2 November 2011
The fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought can be formulated clearly and simply. I would put it like this:
Human agency is constrained by geography.
If that’s the theorem, what’s the proof of the theorem? In the context of the social sciences — and geopolitics is a social science — we cannot provide rigorous proofs, but we can proceed in the spirit of Aristotle’s dictum expressed in his Nicomachaen Ethics (inter alia):
“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”
Aristotle, Ethics, Book I, section 3
We cannot expect mathematical precision in any proof of the fundamental theorem of geopolitics, but we can precisify our thought to the extent possible in the context of the social sciences. Thus our attempt at clarification of the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought must take a narrative form.
How exactly does geography constrain human agency? The actions were are able to initiate are limited by that which is present within our scope of action. The scope of human action is limited by human finitude, although it has been a feature not only of specifically human history, but of all hominid history, to continually extend the scope of human action through the use of technology.
To state the precise scope of human action is to make the concept of humanity precise, since the scope of human action is also the limit of human action, and “A precise concept is a precisely delimited concept.” The delimitation of human action (and therefore also of human being) is now defined by the intersection of technology and human effort. While technology can be finitely characterized, human effort is not to easy to quantify.
It was this intersection of technology and motivation that made possible the initial globalization of the species. The toolkit of our paleolithic forebears — flint knives, spears, spear throwers, bow and arrow, needle and thread — was sufficient to make a living hunting and gathering in almost any ecosystem on the planet, though to do so required specialized knowledge and skills that were refined over long periods of time. Human globalization was slow compared to the lifetime of an individual, but astonishingly rapid by geological and climatological standards. Because of this rapid globalization, the ecosystems into which human beings penetrated have remained mostly stable throughout human natural history, notwithstanding an alternation between ice ages of interglacials.
The walking-pace spread of humanity across the globe was fast enough to cover the earth with human beings from pole to pole (with the exception of Antarctica) in a few thousand years. It was also slow enough for our forebears to learn about local ecosystems as they gradually moved from one biome to another. If you were to take any human being alive today, or any of our anatomically modern ancestors, and suddenly move them from, say, a tropical rainforest to arctic tundra, they would not be able to survive in most cases. But if you made the journey on foot, and flora and fauna would slowly change from week to week, month to month, and year to year, gradually enough that you would learn about the environment into which you had penetrated, and you would incrementally adapt until you had made the transition from tropical rainforest to arctic tundra.
One person could walk this in a lifetime, and today, with the infrastructure of civilization to support them, many people embark on amazing journeys of walking or bicycling or canoeing that are the proof of concept of human globalization. For most of our ancestors, the journey from one side of the world to another was made over several generations, but I would guess that throughout human history, from the paleolithic to the present, that there have always been adventurous individuals who set out into the unknown and went farther than anyone else — probably alone, and therefore not leaving descendants.
With this walking-speed distribution of human beings throughout every ecosystem on the Earth, peoples learned how to live in each ecosystem, what to hunt, what to gather, how to shelter and clothe themselves, and how, in short, to make a living off the land in which they found themselves (or put themselves). Except in rare exceptions as noted above in regard to adventurous individuals, most people stayed within the geographical region in which their knowledge and skills made it possible for them to live. While they would have known of their immediate neighbors in adjacent ecosystems, living slightly different lives according to slightly different customs derived from the specialized knowledge and skills, they would not have known of the world beyond their immediate neighbors except through song and story.
This is essentially the spatial analogue of the temporal separation of generations, that has been nicely told in a story. In his book Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Brian Fagan relates a good thought experiment, as follows:
“Imagine a dinner table set for a thousand guests, in which each man is sitting between his own father and his own son. At one end of the table might be a French Nobel laureate in a white tie and tails, and with the Legion of Honor on his breast, and at the other end a Cro-Magnon man dress in animal skins and with a necklace of cave-bear teeth. Yet each one would be able to converse with his neighbors on his left and right, who would either be his father or his son. So the distance from then to now is not really great.”
Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Chapter 5, “The Ten Thousandth Grandmother”
Fagan attributes this idea to Björn Kurtén, and it appears in Kurtén’s book The Innocent Assassins: Biological Essays on Life in the Present and Distant Past, where Kurtén in turn attributes the thought experiment to Axel Klinckowstrom. Whoever came up with the idea, it gives a wonderful sense of the continuity of the human condition over time.
What Fagan, Kurtén, and Klinckowstrom here formulate in terms of time (and with an emphasis upon language) can also be formulated, mutatis mutandis, in terms of space (and with an emphasis on trade). The dialectic of continuity and separation of the human condition in space is revealed in the fact that each people knows its neighbors and likely trades with them, though they do not know the neighbors of their neighbors. However, trade goods circulated far and wide in the paleolithic world even when humanity did not know itself as a whole. The continuity was there, but it was hidden from us by our limited knowledge.
And then new forms of technology emerged, making global transportation and communication possible. Even before the world was industrialized, ships were trading around the globe, although only a small minority (sailors, to be specific) actually experienced the continuity of the human condition. When industrialization mechanized the technologies of transportation, distances were largely obliterated and world culture was transformed by the knowledge of human continuity and unity. (This is what I called a Stage I civilization when I spoke at the 100YSS symposium last month. I also developed this idea, partly inspired by the comments of my sister, in The Space Age and Addendum on the Space Age.)
Even today, with our propeller-driven ships and jet airliners and road and rail networks, it still requires time, effort, and energy to get from one place to another. It requires much less time now, and a great deal of mechanized energy, to travel beyond the scope of one’s immediate agency, but the point is that it still requires the expenditure of energy — both figuratively and literally — to overcome distance. Thus the calculus of technology and human effort has changed the values of its variables, but the calculus remains true nonetheless. The calculus has been changed by our knowledge of human continuity and unity, but acting on that continuity and unity is subject to the calculus of technology and effort.
And not all socio-technological developments have favored the overcoming of distance. The emergence of settled civilization simultaneously with agriculturalism and urbanization meant that a strong social incentive attached to remaining within a single ecosystem, perhaps within a single ecological niche, throughout one’s entire life. The decline of nomadism meant an abridgement of the scope of human agency, even while other technological developments extended human agency.
The infrastructure of trade and travel created incrementally by settled civilization facilitated global trade, but also perpetuated the regionalism of peoples who were enabled by trade to remain in a single geographical location. The infrastructure of trade and transportation channeled intercourse between peoples, but also indirectly limited contacts — largely, as noted above, to superstitious sailors.
Geography has limited, currently limits, and will continue to limit human interaction. Peoples continue to live in settled societies in which only a minority travel extensively. Trade is similarly carried on by a small minority of the population — it is, in demographic terms, as marginal as agriculture is at present. Nearly instantaneous communications have rendered much travel unnecessary, so that the emergence of global telephony and the internet channels and therefore limits interaction, enabling localism and regionalism to become entrenched in a settled society.
Thus even as technology has relentlessly extended and expanded the scope of human action, suggesting that human action is less constrained by geography than in the past, counter-veiling forces have emerged that have channeled, circumscribed, and therefore limited the scope of human agency, and therefore entrenched the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought in contemporary institutions no less than in the institutions of our ancestors.
The great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, continues to constrain human agency.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
4 July 2011
It is time again to celebrate the revolutionary armed struggle of the American people. The Fourth of July marks the formal beginning of this revolutionary struggle, as it was on this date that the American revolutionaries made their intentions explicit in a Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Thus our revolutionary forebears sought “to alter or to abolish” the only political rule they had ever known, preferring the uncertainly of regime change to government “long established.”
How does a revolutionary cadre go about fomenting revolutionary change? The cadre in the vanguard of radical political change may turn to revolutionary violence. A revolutionary war is the formalization of revolutionary violence, and it was to this expedient that the signatories of the Declaration of Independence turned.
A revolutionary war is a distinct kind of struggle. Reflecting on this today I realized that a revolutionary struggle typically takes the course of completely inverting the gradients of warfare as they are now (loosely) defined, so that the revolutionary gradient begins with contextual warfare (5GW), moves on to moral warfare (4GW), which eventually breaks out into open hostilities in maneuver warfare (3GW). After the initial hostilities of open warfare the struggle settles into attrition warfare (2GW), and as the position of one side or the other is consolidated the struggle becomes cooperative warfare (1GW) based on formal political alliances.
