Region-wide upheavals are by no means a new phenomenon. In the 1950s, anti-colonial revolts, usually employing terrorism, created dozens of new countries throughout Africa and Asia. In the 1960s and 70s, all of Southeast Asia was engulfed in conflict. In the 1980s, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa experienced multiple civil wars. At the end of the Cold War, the Balkans exploded. Throughout these decades, most authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes have exhibited a durability based on rigid resistance to change, which has contributed to their current fragility.
Another concern is that even well-functioning states are losing ground as power is dispersed downward and outward. The continued expansion of international trade, finance, travel and communications has increased vulnerabilities even as it has widened horizons, increased opportunity, and lifted of people around the world out of poverty. Terrorists and criminals can mix with the millions of tourists and business people who cross national borders every day, but security agencies also have new and more powerful tools to track and impede their movements. Contagious disease can spread more rapidly, but resources to contain it can also be mobilized and dispatched more quickly. The communications revolution empowers individuals and states alike. Violent extremists can more easily spread their ideology, recruit followers and orchestrate attacks, but security authorities can more easily collaborate to foil these attempts. As physical infrastructure becomes more dependent on digital controls, the possibility for catastrophic interference grows, requiring ever higher levels of digital safeguards.
The Arab world aside, states are not fragmenting, nor are most of them losing ground to individuals or groups, malign or otherwise. Technology is neutral and can be used both to challenge and extend state authority. There is admittedly a race between the forces of order and disorder in all these domains, but it is not one that effective states are predestined to lose.
Overlearning Lessons of the Past
It took the United States a generation to get over the lost war in Vietnam. The United States can ill afford to wait another generation before recovering from the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and the disappointing results of the Arab Spring. This is not to say that policymakers do not need to reflect upon and absorb the lessons of the past decade. But those lessons are not that nation building never works, that counterinsurgency is always too expensive, or that democracy promotion is ineffectual and potentially counterproductive.
Tomes have been written about the mistakes made by the first term Bush administration in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The United States went into both countries determined not to engage in nation building, so it should surprise no one that its record in this regard disappoints. In both cases, the administration grossly underestimated the resources needed to stabilize these societies, eventually deploying the needed assets only years later, by which time large-scale, well-organized resistance movements had emerged.
The lesson to be drawn from Afghanistan and Iraq is not that nation building does not work, but rather that it can be very expensive and time consuming. There are more than a dozen countries around the world today that are at peace because U.S. troops — or NATO, European, United Nations, or African Union forces, intervened to end a civil war, then provided security to the population, oversaw elections, installed new governments, and stayed around long enough to make sure the new regime took hold. None of these societies are prosperous, well governed, or fully democratic, but they are more prosperous, better governed and more democratic than before. Most importantly, they are at peace with themselves and their neighbors, which was the prime objective of the interventions in the first place.
A second lesson already evident in Iraq and in Libya is that forced regime change which is not followed by successful stabilization can actually create a situation that is worse than the one the original intervention was intended to correct.
The objective of a stability operation is to prevent the renewal of conflict. Insurgency is what one gets if the stability operation fails, as it did almost immediately in Iraq and after several years in Afghanistan, or is never attempted, as in Libya. At that point, one must either counter the insurgency, or allow it to prevail. Obviously it is better to leave this to indigenous forces, assuming they exist. But the United States will not be able to help other regimes do counterinsurgency if it lacks the expertise and capacity to do this successfully itself.
Democratization is not a binary condition. Some societies have moved rapidly from authoritarian to democratic rule. In others, that process is much more gradual. Since the end of WWII, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, dozens of countries have moved from one camp to the other, until democracy is now the dominant form of government throughout the world. There has been some limited regression over the past decade, and several Arab societies have transitioned from authoritarian government to none at all. Rather than giving up on the process, however, Americans need to temper their expectations and work to promote the foundations of democratic government —civil society, rule of law, growth of the middle class — so that when future upheavals occur, as they inevitably will, the results will be more positive.
U.S. National Strategy
Since becoming the world’s most powerful nation the United States has labored to build a rule-based global system dominated by market democracies and dedicated to promoting free trade and the peaceful settlement of disputes. This new order emerged from the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Germany and Japan. It was bolstered by the creation of the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. It fostered the end of colonialism, European integration, the unification of Germany, the liberation of all Eastern Europe, the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, the extension of democracy to 144 countries, and the greatest advances in global longevity and poverty reduction in human experience. Preserving and extending this world order should remain the core objective of U.S. policy, first, because it provides the best environment for America’s own security and prosperity, and second, because if the United States does not lead, no one else will.
Defining a national strategy toward this end requires the identification of ends, ways and means.
American interests and values will be best served in a world in which states adhere to established norms of behavior that ensure peace and promote prosperity. Importantly, these same states must remain capable and willing to ensure that their citizens observe such norms. Threats to this order are posed both by states that flout the rules and states that prove incapable of enforcing them.
Today’s state-based threats to international order come primarily from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and potentially China. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine needs to be made costly enough to discourage repetition or imitation. China needs to be deterred from any similar behavior. Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. North Korea must be prevented from exporting its nuclear capacity and dissuaded from attacking its neighbors. China’s growing power needs to be channeled constructively. One can pose and even pursue more ambitious goals, such as turning back Russian aggression, dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, denuclearizing Korea, or preventing an expansion of Chinese influence. The costs and risk associated with these more ambitious aims may be prohibitive, however.
Today’s non-state-based threats come principally from violent extremist groups based in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Eliminating these groups entirely is probably beyond U.S. capacity, but they should at least be suppressed to the point that they no longer hold territory and govern large populations, are no longer are able to do great damage at great distance, and no longer recruit and inspire large numbers of individuals from within Western and other societies. Ending the civil war in Syria, even at the expense of dealing with Assad, is probably the single most important step toward suppressing the most virulent of these groups, the so called Islamic State, and diminishing its ability to attract new recruits and inspire imitators. This will require engaging Iran while also maintaining existing U.S. alliances.
The defensive aspects of American strategy must be to punish past and deter future state-on- state aggression while suppressing violent non-state extremist movements that threaten U.S. citizens and those of our friends and allies. For these efforts to have any lasting effect, the United States also needs to sustain and extend a rules-based international order founded upon states that are willing to observe such norms and able to ensure that their citizens do likewise. A major goal of U.S. policy should therefore be to improve the capacity of international institutions to channel collective action, to strengthen the capacity of individual states to engage effectively in such action, and to further develop international norms in new areas of vulnerability, most notably in the cyber and climate domains, where an adequate body of generally accepted rules are currently lacking.