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February 9, 2012

Strategizing for a World Aflame

by Mike M

Leon Aron has a tremendously important article up at Foreign Policy today.  Its bottom line—based on extensive recent travels and discussions with hundreds of Russians—is that the Russian middle class, intelligentsia, and Moscow elite is done with Putin.  The end of Putinism may not look like a classic “revolution,” but change is coming, because the system is bankrupt and cannot bring Russia where educated Russians want to go:  Toward what the West has.

“The dynamics of Russia’s latest breakthrough to post-authoritarian democratization appear to be very similar to the ones that drove Southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, and Spain) in the 1970s and the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan) in the 1980s,” Aron argues.  “And after a period of record economic performance, a hugely expanded global middle class is no longer content to enjoy unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity—its members want political liberty and a say in governing their countries.  This is where Russia finds itself today.”

And thus to his prediction.  “Although the end may come as early as this spring and summer,” Aron writes, “following inevitable national protests once Putin is elected in March, we can almost certainly bet that Putin will not serve out his first six-year term (which would end in 2018) and that absolutely without doubt he won’t see out a second.”

So between recent color revolutions and now the Arab Spring, as demands for change take deeper root in China and Russia, the United States is going to be grabbing the seat of its chair, trying to steady itself during one of the most turbulent moments in recent history.  And one of the most profound questions US leaders will face in coming years will be, What strategic principles can inform US policy through such a maelstrom of change?

Here’s one possible issue:  There is a substantial risk that tremendous attention will be given to the popularity contest of the revolutionary period in such situations, rather than to the much more important issue, which is now playing out in North Africa:  Effective governance and a stable transition to legitimate, stable regimes in the aftermath.  And one resulting principle of strategy therefore ought to be that we ought to focus much more energy on on laying the groundwork for such post-transition stability.

The justification is clear enough:  Destabilized transitions in such countries are perhaps the most likely route to conflict in coming years.  If the Arab Spring spirals into poor governance, economic mismanagement, and unmet promises of constitutional reform, frustration and grievances will rise, and angry crowds of youth will turn out once again into the street—only this time, the secular-democratic avenue for change will have run its course, and extremist messages will have more purchase.  Meantime a destabilized, economically weak Russia or China is just the sort of state that would go shopping for foreign adventures as a distraction from domestic unrest, or witness the rise of extreme nationalist parties.  It was out of such contexts that the National Socialists appeared.

And yet we will spend countless hours—on news broadcasts, in the pundosphere, in counsels of state—worrying about how to ensure that we stay on the “right side of history,” trying not to “discredit” ourselves during the drive toward democracy—in other words, about the lead up to the transition, rather than the transition itself.  This is, to be sure, an important issue, and the Obama administration has rightly attended to it.  But given US interests, the solution is almost predetermined.  It’s going to be a balance:  Powerful statements showing sympathy with those lunging for freedom, without making a decisive break with the existing regime (from which we need various important things) until the last minute.  Lest we forget in the post-Libya elation, that was pretty much our stance on Tunisia and Egypt.  And besides, there’s an argument to be made that unless you completely screw up this balance, people can forgive a lot.

The far bigger strategic challenge is not that we’ll become unpopular or “lose legitimacy,” but that the situation in a transitional country will become radicalized.  To be sure, we—and in fact the whole outside international community—will have only so much influence on such situations.  But our priority task is to plan strategically to be ready to lay the groundwork so that when change does come, the result is positive, stable, and rewarding.  Examples would be:

  1. Work with members of democracy movements to build capacity in necessary governance areas such as public finance, public administration, local politics etc.
  2. Build pre-drafted roadmaps of constitutional reform with reform movements.
  3. Design international coalition of states that have passed through similar transition, derive best practices, get commitments of technical assistance specialists from each.
  4. With international financial institutions and representatives of major financial powers, develop ready-made financial measures to implement at regular intervals to inject life into the transitional economy—capital, investment, aid, loan forgiveness, if it applies.
  5. Send diplomats to meet with foreign ministers of neighboring countries and work out diplomatic initiatives—confidence-building measures, dispute resolution mechanisms—to put in place as the transition begins.
  6. Quietly build a coalition in Congress around the idea that a healthy transition is essential to US national security, and investments in same are worth the price, so they will step up to support such measures when the time comes.
  7. Etc.

Of course, all of this could be done to various degrees:  Publicly and internationally; or covertly, in a secret office, with all the ideas laid out and only brought forth and offered for global consumption once the transition had begun.

No matter how it’s done, though, this will sound ludicrous to diplomats whose job is to work with the governments currently in place.  It will sound like an agenda for regime change.  It will look, in fact, not unlike some of the memos cooked up in Douglas Feith’s offices in 2002, dealing with Iraq.  This is, of course, the roadblock to such ideas:  To the regimes involved, they will look like preparations to drive them from power.  The concept is only to prepare for expected transitions, not plans to generate them.  That won’t make them any more palatable to most bureaucracies, of course, or to the regimes whose names appear on the subject lines of the relevant memos.

But the question remains.  If we believe that dramatic change is coming to key countries; if we believe that the outcome of the resulting transitions has massive implications for US national security interests—is there any responsible alternative but to prepare to exercise a positive influence on those transitions?

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