different way in each frakkin' post?!--ed. Er, yes. Oh. Ok, then--ed.] That's not to say that these things are only being done to psych out Khaddafi, but I'm assuming that's a large component of what's going on.
In many ways, however, I think the news coming out of the Ivory Coast might be the most effective psychological pressure on the Libyan strongman. The Financial Times' William Wallis reports on the current state of play:
The battle for Ivory Coast’s presidency has reached a critical phase as forces allied to Alassane Ouattara, president-elect, have advanced into the commercial capital Abidjan after a lightning offensive from the north designed to oust incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
Mr Gbagbo, who refuses to concede defeat in last November’s polls despite near universal recognition of his rival’s victory, looks increasingly isolated as the noose tightens around the city of 4m people.
Reuters quoted a military source in Mr Gbagbo’s camp on Friday confirming an attack overnight on Mr Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan but said that pro-Gbagbo forces were still putting up resistance at state broadcaster, RTI....
South Africa’s foreign ministry reported that Mr Gbagbo’s army commander and personal friend, General Phillippe Mangou, had fled with his family to the residence of the South African ambassador. In another blow, the head of the gendarmerie reportedly defected to the president’s rival.
Choi Young-jin, the UN envoy to the country, said the police had defected as well. Reuters reported early on Friday that Mr Ouattara’s forces had taken control of the state television station, which then ceased broadcasting, and were attacking Mr Gbagbo’s residence.
There are many ways in which the Ivory Coast is not like Libya, but there are some striking similarities. Like Libya, the Ivory Coast is a single-commodity export economy, making sanctions relatively easy to implement. Like Khaddafi, Gbagbo became an international pariah after rejecting the November election results (well, a pariah to everyone but Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma). The UN and the relevant regional bodies acted swiftly to put Gbagbo under mulilateral economic sanctions. Gbagbo, like Khaddafi, refused to see the handwriting on the wall and took every coercive action possible to maintain his hold on power.
If these reports are accurate, then Gbagbo is on his way out, and the end will not be pretty. That will likely spook those loyal to Khaddafi. True, the Libyan leader controls greater resources, but then again, the Ivory Coast doesn't have NATO getting up in its grill.
This is not the best outcome for the Ivory Coast -- obviously, it would have been better if Gbagbo had acknowledged the election results and set an example for the rest of Africa. Given how things played out, however, Gbagbo's departure from power will be an affirmation of the ways in which multilateral pressure can affect change.
The Ivory Coast is also a reminder that multilateral efforts at coercion -- whether military or economic -- often look ineffective or flawed right up until the moment that they actually work. Which is to say, for all the carping, whinging, bitching and moaning going on about how the Obama administration is handling Libya, none of it will matter if Khaddafi eventually leaves. And the fall of Gbagbo will be one more data point to freak him and his supporters out.
In a lot of ways, Saudi Arabia has had a lousy six weeks. Revolutions, protests and general unrest have spread across the region from far-away Tunisia to way-too-close-for-comfort Bahrain and Yemen. You're starting to see mainstream meda reports suggesting that the Kingdom's influence is waning compared to Iran. The region is clearly spooked enough to spend an extra $36 billion to forestall a massive turnout for the planned "Day of Rage" on March 11. If that doesn't work, the king might have to fall back on The Onion's suggested strategy.
With all of this going on, however, I find this report by the Financial Times' David Blair, Jack Farchy and Javier Blas to be veeeeerrrrryyy interesting:
Saudi Arabia is in “active talks” with European oil companies to meet the production shortfall left by Libya, the clearest indication to date that the leader of the Opec oil cartel is about to boost supplies to stop further rises in the oil price, which surged to near $120 a barrel on Thursday.
Riyadh is asking “what quantity and what quality of oil they [the European refiners] want,” a senior Saudi oil official said on condition of anonymity....
Paolo Scaroni, Eni chief executive, on Wednesday made the most pessimistic public assessment to date of the impact of the Libyan crisis on the country’s oil output, saying the country was producing only 400,000 b/d, compared with 1.6m b/d before the violence erupted.
