State Secrets and Political Legitimacy

A former U.S. contractor with access to classified materials has helped re-open a debate about tradeoffs between privacy and security. It was surprising, but not shocking, to learn that the Obama administration—and particularly the National Security Agency (NSA)—has been using “big data” methods to troll through the phone records of millions of American citizens. Predictably, administration officials claim that numerous (dozens?) of terrorists attacks have been thwarted by the data mining. Official spokespeople have assured U.S. citizens that NSA and FBI agents have not been snooping on the actual content of their phone calls.

The New York Times and other major newspapers are right to roundly condemn the actions of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Public trust in government was not running very high before these latest revelations. Politicians of both parties have been guilty of over-reach in pursuing what many conclude to be unconstitutional searches. And, although I often disagree with their substantive stances on issues, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should be applauded for pursuing these recent revelations in the judicial system.

The United States is not a weak or a failed state, but my country is struggling with public trust in our system of government. Few dispute the need for state secrets. Even so, the recent Congressional testimony of General (retired) Keith Alexander, NSA Director, adds to citizen distrust of senior officials. In weak and failed states, official half-truths and lies are commonplace. And, ominously for Americans, such lies are often justified in the name of “security.” Who doesn’t want to be more secure? On this point the libertarians have it right: Americans should be more concerned about security from government over-reach.

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Failed States, Counter-Terrorism and Obama

Last week, President Obama delivered an important foreign policy speech, which has significant bearing on the future of weak and failed states. In contrast to the wide-ranging aspirations of Bush’s “War on Terrorism”—and even some of Obama’s earlier rhetoric about global counter-terrorism efforts—this speech set forth a modest foreign policy agenda.

During most of the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), the grand narrative of global counter-terrorism dominated official rhetoric. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that America and other stable democracies were fundamentally threatened by weak and fragile states. The experience of Afghanistan was used as the main example of how a failed state could become the source for global attacks.

In reality the Bush administration never had the resources, time, or political will to develop a truly global response to threats emanating from failed states. Even if Bush’s rhetoric matched policy realities, failed states have never primarily been terrorism-related threats. Yes, Yemen and Somalia could certainly be added to the discussion involving Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even so, the primary security threats associated with failed states are more local in character.

Obama’s recognition of the obvious last week is worthy of praise: Americans do not have the patience and spirit of sacrifice to sustain an unending, meddlesome global counter-terrorism effort. (Nor do Americans really want to engage in long-term nation building projects as part of a global counter-terrorism strategy.) Besides, such an undertaking was never really achievable anyway. Citizens and leaders in a democracy should be able to call out hubris when necessary. Particularly in an age of budgetary austerity, the U.S.A. has no business sustaining an open-ended illusion that one powerful country can remake vast regions of the developing world for its own ends.

Hope for Somalia?

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu in wilder days, prior to the African Union peacemaking mission. Photo credit: ctsnow (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Al-Shabab is in retreat. The country has a new president respected by many at home and abroad. Foreign donors are pledging significant new aid. Peace is taking hold in larger portions of the country. This is a season of hope in Somalia. Or, at least it seems that way to outside observers.

But what are Somalis envisioning for their future? Are ordinary people eager for a federal system held together by a Mogadishu-based central government? The new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has impressed Britain, America, and other key states with his rhetoric about a decentralized political system. No significant tasks have yet been completed on the path to a federal Somalia.

Like Afghanistan, Somalia does seem to be an appropriate candidate for shared power between local and national governments. Both countries have long histories marked by intense political loyalties rooted in local communities. Both countries have cultural foundations in pastoral lifeways.

In the case of war-ravaged Afghanistan, federalism is the road not taken. The Hamid Karzai era has been one of centralized political power, backed by foreign military might and international aid.

In Somalia, President Mohamud may yet prove skeptics wrong by pursuing and constructing a democratic federal system in this failed state. Developing a federal structure is hard, even in more favorable environments than Somalia. To succeed, federations need strong momentum in favor of democracy and the rule of law. And decentralized systems require particularly strong courts, in order to sort out power struggles between local governments and the central government.

