A place for thoughts, pictures, experiences, and more during my year in Taiwan.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Weight of a Weak State in The Ivory Coast

It seems that all the major holidays this year have gone hand in hand with some manner of international crisis. Thanksgiving brought us the North Korean artillery attack near the border, and this Christmas season has given us the rapidly escalating situation in the Ivory Coast. For those of you that don’t know, the Ivory Coast had a long awaited presidential election one month ago. After a very close vote, the opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was ruled the winner by several international mediators. The current president Laurent Gbagbo made accusations of fraud in the still rebel controlled northern province, where most of Mr. Alassane’s supporters are based, and refused to give up power. The result has been a month long standoff between Alassane and his international backers and Gbagbo’s supporters, with many observers fearing a return to civil war. What this crisis serves to highlight however, is that despite the great progress made in West Africa in the past years, many states still suffer from the legacies of post-independence governments and conflicts they spawned.

Like many states in the region, The Ivory Coast gained independence in the early 60’s, and its main nationalist leader Felix Houphou√ęt-Boigny quickly set about uniting the country. Like Kwame Nkrumah in neighboring Ghana, Boigny opted for a one party state. While this was not the ideal choice, the primary concern of leaders at the time was ethnic rallying and the rise of a fractious ethnic based party system. These one party systems of course all too often led to large scale political centralization and eventually authoritarianism. While Boigny’s rule was not nearly as violent or brutal as that of Mobutu in Zaire or Idi Amin in Uganda, it was nonetheless extremely firm, and in political terms highly exclusionary.

The Ivory Coast fell victim to the other symptom of political centralization: a high degree of institutional weakness. While a one party state solves the problem of ethnic rallying it presents two large problems. The first is that it drains state institutions of legitimacy. Things like the legislature and courts soon become seen as a rubber stamp that is all but inseparable from the ruling party. The second is that it lacks the institutional mechanisms for removing unpopular or incompetent leaders or parties, and all too often breeds fearsome opposition that is excluded from the political sphere. With no political recourse in the face of unpopular leadership, the method of choice for opposition groups becomes the military coup. This is what befell Boigny’s appointed successor in 1999, and shortly after we saw the election of current president Laurent Gbagbo in the country’s first really democratic outing since independence. The peace he promised was short lived however, as 2002 saw the breakout of civil war with the largely Muslim north, and the elections that were laid out in the 2005 peace treaty are the ones that just took place last month.

And so it is here that we find ourselves at the present situation. While the leadership is in the public eye, the true crisis is one of a weak state and weak institutions. Democratic mechanisms are not things that can be built overnight, and take time to develop both legitimacy and serious linkage to society itself. Just as the Western style systems created post-independence were largely hollow due to the lack of connection between the colonial states and easily swept aside by powerful leaders, the current regime is suffering from the weak societal links between society and the Boigny regime. For example, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Gbagbo, yet the ruling was dismissed by much of the country because the judicial branch itself lacks the legitimacy to assert itself. State constructs have been all but evacuated of all serious influence with society.

Regardless of how this crisis is resolved, the lesson to take away from it is that many African states need to look not so much at their states’ inner workings, but rather to their foundations. As the US learned so painfully in Iraq these past years, democracy is not something that can just be instituted. Legitimate democratic institutions and serious links between the state and society can only be built with time and effort on the part of the state itself. Whether this generation of African leaders can recognize this, or we once again see states descend into the brutal civil conflict we saw in the 1990’s remains to be seen.

And yes I am fully aware that this is pretty much a politics blog now. So sue me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bombs vs. Blogs

Over a month after their release, the flood of wikileaks documents continues to generate commentary and analysis over their content, and more importantly their effects on diplomacy and geopolitics. There also remains the subject as to whether or not states implicated in the leaks (namely the US) will attempt to take punitive action against Assange himself. Buried beneath all of this however is the question that so many of us have sought to avoid and one which I have been pondering of late: in this age of soft power and free flow of information, what is the true coercive role of government?
Every state requires an aspect of coercion to function, as anyone who has taken an introductory class on politics can tell you. And while some may balk at the sinister sound of such a concept; we all must remember that this is legitimate coercion, and the ability to wield it is granted to government through a comprehensive legal framework. We not only allow state institutions like the police to use coercion, but expect it for the sake of order and stability. The problem is that once the coercive arm of government has been empowered, through a constitution or something similar, its responsibilities are highly static. The responsibilities of the police are largely the same today as they were a hundred year ago. The tools and methods may have changed but the mandate has not. The problem is that the legal power of government remains the same while the world changes around it.
It does not take an academic to notice how much global realities have been realigned in the past twenty years. The internet has changed the world in a real way, as evidenced by the fact that a simple data file can radically alter the alignment of global politics. The dilemma before modern states is how to adjust policy and procedure to reflect these new realities. The problem we face is if the handling of these new considerations resides purely with government, we the run the risk of descending into tyranny. This is not tyranny in the dystopian Orwellian sense, but rather Locke’s view of the concept where tyranny is the simply act of government exceeding the authority granted to it by society, and beginning the transition to illegitimate coercion. This of course is a slippery slope, where what are initially viewed as benign indulgences can escalate into truly monstrous abuses of power.
Prevention of this will require a radical re-examination of first principles by both the state and society. Just as Madison, Adams, and the other architects of the constitution based their construction on their times, we will need to determine the true political and social realities we are surrounded by and from there decide what the government can and cannot do. As much as some try to deny it, the age that gave birth to our democracy is dead and gone. The throne once held by hard power has been taken by its softer counterpart. Blogs can often produce more change than bombs, and few can deny Einstein’s assertion that compound interest is indeed the most powerful force in the universe. While I can’t speculate as to the form the coercive arm of government will take in this new world, I do know that the longer we wait to determine it, the less of an ability we will have to influence it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! Much love to all my friends and family back West (or is it East? I'm so far, I'm not quite sure which direction it is anymore). I miss you all dearly and would love nothing more than to be with you. Here's a bit of holiday cheer from my favorite internet comic.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Invisible Hands?

While researching my recent wikileaks post I came across some interesting analyses of Assange’s writings that really shed some light on both his beliefs and his motivations. According to his paper “State and Terrorist Conspiracies,” the one constant that underlies all modern states is an inevitable drive towards authoritarianism. This includes both state regimes as well as what Assange calls ‘neocorporatist interests.’ Due to modern methods of societal oversight of these bodies, this authoritarian tendency necessarily gives rise to conspiratorial behavior. These conspiracies are not those akin to a Dan Brown novel, but rather simply measures used to conceal the actions and lines of communication used by the state or corporatist body.
This is where wikileaks comes in. The way one undermines these authoritarian dealings is by exposing the obfuscated dealings that are essential for their continuation. In Assange’s words, ‘How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links.’
What wikileaks is therefore meant to do is reduce the conspiratorial capacity of the modern state. Every diplomatic cable released is meant to sever a strand of the web he sees running through all modern governments. What do you all think about this? His core assumption about the authoritarian nature of government is interesting but not all that well supported as far as I can tell. Sound off!

Also, for a longer and much more eloquent dissection of Assange’s writing please check out this piece. http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-%e2%80%9cto-destroy-this-invisible-government%e2%80%9d/?to-destroy-this-invisible-government??/