Friday, November 01, 2002

Yesterday evening I attended this lecture at the London School of Economics on the subject

From Inter-regnum to General Crisis: a discussion on trends in international politics now.

Professor Gwyn Prins of LSE’s European Institute, author of the book Heart of War and Professor Jack Snyder of Columbia gave their thoughts on the subject: they then discussed it with Professor Margot Light and Dr Karen Smith of LSE, and there was finally a brief question and answer session.

I took notes throughout, and what I will do is summarise what each speaker said, and give my own thoughts in italics. It is quite possible that I have made one or two errors, but I think I have the gist of the arguments pretty much correct.

Professor Prins.started by commenting that he had been in St Petersburg at a seminar last week discussing the question of terror and terrorism. Both he and the head of the institute he was visiting in St Petersburg were of the opinion that September 11, Bali, and Chechnya were not part of a single global struggle, and that the US was not in fact the primary target of September 11. This was prior to the terrorist attack in Moscow last weekend.

That said, he does believe that we are at a profound shift in International relations, but that terror is not the primary motivation for this. We are at a point where the ability to distinguish friends and enemies is getting harder, and this is a classic sign of a revolutionary moment. We have been in a period of interregnum since the end of the cold war, and we are now moving to a General Crisis. The 1990s were a decade of lost opportunities. The golden moment with Russia was lost, the ability of the UN to remake itself with post cold war executive authority was lost, and there was a lost chance to pre-empt AIDS and looming environmental crises.

I would like to know his thoughts on what he thought would have been the way to seize the golden moment with Russia. As far as I am concerned, Russia's principal problems still come from the fact that it suffered 70 years of communism, and that institutional reform is hard after this. Yes, the west tacitly supported a badly botched scheme of privatisation, and supported some leaders who were venal and undemocratic, but the question is whether it was reasonable to expect better given Russia’s history and the institutions in place, or lack of institutions in place

We have at this point in time reached a situation where Russia may not be a friend but certainly isn’t an enemy, and where Russia slowly continues to evolve into something more democratic and market oriented. We may not have won Russia, but we certainly haven’t lost it either.

Professor Prins went on to argue that this was the first General Crisis since the 18th century. The previous one ended with the French revolution. As he sees it, a General Crisis is a time when it is unclear who is hegemon and there is a reworking of the social contract between citizens and society. He sees a massive withdrawal of population from formal politics in the rich world as a demonstration of this. This is a rich world phenomenon: in the poor world people have never been connected to formal politics and these countries run on informal economies anyway.

Maybe I misinterpreted him, but I think it is very clear who is hegemon at the moment. Perhaps he was arguing that the General Crisis is the point at which the hegemon becomes clear, and it may be that this is the moment where the US hegemony is made formally and structurally clear, so I probably agree with the reworking of the social contract point of view.

There are a variety of second order phenomena that go with this general crisis:

1. The collapse of the post colonial settlement that was established in the immediate post WWII years. Such things as the global illegal drugs market and ecological stress have contributed to this. In any event, the doctrine of “development” as a successor to colonial rule seems to have failed.

2. 20th century institutions such as NATO, the EU and the UN are on their last legs. NATO died last year when article 5 was activated and the following war was not fought on a NATO basis. The EU failed to deal with the war in the former Yugoslavia, it has had a collapse of popular support, and enlargement is problematic. The UN failed in a chance of gaining executive power as did the league of nations. It’s megaconferences have become a joke. France and Russia are playing their cards in the security council, but this is the last throw of the dice.

3. The American Imperial moment has arrived. The last time we saw such a mixture of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ power from the same source was in the Augustian period of the Roman Empire. Americans are reluctant to be imperial, at least partly due to their country coming into existence as a reaction against imperialism. Life would be easier if the Americans were less in two minds over this.

Professor Snyder followed up by saying that he less convinced we were at a singular moment in history, and in the long term he was less negative. He thought that in the long term we are heading for peace. Three reasons

1. No democracy has ever fought another democracy. He said that this was true if you were strict enough about your definition of democracy and your definition of war. This got a laugh. Most major powers are now democracies. This has never been true before.

2. The Scope of Civil Society is now greater than ever before. The international networks that now exist are powerful “tools of argument”. These networks are undergoing practical work, eg banning anti-personnel landmines.

3. The rise of US hegemonic power could entrench the above, if the US gets behinds these trends.

We have one speaker talking about the withdrawal from formal politics, the other talking about the scope of civil society being greater than ever before. I wonder if this is true civil society, or a sort of elite version. This sort of civil society certainly seems disconnected from me.

However, in the shorter term, the news is less good, as each trend increases the chance of war in the short term. If things go wrong because of this, the long term positives could be derailed.