“The real phenomenon is there are 1.2m barrels less on the market,” Mr Scaroni told reporters in Rome, adding that the loss of Libyan production was “not a huge thing, but it is something and there is also a sense of general uncertainty in the region which can be the trigger for speculation”.
The shortfall means the world market is enduring its biggest oil crisis since hurricane Katrina in 2005 knocked out most US oil production in Gulf of Mexico.
Traders believe that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to increase production and also the oil of the right quality to meet the shortfall. The kingdom produces so-called Arab Extra Light and Arab Super Light, which through blending could be made to resemble the high-quality, light, sweet oil produced by Libya.
The Saudi move comes as oil prices reached levels that many economists believe will dramatically slow the global economy and potentially trigger a double-dip recession. Oil prices hit an all-time high of nearly $150 a barrel in mid-2008.
Here's my question: why are the Saudis being so cooperative at this point? There might be sound strategic reasons -- preventing a double-dip recession, assuaging longstanding allies, etc. It could be that the Saudi leadershipis feeling secure enough to plan for long-term price stability.
Still, based on the recent reportage, I'm a little surprised that the Saudis aren't exploiting the current uncertainty to ensure the security of the current regime going forward. If I was a Saudi prince right now, I'd be
blowing my fortune during a 72-hour blowout in Vegas involving Salma Hayek, Christina Hendricks, and all the shrimp I could eat making it very clear to my buyers just how important stability is in my neck of the woods.
As an energy consumer, I'm grateful for the current Saudi behavior. As someone who studies the global political economy, I'm surprised and puzzled by this same behavior.
Am I missing anything?
In Sayf-Al-Islam's rambling speech last night on Libyan State television, he blamed the current unpleasantness in his country on, as near as I can determine, crazed African LSD addicts.
This isn't going down as well as Sayf had intended, and Libya seems less stable than 24 hours earlier. Indeed, Sayf's off-the-cuff remarks managed to make Hosni Mubarak's three speeches seem like a model of professionalism, which I would not have thought was possible a week ago.
Indeed, it is striking how utterly incompetent leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been at managing their media message. Speeches are announced, then never delivered on time, and then delivered with production values that woulds embarrass a public access channel in the U.S. It's like political leaders in the region have discovered blogs just as the young people has moved on to Twitter or something. [Er, no, that's the United States--ed.] Oh, right.
Having just finished a week of intense media whoring, methinks that one problem is that most of these leaders have simply fallen out of practice (if they were ever in practice) at personally using the media to assuage discontent. I've been on enough shows on enough different media platforms to appreciate that there is an art, or at least a tradecraft, to presenting a convincing message in the mediasphere. Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are quite adept at playing internal factions off one another. That's a different skill set than trying to craft a coherent and compelling media message to calm street protestors no longer intimidated by internal security forces.
Indeed, as I argued in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, bureaucratic first responses to novel situations are almost uniformly bad. Sayf pretty much admitted this last night, as he acknowledged that the Libyan armed forces were not trained to deal with street protestors. I suspect the same is true with the state media outlets -- they excel at producing tame, regime-friendly pablum during quiescent periods, but now they're operating in unknown territory.
I also argued that bureaucracies should be able to adapt their organizational routines over time, if a regime's domestic support does not evaporate. Readers are encouraged to predict which regimes under threat in the Middle East are the most likely to be able to adapt. My money is on Iran -- not because that regime is more popular, but simply because Iran's leaders have had eighteen months to adapt and they are therefore further down the learning curve.
Comment away on what's going to happen in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak's
resignation third unsatisfying speech.
Ironically, I think if Mubarak had said what he just said on the night of his first speech, things would be far more stable. As it currently stands, however, it's painful to hear Hosni Mubarak
referring to himself in the third person trying to give up as little as possible, even as his various power bases erode and more social strata join in the opposition.
