The Sweetest Moments for Democracies (and Elections in Failed States)

Obama won, again. Americans were prepared for a long election night, and the potential for a repeat of the Bush versus Gore (2000) counting process. And, despite many (deepening) flaws in America’s democracy, Mitt Romney provided us another of democracy’s sweetest moments at the end of a hard-fought presidential election. Like the losing candidates before him, he conceded defeat and respected the rules of the game. In too many fledgling democracies and weak states, electoral losers do not accept defeat, even when it is legitimate.

Before we move on to challenges of democratization in developing countries, it is worth noting briefly the current challenges to democratic governance in the United States. It is important that Americans and others recognize that the U.S.A. is not necessarily the model democracy that it once was. Here are just a few of the key issues plaguing the American polity:

  • The inability of Congress and the president to seek common ground on big issues facing the country.
  • Rising incivility among citizens and elected officials alike.
  • An electoral system awash in money, and the corrupting influence of that money.
  • Gerrymandered legislative districts, leading to a disconnect between citizens and lawmakers, as well as a more polarized debate.

Although democracy in the United States is not in full health, respect for electoral process is alive and well. If only it were so in many transitional democracies of Africa and Asia.

Laurent Gbagbo

The former president of Cote d’Ivoire refused to leave office in 2010 after his electoral defeat. Gbagbo’s intransigence led to additional armed conflict in this West African state. Photo credit: Paterne (Creative Commons license).

Why is accepting electoral defeat so difficult in new democracies? Let us count the reasons:

  1. Elections are often held under conditions that are not fair. Ruling parties often appoint biased officials who oversee voting. Media coverage is often slanted in favor of those in power. And so on.
  2. Electoral defeat in poor countries often leads to significant loss of income for losers. Mitt Romney will almost certainly make more money outside the White House. Not so for the elites who lose elections in many developing countries. Access to public offices – including the pay, perks, and potential for corrupt dealings – affords huge material opportunities for politicians.
  3. Electoral losers – both elites and ordinary citizens – may face persecution from the winning side.

In the recent decade, numerous states have descended farther into state weakness or failure after disputed elections. Notable cases include: Madagascar (2002), Zimbabwe (2008), and Cote d’Ivoire (2010).

On the other hand, principled and courageous politicians – such as those in Ghana – can sometimes choose sweet democratic moments, and gracefully concede defeat.

What are your thoughts about elections around the world? Could the international community do more to help electoral losers concede defeat?

Obama, Romney, and Schieffer Missed Much of the World

On Monday, October 22, 2012, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squared off in the last of three presidential election debates. The single theme of the last debate was foreign policy. Moderator Bob Schieffer (and the candidates) mostly debated U.S. foreign policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, and Af-Pak, or the core of the Islamic world. There was almost no discussion of Latin America, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or Oceania. What a pity. The graphic below is suggestive of the places discussed in the debate. The size of the labels indicates the prominence of these countries and regions in the debate.

Long Live Nation Building

Nation building has earned a bad reputation in the United States, and that is a shame. When done well, and in the right places, nation building returns big dividends for America and the world. On Monday night, debate moderator Bob Schieffer has a golden opportunity to press Obama and Romney on when and how the United States will be involved in nation building in the next administration. As someone who has spent much of the last decade studying state failure, I believe that this country needs a smarter debate about the risks and opportunities associated with nation building abroad.

The starting place for this debate is a recognition that the U.S. still needs to take a leadership role in rebuilding shattered societies. Yes, America has been badly bruised from our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact, and the current budget woes in Washington, should not distract us from the potential benefits of nation building. Americans benefit when other regions of the world are free, peaceful, and prosperous. Stable states are potential trade partners and allies. Dysfunctional states are potential exporters of disease, illicit activities, and insecurity. Ron Paul and other contemporary isolationists are simply wrong to argue that we can easily insulate ourselves from failed states.

Even as we continue nation building abroad, we must recognize that some countries are not good candidates for success. We should not waste resources and time on hopeless cases. Notably, Afghanistan seems to be just such a case. For part of the twentieth century, the reign of King Zahir Shah provided some impulse toward centralization. The broader theme in the country’s political history, though, is resistance to centralized governance. Most Afghans continue to be suspicious of national governments in Kabul, especially with the effort to re-establish a highly centralized state since 2001. Instead, local identities and institutions remain the key reference points for much of the country. In cases like Afghanistan, where local people are dis-inclined or unwilling to help get their own house in order, the United States and its partners should not pursue active nation building efforts. The best we can do is contain the fallout from these cases of state failure.

While the risk-reward ratio may not be favorable to nation building in all cases, the U.S. and our international partners must wisely stay the course in more favorable environments. In this regard, Obama and Romney would do the entire country a favor by shooting straight in this last debate, which will be focused on foreign policy. When Bob Schieffer asks them about nation building, the candidates should forge a united front in acknowledging that these important missions take time. Under the best circumstances, nation building realistically requires a decade or more to show lasting results. Post-conflict societies and dysfunctional states cannot be reshaped within the course of a four-year presidential term. We need leaders with more honesty and humility about time horizons for success.

While I sincerely hope that Bob Schieffer and the presidential candidates will treat us to a useful civic dialogue on nation building and other vital foreign policy issues, I am not holding my breath. Judging by other indicators of this election campaign, we are likely to get more posturing and grandstanding than substance. Regardless of who becomes president, America urgently needs a popular debate about the merits and pitfalls of nation building around the world.