The early stages of transition to democracy increases ethnic conflict, eg Yugoslavia, Burundi, the Caucasus, Indonesia, Nigeria. In these circumstances the old elites have wrapped themselves up in nationalism. New elites have also made popular appeals to ethnicity. This is especially dangerous where you get stuck in partly democratic partly authoritarian mode with weak institutions. Compare Burundi with South Africa. In Burundi, aid donors in 1993 pushed for democratic elections. There were no institutions in place, so this made things worse and it led to a massacre. In South Africa, there were procedures for elections, and the rule of law did exist. Some of the laws may have been reprehensible, but the rule of law did exist. Hence the transition in South Africa was relatively peaceful and successful. The sequence for the transition to democracy has to be got right. Institutions have to be in place first.

It helps to give the old elite a safe landing. Essentially they have to be made “weak but happy” in the new regime. Most of the easy cases for transition to democracy have happened: eg South Africa, Korea, Taiwan. In the future we have more Indonesias and Burundis.

I found the example of Korea in particular to be interesting here: I am not sure it proved the argument. 40 years ago Korea was extremely poor and ravaged by war, and I doubt it did have much institutional structure. In 1955 it really looked no better than many of the countries in Africa. Over 40 years it has evolved to being rich and democratic. (As an economic growth story it is an interesting one too, as everyone else that has evolved from poor to rich in that time had rather more to start with. I don’t think Korea had great institutions to start with. It had 30 years of military rule and corruption. And it evolved to democracy successfully. Okay, you can argue that the 30 years of military rule was building the institutions and then democracy came later with those institutions and it wouldn’t have come earlier. (Certainly there was little chance that earlier liberalisation would have led to ethnic strife in what is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world). Perhaps this argument contains a little too much looking at which countries are successful now and then looking back to find the institutional structure and prove the argument). A key point in Korea and Taiwan is of course that these countries industrialised, and the countries became economically much more economically productive. When you do this, an ultimate transition to democracy seems easy, or at least it has ultimately come in virtually all cases. It is possibly better to think about economically productive countries against non-economically productive countries, rather than countries with and without political institutions and traditions. Of course, certain institutions are necessary to become economically productive too, but these are not necessarily political. Korea is interesting also as a possible model for China in the long term.

While the growth of global civil society is a good thing, civil society activists are often so uncompromising in pursuit of their goals they lose sight of realism. For instance war crimes tribunals that have no provision for amnesties for people who step down voluntarily. For instance, in Macedonia, it was not possible to do a deal because local authorities were unable to offer an amnesty from supernational tribunals. Tribunals are supposed to reduce the chance of future atrocities, but they don’t seem to. Amnesties often seem to work as part of a package (eg in Mozambique, El Salvador, South Africa). The key point is that the rules for transition processes should be driven by pragmatism.

‘Civil society activists are often so uncompromising in pursuit of their goals..”. Yes. One has to agree with this. My feeling is that the often are to such an extent that they are extremely counterproductive and completely lose track of political and economic reality, and can potentially cause huge problems. I am actually very pessimistic about this. I would rather we had lots of free trade and largely allow the poor world to deal for itself, with occasional help in building institutions and removing particularly nasty regimes where needed. I don't think westerners trying to micromanage poor countries economic and/or environmental policies is a good thing.

On the 3rd point, Professor Snyder thought that US policy is improperly directed towards enlargement of the democratic sphere. History teaches us that the security of empire is seldom increased by expansion of power abroad. Bismarck had it right. Rather than being aggressive, you should wait until the other side attacks you and put an alliance together. Bush 41 did that in 1990, but Bush 43 is failing to. Fighting a war unilaterally ensures everyone will be against you.

What? We should wait until Iraq actually has nuclear weapons and takes out Tel Aviv? If he did this the Arab street would applaud, and while Europe might then come around, but it would be an utter disaster. My feeling is that the fact that Bush 41 was working with a coalition in 1991 was a big factor in why he didn’t finish the job and why we still have such a mess in Iraq. This left behind a festering sore in the middle east which ultimately has to be dealt with in some way. If the 1991 war was more unilateral we would have less of a problem now. I don’t see this war as being driven by expansion of power abroad so much as fixing a previous mistake. Again I think there is a technological issue at stake here. Rogue regimes and even rogue non-state actors can do far more damage than was the case in the time of Bismarck. This does require new thinking .

Basically, there is a 20 year window of opportunity to reform ourselves from a war system to a democratic system. If we blow this chance, the rise of China could occur at a moment of nationalism and disarray. This could be disastrous.

After the two main speakers, Prof Light and Dr Smith commented.

Prof Light said she was optimistic compared to Prins. There is no general crisis. There was no crisis of capitalism. There was no End of History or Clash of Civilizations. She doesn’t believe the masses are about to rise or the political classes to fail. Rather than post-colonial collapse, she sees one or two reasons for optimism. We have recognition of ecological danger and a diagnosis of post-colonial failure. This is good. The UN isn’t necessarily failing. Perhaps France and Russia are tempering the US usefully. The big UN conferences are not complete failures, but have started useful progress. As for NATO, it was a cold war institution and if it fades away, that means its job is done. It might still be useful for peacekeeping and such, but the old NATO is no longer needed.

