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Conspiracy in the Sahel? Would that it were

Posted by / 28th February 2013 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , , , / -

With Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and various other countries in the Sahel suffering from instability and foreign intervention, conspiracy theories about Western control are running amok. They always do, especially in the complex context of international relations. Conspiracy theories give us comfort and shelter against the much harsher realities of our world. Unfortunately, they also block serious analysis and our quest for solutions. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is no different: it is essential to analyse and tackle the very real challenges in the region- including Western involvement- without reaching for counter-productive conspiracy comfort food.

Countries of the Sahel combine an inherent fragility caused by poor economic conditions with post-colonial divisions that make national stability difficult: ethnic and religious lines run right across borders and divide nations into disperse communities. Proper infrastructure is scarce. Even with good governance policies, such a situation would always be difficult to manage.

Whereas until 2001 the region was largely ignored by Western policy, and mostly left to development cooperation and humanitarian actors, 9/11 changed everything. Since then, it has very much been on the radar screen of offices in Washington and the main European capitals.

Not only does the Sahel represent a religious fault-line between Islam in the north and Christianity in the south, but weak control of central governments plus a lack of Western presence created perfect local hiding spots for terrorist groups. Or, at least, that was the argument for getting involved. And thus, since the War on Terror began, financial, political and military resources have been pouring into countries like Mali. The discovery of natural resources in the region accelerated these dynamics even further.

In parallel, and following the same religious-default-line argument, missionaries from both the Christian world as well as from countries such Pakistan and Saudi Arabia began flooding in. A moderate and inclusive version of Islam that communities in the Sahel typically follow is quickly being radicalized through this clash of religious civilizations. A clash that can be witnessed in most of sub-Saharan Africa through the proliferation of evangelical churches and mosques on every street corner, but which is particularly pernicious in those countries that until recently had a certain religious equilibrium of moderation and tolerance.

Even ignoring ethical concerns about foreign intervention in local societies, it is not difficult to see how destabilizing Western policies can be. The US AFRICOM, with a budget of roughly $300 million and almost four thousand personnel, is a game-changer in terms of local security. Similarly, when France intervenes through Operation Serval, the local balance of power shifts dramatically. This destabilization would occur even if such intervention is coherent and with clear purpose. As it stands, they are neither: Western governments, like any large organization, respond and act according to a multitude of internal and external pressures, resulting in inconsistent and deficient outcomes.

This is exactly where conspiracy theorists consistently get it wrong, and are detrimental to the search for better policies. Western actors in the Sahel undoubtedly prioritise their own agendas over the interest of local populations. They also will try to cover this up by formal discourse using all the tools in the box: human rights, democracy, development, anti-terrorism, and other such generic and vacuous terminology. And yet, there is no “Western agenda” as such. Instead, there is an amalgamation of a plurality of Western actors with specific objectives, some internal, and some with respect to local situation.

Before foreign policy is articulated and implemented, it will have been influenced by a multitude of actors focussed on disperse agendas. Some of those (such as defence contractors or oil multinationals) will want to use local instability for economic profit. Others will focus on expanding their range of activities to stay relevant in 21st Century complexities. This can be applied to the Pentagon as well as to religious or humanitarian organizations. The former will convince itself that its existence is vital for international security, and that, as such, their work represents a moral imperative by protecting the US population. Similarly, the latter believe they have a moral responsibility towards the souls or lives of local populations. At the same time, Malian diplomats will lobby the White House to support the political leader they represent, often with true conviction and purpose. And Human Rights groups will lobby the UN to condemn the very same political leader.

All, however, push for an expansion of their own importance, size and influence. What is more, this game of identifying groups influencing international policy can be played with respect to each individual lobby as well. The Pentagon does not represent a uniform set of interests. Nor do human rights groups. Any NGO will consist of some people who choose to work there because of non-financial agendas, such as religious or moral concerns. To others, it is just a job like any other. Both types, however, will have as a primary objective the survival and growth of their own organisation.

When analysing actors at the lowest possible level, i.e. the individual CEO, criminal mastermind, local diplomat, advocate, analyst, secretary, aid worker or lobbyist, people tend to be terrible at understanding the complexity of their own environment. As a result, and even if we have a clearly identified purpose, we tend to fail at understanding the role we need to play to properly influence such a complex system. Furthermore, the moment agendas are shared between individuals, information tends to be leaked. Groups are not particularly good at keeping secrets.

