Managing the Transition

In response to a comment, I think that one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes we’ve made over the years is in not fostering the transition from autocracy to democracy properly in some of the countries we’ve supported over the years. That transition is like farming rather than flipping a switch or winning the lottery, something that happens in a single, wonderful stroke.

In Russia, Iraq, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and even Libya we should have been offering incentives, both in the forms of carrots and sticks, for the autocratic governments to allow the formation of institutions that will, ultimately, lead to liberal democracies. Things like a free press, the rule of law, a robust system of civil law that products the rights of minorities and individuals, and an independent judiciary.

That’s the work of decades, even generations, and I think it’s likely we don’t have the patience for that kind of stewardship. If that’s the case we should prefer stability. Civil wars or chaos in which an order of magnitude more people are killed than the autocrats would have done do not work in our favor.

In the specific case of Egypt, our two best alternatives were either starting decades ago and fostering the development of the sorts of institutions mentioned above or else supporting Mubarak to the hilt. At least we would have had one friend in Egypt.

12 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    That’s the work of decades, even generations, and I think it’s likely we don’t have the patience for that kind of stewardship.

    There’s only one part or American government that would even begin to have the kind of institutional patience necessary for the task. Oddly enough, it is one of the least democratic and liberal institutions in the government. Besides the federal judiciary, Congress and the President, I mean.

  • I think the civil bureaucracy also has the sitzfleisch for the job but it would require a somewhat different relationship between the State Department and the president than has persisted for some time for it to work. Unfortunately, Foggy Bottom isn’t particularly democratic or liberal, either.

  • Susan Glenn Link


  • ... Link

    But the civil bureaucracy doesn’t actually try to accomplish anything going forward other than self-perpetuation. Sometimes the other guys we speak of try for more than that, though they have bureaucratic problems of their own.

    Beaides, they aren’t really positioned for that anymore, as they have been slaves to their hardware.

    What’s really needed is …. Well, no point in discussing it. This government and this civil order are all but dead, and no point in discussing how to fix the problems of others when we’ve given away everything that was really important here. The Republic is dead. Long live the new aristocracy!

  • Ben Wolf Link

    In the case of Russia I’d say that rather than failing to help transition, we totally fucked them. The economic advice our “experts” (some of whom personally benefited from the “reforms”) resulted in crippling damage. Called shock doctrine by Harvard’s wonder-geniuses, the rapid privatization program caused a 40% economic contraction and enabled the rise of the oligarchs.

  • Called shock doctrine by Harvard’s wonder-geniuses, the rapid privatization program caused a 40% economic contraction and enabled the rise of the oligarchs.

    I knew some of the carpetbaggers who, er, assisted in Russia’s privatization program personally. Those I knew had no knowledge or interest in Russia, its history, language, or culture. They were shoehorning the Russian square peg into their preferred round hole. I was horrified.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    Didn’t realize you had some personal experience. Would make for an interesting post.

  • Andy Link

    I’m skeptical the US is capable of managing the transition of other cultures to democracy or western liberal values. Sure, we can provide some incentives to encourage good behavior, but that’s about it and we shouldn’t expect any miracles regardless of the timeline.

  • Andy Link

    “But the civil bureaucracy doesn’t actually try to accomplish anything going forward other than self-perpetuation. ”

    As a cog in that bureaucracy I agree completely. Real, substantive change only occurs in the wake of critical failure – see 9/11 and BENGAZI!

    BTW, this is from the Department of the Obvious:

  • mike shupp Link

    … “only one part or American government ”

    I assume you mean the US military. But even that can’t be counted on. Looking back at the cases where the US can be said to have engaged in productive “nation building”, it seems clear what anomalies both Germany and Japan were.

    Both were thoroughly defeated nations with no real control over their own political or economic destiny. Their behavior during the war had been such that Americans felt justified in re-ordering their societies. The US occupation was forced to be long-term, because of our fear of conflict with the Soviet Union (Germany) and Red China (Japan). The occupation began at a time when Democrats dominated American politics. US foreign policy was formed and administered by “internationalists” and military figures rather than isolationists. Importantly, the US was willing to help along reconstruction in those nations eith substantial funds. Lastly, I suggest Americans in the 1945-60 time period were pyschologically attuned to large scale use of government power than they are today.

    For comparison, I’d point to three war-torn nations that didn’t get such treatment after WWII: The Philippines, and South Korea, both of which fell into dictatorship in the 1960s, with mixed success at returning to democracy, and Taiwan, which is a bit ambigous even today. Korea is perhaps the happiest case; it’s also the one with the most sizable US “military occupation.”

    The first lesson I take from this is that nation-building is laborious and time consuming, and that the US succeeds in the task only when it can find no alternative. The second is that the societies we rebuild will accept such a transistion only if their leaders have absolutely no choice in the matter.

    I think a policy of steering autocratically-ruled nations toward democratic practices by “carots and sticks’ is pretty much doomed to failure — autocrats can die and they can be ousted by broad evough revolts, but they will not often bend. Consider as examples Franco, Salazar, Pinochet, the Shah, Omar Khadaffi, Mubarak, etc. This being the case, the best time for the US to hope to intervene in other nations is at the point when their past government and ruling establishment has been essentially obliterated by a coup or popular rebellion.

  • Since we didn’t take the approach I’ve advocated in any of the countries ruled by the autocrats you list, they neither support nor contradict my point. Sure, autocrats fall eventually. For all we know so may liberal democracies. In some cases that can be over very long periods. That being the case we might consider encouraging the building of liberal institutions in anticipation of that fall.

  • mike shupp Link

    Fair enough. The US hasn’t tried to nudge authoritarian states toward liberal democracy, and that’s as much our fault as local dictators’ zest for controlling their masses. (You might make an exception for Spain, which had arguably converted to the form of a more liberal monarchy on Franco’s death, inspired or coerced by the existence of a European Community, but the credit wouldn’t be ours.)

    However. If the US hasn’t been good at nudging dictators in the past, it probably isn’t going to be much good at doing so in the future. Which supports my argument for doing so when societies are in turmoil, in transistion to an uncertain future state.

    A secondary point — while our government may be bad at pushing dictatorships about, there’s much that might be accomplished by other means. I’m reminded of some anecdotes in the Economist several years back — it seemed that European policemen were troubled by individuals who insisted on speaking to their lawyers and refusing to give testimony because they had not been properly informed of their rights when arrested. Evidently Hollywood had convinced them that Miranda declarations were legal requirements everywhere.

    The US government does have or has had low priority programs (US Information Agency, Radio Free Europe. Voice of America, etc) for spreading American ideals. Perhaps we should beef up our spending and do a better job of replicating them on the internet.

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