Thursday, 30 June 2016

Conversation with George Friedman: Breaking eggs to make a democratic omelette

I began a conversation on the morality of intervention inside a sovereign state with the well-known geopolitician Dr George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures (formerly at STRATFOR). The below is the interaction.

Firstly, this is the opening section of a recent essay by Dr George Friedman. The piece is called: The Problem with the State Department DissentersIt's free, so do check it out for the full context.
"Last week, approximately 51 State Department officials filed a protest against the American policy in Syria. They called for airstrikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime, which they claimed has been in constant violation of all ceasefire agreements. On the surface, this is a completely reasonable demand. Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad have maintained power in Syria since 1970 through oppression and periodic reigns of terror. Resting on the support of the Alawite minority in Syria, they created a military and security force that has violated all standards of human decency.

"In 1982, Hafez suppressed protests in Hama by killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people. Bashar conducted an equally brutal repression following the uprising in 2011, initiating the civil war that is now raging.

"There is no question that the world would be a better place without the Assads. Bombing Damascus until the regime is destroyed is morally desirable. And if bombing it would force Assad to change his policy toward the rebels, that would be of enormous value."

While I accept in 2016, the dominant geopolitical paradigm supports Dr Friedman's idea that removing Mr Assad is the "moral" thing to do (he says "bombing Damascus until the regime is destroyed is morally desirable" and "there are multiple moral imperatives"), it might be time to consider an alternative way of thinking.

The idea of morality in world dynamics is a recipe for more examples of Syria in the future. If an immensely powerful country as the US sees every other country without a democracy as "immoral," then the consequence will always be isolation, threats and ultimately war. I understand this goal is a fairly new paradigm. The R2P mandate didn't exist during the Cold War when the US had a counterweight power with which to contend. Now that the US is unarguably the strongest military power, and since "might makes right" is always true in affairs of government, the US in 2016 can do what it likes to whomever it wishes in pursuit of worldwide democracy.

I am fully aware a goal of world peace can be achieved if the entire globe runs its government on an American model. However to achieve this requires a lot more bloodshed either directly by the US or by its proxies to compel every people group to change its government model. If Washington is comfortable with this process, fine. But it is certainly not moral. And I say this as a New Zealander from a pedigree of democracy.

The reason Assad is considered "immoral" is simply because the US believes it has the right (because of its might) to choose how other sovereign nations conduct their affairs. I am suggesting this thought process is the problem. (Other countries aside from the US think they too have the right to intervene in another sovereign country's affairs, but only on a regional scale, so far. It is the US which believes it has a global mandate to do the same.)

So I submit another way: revert to and encourage classical international law in which the process of government within an internationally recognised border is none of anyone else's business. This would require, for instance, accepting that North Korea wants to be a monarchy. Or that Syria desires to be an autocracy. It might feel immoral to let these countries alone, but it is a step towards peace with a far greater stride than forcing those countries to bend to the goal of worldwide democracy.

In other words, has Dr Friedman considered that the mindset of morality in international affairs and the idea that democracy (in the modern sense, not the Athenian sense) as the greatest form of human government, are actually two of the most central problems leading to much of the world conflict about which he talks so eloquently?

Do I think this is possible? Of course not. The hard power might be dialed back, but the worldwide democracy project would still continue with soft power. The penetration of the internet in Iran over time is, I think, a causal factor in the eventual opening of that country to the international community. The internet is the quintessential American invention (free, equal, democratic, etc). Anywhere this machine spreads above a certain percentage can almost be guaranteed to spur democratic feelings among the people.

But this is a recipe for greater friction in the world system in the short and medium term. And again, if this is something the US is comfortable with, then this is the way it will be. So do not think only Stalin talked of breaking eggs to make omelettes - the US appears quite happy to do exactly this to achieve the utopia it wants.

Dr Friedman responds

I think you misunderstand my view. I do think that liberal democracy represents the most moral regime. I recognize that there are many non-liberal democratic regimes that would disagree with my view. Therefore I do not think it my task or the right to impose liberal democracy on other countries.  For one thing, the burden of doing so would cause my own country, the United States to undertake a burden that would break it, and it would fail in the effort. In any case I believe in the right to national self-determination, and that means that it is the right of the citizens of this nations to rise up and overthrow this nation should they choose to undertake the risk and burden of doing so. So I certainly don't think it is the American interest to try and create liberal democracies, and I also think that doing so threatens our own liberal democracy.

