Monday, September 19, 2011

Dragging History into R2P

The people rise up against the autocrat and don’t quite succeed in throwing him out, but he finds he must accede to a quasi-parliamentary, somewhat representative government being formed. But he doesn’t like it and, after a first attempt at cooperation or cooptation, goes for all-out undermining.

That’s not quite like what is happening in the Arab world today. The autocrats are getting thrown out, although we might consider Iran’s response to its riots of a few years back and a possible outcome in Syria.

In rising up, the people learned how to form political parties, but the oppression of the autocrat kept them from learning how to work across parties, to form coalitions that could manage a government. The government after the revolution was susceptible to the autocrat’s manipulation because of that inexperience. But they managed to unite against the autocrat and throw him out the second time around. That took more than a decade.

Tracking more with the Arab revolutions.

But the inexperience kept the government ineffective. Plus the newbies were dealing with a bunch of difficult problems. One particularly ideological and ruthless faction managed to gain ascendency in the capital but far from full control. It was disliked by the nations that had considered themselves allies under the old order and it had to make difficult decisions that further alienated them.

We haven’t gotten to this point yet. All new governments emerging from autocracy are likely to have these problems. And it’s not surprising that ideological and ruthless factions are more likely to win out.

I’m talking, of course, about the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. I’m continuing to read histories of that time, and the parallels to today’s Arab world are many. There are also significant differences; for only one, the new Arab governments aren’t facing a devastating war with commitments to several other nations. Current read is Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, by W. Bruce Lincoln.

There is an argument going on across the blogosphere started by Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and recently the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. She has been arguing for a doctrine called responsibility to protect (R2P), which says that if a country is treating its people badly enough, other countries should intervene.

The problem with that doctrine is that there’s an earlier one, the doctrine of sovereignty, that comes out of the Peace of Westphalia, agreed in 1648, that says that nations should keep their noses out of other nations’ business. That was a great step forward in ending some of Europe’s wars, which had been based on what might have been called responsibililty to protect co-religionists in other countries.

As usual, I like to take a historical look at these things. History is the data of international relations.

And I’m fascinated by Russia’s history over the last century and a half. How could they have gotten so many things (not everything, but a lot) so badly wrong? The revolutions of the early twentieth century were a critical turning point.

Because those allies, Britain and France particularly, were concerned about both the nature and direction of the changes in Russia, they wanted to throw their support to those (the Whites) fighting against those who had seized power (the Bolsheviks, the Reds). They persuaded the United States and Japan to intervene with them by sending troops to the two ends of the country. This effort was half-hearted, however, and poorly thought out. The internal factions of the Whites were as eager to fight each other as the Reds, and their organizations were riddled with corruption.

So now we get to the intervention part. It didn’t work out well. It firmed up the Bolsheviks’ sense that they were fighting those who had been Russia’s allies in the Great War, and they never forgave them. One difference with the Arab revolts is that Russia is an enormous country, and the logistics were horrible, so the interventions were doomed from the start. The Arab countries are much smaller, and NATO and the United States could pulverize them from the air if that were consistent with objectives. But the objective of R2P is ostensibly humanitarian, so that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for less praiseworthy objectives either. For one, it would be nice to keep the oil-production infrastructure operating.

The issue of factions is more to the point. We really don’t know how many of them there are in the Arab states, what they want, or how they plan to get it. We don’t know which ones are more democratic and which are more ruthless. Some of that can’t be known until one or more come to power. So, for those advocating intervention, it’s hard to choose which factions we should be backing. Deniken in southern Russia? Iudenich in the Baltics? One of the would-be emperors of Siberia? Size, again, suggests that there will be fewer factions, although Estonia, with a population of a million and a half, boasted forty political parties in 1991, and its politics were much more developed than in the Arab countries.

This post so far is pretty much at cross-purposes to Slaughter’s arguments, the latest of which are here. I’m not going to take apart that post in great detail; just a few cautions on the nature of her arguments.

She’s got a few false dichotomies.
Given this reality [that new Arab governments are likely to be anti-American], why aren't scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombley and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn't we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son?
Plus some internal contradictions; she says that her post is about the networked nature of societies and then uses an analogy to tennis (in contrast to the Cold War’s chess) to illustrate that. But “networked” implies multiple players, and both chess and tennis are two-player, not networked.

Her post is also loaded with abstractions, something she recognizes toward its end. Why not look at societies where some of these things have happened? That’s history, the data of international relations.

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