What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Hungarian grand strategy in the making - Part one

MStFB Strategic Comment No. 1.

On Thursday this week we had an in-house conference for PhD students at our doctoral school. It was so in-house that we presented our papers almost exclusively to each other. Well, I have just finished my presentation on Afghanistan when our conference came to an early end: we were told to get over to our university's main conference room, to urgently comment on a piece of the series of studies prepared for Hungary's foreign policy strategy in the making. The latter is to be published (in around June) when the currently ready background papers will be aggregated into a unified strategic document. So we packed up, and a rapid response unit formed from our ranks did as we were told, and did join the discussion where some people from Hungary's foreign ministry were also present.
We were told there that all the background papers I mentioned above are up now on the internet, and, since no comments came in yet, we could maybe comment on all of them if we have some ideas. So that's what now I'm going to follow up on, singling out a study prepared by Péter Tálas (it also has a chapter written by Ferenc Gazdag and András Rácz, though that's not the one I'm going to comment on). The title in English, in my translation: 'The impact of international terrorism and organised crime on international security, and on Hungary's security'. I picked this one first of all 1) because it's quite well-written, 2) because, as it should, it does have a part that functions as an executive summary, and 3) because I found some remarks in it that may be relevant to the issues of state failure, Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's the part in question, from page 18, with my raw translation:

"From a narrow security policy point of view, the key in the fight against terrorism is not the question of wishing for 'democratic vs. non-functioning' but that of wishing for 'stable vs. non-functioning' states. It may sound distressingly, but from the perspective of the fight against terrorism and from the perspective of the question of most non-functioning states infected by terrorism, it is of secondary importance whether stability is provided by a democratically elected or an authoritarian regime. Therefore it is a mistake - and sadly the examples of Afghanistan and, even more, Iraq prove this - when it is assumed that democracy promotion can be a panacea to the problem of terrorism, and when the fight against terrorism is seen as being equivalent to a kind of universal export of democracy. It is an even greater mistake when some are ready to use armed force in furtherance of the latter end. In the case of non-functioning states, the main actors of the fight against terrorism should, by economic and political means, endeavour to help societies in those states create such stable polities that, for want of a better expression, do not constitute a threat to themselves and the public. Ones that provide for a minimum of human rights and are thus able to maintain security and order in their country, ones that do not pose a threat to their (external - P.M.) environment, and are accepted by a majority of their population."

So that is the argument. I can easily agree with some parts of it. The way I have conceptualised state failure (my doctoral dissertation topic) is built on a distinction between security-oriented and humanitarian definitions. That means looking at the challenge of state failure from an external perspective for one definition, and from an internal perspective (from within a state experiencing troubles) for the other. It's an important distinction. Much of the U.S. leadership's lasting strategic-level confusion over the Iraq issue arises out of a lack of clearly defined objectives and the mixing on the rhetorical level of arguments presenting Iraq policy in terms of countering a threat to U.S. national security on the one hand, and arguments presenting it as helping the Iraqi people on the other.
Of course this rhetorical mix is not entirely irrational. The U.S. cannot legitimately afford to say that its only purpose in Iraq now is to make sure that Iraq will not be the origin of NSEs, or negative spill-over effects, in the future, e.g. as a militant base (you might have already read on the right flank of my blog that these NSEs are a key to my security policy-oriented definition of state failure).
Putting aside questions over legitimacy, though, for the sake of abstract analysis it might be useful to detach humanitarian considerations from one's thinking about security policy. Democracies do produce NSEs, too, and they may serve as a base for militants just like other countries with different polities. The possibility can't be excluded altogether (so the terrorism NSE that Péter Tálas is writing of is definitely one to be reckoned with). On the other hand it is also quite imaginable that there might exist an authoritarian regime that exercises relatively little arbitrary violence for preserving itself, one that is also strong enough to prevent NSEs emerging from its territory. If there really isn't much arbitrary violence in such a regime, while there is also a great level of public security (with the omnipresent, watching eye of the state), such a regime can even turn out to be better than, say, a democracy in deep economic crisis, one that is experiencing an upsurge in both organised and not-so-organised forms of crime. Theoretically.
That is arguably the old story of wishing for liberal, economically as well as law enforcement-wise efficient, enlightened autocracies.
However, one is compelled to ask some questions about this. Is it necessarily easier to engineer, from the outside, a liberal autocracy than a democracy? Is it easier than engineering a democracy that in fact nobody claims should be perfect from the start - one that is functioning rather in a formal-procedural sense, with elections taking place every now and again?
And what do the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan prove exactly? That there is a guerrilla war in these two countries because of democracy? That is certainly not the case. AQ-in-I has said in the past that they are against democracy on principle, but surely they would carry out attacks even if the U.S. wouldn't be aiming at creating a Western-style democracy (aiming at nothing short of that mostly officially only). One may of course be inclined to interpret Péter Tálas' words as saying that Americans shouldn't have gone into Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, and that instead they could have tried to get to a modus vivendi with the Hussein regime, as well as the Taliban, I guess, via those economic and political means, whatever they are, that are mentioned in the text.
The error in that logic is that the U.S. hasn't gone in to those two countries with the purpose of building democracy. Put rhetorics aside. In the case of Afghanistan, after years of a rather ambivalent policy in relation to the Talib regime there, it was the shocking NSE reaching New York on 9/11 that made the U.S. act. And the public acceptance of the need to do something gave decision-makers a window of opportunity that they could push other elements of their agenda through, from steps seen as desirable in the global power game to other things - the window was large enough even for Iraq to fit through it. And in the latter's case there was the sanctions regime which, indirectly, killed veritable masses, while not hurting, or actually even strengthening the Iraqi regime. That sanctions regime was increasingly unpopular, in the Muslim world especially, and it was also decreasingly effective even in holding back Iraq from continuing with its weapons programs, which to Iraq were as important against Iran as against the U.S. Something needed to be done about that, and this way of getting rid of the sanctions problem also became possible with the window of opportunity mentioned above.
If then the U.S. didn't go to Afghanistan and Iraq to promote democracy 'as a panacea to the problem of terrorism', the question remains: once inside Afghanistan and Iraq, could the U.S. have really tried anything else than a formal-procedural democracy? In Iraq for example? Another Sunni autocracy perhaps? Wouldn't Iran have used all available means then to make life difficult to such a regime and its U.S. patrons? Or could it have been a Shiite autocracy instead? Wouldn't that have hurt the interests of too many from the Arab states of the Gulf to global AQ?
So, while Péter Tálas wrote an inspired paper, with much in it that I can agree with, and while it raised some interesting questions, I'm not very convinced by these particular arguments above. I will, in the up-coming period, get back however to parts I could agree with, as well as discuss elements of other papers from the collection of background studies mentioned above. That way I'll both follow the mission statement of this blog, that of letting Hungarian thinking on the issue of state failure affect the global discourse on the subject, and at the same time keep Iraq and Afghanistan in the spotlight, in maintaining the current focus of this site. But that's just one path I'm going to follow, and there'll be other posts not connected to Hungary's grand strategy in the making, for the sake of those readers who might just not be so thrilled about it as I am.