Within such complexity, any large scale policies or operations tend towards destruction rather than creation. Not because of some master plan that defends the interests of a selected few, but because of the people’s inability to create any type of master plan in the first place. The days of clearly developed Napoleonic campaigns are long gone, and even Bonaparte had to contend with numerous lobbyists and complex influences. Within this context, the best is to be as modest as possible with respect to local interventions- whether they be military, economic or humanitarian- and work on a daily basis to understand and improve the internal dynamics that lead to such decision making in the first place. In other words, know thyself.

Western policy in the Sahel is largely responsible for the destruction and violence taking place at the moment. The irony that locally based terrorism could become a reality through anti-terrorist programmes was not difficult to foresee. And yes, some actors may have actually pushed for this to happen. But the main reason is not a controlled conspiracies emanating from Washington or Parisian offices, but the lack of control and lack of purpose that complicated internal human systems always display.

This is a much scarier thought than any conspiracy theory could ever be: human beings- including its most powerful individuals- are not in control of their own destiny. All we can do is try to steer society in the right direction by analysing and improving our systems’ internal mechanisms. Putting one’s head in the sand by eating the comfort food provided by conspiracy theorists only undermines such a worthy cause. Reality is difficult enough, and there is no need to create imaginary foes.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Global Governance: Why Size Matters

Posted by / 20th December 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

Now that the end of the Mayan calendar turned out to be just that -the end of a calendar rather than the world- we should perhaps turn our attention to issues that actually do threaten our global community’s existence. Spoiler alert: they do not include nuclear war, Malthusian concerns or melting icecaps. Our human mind is very good at recognizing such imminent dangers, and we are innovative and rational enough to deal with them, even if not always timely or efficiently.

The issues that truly endanger humanity are those that form part of ourselves, individually, and as such are hard to spot and even more difficult to deal with effectively. Within that category, there are few forces so strong as our attraction to size and numbers; 2012 was one of those years in which large groups and bloated international organizations showed their true nature, and it has not been a pretty sight.

Unfortunately, increased scale does not mean better governance. It reduces individual responsibility and accountability, and the initial purpose of organizations loses out to internal interests and dynamics. Different answers to our problems will be needed if we want to reach the end of the century in reasonable shape.

The mix of globalization with growing populations and growing economies is putting new demands on the way we govern our world. The answers that global society is coming up with so far are focused on the expansion of existing structures: ever-growing governments, expanded transnational organizations, dubious attempts at universal law enforcement, mass popular movements, ever-merging private companies. Globalization has become a further excuse for our psyches to find shelter in size, to hide in numbers.

Systems such as large human organizations have an inherent tendency to expand. This process is closely linked with the desire for survival of any system, and size typically means strength. Moreover, individuals within large organizations have their own particular agendas that are defended through mini-expansions within the system as well: the creation of a new management layers to accommodate promotions, management’s pet-projects leading to new departments and increased budgets to justify increased salaries are only a few of the internal expansionist forces at work. The result is perpetual growth.

And with growth come strong internal survival mechanisms. When in November Nate Silver used relatively simple statistical models to predict- astoundingly accurately as it turned out- the outcome of the US presidential elections, the mainstream media jumped on him in ways usually only reserved for North Korean dictators or cheating congressmen. The criticisms didn’t question his method or philosophy, because there was not much to criticise. But the world of punditry realised that if a nerdy looking statistician could use reason rather than instinct to analyse politics, they could all be out of a job soon. And thus the reaction was fierce, like a threatened organism defending itself from an existential threat.

Are such ever-increasing expansion and self-defence mechanisms necessarily a bad thing? Let’s look at a few examples, starting with the go-to place for any analyst of declining civilizations: ancient Rome. During its final stages of decline, the Roman Empire continued to expand its bureaucracy. This created civilization-wide inertia and blocked attempts at reversing the civilization’s fortunes. Whereas during, say, the 4th century AD, Romans still had the know-how, prestige and resources to avoid eventual collapse, they no longer had the effective means to put those competitive advantages to use. No one was able to take responsibility for the bloated bureaucratic monsters and its internal organizations kept on growing ad infinitum. This is exactly what our global civilization is facing in the early 21st Century.

The BBC crisis surrounding Jimmy Savile, for example, showed how large organizations can become inert, lack lines of responsibility and are incapable of dealing with anything beyond standard procedure. As one former BBC head said, “an organisation that allowed that sort of structure to grow up so that people can’t make decisions, has got something to do – it has got to be cleared out”.

