War is what you get when there are no limits to what you will consider doing or what your opponent will consider doing to impose one’s will on the other. When there are no limits to what you will consider doing, the only things that constrain what you actually do are those that are determined by cold military rationality.
I have studied civil wars for some time now, and I’ve been pretty lazy in using the word “conflict” to describe these phenomena. But clearly we should distinguish between conflict and violence, with violence being a necessary aspect of the process whereby a conflict results in a war.
Watching the uprisings in the Middle East over the past month has brought these distinctions into sharp relief. In Egypt, things got violent for a time. But very quickly the sides moved to resolve things without escalation. What’s the source of the contrast between what happened here and the cases that I have been spending my time studying?
Mandela famously wrote in his autobiography that the nature of the struggle is defined by the oppressor. Looking at Egypt, I feel that this can only be partly true. Certainly the protesters faced uncertainty in how far the incumbent regime would be willing to go to counter the uprising. They nonetheless chose not to escalate, but rather to defend themselves and attack only at the level at which they were being attacked. Perhaps this was dictated by the limited means that were at their disposal. But even if this constraint were not binding (e.g., if the protesters had access to guns), I can see that a choice by the protesters to limit their use of violence would be crucial in determining how things would play out. Thus, when faced by initial escalation by “the oppressor” those involved in the uprising do indeed have a choice.
So what we need in our theorizing about the origins of war are theories about how masses of people get to the point where they no longer accept any limits on what they are willing to do to have their way.
The art of a diplomat is to manipulate an opponent’s beliefs so that the opponent will not take action against the person that the diplomat represents.
The diplomat typically operates in a world where third party enforcement of formal rules does not apply. Thus, the diplomat can only constrain the action of the opponent by manipulating certain beliefs. These include the opponent’s beliefs about what diplomat’s side can be coerced into doing. If something is out of your control, you cannot be coerced into controlling it, for example.
The diplomat typically has to deal with the same opponents time and time again. Thus a good diplomat anticipates a whole future of interactions and a trajectory of beliefs. Sometimes, somewhere on the path, it becomes clear that the opponent’s beliefs are headed in a poor direction and you need to be creative to steer things somewhere else. It’s not so simple.
The art of the diplomat comes in handy almost every day. A person that you once offended moves into your town. You don’t avoid that person but rather find a way to make them believe that there was nothing to that offense and that there is nothing that they can get from you as reparation. This way you have no worries when you see that person in town.
In yesterday’s post (link) I discussed how protesters face a tough problem in selecting leaders to represent them in negotiating the terms of the transition. It seems unlikely that the incumbent regime is going to vanish, and some bargaining between elements of the incumbent regime and representatives of the protest movement seems inevitable. Thus, leader selection is a problem that the protesters will probably have to solve and perhaps one they will have to solve very quickly. At the moment, it seems that the incumbents are trying to force their own solution to the problem by selectively inviting certain opposition figures in for discussion.
On this, a line from NY Times columnist Ross Douthat’s article today (link) struck me. Douthat writes on the Obama administration’s approach to Egypt, proposing that “Obama might have done more to champion human rights and democracy in Egypt before the current crisis broke out, by leavening his Kissinger impression with a touch of Reaganite idealism. But there isn’t much more the administration can do now, because there isn’t any evidence that the Egyptian protesters are ready to actually take power. [emphasis added]” Certainly this is an image of the protest movement that the Egyptian incumbent regime favors. It reveals more about how the leadership problem is hurting the protesters.
As far as I can tell from the news coverage the protesters in Egypt have not anointed any individual or group to speak on their behalf. Whenever an opposition figure makes statements on behalf of the protesters, a regular reaction, at least in the Twittersphere, has been to deny that the figure should be understood as speaking on the protesters’ behalf. Given the decentralized nature of the protests, it’s hard to know how such an anointment process might even take place.
This presents an interesting set of dilemmas. On the one hand, it would seem to suit the incumbent regime just fine. If leadership is needed for well-coordinated strategic acts, then the atomistic nature of the protests limits the degree to which it can threaten the incumbent regime. If leadership provides focal individuals that can inspire steadfastness and sacrifice, then the atomistic nature of the protests means that its longevity depends on the sustained enthusiasm that each participant or small group of participants can muster themselves. If leaders are necessary to offer clear rebuttals to claims made by the incumbents, then the atomistic nature of the protests makes it easier for the incumbents to cast it in their preferred light and peel away support. For these reasons, we might expect the incumbent regime to do whatever it can from preventing the protesters from establishing a leadership. There is a certain “divide and conquer” element to this.
But things may cut the other way too. The rejection of claims to leadership that I read on Twitter seem to reflect a fear of letting anyone take up the mantle too early. Let me try to characterize what I interpret as a strategic rationale for this. The presumption seems to be that the establishment of a leadership will mark the end of establishing a bargaining position vis-a-vis incumbent forces and the beginning of bargaining, which inevitably means no more ground can be gained. So long as the atomistic movement is gaining ground, the logic might go, there is no need to settle on leaders yet. Given all the resources still at the incumbent regime’s disposal (including, it seems, the backing of the US), it would seem that if protesters agreed to have leaders begin bargaining for them now, they would end up with the short end of the stick. After all, when authority is delegated to a leader, that leader will look after the interests of those he or she represents to some extent, but will look after his or her own interests to the fullest extent. Knowing this, the incumbent regime may offer side deals that make the leader quite happy but sell the protesters short. To the extent that this captures what is going on, we have a classic “agency dilemma” (link).
As a protester, is time on your side in terms of the resources that incumbent leaders will have to co-opt whomever you put forward as a leader to bargain on your behalf? Or will the advantages that the incumbents gain by the lack of leadership on your side start causing you to actually to lose ground for your bargaining position? And how do you know, as a protester, that other protesters are looking at things the same way that you are? Pretty tough dilemma. It will be interesting to see if and how it is solved.
Catching up on some blog reading, I came across a post by post-communist Eurasia expert Lucan Way over at the Monkey Cage blog (link). He makes the following points,
Above all, Egypt does not benefit from a pro-democratic external environment in the form of the European Union that greatly facilitated democratization in countries such as Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. Thus, with the possible exception of Mongolia, the fall of Communism has led to full democratization only in central and south-eastern Europe where the EU has offered the possibility of membership…Furthermore, in stark contrast to the color revolutions in the early 2000s, protests in Egypt (and even more strikingly in Tunisia) lack clear leadership. In Ukraine in 2004, opposition strategized for months how best to use demonstrations to oust President Kuchma. In both Tunisia and Egypt, protests were almost completely spontaneous and took almost everyone by surprise. While the heavy reliance in Egypt on spontaneous organization by citizens newly involved in politics is inspiring, the apparent dearth of organized opposition makes it more likely that Mubarak will be able to wait out the protests.
I will take for granted that Way knows what he’s talking about in suggesting that the pro-democratic external environment and leadership were important factors in establishing democratic trajectories in Eastern Europe. The differences that Way highlights suggest what the US and Europeans could do to productively engage the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. That is, American and European policy could aim to fill at least the first gap—that of “a pro-democratic external environment” that could motivate democratic deepening. The second leadership gap might be one that internal forces should be left to handle on their own. Of course, this kind of policy formulation presumes a genuine interest in seeing such democratic deepening.