I do believe that the United States, like all nations has the right to pursue its national interest, by force when necessary. However wisely or unwisely, the United States saw its interest, after 9-11 to intervene in Middle East to disrupt the organizations there that conceived of these attacks. This was not out of vengeance but to prevent further attacks. It can be readily argued that this intervention was poorly thought out. But error is not the same as immorality. It is not immoral to be foolish but it would have been immoral not to act in some effective way against al Qaeda in particular and the Jihadists in general.

This brings us to Syria. In general, its public is responsible for the regime and is free to rise up to try and overthrow al-Assad. This is what they chose to do. It is perfectly acceptable to me, in a general uprising, to provide aid to those who rose. The United States would not exist had the French not taken actions, for whatever reason, to support us. So in this case, it was not an attempt to impose democracy. Two moral rights coincided. One was the right of the United States to pursue its national interest. Another was the right to support a large-scale uprising. The coincidence of the two rights – self-interest and massive resistance to the regime – undermine the claim that the al-Assad regime had a moral right to US neutrality in its struggle.

But there was another instance that caused a moral issue. In 1982 the al-Assad regime murdered between 10-40,000 people (the number may be higher) in the Syrian city of Hama for challenging the regime. There were many more afterwards. There is to me a boundary of moral action that a regime passes when certain acts are carried out. No reasonable person objects to regime change forced from both inside or outside in South Africa, for example. The Apartheid regime could not claim the legitimacy of other tyrannies because it had passed the boundaries of decency. Similarly, the destruction of Hitler had little to do morally with fascism but everything to do with moving beyond the bounds of basic humanity. So too, I would argue that Syria had with this and many other massacres. I do not claim that all regimes must be liberal democracies. I do claim that some regimes, regardless of type, pass from the realm of a moral right to exist, to a moral obligation to destroy.  South Africa was one. Syria is another.

Now the moral obligation falls on the entire world. And all countries have other, competing interests. The United States had the right to align with revolutionaries, just as France did with the United States. It had a right to declare Syria beyond moral bounds. I think it is. But it is not obligated to overthrow the al-Assad regime, when there other more pressing evils are in the region. For instance: ISIS.

So I agree that the United States has neither moral right nor obligation to impose liberal democracy on the world. I do think the world has a moral obligation to deal with crimes against humanity, of which the Syrians were surely guilty and I have always been struck by the silence concerning its crimes from those committed to human rights. Now who is to judge this? As in all moral matters, it falls to us to judge what ought to be done. It would be nice if the United Nations were able to do so, but it wasn't constructed for that. In this world we must all make the moral judgment. As for those who were silent on Syria for thirty years, but condemn other regimes with much lesser crimes – that is a study in moral selectivity.

My own view on Syria is that the al-Assad regime should have been destroyed years ago not because it wasn't liberal democratic but because it was morally despicable. The rising against al-Assad occurred, and within the bounds of national interest, it was assisted. The pivot away from Assad to ISIS was a choice of the greater of two evils at the moment. Morality is absolute. Its application is infinitely more complex.

From my point of view, the destruction of the al-Assad regime has nothing to do with imposing liberal democracy. It has to do with destroying a regime that has violated all norms of civilized governance. Now who will do that? Those that are willing to act, and in this world those who have, or had, an interest in his fall.

Thank you for your very thoughtful letter. I don't think we are far apart in most things. But al-Assad was not a question of regime type. The regime was far worse. As for who will act. In practice, those who need to.


INTEL & Analysis responds


Thanks for the prompt reply, George. To be honest, I'm actually excited to be talking to you, considering you're one of my favorite people!

Firstly, I'm glad you clarified. I didn't quite have your argument framed correctly.

It is unarguable that killing 10-40,000 people in Hama is nothing short of immoral, regardless of which (useful) moral philosophy one adheres to. I can't deny that, and I'm not going to. Rather, the piece that stands out is the causality. Arguably, the reason Hafez Assad caused so much suffering could only have beent he result of the Syrian people rising up. Few rational tyrants will begin a mass-killing of their own people for no reason. (And according to the history of Hama, it appears the uprising was a mix of Islamism, nationalism and Muslim Brotherhood ideology. So that episode is not good representation of my viewpoint.)

