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The Arab Spring and “Structural Power.”

Posted by democratist on March 31, 2011

March 31st 2011,

A few days ago we noted Michael Cox’s recent restatement of the argument that, despite the current debate about it’s supposed decline, the US has managed to retain a great deal of “structural power.” However we did not explain this concept in any detail.

The notion of structural power was first put forward by the British academic Susan Strange in the 1970′s. In her classic States and Markets (1988) she defined it is as;

“the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which other states, their political institutions, their economic enterprises and (not least) their scientists and other professional people have to operate…Structural power in short confers the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises.”

Essentially in Strange’s view, “structural power” is the power of a state to shape various kinds of international frameworks: For her, the advantages for the US of the dollar as the key post-War currency for international trade was the central example of structural power at work, because it allowed the US to run large deficits at reduced cost (a feature of the International Monetary System which continues to this day).

However, it has occurred to Democratist that beyond the realm of economics, the “Arab Spring” we are now witnessing may well represent the strengthening and maturing of a new and potentially far more important form of structural power, one that may well confer considerable advantages for the US, and the wider West over the coming years.

As Halliday argues in Revolutions and World Politics (1999), in addition to expressing the tensions that occur within societies in transition, revolutions are also a result of the pressures placed on traditional societies by international factors.

And over the last 20 years the international trend towards democratization - which therefore increases pressure on others to democratize - has strengthened markedly; the end of Communism, the enlargement of the EU, the continued democratization of Turkey,  the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon - and now Tunisia, Egypt and (possibly) Libya.  These will all add to the already considerable domestic problems faced by developing autocratic states as an additional, and now heightened structural pressure for domestic reform, if revolution is to be avoided.

This trend has in turn been encouraged by a developments in IT and globalization;  Al Jazeera, Twitter, Wikileaks, Wikipedia and Facebook are all a part of this process.

But while the US has consciously (and sometimes counterproductively) sought to export democracy for much of the last century, a great deal of the attraction of democracy - its equation with modernity for increasing numbers of people throughout the world - has been partly independent of the United States’ actions. Rather the desire for freedom and egalitarianism which informed the French and American revolutions has taken on something of a life of its own – regardless of (for example) the US invasion of Iraq, or support for Hosni Mubarak.

Nonetheless, since democratization represents the development of an international framework within which states relate to each other, and one which seems likely to disproportionately favour the democratic West (no two democratic states have ever gone to war with each other), whilst placing an additional pressure on authoritarian competitors, this democratization has to be seen as a burgeoning form of Western structural power.

Posted in Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, Historical Materialism, International Political Economy, Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Orange Revolution, Revolutions, Russia 2012 Elections, wikileaks | 4 Comments »

The Great “Arab Spring” of 2011: Causes and Consequences.

Posted by democratist on March 28, 2011

28th March 2011,

As the “Arab Spring” rolls onwards through Libya, and towards Yemen and Syria, Democratist – like many others (not least a number of red-faced foreign policy professionals), has been looking to get some sort of an explanatory purchase on recent events in the middle East. Why there? And why now?

For Democratist,  the key factor lies in the interrelationship between globalization (Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks and the rest), and a number of other historical-sociological factors that have been perhaps slightly less eagerly grasped upon by (especially the US) media.

These include the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by the West) for decades; tremendous social upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of crony capitalism (abject poverty cheek by jowl with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and tech-savvy) young; and the delayed flowering of civil society.

Looking at the broader, global context, a superbly insightful, if so far largely ignored framework for understanding these events is to be found in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999) by the late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE (1945-2010).

One of the main conclusions of this 300-page comparative study of revolutions and their international aspects is that over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has been, not (as Marx had hoped) on the most developed states, but rather in the contrary direction; that revolutions have historically tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism.

In other words, the historical pattern has been one in which revolutions take place in societies that have embarked on, but are at a comparatively early stage of economic and political development: One of Halliday’s key insights is the idea that, in the contemporary world, revolutions express the pressures placed on traditional societies by international structural factors, in addition to the tensions that occur within societies in transition, and the drive for accelerated development.

All three elements have been present in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They are also present to a very considerable degree in a large number other less developed countries – including Yemen, Syria and Iran, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.

What the revolutions in the middle East represent therefore, are the increasingly inevitable consequences for states which refuse to meet their citizens expectations, after a certain level of development has been attained, in an increasingly integrated world.

While not linear, or liable to easy prediction, this trend has become all the more evident since 1989; in the collapse of the USSR itself, in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Kyrgyzstan (2005). Moldova (2009), and now with the great Arab Spring of 2011, whereby the democratic agenda has been firmly set for much of the rest of the developing world.

