Dan Simpson: Stay out of the way

The U.S. should be wary of trying to prop up failing states

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It is unavoidable that an observer of foreign affairs seeks common elements in the disorder plaguing the governments of such different states as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Thailand and Ukraine. There are in addition the almost completely failed states, such as the Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, and those that could kindly be described as shaky, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe.

Some states are being preserved as a result of being sat upon by the United Nations, a regional organization or other states’ forces. Disorder is also found in large, difficult-to-rule states such as China, Nigeria and Russia. China has the Uighurs and Tibetans; Nigeria has Boko Haram in the northeast, and Russia has the Caucasus, a problem for years but a particular problem with the Olympics looming.

Each country has its unique history and each situation of disorder can be explained to a degree in historical, cultural, religious, ethnic and economic terms.

Afghanistan’s government, elected and remarkably intact after 36 years of Soviet and then, after a nine-year gap, American military occupation, does not control much of its country.

Egyptians see the military trying to hold onto power after 62 years in the catbird’s seat against both secular and religious opposition, both of which tasted democracy during the Arab Spring. A few days ago, a military government helicopter was apparently shot down by dissidents with a surface-to-air missile.

Iraqis are bitterly tormented after more than eight years of American occupation by what is turning into a hot war between the Shiite government that the United States installed through democratic elections and a collection of opposition groups inspired by religious, tribal and secular motives.

Thailand is torn by strife that emanates from deep in its society, pitting supporters of the wealthy Shinawatra family, now in power through elections, against opponents upset by corruption, with the coup-prone Thai military lurking on the fringes. The aging, ailing king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, still represents order in the face of chaos, but the institution of the monarchy is probably obsolete.

Ukraine may be the most difficult puzzle. Its real problem is that it is flat, big, with resources and located between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sees it as a buffer and as part of his domain as czar. The European Union and the United States see it as one more piece of the old Soviet empire to be peeled off.

The Ukrainians are divided between the two suitors. All want greater prosperity. Neither group is entirely sure which road gets them there. In the meantime, they are becoming increasingly violent in expressing their different points of view, putting the future of the state at risk.

What, if anything, do these writhing states, failed states, shaky states and internationally sat-upon states have in common? Are there common elements in how they got into these conditions?

The first, according to me, is that the mass proliferation of information has undercut the legitimacy of these governments. What the Afghans, Egyptians, Iraqis, Thais and Ukrainians know about their governments and the people in power has, in effect, stripped their leaders of authority.

Hamid Karzai’s corruption, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s sunglasses and unearned medals, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s refusal to include Iraq’s Sunnis in governing, Yingluck Shinawatra’s lack of leadership ability and her kowtowing to her exiled billionaire brother and Viktor F. Yanukovych’s pettiness and slavish approach to Russian financial blandishments — all of which the opposition in these countries knows about chapter-and-verse from the Internet — means their people have no reason, other than formality, to accept their rule.

The second element is the monumental proliferation of arms in recent years. The question of where groups’ arms come from is no longer even worth asking since there is, in effect, no means of quelling conflicts by cutting them off.

The world is awash in weapons, everything from AK-47s to surface-to-air missiles. The United States remains the world’s biggest arms salesman. The defense companies that make these arms also remain among America’s largest political campaign contributors. Other big arms-selling countries include China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom. Some arms are sold more informally when regimes such as Moammar Gadhafi’s in Libya collapse.

The combination of fuller information about the lifestyles, policies and practices of leaders and easy access to ample weaponry means that, if significant parts of a country’s population don’t want to put up with their governments anymore, they don’t have to. They can gun them down and blow them up if other, more peaceful means do not bring about the changes they seek.

For the United States, in most cases — and it does depend on individual cases — the best approach would be to see these governments as trees that the termites have hollowed out and to get out of the way before they fall on us. The future of these countries is, after all, if we believe in the right of self-determination, up to their peoples.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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