Strategic Shock in North Africa

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.

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