As Halliday notes;

“Revolutions are moments of transition which, once passed, may not need replication. Instead, they lay down an agenda for political and social change that through reform, struggles and democracy may take decades or centuries to be achieved. This is at once evident from the programmes on rights of the American and French revolutions, the radical egalitarianism and the international programme associated with each; the point is not whether America or France always, or ever, lived up to these ideas, any more than Russia was to do after 1917, but rather how ideas and aspirations that emerged from these revolutions retain their validity in subsequent epochs.”

2011 may then therefore eventually come to mark the decisive point at which among the populations of developing states, democractic reformism ceased to be seen as essentially a restrictedly “Western” phenomenon, and became recognized as a potentially universal one.

See also my pieces:

Russian Autocracy and the Future of the Arab Spring

Revolution, Democracy and the West.

The Arab Spring and Structural Power

The Egyptian revolution and the precariousness of autocracy.

Posted in Democratization, Domestic NGOs, Egyptian Revolution, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Moldova, Russian Corruption, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Western Foreign Policy, wikileaks | 12 Comments »

Wikileaks and the broader foreign policy context.

Posted by democratist on February 22, 2011

22nd February 2011,

Democratist has been thinking a bit more about the implications of last year’s various Wikileaks disclosures, and Western information integrity more broadly.

What Assange has helped create is basically a form of journalistic sourcing, albeit enabled by the internet and therefore on the grand scale. He himself comes across as eccentric, but this is far bigger than one man; the technology exists, and Wikileaks seems fairly uncontrollable under existing media laws in most democratic countries. 
Freedom of the press is a critical check on government and a sine qua non of an open society. But leaked documents can be used to betray human sources, or techniques which provide information that may be used by governments to bolster the cause of democracy and their national interests. Once the information is out, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle; journalists may edit it to remove names, but sophisticated hostile governments can (presumably) eventually hack into the journalists’ computers to discover the information they did not make publicly available.

Democratist believes that in reacting to Wikileaks (and similar future imitators), Western governments have to put the principle of freedom of the press above that of their own information integrity. It is the job of governments to safeguard their information, but if they are unable to do this they will have to live with the consequences. Once the information is released into the public domain, there are clearly legal limitations to the actions governments can take, and the imposition of additional restraints on the press are unlikely to serve the cause of liberty. It is better to concentrate on protecting those who may have been exposed, and the introduction of additional safety measures for the most sensitive information, rather than going off on legally questionable witch-hunts (although in clear-cut cases where it can be proved that existing laws have been broken, prosecutions should follow). 

Democratist does not consider the Wikileaks cables to have been a major cause of the recent uprisings in MENA (although they may have been a contributory factor), but the Wikileaks saga does appear to be symptomatic of a broader international technologically driven shift in power in terms of availability of information and organization away from the state towards the press and people. Democracies have less power in relation to their populations than autocrats, so autocrats have far more to lose from this trend (and probably have a higher proportion of disgruntled potential “leakers”); and since no one can afford to shut off the internet for too long if they wish to run a successful modern economy, their room for manoeuvre may be limited (they are unlikely to be able to block information as effectively, or for as long as they wish).

While much of the leaked information has so far come from the US, Democratist suspects there will be plenty more from countries that lack democratic legitimacy, and are therefore less stable, so the impact of future leaks will be much larger for these countries than the West. Ensuring and respecting freedom of the press at home will therefore also have positive foreign policy implications, because hostile autocracies will not be able to accuse the West of hypocrisy when the focus falls on them, and their attempts at media and internet crackdowns will further delegitimize them in the eyes of their people.

Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, International Political Economy, Jasmine Revolution, Western Foreign Policy, wikileaks | 1 Comment »

Russia: FDI and the forthcoming elections.

Posted by democratist on February 18, 2011

18th February 2011,

Democratist was fascinated by Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s speech in Krasnoyarsk yesterday.

According to Kudrin FDI into Russia fell to  $12-14 billion last year, the third successive year of decline since 2008.

“Direct foreign investment was one and a half times lower,” Kudrin said, “This is not much. In the best years it reached $27 billion.”

And he also stated that this has had a negative impact on President Medvedev’s “modernization” effort, and is holding back economic growth. “We will see in the coming years a stable growth of around 4% and above. However for Russia this – the level of a mid-ranking economy – is insufficient,” he said. “We need a significantly higher growth rate of 6-7%.”

For Democratist’s perspective, what is most interesting about these figures is that they cover the period before last December’s release of embarrassing Wikileaks cables which described Russia as “a virtual mafia state.”

Given the near-continuous (and frankly mostly warranted) bad press the Russians have been suffering over the past several months, it seems very unlikely that the much hoped-for Western FDI flows into Russia will recover any time soon.

So, what are the most likely effects of  continually declining FDI on Russian politics? Will Russia, as Kudrin (rather unexpectedly) suggested, decide to hold free and fair elections later this year, and in 2012 as part of a strategy for future liberalization?