That a revolutionary war is an inversion of the temporal order of the generational conception of warfare, which latter was later refined into the gradient conception of warfare, minus the explicit temporal ordering, tells us much about the modern world, which has been largely forged by revolutionary struggles. In Revolution, Genocide, Terror I argued that these three species of violence are the hallmarks of political modernity.
In short, the modern world, shaped as it is by revolution, is what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of all values, and it is moreover a transvaluation that takes the form of inverting the all preceding values, transforming even the values of armed conflict. Another word for transvaluation is revolution. As Marx and Engels — everyone’s favorite revolutionaries — put it: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (I will, however, point out that these “real conditions” change over time and space, and that is why revolutions at different times and places compel men to face distinct conditions of life.)
While later revolutions would be highly ambiguous in their outcomes, and these outcomes are still debated today, the American revolutionary struggle is the proof of concept of revolution. The American Revolution proved that an established political order could be violently overthrown, its representatives permanently removed from power, and representatives of the people put in power in place of the entrenched interests that had ruled heretofore.
In Sir Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World From Marathon to Waterloo, which I recently quoted in A Short Note on Decisive Battles, Creasy identifies the victory of Americans over Burgoyne at Saratoga as one of these fifteen decisive battles of history (this constitutes the matter of Chapter XIII). As an epigraph to this chapter Sir Creasy quotes Lord Mahon:
“Even of those great conflicts, in which hundreds of thousands have been engaged and tens of thousands have fallen, none has been more fruitful of results than this surrender of thirty-five hundred fighting-men at Saratoga. It not merely changed the relations of England and the feelings of Europe towards these insurgent colonies, but it has modified, for all times to come, the connexion between every colony and every parent state.”
Philip Henry Stanhope Stanhope (Earl), History of England: from the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Versailles. 1713-1783, in seven volumes: Volume VI, 1774-1780, Boston, 1853, Chapter LVI, page 190
In other words, the outcome of the Battle of Saratoga (actually, there were two battles, and these two battles were part of the overall Saratoga Campaign, so all of this should be understood at the operational level of revolutionary warfare) had revolutionary consequences. Lord Mahon thus neatly positions the Battle of Saratoga as the proof of concept of revolutionary warfare.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
15 June 2011
Popular Struggles in the Arabian Peninsula
and the Persian Proof of Concept
The leaders of many powerful Western nation-states (and here I mean not only the US, but also the great powers, or former great powers, of Europe) have a long history of making idealistic foreign policy proclamations that are subsequently deeply compromised both by political realism and the facts on the ground. Sometimes these compromises are swallowed like a bitter pill and buried in the past as quickly as possible, while under other circumstances compromises take on a life of their own and become an ongoing imperative shaping foreign policy from the highest levels of strategy down to the tactical rules of engagement for boots on the ground.
In recent political thought, President Wilson is frequently held up as an example of pious over-reach whose unrealistic ideals, as summarized in the Fourteen Points, gained neither the ear of the Europeans negotiating peace in Paris in 1919 nor the support of the US Congress for US membership in the League of Nations, the latter being one of the few practical outcomes of Wilson’s grand strategy. In regard to more recent US presidents, every president since Wilson has proclaimed Western ideals of freedom, democracy, constitutionalism, self-determination, and rule of law only to abrogate these edifying statements in the name of diplomatic expediency.
This expediency has come at a high cost in the long term, despite perceived short term benefits. Time and again “pragmatic” and “realistic” policies have come full circle with chickens that have come home to roost, and yet time and again these failures of real politik are ignored, brushed aside or dismissed as inconsequential, as though they would go away if only we do not speak of them. The disconnect between idealistic theory and realistic practice has been particularly glaring in relation to US foreign policy in the Arabian Peninsula and the culturally related areas immediately contiguous. Furthermore, insult has been added to the injury of this glaring disconnect by the old canard of “Arabists” in the US Department of State — “old hands” from the region who play favorites and who have an Arabist bias.