I think Mubarak agreed to transfer some powers to his Vice President, and he promised some constitutional chanes. To be honest, however, that wasn't the primary theme of the speech, and I don't think this is remote close to ending the crisis.
I see that The Powers That Be at FP are highlighting my
unconventional wisdom about China's rise on their splash page.
Given the Hu-Obama summit and subsequent flurry of China commentary this week, it's worth highlighting the most absurd data point I cited in that article -- Forbes' magazine's decision to name Chinese President Hu Jintao the world's most powerful individual. Their explanation:
Paramount political leader of more people than anyone else on the planet; exercises near dictatorial control over 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of world's population. Unlike Western counterparts, Hu can divert rivers, build cities, jail dissidents and censor Internet without meddling from pesky bureaucrats, courts.
With these two sentences, the editors at Forbes managed to demonstrate an even shallower analysis of domestic politics than their Dinesh D'Souza cover story on Obama, which I didn't think was possible.
Let's review just a smattering of coverage about Hu Jintao's current ability to exercise iron-willed control over the Chinese bureaucracy, shall we? First, Gordon Chang in The New Republic:
Hu is sometimes called the world's most powerful person -- Forbes magazine gave him that accolade in November -- but he is a weak leader back home. Just how weak was revealed in two startling incidents within the past three weeks. On Tuesday, after the state-run Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute performed the first flight test of the J-20 stealth fighter -- an unmistakable slap in the face of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Beijing at the time -- Hu professed not to know that the test had occurred....
If the Chinese leader was telling the truth, the test flight reveals a remarkable defiance of civilian authority by the flag officers of the People's Liberation Army, an obvious attempt to undermine the military cooperation Hu said he wanted to foster. Or if, as is more likely, Hu did in fact know about the timing of the test, he nonetheless said something that made himself appear inept. One has to wonder about a political system that creates incentives for its top leader to publicly imply that he is both ignorant and weak.
Either way, the unmistakable impression is that Hu seems to have much less influence than is often assumed. This could be due to the fact that China is in the middle of a transition to the next generation of political leaders -- led by Xi Jinping -- who are gaining in power as Hu loses his in the long run up to the actual handover.
Next, the Economist:
China's new raw-knuckle diplomacy is partly the consequence of a rowdy debate raging inside China about how the country should exercise its new-found power. The liberal, internationalist wing of the establishment, always small, has been drowned out by a nativist movement, fanned by the internet, which mistrusts an American-led international order.
Then there's Drew Thompson in -- hey, it's FP!!
China's national security decision-making process is opaque, and so this worrisome disconnect -- who knew what when -- is difficult to ascertain with certainty. It is highly improbable that Hu was unaware of the development of this major military advancement. His role as chairman of the Central Military Commission ensures that he is well briefed about major programs, and he doubtlessly approves their large budgets. What is not known is how much oversight and control the central government leadership in Beijing had over the PLA's decision-making process that lead to highly visible tests at the Chengdu air base just as Gates was visiting China.
And, finally, David Sanger and Michael Wines in the New York Times:
China is far wealthier and more influential, but Mr. Hu also may be the weakest leader of the Communist era. He is less able to project authority than his predecessors were -- and perhaps less able to keep relations between the world's two largest economies from becoming more adversarial.
Mr. Hu's strange encounter with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates here last week -- in which he was apparently unaware that his own air force had just test-flown China's first stealth fighter -- was only the latest case suggesting that he has been boxed in or circumvented by rival power centers....
President Obama's top advisers have concluded that Mr. Hu is often at the mercy of a diffuse ruling party in which generals, ministers and big corporate interests have more clout, and less deference, than they did in the days of Mao or Deng Xiaoping, who commanded basically unquestioned authority....
"There is a remarkable amount of chaos in the system, more than you ever saw dealing with the Chinese 20 years ago," Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser and Mr. Gates's mentor, said Saturday. "The military doesn't participate in the system the way it once did. They are more autonomous -- and so are a lot of others."