Alas, this is unlikely. The nomenklatura has an intrenched fear of “instability.” Giving power away in any meaningful sense is largely anathema for Putin and his former KGB pals, regardless of the lessons that recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt may imply. Their main medium-term hope remains a (continued) rise in raw materials prices.

So while there may be some measured liberalization in the parliamentary polls set to take place in December, Democratist continues to maintain that the regime will probably try to leverage the Presidential elections due in 2012 as method for winning increased international legitimacy by enhancing the (not so far especially successful) illusion of Russia’s “democratic development” through a poll that apparently offers more political competition than was the case in recent years, but in reality whose parameters have been carefully determined in advance.

While the exact form this contest will take may be beyond even our predictive powers, Democratist continues to feel that the obvious choice will be a superficial competition between an emphasis on ”stability” or “modernization”; between Putin or Medvedev.

Posted in Democratization, Elections, FDI, Hydrocarbons, Jasmine Revolution, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Economy, Russian Politics | 3 Comments »

Will the Egyptian Revolution influence Russian Military Reform?

Posted by democratist on February 8, 2011

8th February 2011,

A stimulating piece by Pavel Baev in today’s Jamestown Eurasia Daily monitor . While we don’t necessarily agree with everything he says we found the following passage very interesting;

“What the crises in Egypt and Tunisia have demonstrated convincingly is that the outcome of a protracted confrontation could be determined by the attitude of the army, which was essentially absent from the streets in most of the “color revolutions” in the 2000’s. Putin has prioritized investments into strengthening the police and various special crowd-control units like OMON, comprised of professionals toughened by tours of duty in Chechnya. Putin cannot, however, count on the loyalty of the army, since the ongoing reforms have demoralized the top brass, antagonized the officer corps and incapacitated the combat units manned by poorly trained conscripts drafted for 12 months (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 17). The military are traditionally sensitive to external interference but the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are clearly home-made, so that the US and the EU are at loss about denying support to their trusted allies who were never bothered by democratic values (Ogonyok, February 7).”

While Democratist does not see an Egypt-style revolution taking place in Russia any time soon, we think it will be interesting to see whether the regime considers the services of the OMON adequate to the task of keeping order in the event of a crisis, or alternatively whether the Tunisian and then Egyptian revolutions might have some impact on the course of military reform in Russia over the coming months?

Posted in Egyptian Revolution, Jasmine Revolution, Revolutions, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Military | 2 Comments »

Tunisia: A New Opportunity for Democracy and Western Policy in the Maghreb.

Posted by democratist on January 18, 2011

18th January 2010,

Democratist has been taking a semi-break from the CIS for the last couple of days to watch the unfolding events in Tunisia, where the authoritarian President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali has been deposed. A national unity government has been installed and is to prepare the country for new elections, which must take place within two months, according to the constitution.

The current situation is unstable, and it remains to be seen when those elections will indeed take place, or the extent to which elements of the old regime within the new government will attempt to interfere with them (or indeed if the new government will hold). Nonetheless, with moderate Islamists and secular leftists in the ascendant, the possibility of the long-term emergence of a reasonably stable democratic country in the Maghreb appears on the horizon, in a region where the US and EU have been all too happy to follow a realist policy of propping up local autocrats for many decades.

This is a potentially historic opportunity that needs to be grabbed with both hands while the going is good: Whereas American neo-conservatives may have been disastrously mistaken in their belief that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would lead to the rapid emergence of a democratic exemplar for the rest of the Middle East to copy, the Tunisian “Jasmine” revolution presents mainstream Western foreign policy liberals with a potential opportunity to put policy on a surer footing, and encourage the US and EU to work with the well-educated, westernized and democratically minded Tunisian population towards a similar goal in relation to North Africa; and one that has a considerably greater chance of success.

In the coming months then, the emphasis needs to placed on diplomatic engagement with the new government, economic assistance and preliminary discussions in relation to free trade and FDI. With regard to the first of these, Democratist believes Tunisia presents an important new opportunity for international election observation to make a real difference in helping to ensure the legitimacy of any forthcoming vote, as well as providing feedback on the process for future improvements.

While tellingly Russia Today has been arguing that the revolution in Tunisia took place due to a lack of jobs and economic growth rather than political rights, Democratist is of the opinion that, just as was the case in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Moldova (2009) free and fair elections (and an associated end to corruption) have been at the heart of the protestors’ demands.

The West may well now have an opportunity to start to rebuild its reputation with the people of the Maghreb (and not just in Tunisia), but if it is to do so effectively, a commitment to free elections and human rights, and to hold any new government accountable in this regard, must play a central role.

Posted in Elections, Jasmine Revolution, Moldova, Orange Revolution, Revolutions, UK Foreign Policy, Western Foreign Policy | 1 Comment »


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