If anyone in the US has a long enough memory to stretch back to the last election season, he or she will remember that one of the big foreign policy issues was dissatisfaction with the Bush Doctrine (particularly in its “democratization” permutation) and the perceived “imperial overstretch” that supposedly resulted from attempts to put the Bush Doctrine into practice.
Truth be told, President Bush did give an inspiring speech in which he remarkably called a spade a spade. This was his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on 06 November 2003, which includes the following passage:
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.”
“Therefore the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before, and it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.”
This argument is so startlingly honest that it is hard to believe that a sitting US president said it, except I guess it doesn’t really matter that he said it because Bush didn’t follow his own policy. And if the Bush administration’s tepid enthusiasm for democratization seemed like imperial overstretch, what are we to make of subsequent retrenchments?
Since the rise of the Arabian Peninsula to central strategic importance as a producer of oil for the industrialized economy, those western powers that were among the first to industrialize, and therefore with the greatest thirst for oil, were forced to engage with the region, and this engagement was almost always in terms of a bias toward stability in order to keep the oil flowing. As is usually the case in human affairs, the more the great powers attempted to impose “stability” on the region, the more unstable, fractious, and combative the region became.
Eventually the region became, in Bush’s words, “a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.” The intelligent thing to do would have been to recognize that the attempt to impose stability was a colossal failure, and to execute exactly the kind of policy change that Bush made explicit in his speech but did not practice. The Obama administration’s renewed commitment to “realism” in foreign policy only assured that no such change would be forthcoming, and therefore the region could be expected to be the beneficiary of further efforts at “stabilization.”
Paradoxically, political “realism” in the name of stability and pragmatism often leads to policies that are highly unrealistic and utterly disconnected with the facts on the ground, and for that reason counter-productive. Many of the Western powers have more-or-less surrendered both influence and intelligence in the nation-states now destabilized by the Arab Spring by having followed “realistic” polities of dealing with authoritarian figures, which latter figures struck deals in which they conceded some central Western strategic demands in exchange for non-interference in their personal rule.
The 1979 revolution in Iran is a good example of this. Western intelligence agencies were virtually blind and powerless, utterly overcome by events, because their “political realism” in engaging with the Shah of Iran prevented them from being in touch with a true political groundswell. The CIA preferred AstroTurf to grassroots. It is probably important to point here that this has nothing to do with increasing US reliance of signals intelligence. Whether SIGINT or HUMINT, if you confine yourself to the hermetically sealed reality of isolated dictators, you’re not going to know what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people.
The Western powers, despite catastrophic intelligence failure in Iran in 1979, continue to get Iran wrong time and again. This is extremely important at the present moment, even though the Persians are not Arabs, and Iran is not a member of the Arab League, though the Persians are (obviously) among the peoples of the region, and as such are fully integrated into events in the region. In a larger context, Iran, along with the nation-states of the Arab League, belong to what Samuel Huntington called Islamic civilization. As with any unit of analysis as large as a civilization, this category has some truth to it, but also can distort important details. The short version is that Iran has a place in the Arab world, but it is not Arab strictly speaking. Nevertheless, after the 1979 revolution the government of Iran often positioned itself as representing the vanguard of revolutionary political Islam, and in this sweepstakes it was in competition with the likes of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other radical and militant movements emergent from Islamic civilization.
What is important about the 1979 Iranian Revolution is that it demonstrated that an authoritarian leader backed by the Western powers could be thrown out of power by popular revolution — in other words, regime change through popular revolt was possible. (Does this sound vaguely familiar?) Iran provided the proof of concept of a certain species of regime change. This was an object lesson that resonated in the region, and continues to resonate to this day.