National governments have clutched at any straw they could find to stay relevant, including using the fear-factor of terrorism, health-scares- anyone remember BSE and avian flu?- and now economic meltdown. At a time that national politics and governments are losing their validity and importance to their citizen’s lives, it is their organizations’ internal intuition, their systemic desire for survival, that drives them forward. Now that growth through welfare-state dynamics are on the decline, they look towards security and transnational concerns. The main driving force behind state intrusion into private lives and infringement of individual rights are bureaucracies. Every surveillance program justifies internal budgets and employment, and every weapons-system development benefits a whole chain of people, including lawyers and politicians. This world is not driven by dark conspiracies; it is driven by increasingly faceless actors within large organizations defending their own small islands of interests. The result is wasted resources, inefficiency and, most importantly, lack of responsiveness to true threats to our societies.

This year, and in a stunning display of institutional chutzpah, the European Union demanded- and is likely to get- a budget increase amidst the worse economic downturn in generations. If this had been done on Keynesian grounds- i.e. the need to invest our way out of the crisis- then it would have not been so brazen. Unfortunately, there was no such philosophy behind the demand. The EU has grown so large, and with so many national politicians and bureaucrats linked to specific islands of interest, that institutional growth benefits too many to halt it. The grey masses of anonymity that move national politics forward pale in comparison with the unaccountability of Brussels’ bureaucracy. And so, without anyone specifically being responsible, the EU continues to bloat. Not only does this lead to more inefficient bureaucracy, ineffective expenditure and frustrated citizens, it also undermines the EU’s abilities to to add value to our societies. Its primary purpose is now its own survival.

The UN is another prime example of a bloated system without any lines of responsibility (unless someone truly believes that Ban Ki-moon heads the world order?). It suffers under the weight of its own complexity. It was difficult enough to deal with roughly 200 nation-states, but now the UN is also increasingly dependent on other actors and on the good-will of its internal departments. They all have with their own agendas, budgets and specific interests. Unless such organizations are reformed into leaner and independent agencies without being able to hide behind institutional complexities or national agendas, they will fail their primary purpose.

One can observe this desire for size and numbers in all layers of society, not just in the public or international domain. Multinationals and other large companies do not escape internal expansionist dangers either. Mergers, development of new markets and other growth strategies often do not add any share or stake-holder value, except for those internally benefitting through increased bonuses or wages. In a globalised world- and just like national leaders- CEO’s may have formal responsibility over the actions of their organization, but true responsibility and choices come from deep down below.

To add insult to injury, not only are such companies too large for internal lines of responsibility, many of them have achieved “too big to fail” status. Because of society’s dependency on their operations, they will always be saved from doom. Needless to say that this negates the very essence of capitalism, and takes away significant flexibility and adaptability of how our global structures operate.

Even on the popular movement front things are not much better. 2012 is the year that effectively ended two popular movements that suffered because of their size and lack of clear lines of responsibility: the Tea Party and the Occupy-consortium. Both grew out of anger with the status quo, and very quickly became mass forces to be reckoned with. Both movements were based on size, with their power coming from numbers of followers. Both failed because of exactly that.

Believing that in today’s complex world you can have an effective agenda without clear leadership and hierarchy is preposterous. Without specific ambitions, and ways of holding people to account for their actions, any organization loses validity. Neither the Tea Party or Occupy attempted to create clear structure, and as a result their overly ambitious efforts turned into an aimless cacophony which then quickly faded away as both followers and observers moved on.

Humans are amazingly gifted creatures when it comes to applying their ingenuity, innovation and creativity to problem-solving. Huge challenges such as environmental degradation and poverty can be dealt with through innate abilities. Unfortunately, we are going down a dangerous path in which we are blocking our own problem-solving mechanisms. We are becoming incapable of creating the organization necessary for concerted global action. Instead, we have islands of specific interests and interest-groups ever-expanding, and increasingly blotting out the light. It is a fight of individual short-term interests versus societal long-term goals.