Putting all of these challenges aside, it is still not clear that most Somalis want a modern state—federal or otherwise. Western governments, the African Union, and the UN may all desire a reconstructed Somali state. Perhaps most Somalis continue to see the modern state taking more than it gives. If that perception continues to hold sway at the grassroots level, maybe the latest state building effort in the Horn of Africa is just old wine in new wineskins. I welcome feedback from those on the ground in Somalia.

Business Climate and Failed States

This morning I launched a new business. Although I had to fill out many forms and submit fees to various government agencies, this process has been remarkably easy. In fact, I live in a country that offers helpful public resources to support entrepreneurs. For  entrepreneurs in failed states, starting a business is an arduous and expensive task, and one that is frequently abandoned.

People can reasonably disagree about how much businesses should be regulated. Most, however, would concur with the sentiment that the private sector should be restrained no more than necessary. This principle is especially important with regard to forming a new business. If it is too difficult to legally form an enterprise, whole economies suffer. The dynamism of free markets is suppressed. Prospective entrepreneurs will remain without work or under-utilized as employees of existing companies. And black markets will flourish.

The Burden of Bureaucracy

This collage features Franz Kafka and Max Weber, two authorities on bureaucratic obstacles. Illustration credit: Harald Groven (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

It will come as no surprise that it is very difficult to start a business in failed states. Beyond the challenges of poor infrastructure and under-educated populations, poor governance hinders entrepreneurial activity. Each year the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal publish an “Index of Economic Freedom.” I don’t agree with all of the ideological judgments behind the index, but it is nonetheless a very valuable dataset.

One of the ten criteria assessed in the index is “Business Freedom,” which is defined as follows:

Business freedom is a quantitative measure of the ability to start, operate, and close a business that represents the overall burden of regulation as well as the efficiency of government in the regulatory process. The business freedom score for each country is a number between 0 and 100, with 100 equaling the freest business environment.

Poor performance on this criterion is common among failed states. Poor performers on “business freedom” are frequently referred to on this blog. These countries include: North Korea, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Myanmar (Burma).

In contrast, my home state of Virginia offers a “Business One Stop,” for new businesses. And, based on my experience, Virginia deserves the praise it receives for business friendliness. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of local boosterism.)

Geopolitical Hotspots

Aleppo, Syria

A fire provides lighting in a bombed-out apartment building in Aleppo, Syria, December 26, 2012. Photo credit: Freedom House (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Syria’s diverse coalition of rebels is gradually closing in on Damascus. The experience in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, suggests that the rebels may face a drawn-out fight for the capital city. Government loyalists in Aleppo continue to control parts of the urban area. This week, the Israeli government is charging that the Assad government has “repeatedly” used chemical weapons over the last month. Sadly, intelligence gathering in Syria is very poor right now, arguably a casualty of austerity cuts in the West.

Aden, Yemen

The photo shows part of a poor district in the city of Aden, Yemen. An estimated 20,000 refugees inhabit this district of 50,000 people. Photo credit: European Union (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Yemen faces many challenges, including dwindling oil and water supplies, trans-national terrorist activity, and a surging secessionist movement in the South. Twenty-three years after the northern and southern regions were united, at the end of the Cold War, southerners remain unsure about the wisdom of the unification. As the photo suggests, Yemen is also located near the volatile Horn of Africa region.

South China Sea Disputes

Pictured are a United States Navy supply ship and helicopter in the tense South China Sea region. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Even while world attention has been focused on North Korea’s provocative bluster, the maritime disputes in East and Southeast Asia still simmer. The multi-state dispute over small islands in the South China Seas is very much ongoing. China has recently announced plans to send tourists to the Paracel Islands, which are disputed with Vietnam, but administered by Beijing. This area borders the larger Spratly Islands zone, parts of which are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and the End of the Cold War

Is the end near for North Korea’s repressive governing dynasty? With the recent escalation of military tensions in Northeast Asia, it does seem as though the regime led by Kim Jong-un is more brittle than ever. The DPRK’s ratcheting up of tensions with South Korea, Japan, and the United States is most likely a response to internal threats to the governing clique. What is often missed in contemporary news coverage is the increasing flow of independent information to the citizens of this “peculiar failed state.”