Because Iran often finds itself at loggerheads with the Western powers, the Western press usually presents the policies and initiatives of Iran as either inscrutable or malevolent. Iran is called a “rogue state” or a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.” This is not only a mistake, it is also misleading, and potentially catastrophically misleading. The more Iran is misunderstood as a land of “Mad Mullahs” (as, if memory serves, Le Monde Diplomatique once put it), the less it is correctly understood as the rational and calculating power that it is. The brash style of Ahmadi-nejad has encouraged these misinterpretations, and the Western press has played this up, as it has played up the recent split between Ahmadi-nejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
What happens to a nation-state when it experiences a popular revolution that overthrows an entrenched authoritarian and replaces it with a regime more in keeping with the traditions of the people and the region? Iran is one case study that answers this question. Though the Western press portrays the Iranian Revolution as the transfer of power from one despotic regime to another (much like Soviet “liberation” of Nazi-occupied eastern and central Europe), the Iranians themselves see the 1979 revolution as born of a popular mandate and as instituting a popular government. And, more than thirty years later, Iran remains an Islamic Republic and has not been transformed into a dictatorship or a personal authoritarian regime. This is remarkable, but has gone largely unremarked.
The lesson here is that a popular regime with a republican constitution need not look like a Western nation-state, and we should not expect it to look like a Western nation-state. Moreover, the more that the Western powers try to shape events differently than the form they would take in the absence of this diplomatic pressure, the more things will go sideways, and unintended consequences will multiply exponentially. This is the lesson we should have learned after sixty years of failed efforts to stabilize the region. These lessons moreover demonstrate the true limits of Western power.
The definitive ambiguity in Yemen of which I recently wrote is a direct consequence of western dithering in the face of authentic popular movements in the region. If, after Bush had made his democratization speech, the US had consistently pursued this policy, the US would have been able to seamlessly engage all the popular movements of the Arab Spring. As it is, the US (and, more broadly, Western powers) have been largely dealt out of effective engagement in the region. The Western powers continue to be perceived as backing authoritarian stability over popular sovereignty. As a result, the Western powers have few if any levers to exert pressure over these new regimes, which, one way or another, short term or long term, represent the future of the region. The future, as Shevardnadze observed, belongs to freedom.
The Western powers must make peace with the fact that the popular regimes that will emerge in the Arabian Peninsula — whether these emerge in the short term as a result of the Arab Spring, or whether they emerge in the long term as the result of other events (for even in the long term Saudi Arabia must become a constitutional monarchy that ultimately recognizes popular sovereignty and relinquishes arbitrary royal power) — will result in governments, constitutions, regimes, and policies that are not to liking of the Western powers. Many of these policies will precisely resemble the policies of the more retrograde strongmen once supported in the Western powers. In fact, the reason that authoritarian regimes in the region have pursued the policies they have in fact put in place has been to shore up their credentials of popular legitimacy.
We can expect that some popular governments in Arabia will be virulently anti-Western, and almost none of them will agree to the particular set of compromises that have shaped the previous century. On the other hand, these regions will experience true stability, democratic stability that is stable only because it subordinates change to the rule of law. These popular government will also eventually preside over economic growth that will lead its peoples to resume their traditional roles as traders, middle men, merchants, and tradesmen.
. . . . .
. . . . .
. . . . .
3 March 2011
Some time ago I was reading a list of potential strategic shocks to the world geopolitical system. One of the items on the list was the democratization of China. The democratization of the Arab World was not on the list. This, however, is the strategic shock that the world has witnessed. We call them “strategic shocks” because they are unpredicted, and recent events in North Africa were definitely unpredicted. A year ago no one would have guessed that there would be a civil war in Libya, which is what is essentially happening as I write this. As I wrote in The Geography of Revolution, I do not think that Gaddafi can long endure, but he is putting up a fight.
The definitive work on strategic shocks is Known Unknowns: Unconventional “Strategic Shocks” in Defense Strategy Development by Nathan P. Freier. There is also Blindside: How to Anticipate Forcing Events and Wild Cards in Global Politics, edited by Francis Fukuyama. I have used both terms — “strategic shock” and “blindside” — in several posts.
It is difficult to define strategic shocks in anything other than phenomenalistic terms, since strategic shocks are by their very nature unpredicted and unpredictable. Since they are unpredictable, strategic shocks cannot be confined to a single definition; if we could precisely define the parameters of strategic shock, we would be that much closer to predicting them, and if we could predict them, they would not longer be shocks. However, even if we can’t define strategic shocks in any detailed manner, we can observe that strategic shocks sometimes manifest themselves in patterns, and one pattern of strategic shock is a revolutionary wave.