To avoid that challenges such those mentioned in the first paragraph of this article turn into unmanageable and survival-threatening problems, we need to rethink our love-affair with size. Organizations need to be lean and mean. Networks can connect organizations in order to coordinate efforts and cooperate, but let’s keep those as light, unfinanced and informal as possible. Civilization’s death does not come suddenly or through specific calamity, it comes through structural inertia. Strengthening individual responsibility, accountability and responsiveness are much worthier causes than doomsday-thinking. It is not the Mayan’s we need to fear; just ask the Romans.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Democracies and their Search for Enemies

Posted by / 17th January 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

In an interesting fusion of international relations and developmental psychology, the Enemy System Theory (EST) has been used since the Cold War to explain conflicts between human tribes. Its main premise is that the human mind requires the identification of both antagonistic as well as friendly groups that validate one’s own existence. In other words, we need enemies in order to feel good about ourselves. From an evolutionary human need’s perspective, it allows our psychology to show loyalty to our surroundings by sharing a common foe. If no such foe exists, we artificially create one. Needless to say, this urge seems to be alive and well in our modern day societies. In Europe and the United States, especially, there seems to be a continuous search for potential enemies to identify and hunt down. And if we cannot find them, we invent them.

An often heard misconception about our world is that democracies are more peaceful than dictatorships or other types of regimes. Even though there is some evidence to suggest that among themselves democracies tend to be peaceful, democracies have proven to be ferociously violent towards non-democratic regimes. This is true even if one leaves the United States out of the equation on the basis of being unrivalled- and therefore almost unavoidably irresponsible- in its military superiority. European democracies have been heavily involved in, and shared responsibility for, most of the violent and diplomatic conflicts this century so far.

To continue to insist that this is because democratic nations are more vested in spreading their self-perceived enlightenment around the globe- and thus accelerating Fukuyama’s now infamous End of History- seems unsustainable. Too many inconsistencies in Western behaviour undermine that thesis. Yet to argue that it is all down to realist, self-interested behaviour fuelled by oil and other geostrategic concerns, is also missing the mark. The large conflicts of our time (Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror in general) have been too self-destructive, too badly calculated, to have been born solely out of such sinister motives.

Our perceived need for enemies as explained by the EST seems to be a more appropriate explanation. In a time that natural enemies are increasingly hard to find, we actively seek them out. In many cases, we even encourage them. Reading the newspapers, one would almost get the false impression that times are particularly dangerous for the West right now. Our tribal instincts do not seem to be comfortable in a globalized world in which we can no longer define good or evil according to Cold War parameters. Hence, over the past twenty years or so, democracies have been actively searching for new targets.

During the hopeful and idealistic 1990s, the targets were particularly hard to come by. Those that were found- in the Balkans, for example- tended to be portrayed as enemies of humanity and human rights, rather than as enemies of democratic populations specifically. The first decade of the new century, however, saw the rise of terrorism as an all encompassing foe ready to be applied to our darkest nightmares. It led to wars with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed by democratic forces.

Now, with the fear and anger towards faceless terrorist on the decline, democratic aggression has turned back to more value driven targets, such as Libya and Syria. Iran seems to be the only constant throughout the ages, with Teheran making an appetising and useful target for continual rhetoric and sanctions. The North Korean regime has proven too extreme and too cartoonish in Western eyes to be useful as true antagonists, despite the human suffering among the Korean population.

It is hard to overestimate the psychological power of enemies in our collective conscious. British and American comedy shows still seem incapable to even mention Germany without some distasteful reference to Hitler or its Nazi past. Immigrants are increasingly perceived as a fifth column for unspecified rivals. Irrational fear of Iran’s nuclear program is shared by both the political right as well as the left throughout the West. The mere mention of terrorist plots continue to open political paths unimaginable in any rational society.

The level of enthusiasm for our own societal arrangements is inversely related to the relationship with our surroundings. Even internally, within democratic societies, the artificiality of much of the political discourse against the other side is obvious, of course. Railing against the other political side makes us feel good about ourselves and those who agree with us. Being a victim, potential or actual, of forces that are perceived to be against us, is a powerful sedative. It liberates us from introspection and self-assessment.

The fact that politicians gladly use the EST to their advantage is nothing new, and they will undoubtedly continue to do so. Yet it would be a mistake to automatically interpret this as wilful abuse on their part. Besides the irony of such attitudes towards them, proving the EST itself (making political leaders our perceived enemies), it is likely that they themselves are victims of their own human frailty. Just like all of us.

By any reasonable standard (mortal victims, economic destruction, geopolitical manipulation), democracies have proven the most aggressive actors in violent conflicts worldwide over the past decades. And yet we continue to see ourselves as the good side, righteous and generally well-behaved, albeit perhaps error prone in the practical application of our ideals.