Brennan Kraxberger is the author of the recently published book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

Geopolitics and American Economic Competitiveness

When I was in high school, I read the classic book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy. In the early 1990s, Kennedy and others were focused on the rise of Japan and the presumed geopolitical decline of the United States. These predictions of imminent American decline were of course wrong, or at least premature.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the effects of automation on the U.S. and global economies. The key point was that contemporary technological innovations are tending to make many workers redundant. Travel agents, secretaries, legal assistants, factory workers, and many other groups of workers are being replaced by computers and robots. Rising productivity is not leading to net growth in jobs, and many economists are warning that we should get used to a “new normal” of higher unemployment (and lower economic growth rates). For the sake of argument, let’s assume that these trends do persist over the next few decades.

If these problematic economic trends persist in the United States, what will that mean for global geopolitics? Here are a few key possibilities:

  1. Military spending in the U.S. will inevitably decline, as even many influential Republicans recognize. Future American leaders will be much less likely to engage in long-term military campaigns like those in Iraq (2003-2011) and Afghanistan (2001-present). The prospects for Pentagon-led “nation building” missions will decline significantly. NATO’s capabilities will dwindle even more than they already have.
  2. Sluggish economic growth and political gridlock in Washington could lead to lack of action on the public debt. In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney aptly used the phrase “on the road to Greece” to refer to America’s fiscal ill health. Though the U.S. has key advantages over Greece, the performance of American political elites over the last 12 years does not bode well for the future. If holders of U.S. public debt demand higher returns and provoke a sovereign debt crisis, the world’s superpower could enter into a period of rapid global retreat, just as Britain did in the 20th century.
  3. Anemic, jobless growth could lead to trade protectionism and economic nationalism reminiscent of the pre-World War II period. True, the Great Recession (2007-) was remarkable for its lack of economic nationalism. But if economic conditions do not improve significantly in the next decade, the World Trade Organization and free trade agreements could become big targets, especially for the Democratic Party.

Just as Paul Kennedy’s prediction of American decline in the late 1980s was wrong, contemporary pessimists could be very wrong about imminent U.S. decline. Economists, after all, do not excel at long-term prediction, despite the grander claims of some. What are your thoughts about recent economic trends in the United States?

Romney versus Obama: “The Choice 2012”

The award-winning PBS program FRONTLINE premiered a new documentary last night, “The Choice 2012.” If you did not get a chance to see the initial broadcast, you should check it out via streaming video. Despite the partisan gridlock in Washington and the dysfunction in Congress, the November 2012 presidential election is crucially important, and particularly with respect to American foreign policy. Especially since the mid-twentieth century, the presidency has been ascendant in its dominance of U.S. foreign policy making. One of the points the FRONTLINE film highlights is President Obama’s aggressive use of covert operations and questionable counter-terrorism tactics. Though the film does not exclusively focus on foreign policy issues, it does provide in-depth background on the two men with the best current chance to become the most powerful political leader in today’s world.

Solyndra and Somalia

In the United States, energy policy, too, has become a hyper-partisan policy domain. If you’re a Republican, you love carbon-based fuels. If you’re a Democrat, you love wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuels. That, at least, is the caricature.

In late May, the Republican National Committee released a television advertisement that references the now-defunct solar energy company Solyndra. The company received a $500 million loan guarantee from the federal government and soon after went bankrupt. Is there a scandalous dimension to the Solyndra affair? Yes, it does seem as though there may have been improper political motivations in the loan approval.

The Republicans’ spotlight on Solyndra, however, is about more than possible political interference in bureaucratic workings. In highlighting the failure of an alternative energy company, this line of attack suggests that the time is still not right for alternative energy sources (other than nuclear power). But what about the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney? On the candidate’s Web site, the message on energy policy is clear: what America particularly needs right now is more domestic production of oil and coal. Sadly, the “issues” menu on the site does not even have a category for the environment (or environmental issues), or climate change / global warming. The Massachusetts governor who once viewed climate change as a serious threat to the United States and the world is now deferring to the current consensus in his party.

Lest you think that this is an anti-Romney rant, let me insert a bit of personal context here. In fact, I am an undecided voter moving in the direction of the Romney-Ryan ticket. The Democrats are vulnerable on issues of fiscal responsibility, and unlike many voters, social issues like marriage and abortion matter to me as much as the economy.

Now, back to American energy policy and the title of this post. For different reasons, the Republican Party has walked away from the conservationist tradition of Theodore Roosevelt on climate change and energy policy. Instead of following the sensible position of party stalwarts like John McCain and John Warner – bolstered with the support of key business leaders – the party has basically embraced climate change denialism. Yes, the fossil fuel lobby is well-financed and powerful. But, the more important factor is grassroots opposition to climate change action.

This inaction is deeply unfortunate. Instead of a bipartisan politics of vision and action – which we could have – we have a country deeply divided on energy issues. The consequences of climate change are already apparent here in North America. Abroad, the effects of a warming planet will hit weak and failed states especially hard. It may be psychologically comforting to wish these relationships away, but it is intellectually and morally wrong. Drylands like Somalia, Pakistan, and Mali may become more arid in coming decades, adding to the immense challenges these countries already face. Food security crises may be particularly acute in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And we could go on.

If Mitt is elected in November, Americans of all political persuasions should urge him and his party to lay aside the narrow focus on fossil fuels, and adopt an “all of the above” energy policy that puts us on a pathway to global leadership and environmental sustainability.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.