It could be argued that the “color revolutions” that successively swept through the ‘stans of Central Asia were simply a delayed response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which latter was a true strategic shock of grand proportions (or, if you’re Vladimir Putin, it was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century). Whether or not the “color revolutions” represented a revolutionary wave, recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya suggest a revolutionary wave that may yet encompass more of the Arab world before it is spent.
Freier makes a rough distinction between strategic surprise and strategic shock:
“Shock” and “surprise” are not necessarily synonymous. Surprise is only half of the equation with respect to defense-relevant shocks. They are distinct from other unexpected strategic contingency events in that they are unanticipated and inadequately accounted for to such an extent that their occurrence triggers fundamental strategic and institutional disruption across the defense enterprise. There is no scientific break point between strategic shock and strategic surprise. The boundary separating the two is a function of an event’s strategic impact, the extent of disruption it causes, and the degree to which the defense enterprise anticipated its occurrence in strategy development and planning. High impact contingency events that promise fundamental disruption and occur without the benefit of adequate policy-level anticipation are more likely than not to be strategic shocks.
Tunisia alone might have constituted a strategic surprise, but Tunisia followed by Egypt and Libya together constitute a strategic shock, regardless of what the outcome is in Libya.
Each stage of the North African strategic shock has constituted a new proof of concept for popular revolt in the Arab world. Tunisia demonstrated the mere possibility of successful popular and non-violent revolt in the context of the institutions of North African society. Egypt demonstrated that what happened in Tunisia can happen in a nation-state of much larger size and population, and indeed in a bastion of traditional Arab culture. Libya has demonstrated so far that a popular revolt in the same civilizational milieu can be sustained in the face of armed resistance by an entrenched autocrat, and if the revolution against Gaddafi succeeds, it will prove that popular revolt can be successful against a resisting autocrat willing to hire mercenaries to spill blood to retain his rule.
One of the signs that the events in North Africa constitutes a strategic shock is the demonstrable worldwide response to these events. There have been several stories of Chinese harassing of dissidents and a preemptive security crackdown to put any potential protesters on notice. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family has decided to shower even more money on a population already laboring under a nearly crippling sense of entitlement. In Zimbabwe there was a show of force, Zimbabwe police, military put on show of force, again to preempt protesters. And in Venezuela, Chavez says he won’t condemn Libya’s Gadhafi. Entrenched autocrats who have systematically insulated themselves from their immiserated populations are alarmed and taking action. In same cases, perhaps in most cases, these actions will forestall revolutionary protests; in some cases, these reactionary measures will be too little, too late. And every potential venue of revolution is seething. There was an interesting story on the BBC, Syria: Why is there no Egypt-style revolution?, in which Lina Sinjab wrote:
“The government has taken several measures in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt to reduce the cost of basic goods, especially food. There have been grants for the poor, and reports that civil servants have been instructed to treat citizens with respect. But Syria suffers from corruption that goes all the way up the system.”
Thus far in Syria, this combination of half-measures has kept the populace mostly quiet.
A strategic shock sets up shockwaves, and as these shockwaves break against fragile and brittle regimes, these regimes suffer, react, and — at times — collapse. We are seeing the strategic shock from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya ripple outward, and while we cannot say what will happen next, we can say that the consequences have not yet played out, and more regimes will be shaken by the shockwave.
. . . . .
. . . . .
11 February 2011
The central demand of the protesters in Cairo’s El Tahrir Square has been met: President Hosni Mubarak has resigned his office. Thus according to this limited definition of success, we can call the Lotus Revolution a “success.” But we all know that this is not really the end — that it is, in fact, only the beginning of a process that will eventually define the future of Egypt’s political identity.
Just as we can distinguish long term causes, short term causes, and triggers in the lead up to an event (an historical etiology, if you will), so too we can distinguish long term consequences, short term consequences, and triggers in the aftermath of an event. Mubarak’s departure from office is a trigger for the end of the Lotus Revolution, but the occurrence of a triggering event is not the same as short term consequences or long term consequences.
