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.

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.

Lindsey Graham and Syria’s WMD

The Obama administration is facing renewed calls for direct American intervention in Syria’s war. One of Obama’s key critics in the Senate is Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. Graham is a key Senate leader on military and foreign policy issues, and his views often influence members of both political parties. The following excerpt, which quotes Graham, is from the Washington Post:

Syria is “going to become a failed state by the end of the year” if we don’t intervene, Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He warned that “we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program…. The whole region is going to fall into chaos.” (bold emphasis added)

In March, after allegations of chemical weapons use emerged, Senator Graham advocated the deployment of American soldiers to secure weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites in Syria. Earlier this week, the South Carolinian seemed to back away from this more aggressive military option.

Even though the American public is war-weary, Graham and others in Congress are right to press the Obama administration on Syria. This key Middle Eastern state is headed for state failure. The longer this two-year war drags on, the more political and security fall-out there will be for Syria, its neighbors, and the rest of the world. As one example, the United Nations is projecting that as much as half of Syria’s population will be displaced inside or outside the country by the end of this year, if current trends continue.

Despite his tough talk about a chemical weapons “red line,” President Obama seems to be in no mood for war. Lindsey Graham may be right about the need for American military involvement in Syria. It is a frightful prospect to consider a failed state with devastating, unsecured weapons. It is far from clear, though, that intervention would arrest a slide toward state failure. The long-term record on failed state interventions is, at best, mixed. Foreign interventions can hasten state failure, too.

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.

Bucking the Global Trend: Africa’s Economic Growth

Europe’s economic funk continues. Japan’s aging society is struggling under a huge pile of public debt and slow GDP growth. Recovery in the United States is about what can be expected from a post-financial crisis expansionary cycle. And in China, Communist Party leaders are adjusting to much slower growth. In much of Africa, though, growth prospects are strong, if we can believe aid agencies such as the World Bank and USAID.

On April 15th, the Washington-based World Bank issued a periodic check-up on Africa’s near-term growth prospects. Partly fueled by high commodity prices – especially for energy resources and minerals – continental growth is forecasted to be more than five percent per year over the period 2013-2015. The optimistic forecast also highlights the impact of increased consumer spending in many countries south of the Sahara, including places like Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, and Mozambique. Indeed, many sub-Saharan states have seen above-average growth rates for more than a decade, leading to some reduction in still-high poverty rates. The diffusion of mobile phones and more predictable macro-economic conditions are key factors leading to better growth prospects.

USAID and the World Bank are probably right about continued high commodity prices. Even if some of this new African wealth is squandered through corruption, better terms of trade will lift many ordinary people out of poverty. A cautionary word is in order, though. Enclave-based development – especially if it involves oil or high-value minerals – can facilitate political instability and armed conflicts. Think diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola, numerous precious resources in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and oil in Nigeria. In short, over-reliance on mineral and energy exports can lead to so-called “rentier states” (and failed states) that do not necessarily promote broad-based human development. Careful observers of the DRC and Nigeria know about the “resource curse” all too well.

So, boosting international trade between Africa and other continents is set to grow significantly in coming years. With luck and better governance, many states will avoid the worst excesses of the resource curse.

The perennial problem of limited inter-state trade in Africa also requires urgent attention. Vast distances, colonial legacies, poor governance, and under-investment in transportation infrastructure have all contributed to high costs of trade throughout much of the continent. As USAID indicates,

Trade among African countries makes up only 10 percent of the region’s total trade volume. In East Africa, it costs 50 percent more to move freight one kilometer than it does in the United States or Europe, and in landlocked countries transport costs can be as high as 75 percent of the value of the goods they are trying to export.

Like South Asia (India and its neighbors), Africa possesses huge potential for growth in intra-regional trade and investment. This potential will only increase if Africa’s middle classes continue to swell.

The economic news out of Africa is relatively good, particularly compared to the world as a whole. Still, it is worth remembering the continent’s patchwork pattern of progress on governance, peace, and economic reforms. The overall trend is clearly positive, but recent news out of the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and the DRC reminds us that progress is geographically uneven.

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?