Now, to be fair, it's possible that China is learning how to play the authoritarian equivalent of the two-level game. Even if that's true, however, China is playing that game very badly -- and they're playing it in policy arenas that are guaranteed to trigger a balancing coalition rather than accommodation.
OK, contest for readers -- name the award that I want to give to writers who vastly exaggerate China's rise!
Today's Tom Friedman column on China's future is a pretty good one, in that it demonstrates how and why Friedman excels at a craft that flummoxes the best essayists. First, he asks a great question:
[O]ne of the most intriguing political science questions in the world today is: Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?
Then, he makes a coherent argument in less than 800 words that the most populous nation in the world will have no choice but to liberalize and democratize. Friedman's thesis:
The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level....
My reason for believing China will have to open up sooner than its leadership thinks has to do with its basic challenge: It has to get rich before it gets old....
The only stable way to handle that is to raise incomes by moving more Chinese from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more knowledge- and services-based jobs, as Hong Kong did. But, and here’s the rub, today’s knowledge industries are all being built on social networks that enable open collaboration, the free sharing of ideas and the formation of productive relationships — both within companies and around the globe. The logic is that all of us are smarter than one of us, and the unique feature of today’s flat world is that you can actually tap the brains and skills of all of us, or at least more people in more places. Companies and countries that enable that will thrive more than those that don’t.
This argument is clear enough for the average New York Times reader to get it. It's also clear enough for
us foreign policy bloggers in pajamas online analysts to point out where and how he's wrong. In particular, Friedman makes two large errors:
1) It's not clear that China has to get to "the next level" of economic development in order to become the most powerful country in the world. China's GDP could be larger than America's while still possessing only 1/3 the per capita income of the United States. If the rest of China were to enjoy the infrastructure and living standards or, say, Shenzhen, China would be doing quite well for itself. And as Chinese consumers demand more goods and services, the domestic jobs that power the rise of middle-class professionals -- teachers, lawyers, consultants , environmental engineers, travel agents, etc. -- will start to emerge in large numbers.
Just to be clear here -- Friedman is right to say that greater liberty is likely to lead to more innovative growth. My point is that a population of a billion plus people allows the government to focus on intensive growth for an awfully long time and still prosper an amazing amount.
2) In a world of network technologies and externalities, the best and most innovative technology does not always win -- the technology used by the most customers develops the lock-in. China doesn't have to have a technological edge, it just has to ensure that the largest market in the world embraces China-friendly technologies. Hey, come to think of it, you know what institution could ensure that occurrence? The Chinese Communist Party.
[Still, you hope Friedman is right and you're wrong.... right? --ed. Well, in theory yes, but...... after reading this SPIRI paper on China's new foreign policy actors, I'm not so sure. The common thread in that paper is that the more pluralist actors were also the most nationalist. It's entirely possible that a freer China is also a more reckless China.]
I was wondering how the Leveretts would respond to the Ashura protests from last month. Now I have my answer: an op-ed in the New York Times in which they argue "The Islamic Republic of Iran is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided idea that it may do so is becoming enshrined as conventional wisdom in Washington."
Their op-ed is worth a good hard look, precisely because it does push back against the conentional wisdom in Washington. It's not the popular thing to say that the Obama administration should double down on engagement, and I respect that they're willing to make the exact same arguments for engagement that they did before the June protests.
However, it is also worth remembering Drezner's Eleventh Commandment for Policy Wonks: just because you're going against the conventional wisdom doesn't mean you're right.
As the Leveretts note on their blog site, "It is hard to do serious political analysis of a contested political environment when one is, in effect, 'rooting' for one of the contestants." So true* -- but scanning their op-ed, the Leveretts appear to have their own rooting interest. Consider these two paragraphs:
[A]ssertions that the Islamic Republic is now imploding in the fashion of the shah’s regime in 1979 do not hold up to even the most minimal scrutiny. Antigovernment Iranian Web sites claim there were “tens of thousands” of Ashura protesters; others in Iran say there were 2,000 to 4,000. Whichever estimate is more accurate, one thing we do know is that much of Iranian society was upset by the protesters using a sacred day to make a political statement.