While the short term consequences will be revealed to us over the coming weeks and months, and the long term consequences will be revealed over the coming years and centuries, there are certain observations that can be made. The more knowledge one has of a given society, the more accurate one’s observations will be. Since I know almost nothing about Egyptian society, I can only speculate in the most general way about the outcome of events triggered by the departure of Mubarak.
One thing that I know holds good across all societies, and which often makes revolutions disappointing, is that there is, in every country, a small group of elite and privileged people who are the ones prepositioned to assume prominent roles in any newly formed government. It is common for a government formed from privileged elites in the wake of a popular uprising to cherry pick a few of the ringleaders of the popular uprising to participate in the government. This gives the masses the impression that their voice has not only been heard, but that they now have a voice in the highest councils of state, and it gives “street cred” to the members of the government who did not earn their street cred on the street. Such appointments are usually symbolic, and they remain symbolic unless the arriviste is exceptionally brilliant and talented and is able to engineer his or her own Machtergreifung.
It is because of the stability of privileged elites across changed regimes that it was possible for a Bourbon monarch to sit on the throne of France and have it said that he had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” since the revolution. The French Revolution was far more radical than the recent events in Egypt, and even the French didn’t decisively rid themselves of their aristocrats, despite their best effort during The Terror to cut off as many aristocratic heads as possible. Therefore I suspect that the Egyptians will not easily or readily rid themselves of the behind-the-scenes power-brokers who are much much responsible for the condition of the country as was Mubarak.
Institutional continuity almost always trumps discontinuity, and in so far as a revolution is an attempt to engineer historical discontinuity, these attempts at social engineering come to grief due to the friction of institutional stability. Institutions can be a social lubricant, and the primary ways of getting things done, but institutions, when opposed, are sources of social friction. That is to say, institutions on the whole possess macro-resiliency in contradistinction to the micro-fragility of particular individuals who people them and represent them. We could call this political symmetry by analogy with the use of the term “symmetry” in physical theory: regardless of political transformations (regime changes), certain things remain true, and among these things that remain true are the influence of the influential, the wealth of the wealthy, and the privilege of the privileged.
Already in Tunisia there has been grumbling on the street that the newly installed government is too close to the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Such things are to be expected, and they are to be expected because they are largely true. People want change, and when people agitate for revolutionary change they want revolutionary change. When a revolution is followed by the same-old-same-old, those who sacrificed for the revolution become frustrated and angry. And we already knew what they did when they were frustrated and angry with the previous regime.
The short term consequences of the Lotus Revolution will be worked out in the power struggles to create a new government. This power struggle will take place between privileged elites, the military, protest leaders like Mohamed ElBaradei, and powerful social institutions within Egyptian society like the Muslim Brotherhood. It is likely that several coalitions will be tried and tested, the fittest will survive, and go on through descent with modification to evolve into a government.
The long term consequences of the Lotus Revolution will be worked out regionally and internationally, as various nation-states and institutions vie to define the future of the region. As I attempted to put across in Popular Revolt in the Arab World, Egypt matters. Egypt has social capital. It has ancient universities with enormous intellectual appeal and authority.
What happens in Egypt resonates in the region. Thus even the narrow sense of the success of the Lotus Revolution is symbolically important. It will certainly lead to some consequences outside Egypt, putting great pressure on autocratic regimes. Here we are at great risk to listening too much to Western commentators who fail to make the correct distinctions between the players in the region. The popular discontent, for example, will not spread to Iran. Iran is an Islamic Republic. It may have repressive policies, but it is nothing like Egyptian society. Iran has a minimal degree of responsiveness to its people. And in Jordan, the Hashemite Dynasty has just enough social capital that the king’s dismissal of his government is not seen in the same light as Mubarak’s dismissal of his government. The events in Egypt will resonate most in the Arabian Peninsula itself, for it is there that we find repressive, unresponsive governments that have in the recent past been producing terrorist malcontents, as did Egypt. If the social malcontents should turn their attention from hatred of the West to hatred of their own oppressive governments (now that regime change in the Arab world has received its proof of concept), then dominoes may begin to fall.
. . . . .
. . . . .