In the 1980s, new flows of independent information helped lead to the fall of communism in the Soviet sphere of control in Europe and the U.S.S.R. Radio broadcasts and other flows of information provided an unflattering mirror for those behind the Iron Curtain. In the case of the old Soviet bloc, political liberalization from above facilitated the emergence of a new mass consciousness and political revolution.

In the North Korean context, technological advances – including devices as simple as personal computers, digital tablets, and memory sticks – are offering ordinary citizens more and more alternatives to regime propaganda. Illegal mobile phones, too, are an important part of the new societal reality.

In the West at least, the saber-rattling of the DPRK is attracting only mild interest. Perhaps Americans and others have simply grown too accustomed to the threatening rhetoric of the North Koreans. Let us not forget, though, that Kim Jong-un still presides over a massive conventional army and nuclear warheads. If the country’s rulers deem their internal political situation sufficiently desperate, they could push the United States and its allies to test a new “counter-provocation” plan. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. and South Korea recently agreed to a ‘counter-provocation’ plan under which they would respond proportionately to a North Korean attack but avoid escalating to heavier weapons or additional targets.

If serious fighting breaks out, it may be difficult to quickly de-escalate the conflict. Let’s hope the North Korean people will figure out a stable and sure path to political revolution before Northeast Asia erupts in widespread fighting. I am not too optimistic about this prospect. What are your perspectives on the Hermit Kingdom?

Wikipedia and the idea of a “Failed State”

Wikipedia is not dying

Photo credit: Niccolo Caranti (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

As a former university professor, I have heard wildly varying perspectives on the reliability of Wikipedia as a reference source. Some educators have so reviled the Web site that they have created the perception among some students that Wikipedia should never be used in academic work. Personally, I do not take such a hardline view on this information commons encyclopedia. I have found the site to be remarkably helpful, especially when dealing with more obscure topics that do not attract undue bias and controversy. Independent, systematic comparisons of Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedias have also given support to the former. And, over time, Wikipedia’s leaders – both formal and volunteer – have reigned in some of the worst abuses on entries related to well-known persons and organizations.

So, how does Wikipedia fare with respect to the idea of a “failed state”?** As for basic discussion, I would say pretty good. Here is a key excerpt:

A failed state is a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. There is no general consensus on the definition of a failed state. The definition of a failed state according to the Fund for Peace [i.e. the organization responsible for the annual “Failed States Index”] is often used to characterize a failed state:

– loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein

– erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions

– an inability to provide public services

– an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community

My main point of argument with the above excerpt is the assertion of, “no general consensus on the definition of a failed state.” As one commenter on the associated Wikipedia “Talk” page points out, it is questionable whether a term without a widely accepted definition even deserves its own entry in an encyclopedia.

The authors are right to identify the Fund for Peace as a key reference point in discussions of failed states. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, the Washington D.C.-based think-tank enjoys disproportionate influence on this topic, partly because of the organization’s success in marketing their reports through the magazine Foreign Policy. Nonetheless, glossy, high-powered marketing does not necessarily mean that the analysis is the best available.

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry gives excessive prominence to the Fund for Peace publications. The entry does rightly note the charge that the term failed state is “sensationalist.” Over-use or over-application of a concept – as is annually done in the “Failed States Index” – tends to provoke a negative reaction to the core concept. Mis-application of a concept should not lead us to discard it, though.

 

** Note: Part of the genius (and the difficulty) of Wikipedia is its dynamism. Most content on the site can quickly be updated and revised. So, this review of the “failed state” entry on Wikipedia is simply based on the article content as it appeared on April 1, 2013.