I see a huge disparity between Africa and the Islamic world, and almost everywhere else, mostly. The things that Africa and much of the Islamic world have in common is not so much a lack of political institutions as the complete lack of economic skills. Some of the countries of the Middle East have high per-capita incomes due to oil, but the countries’ infrastructures are actually run by expatriate foreigners without any native skills at all. You have no education of women, and large demographic crises in terms of too many people. The ability to build the economic base that goes with a democratic transition is completely absent, as, sadly, it also is in much of Africa. (I don’t think it is entirely absent in Africa, but there isn’t much of it). I tend to think that the big UN conferences were complete failures, personally. What we need is another successful GATT/WTO round, which doesn’t look good right now. Much of Africa looks dreadful, but I am optimistic about most of Asia and I think democracy and liberalism have won in Latin America, occasional crisis notwithstanding. I don’t think the post-colonial system has failed, generally, in Asia – the exception being in Indonesia .

Dr Smith said she is not into doom and gloom on Europe. Europe is safer and more secure than ever before. There are problems on the periphery (N Ireland, Balkans) but the centre is strong. There are internal issues of far right politics etc, but Europe is very aware of this. The USSR is making progress to democracy. Even despite the Balkan failure, EU framework has contributed greatly to security. The prospect of joining the EU has helped stabilise the east. Ultimately it may in the Balkans too. The Franco-German relationship has its ups and downs but is still there. It is foolish to categorically state that enlargement will destroy the EU. In fact, civil society is contributing to EU reform and there is a good chance to get more efficient institutions.

A key question is how does Europe now deal with the US.

These comments are quite interesting, and I have weighed in on similar matters myself from time to time. I agree with quite a few of them. Basically, yes, it is true that Europe is safer and more secure than ever before. The benefits of the single market are great. However, the EU’s institutions are in a terrible state, and I do not see reform coming. The Franco-German axis is probably now an obstacle rather than a help, as pretty hopeless governments in both France and Germany are together blocking useful reform. For one thing, if enlargement is to work, the CAP has to be either greatly reformed or better abolished. In the present climate this cannot happen. These comments from Dr Smith were were not further commented on by the other speakers

Prof Prins then said that he didn’t consider himself a pessimist and preferred not to be categorised as one. A General Crisis is a time where you re-interpret everything. We are at a revolutionary moment, and there are five or six ways in which we could go. He finds a lot of Professor Snyder’s analysis plausible. He would like Prof Light to be right on the poor world, but he didn’t see evidence of it. The AIDS crisis is about to hit a new level in Africa and South East Asia. It’s a big question as to how it will hit China.

I am largely sceptical about all the discussion of how an environmental and AIDS crisis will affect the poor world. Environmentally speaking, I am largely with Bjorn Lomborg. I do not think that environmentally speaking the countries of the poor world are ever going to be any worse of than Europe was for much of its history prior to 1900. Improved technology means living standards are improving even in places you wouldn’t expect it. (For instance, look at the per capita calory consumption, or the number of people with clean water. The trends are very positive). As for AIDS, I again don’t believe that the disease is going to decimate the poor world, although it might in parts of Africa. The disease is not a developed world problem. Education and hygiene can largely eliminate its spread, even without fancy drug treatments Do China and India have the infrastructure to do this? I think they might. (This is not the same thing as saying they will: see, for instance South Africa).

Treatment of the disease is not static. Invent an effective vaccine, and AIDS will be about as big a worldwide problem as polio, ie no problem at all. Due to the nature of the disease this is hard, but I doubt it is impossible. It’s a question of decades rather than years, but it will happen. (India and China have a decade or two: Africa doesn’t, and African infections rates are already very high, so we probably will, sadly, see a catastrophe in Africa). Invent a single pill that can be taken daily that has the same effect as the present multi-drug treatment and again you can wipe out the disease in places where the infrastructure is not all that sophisticated. And something like this will happen. The power of modern drug researchers is quite frankly dazzling. In 1950 we knew nothing at all about the fundamentals of biology. In 2002, we know a huge amount. The extent of this particular revolution is staggering beyond words and medicine will achieve some seemingly utterly miraculous things over the next 20 years).

Professor Snyder said he though Zimbabwe supported his argument. Zimbabwe’s institutions were more like South Africa’s, but were clearly weaker. Zimbabwe failed. The key issue is that transitions to democracy are hard.

We then had a question and answer session.

