The end is nigh, once again

2013 is ending with a lot of doom and gloom:

  • South Sudan, the world’s newest state, is suffering bloodletting between political rivals, who coincide with its two largest tribes (Dinka and Nuer).
  • The Central African Republic is imploding in an orgy of Christian/Muslim violence.
  • North Korea is risking internal strife as its latest Kim exerts his authority by purging and executing his formally powerful uncle.
  • China is challenging Japan and South Korea in the the East China Sea.
  • Syria is in chaos, spelling catastrophe for most of its population and serious strains for all its neighbors.
  • Nuclear negotiations with Iran seem slow, if not stalled.
  • Egypt‘s military is repressing not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also secular human rights advocates.
  • Israel and Palestine still seem far from agreement on the two-state solution most agree is their best bet.
  • Afghanistan‘s President Karzai is refusing to sign the long-sought security agreement with the United States, putting at risk continued presence of US troops even as the Taliban seem to be strengthening in the countryside, and capital and people are fleeing Kabul.
  • Al Qaeda is recovering as a franchised operation (especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and North Africa), even as its headquarters in Pakistan has been devastated.
  • Ukraine is turning eastward, despite the thousands of brave protesters in Kiev’s streets.

The Economist topped off the gloom this week by suggesting that the current international situation resembles the one that preceded World War I:  a declining world power (then Great Britain, now the US) unable to ensure global security and a rising challenger (then Germany now China).

I’m not ready to throw in the towel.  Good news doesn’t grab headlines, but there is some:  Colombia‘s success in fighting its drug-running insurgents, Tunisia‘s compromise government, Burma‘s evolution in a more open direction (despite its mistreatment of its Muslim population), Kenya‘s successful elections (despite their lamentable results), Liberia‘s continued recovery, movement in the Balkans (Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro) towards the European Union. This is a world with many and varied challenges, few of which are resolved without difficulty. But some of those challenges are being successfully managed.

If there is a continuous thread running through the challenges we face it is this:  getting other people to govern themselves in ways that meet the needs of their own populations (including minorities) and don’t threaten others.  That was what we did in Europe with the Marshall Plan.  It is also what we contributed to in East Asia, as democracy established itself in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and elsewhere.  We have also had considerable success in recent decades in Latin America and Africa, where democracy and economic development have grown roots in Brazil, Argentina, Ghana, South Africa, and other important countries.  I may not like the people South Africans have elected, but I find it hard to complain about the way they have organized themselves to do it.

This is what we have failed to do in the Middle East:  American military support for autocracies there has stunted democratic evolution, even as our emphasis on economic reform has encouraged crony capitalism that generates resentment and support for Islamist alternatives.  Mubarak, Asad, Saleh, Qaddafi, and Ben Ali were not the most oppressive dictators the world has ever known, even though they murdered and imprisoned thousands, then raised those numbers by an order of magnitude as they tried to meet the challenge of revolution with brute force.  But their departures have left the countries they led with little means of governing themselves.  The states they claim to have built have proven a mirage in the desert.

If there is reason for doom and gloom, it is our failure to meet this governance challenge cleverly and effectively.  We continue to favor our military instruments, even though they are inappropriate to dealing with most of the problems we face (the important exceptions being Iran and China).  We have allowed our civilian instruments of foreign policy to atrophy, even as we ask them to meet enormous challenges.  What I wish for the new year is recognition–in the Congress, in the Administration and in the country–that we need still to help enable others to govern themselves.  Investment in the capacity to do it will return dividends for many decades into the future.

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