Next time that the political right and the left come together to overthrow a regime in Libya, or impose tougher sanctions on Iran, or suggest intervention in Syria, perhaps should have a look at how that has worked out for us in the past. Maybe some modesty in both our admiration for our own moral superiority as well as restraint in our anger towards unpleasant regimes would be appropriate. It certainly would have benefited the Iraqi and Afghani populations over the past decade or so. After all, who needs enemies with friends like us?


The Chinese Dragon and the Western Whale in Africa

Posted by / 30th November 2011 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , / -

With all the attention dedicated to the economic crisis, it is easy to forget in Europe or the US that there is a whole different dynamic going on in sub-Saharan Africa. Many African countries are increasingly the battleground of a struggle between two global giants: Western forces from Europe and North-America on the one hand, and the Chinese State on the other. The difference? One consists of loosely defined conglomerates with diverse cultural, political and economic interests, whereas the other is a centralized and well-oiled state machine that is unburdened by morality or ambiguous agendas. It will be a surprise to no one that the latter is winning. Whether that is good news for Africa remains unclear.

When looking at countries in the Sahel or central Africa, ghosts from the Cold War era seem to linger everywhere. Two large powers battling it out over the backs of local populations, manipulating governments, and viewing Africa as a tool for global advancement, rather than as an independent entity. Yet, one cannot help the feeling that something is completely different as well.

The West is still doing what it always does, putting itself in the impossible position of wanting to be a force for universal “good”- as flexibly defined in offices in Paris, Washington or London, but usually including golden oldies like “democracy” and “human rights”- while at the same time being unwilling to escape from the clutches of self-interest and internal lobbies. Add to that the fact that “the West” is an eclectic collection of mostly uncoordinated state actors, multinationals, cultural movements and NGOs, plus some supposedly supranational organizations thrown into the mix, and one automatically feels sorry for local communities that need to deal with such chaos.

In contrast to the Cold War, however, the Soviet Union has been replaced by a decidedly original type of player: the People’s Republic of China. Unlike its extinct communist relative, China has no interest or time for exporting ideology or ethical values. China wants resources, and China wants influence. And lo and behold, China gets resources. And China gets influence. Unlike the eclectically burdened Western forces, Beijing’s practical approach is free from any type of limits on its willingness or ability to attain is objectives. Needless to say, this is an enormous competitive advantage over its direct competitors.

In a way, China plays the Westphalian game the way it should be played: it follows the strict rules of having a singular representative of its own territory being responsible for planning and communication with the outside world. As an African political leader, you know who you are dealing with, and you know the cost-benefit analysis of doing business with the Asian superpower.

Contrast this to dealing with the Western conglomerate: one has to manage the complex political structures between European and American nations, while at the same time balancing their words and needs with those of NGOs, business and other external actors with distinct and often conflicting agendas. No wonder that African capitals are increasingly filled by Chinese contractors! If you want to get things done, call Beijing. If you want a diplomatic nightmare of economic interests covered by a sauce of neocolonial arrogance, call Washington (as long as afterwards you call New York, London, Paris and Berlin, plus the headquarters of a few dozen international organizations as well, just to make sure that everyone is alright with your initial call to Washington).

The West has evolved into a giant network, a creature, no longer capable of dealing with the natural (Westphalian) laws surrounding it. It is like a whale on dry land, creating a headache for any local leader that has to deal with such a monster washing ashore. Sometimes it is sincere, often it isn’t, but it is consistently an unwieldy burden on local populations.

The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, flies wherever it deems necessary, offers some gold, threatens with fire, and soon moves on to other areas that catch its eyes. It feels at home in the Westphalian environment, in which it can bully and bribe while still behaving according to the systemic rules that supposedly regulate global affairs.

What does this mean for Africa? It is too early to say, and it will mostly depend on the ability of African leaders to manage the rivalry between these two global giants. Instinctively, however, it is hard to sympathize with Western hypocrisy. At least China does not pretend.

It is said that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The Cold War elephants no longer exist. It is now the whale and the dragon that compete. And at the risk of abusing that metaphor, one can’t help wondering which the African grass prefers: an unwieldy whale, rolling and struggling to find a comfortable spot? Or a dragon that may burn some meadows with its flames, yet is agile and practically oriented, without overextending its stay?