The 2011 uprisings, however, are. The people rising up in Syria were, generally speaking, (with multiple actors) hoping for freedom under some form of liberal democracy. The stronger groups in the country now appear to be Islamist and have hijacked the chaos, but the genesis of the uprising was broadly liberal as far, as I can tell.

This I believe is the reason both the State Department and Pentagon desire to intervene this time around. The talk of removing IS is certainly admirable, as any rational person would agree, and is a factor in wishing to intervene in Syria, but is also inherently related to the liberal factions in the country. I wasn't alive during the Hama repression, and I confess not to know enough about the situation, but intervening in the uprising back then would have exactly the consequences you outline in your article. Yet I suspect the reticence then was due to the lack of a faction of liberal democrats fighting nearby. Removing Assad would have resulted in an Islamist or Muslim Brotherhood control of Syria in 1982, which certainly would have been leveraged by the Soviet Union. This would have violated a specific condition in the US' larger Cold War grand strategy...Your input here is appreciated

But in 2011-2016, the attack on a democratic faction in Syria this time around is unacceptable to Washington. And so it should be. There is a natural affinity between the two, and a resulting victory for the liberal rebels would be a spread of this affinity. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the order created by democracy as the dominant system in the international community (in fact, "international community" is a term specifically designed to denote those countries with either partial or full democracies, but that's another topic).


Let me frame Syria in a slightly different way, which may illuminate why I think the use of morals here is so unhelpful:  Is it not more appropriate to say that Bashar al-Assad is legitimately crushing a threat to his regime, a threat that is the antithesis of his own in both philosophy and structure, and that despite his agreed brutality it is perfectly within his legal rights (based on classical international law) to do so?

Consider that if tomorrow inside New Zealand, for instance, a pure-democracy faction emerged in Waikato which took up arms seeking to replace the government in Wellington (which is not, strictly speaking, a pure democracy), would Wellington not fall within the same legal rights if it used its entire weight to crush this dissent?

And if these two scenarios are broadly the same, then because laws are built to maintain order, would it not be illegitimate for the US and the international community to intervene in the sovereign affairs of New Zealand even if Wellington's reaction was considered "immoral" by this large group of people? Is law not the backbone of order?

What I'm getting at here is how the imposition of morals onto an foreign relations looks from the outside like a privilege afforded only to the mightiest of powers. And the details of those morals are entirely arbitrary to that mightiest of powers. Any reflection by others of the same morals is a result not of the objective truth of those morals, but more likely because the others do not have the might to challenge and replace the morals with their own.

I don't want to misunderstand you further, and stop me if I am, but the reasoning in your reply seems to suggest that while uprisings against governments should morally be supported, not all uprisings are equal. This infers an arbitrary moral equivalence dictating a subjective preference for democratic uprisings over any others. And from the outside - especially watching how Washington has acted over the years - this looks identical to active encouragement of democratic uprisings within other sovereign states. Which in turn looks identical to a violation of classical international law. Logic suggests an ultimate end-point for this inertia.

And, I think, that end-point is where your national interests argument nests. Can you explain why you think it is not within the US' national interest to encourage the spread of democratic government around the world? Perhaps I am naive, but surely such governments would be more likely to engage constructively with the US than any other version of government. Surely, more democracy leads to a more US-friendly world, which is directly in line with US interests.

Again, democracy is the best of a bad lot. My issue is with the introduction of subjective morals into an amoral world - where they often do more harm than good. The problem here is that every people group has different morals dictating what they should do in the international space. That al-Assad has "violated all norms of civilized governance" and that some regimes "pass from the realm of a moral right to exist, to a moral obligation to destroy" can only be said within the confines of a US-as-the-sole-world-power understanding of what an ordered and moral world should look like. Because from the perspective of al-Assad, his actions are the height of morality - he has the defence of his family and Alawite community to think about.

That you can quite rightly say "no reasonable person" would object to removing Hitler, al-Assad or the South African regime is, I submit, precisely because the US-as-the-sole-world-power worldview is so popular around the world today as a result of exactly the inexorable spread of American morals over the last 75 years. I still hypothesise a return to classical international law would be a bulwark to the kinds of problems we see in Syria, and a limiting factor on the disturbing tendency for Washington to wish to impose its morals (and democracy) on the world through force.

(to be updated upon reply)

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