Someone asked what was again special about South Africa. Prof Snyder again emphasised the presence of administrative and bureaucratic structure without democracy and democracy came later. In cases where a country does not have this the job of the international community is harder. He believes that if we go into Iraq, it’s necessary to build the structure first before democracy. Compare with Bosnia were elections were held to soon and this legitimised the nationalists.

Next Question: What does the American Hegemony mean for International Law?

Prof Prins said we should be optimistic compared to other empires because the US it committed to human rights. The US is an old country, that has an operating pre- French revolution constitution.

Next Question: What about Muslim relations with the US and Europe?

Prof Prins US was not the primary target of September 11. The target was corrupt governments in Egypt/Saudi Arabia/Pakistan that the US has foolishly supported. The great tragedy of the 20th century is that the Muslim world (and the Arabs in particular) failed with modernity. This is especially a tragedy given that the Muslim world preserved the legacy of Rome and Greece through the middle ages. The statistic that there are fewer books translated into Arabic in a decade than into Greek in a year is worrying. The structure of Muslim societies has meant no reformation is possible. Prof Snyder agreed with this. The fact that the US propped up bad Islamic governments was bad. The US needs to rectify this but is now stuck in a corner

My problem with this is that while I think this is true about causes, I am not sure how you get out of the corner. These causes have led in some instances to a pathological hatred of America. I am not sure how you get this to go away. This leads to people who think they are fighting a global war, and this means that disputes with other causes (Afghanistan, Egypt, Chechnya, Indonesia) become connected. Modern communications technology makes it easier for different groups to see themselves as fighting a single struggle, and to work together. Al Qaeda’s Wahabism is infecting a lot of previously unrelated struggles, and virulent anti-Americanism is a big part of this. With the oil money in the Middle East, and technological change, the danger to the West becomes very real. If the US and the West is harmed grievously, then its attitude to the rest of the world changes. I think this has the potential to upset the whole system. If someone has vaporised New York, the US is going to be a vastly different country than if this had not happened).

One last question: An Indian lady in the audience stated that she was annoyed that India had not been mentioned at all in the evening. India is the largest democracy, and in many ways a remarkably successful one, it had 250 million middle class people. I think this may be an exaggeration but I suppose it depends on how you define “middle class”. She also asked whether a comparison with Augustinian Rome was not pushing things a bit.

Prof Prins agreed with a lot of this. India also has excellent institutions to allow democratic institutions and the rule of law to be protected if they are under threat on a local basis. There is much to learn from India. (India does however have an AIDS time bomb ticking). As for the Augustinian Rome comparison, the key issue is America’s mixture of soft and hard power. Hard military power never endures. However, on the soft power front, everyone in the world practically has this idea of America. You may see this as a mixture of Hollywood, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, but it is more than this. This is unique in modern times.

Okay, that’s a good point, but I think it is an element in the fact that September 11 is in fact more about America than Prof Prins was arguing

Prof Snyder said that India had had institutions: political parties, free press etc. Over time there was an increase in political participation. It was like South Africa in his scheme of things. India’s institutions have been eroded at times, but it has adjusted well to challenges.

This is, to be truthful, a bugbear of mine. India contains a billion people, and is in many ways remarkably successful. It is genuinely a democracy. It is culturally vibrant. It is a poor country, but there are sections of its economy that work well. (Eg the Bangalore computer industry). It gets much less press than China, but in which country would you have rather spent the last 50 years? India has had no cultural revolution, no great leap forward, no mass starvation. Instead people at seminars like this spend their time discussing minor countries like South Africa. I could sense from her tone of voice that the questioner felt this way too, and I couldn't really blame her. I am very optimistic for India in the long term. The country seems to have advanced dramatically in the last decade, and unlike China it has political institutions that are quite advanced. At some point, this is going to tell. Another thing is that China is going to have a demographic crisis far too early when the consequences of the one child policy (in retrospect an extraordinarily misguided piece of policy) works its way through the intertia of the previous population growth. At that point, India and not China is going to be the growth country. Anyway, end of rant.

Overall I thought the evening was interesting, but as I have made clear in my comments, I was a little annoyed at the lack of consideration of technological and demographic change. I think that these factors make the present war different from previous superficially similar wars, and this was not really discussed. The contradiction is that the combinational of the failure of modernity in the Arab world, and the existence of modernity elsewhere makes the present a time of unique danger.

Update: One thought I have had since the lecture is that Prof Prins' thoughts on how an AIDS crisis is eventually going to ravage Africa, India, China etc strike me as being almost what a lot of people thought about world famine in the 1960s and 1970. It was almost conventional wisdom that the looming crisis in, say, India, was so bad that there was nothing that the developed world could do about it, and so we shouldn't even try. As it happened, higher yield crops and more intelligent agriculture meant that it just didn't happen. On this issue, I really think that the chances of something similar happening are good. The prognosis for Africa is undeniably appalling, but for India and China I don't think it is so bad.

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