Vastly more Iranians took to the streets on Dec. 30, in demonstrations organized by the government to show support for the Islamic Republic (one Web site that opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June estimated the crowds at one million people). Photographs and video clips lend considerable plausibility to this estimate — meaning this was possibly the largest crowd in the streets of Tehran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s funeral in 1989. In its wake, even President Ahmadinejad’s principal challenger in last June’s presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, felt compelled to acknowledge the “unacceptable radicalism” of some Ashura protesters.
The possibility of a backlash to the Ashura protests is certainly an interesting one, and should be explored further. I want to focus on the numbers bandied about in these two paragraphs, however. The first graph suggests that the number of protestors on Ashura ranged from 2,000 to "tens of thousands," placing those as the acceptable bounds. OK, but multiple news outlets, including the New York Times, have mentioned "hundreds of thousands of Iranians" out on the streets on that day. It seems a bit odd to cap the upper bound at "tens of thousands."
The second paragraph suggests a million supporters came out on December 30th in Tehran to support the government, citing one website. OK, but there are other press reports that suggested a much lower number -- "tens of thousands," according to the Los Angeles Times. Again, it seems odd not to suggest the range of estimates.
[UPDATE: as Andrew Sullivan, Scott Lucas, and several commenter have observed, a distinction should be made between government workers told to march without repercussions, and the hundred of thousands risking their lives challenge the Khamenei regime.]
Again, I'm not saying that there were more Ashura protestors than government protestors -- I too would like to see the data on this question presented in an objective manner. I am saying that the Leveretts seem to be cherry-picking their protest numbers -- which makes me seriously doubt the objectivity of the rest of their analysis.
UPDATE: I see that
my FP overlords FP's editors have the good sense to publish Hooman Majd's assessment of the situation in Iran, which is well worth reading -- as is Robin Wright's analysis of recent opposition manifestos in the Los Angeles Times.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Kevin Sullivan at RealClear World is correct to point out that the Leveretts are asking the right analytical questions in their op-ed -- questions others have also been asking. Based on the way they've
skewed framed their data, however, I simply don't put much faith in their answers.
LAST UPDATE: The Leveretts respond in the comments section -- and be sure to check out the follow-ups as well.
*And I should now fully disclose that I've received funding and/or affiliation and/or membership from at least
six seven eight of the organizations now blacklisted by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence (hat tip: Steve Clemons, whose New America Foundation received the double-dip, along with the International Republican Institute).
I've been having some fun at economists' expense as of late, but it's mostly been a form of friendly teasing. The neoclassical economic framework provides some serious leverage to understanding how the world works. It remains an incomplete approach to political analysis, however.
Take, for example, Daron Acemoglu's Esquire essay on the importance of governance to economic development, which is abstracted from his latest project with Jim Robinson. Acemoglu is a top-flight political economist -- which is why I found the following passages so strange:
Laura Secor writes in the New Yorker about the bass-ackward effects of the Iranian government's decision to televise the show trials. I think she misses a key point, however:
Since the disputed Presidential elections of June 12th, about a hundred reformist politicians, journalists, student activists, and other dissidents have been accused of colluding with Western powers to overthrow the Islamic Republic. This month, a number of the accused have made videotaped confessions. But the spectacle has found a subversive afterlife on the Internet. One image that has gone viral is a split frame showing two photographs of former Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Before his arrest, on June 16th, he is a rotund, smiling cleric; in court on August 1st, he is drawn and sweat-soaked, his face a mask of apprehension. The juxtaposition belies the courtroom video, making the point that the only genuine thing about Abtahi’s confession is that it was coerced through torture.
Show trials have been staged before, most notably in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties. Typically, such rituals purge élites and scare the populace. They are the prelude to submission. Iran’s show trials, so far, have failed to accrue this fearsome power. In part, this is because the accused are connected to a mass movement: Iranians whose democratic aspirations have evolved organically within the culture of the Islamic Republic. It is one thing to persuade citizens that a narrow band of apparatchiks are enemies of the state. It is quite another to claim that a political agenda with broad support—for popular sovereignty, human rights, due process, freedom of speech—has been covertly planted by foreigners.
I don't doubt that the broad-based nature of support for change is one reason the show trials have rung hollow. Still, isn't this a case where the medium is the message?
Stalin's show trials were not broadcast on television -- they were reported in state-run newspapers or aired, edited, over state-run radio. This gives the state much greater editorial powers than a live television transmission. Furthermore, as Secor's first paragraph suggests, it's the non-verbal cues that come from television that completely undermine the intended effect of the spectacle.
It is possible that, in the future, more sophisticated CGI effects will allow governments the capacity to digitally edit these images, a la The Running Man, to maximize the desired effect (i.e., making Abtahi look as healthy as he did pre-incarceration). For now, however, such efforts would only look like bad plastic surgery. No, I don't think televised show trials really work at all.
Beyond Iran, have show trials ever worked in the television era? This is a real question, readers. About the only modern example I can think of where a televised trial of a political leader has broken the back of a movement was Turkey's capture and trial of Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) leader Abdullah (“Apo”) Öcalan. Öcalan's complete about-face and rejection of violence during his trial had an effect on the PKK.
I'm not sure the parallel holds up, since most Turks held genuine antipathy for Öcalan and the Kurds. So, the question remains open -- can show trials ever cement an authoritarian government's legitimacy?
Last month 303 prominent Chinese intellectuals signed Charter 08, a document consciously designed to evoke Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. The content of the charter itself, as well as the government's reaction to it, can provide a few hints about what to expect from the Middle Kingdom this year.
Reading the two charters back-to-back is revealing. The Czech document was clear in detailing the repressive nature of the government, but ended on a conciliatory note: "It does not aim, then, to set out its own programmes for political or social reforms or changes, but within its own sphere of activity it wishes to conduct a constructive dialogue with the political and state authorities."
Charter 08, in contrast, says nothing about dialogue. The charter does say quite a bit about the nature of Beijing's regime:
In 1998 the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase "respect and protect human rights"; and this year, 2008, it has promised to promote a "national human rights action plan." Unfortunately most of this political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written. The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.
The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.
The document then goes on to offer a concrete program for political and social reform. It's an ambitious list. These Chartists are not only asking for political and civil liberties. They also want private property rights, separation of powers, a federated republic, social security, and environmental protection.
The tone of the document also makes it clear that these Chartists do not expect to achieve their goals not through a constructive dialogue. Instead, they appear to be banking on a mass social movement that forces the government in Beijing to capitulate to its demands.
According to the New York Times Book Review's Perry Link, "Chinese authorities were apparently unaware of [Charter 08] or unconcerned by it until several days before it was announced on December 10." This might explain their initial reaction, which, by Beijing's standards, was relatively tame. As Charter 08 picked up more online signatures, however, the government's reaction has hardened. The government is also upgrading the software it uses to censor the Internet on issues like this.
So, it would appear that the Chinese government and the Charter 08 dissidents do agree on one thing: a dialogue between the two sides is not going to happen. Absent that option, will there be a mass social movement. Could it topple the communist government?
Authoritarian governments always look like they can maintain their grip on power -- right up until the moment that the coercive apparatus falls apart. Beijing's coercive apparatus has a track record of not falling apart, so the smart money might be on the government. Still, as industrial production in the country continues to tank, the implicit social compact trading political quiescence for rapid economic growth appears to be cracking.
Furthermore, the dissidents are getting cheekier. In addition to Charter 08, China's highest-ranking dissident, Bao Tong, just leveled a broadside against Deng Xiaoping, timed to disrupt the regime's 30th anniversary celebration of the economic reforms launched by Deng. 2009 also marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests/crackdown -- and the Chinese love to mark anniversaries.
Question to readers: is 2009 the year that China's government collapses? Or is it just another year in which there will be a crackdown of a mass uprising? Because those may be the only two options.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.