New Scientist has an interesting article on research into what persuades people on scientific issues. The key finding is that there’s a major impact of hearing the evidence from someone who has similar political and social outlooks. Experts who are similar to listeners are inherently more believable.
The researchers tested this with a debate over giving HPV vaccines to school girls. Note that switching who provided the evidence affected the beliefs of both groups. Those who agreed politically with the new ‘expert’ saw their levels of agreement rise. Those who disagreed saw their levels of agreement drop.
The implication here is that, for skeptics on climate to be convinced, they need to hear the evidence from those who they politically agree with.
And as a 2010 Gallup Poll showed, the skeptics on Climate Change are by and large Republicans:
That means Republicans who believe in climate change are the ones who have the greatest chance of lifting nationwide belief that it’s a serious problem. Experts on the left remain vital as well, of course. But we are near the point where a majority of Democrats believe climate change is a serious problem. We are far from that point among Independents and farther among Republicans.
From the New Scientist article on political agreement with experts and how it affects their persuasiveness:
Yet people’s views do change if the right person is offering the evidence. Kahan investigated attitudes for and against giving the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to schoolgirls to prevent cervical cancer – another divisive issue. After he presented people with both sides of the argument, he found that 70 per cent of egalitarian-communitarians thought it was safe, compared with 56 per cent of hierarchical-individualists.
When the “pro” argument was presented as coming from an expert painted as being in the egalitarian-communitarian camp, and the “anti” view came from a hierarchical-individualist, the split widened to 71 versus 47 per cent. But strikingly, swapping the experts around caused a big shift: 61 per cent of hierarchical-individualists then rated the vaccine as safe, compared to 58 per cent of egalitarian-communitarians. In short, evidence from someone you identify with sways your view.
We’ve heard a lot about the role of social media, text messaging, and mobile phones in the uprising in Egypt. A lot has been said to credit them with fueling or at least organizing the protests and with getting word out to the outside world.
It’s clear that Facebook, SMS, and Twitter have played a role in Egypt in organizing the protests. Maria Bustillos also makes an excellent point that they provide value ininforming the world of what’s happening. That was the case in Iran. It’s also been the case in Egypt, where, for example, tweeters on the ground were the first to state that pro-Mubarak protesters were found carrying police IDs and were effectively thugs of the regime rather than organic protesters.
A rebuttal is that during the period when the internet was cut off in Egypt, the protests grew. It’s clear that, at that stage, they no longer depended on Facebook or twitter for their momentum. Of course, by that time, the internet and SMS had already gotten the ball rolling. Everyone in Cairo knew that protests were going on in Tahrir square. And the cutoff of internet service on further demonstrated that something big was happening, and that the powers-that-be were willing to tighten their control to try to stop it. That’s fuel for the flames of democracy.
Revolutions happened before social media, of course. Word of mouth is an effective technology for spreading ideas on its own. Early democratic revolutions also employed the most powerful information technology of their era: the printing press. Thomas Paine’s January 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was tremendously influential in persuading American colonists that they should rebel against Britain. French revolutionary pamphlets played a similar role in the French Revolution of 1848. Information technology has been used for revolutionary purposes since at least 1517, when Martin Luther’s 95 Theses pamphlet undermined the Catholic hierarchy and kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
Pamphlets were the blog posts of the pre-internet age. Nailing one to a door was the equivalent of a tweet.
Not all information technologies are created equal for the purpose of driving democracy, however. What are the factors that make a technology pro-democracy? Here is my list of 7 factors.
1. Number and Diversity of Voices
Authoritarian regimes need to control the conversation. Technologies that allow a greater diversity of voices, by turning more people into publishers, inherently undermine that control of the conversation. Dictators love centralized state media. It allows them to get their message out without risk of rebuttal or dissent. They can saturate the airwaves and newsstands with the information they prefer and the slant they prefer. For this reason, television, radio, and to a lesser extent newspapers fare poorly on this axis.
On the other hand, peer-to-peer communication mechanisms like SMS, email, blogs, facebook, and twitter do well. They distribute the power to communicate much more horizontally through society, leading to a diversity of voices and undermining centralized control.
Al Jazeera does demonstrate that it’s possible for television to be pro-revolutionary. Of course, Al Jazeera is not based in Egypt and doesn’t transmit from inside the country. What’s made it powerful is its distribution via satellite, which allows it to span national borders. Satellite TV receivers give TV viewers more choices of what to watch and undermine the efforts of dictators to reduce the number of available voices, so we’ll give them a special star.
The more people a message can reach, the more powerful it is, for good or ill. The best communication technology on the planet, if it is optimized for 1-to-1 communication, will be less effective in promoting democracy than a slightly worse communication technology aimed at getting messages out to large audience.
SMS and Email are fantastically effective communication technologies, but they suffer from being optimized for 1-to-1 or 1-to-few communications. It’s more effort to email or text a thousand people than it is to tweet once and let that reach a thousand (or many more) people. Nevertheless, it’s certainly possible via those two technologies.
Television, Radio, Blogs, and Tweets are all inherently 1-to-the-world, and Facebook just a bit less so, and that increases their power.
How much work is it to get a message out? The less effort required, the more content will get out, especially in times of high stress or danger. Less effort also means messages get out more quickly, facilitating a conversation, and usually with fewer people involved in editing or polishing the message.
Simple text based messages like twitter, facebook, email, and SMS are king.
Image posting and video posting via those services or YouTube is only fractionally higher overhead in that they require better phones or other equipment and higher bandwidth (an issue in Egypt today).
Newspapers, Radio, and Television are at the bottom of the pile, with high overhead the reduces and delays the messages.
Effective technologies for democracy allow others to boost their signal by distributing them further. An effective email, text, tweet, or blog post can be redistributed far beyond the audience of the person who authored it. This has important consequences. It means that the message becomes liberated from the author. A previously unknown tweeter with something smart to say can find it distributed to a million people, if the message is smart enough. Virality increases the explosive power of memes by allowing any of them to grow to epic distributions. And it levels the playing field in terms of audience, as even someone with a tiny audience has the potential to reach the world.
Virality, along with number and diversity of voices, is a prime differentiator between broadcast media like TV, Radio, and Newspapers and all of the new media. Blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and emails circle can go from humble origins to circling the globe in minutes or hours, and thousands have in the past week.
Twitter, with its default assumption that Tweets are public, and with its model of “followers” rather than friends (which allows some Tweeters to have direct audiences of over a million) is the king of virality. And because blog posts, YouTube videos, and so on can be tweeted, it lends its virality to other media.
The ideal pro-democracy information technology would also be difficult or impossible to censor. In Egypt the regime turned off the entire internet for two days. A more thoughtful filter could have disabled Twitter, Facebook, and services like them. China is far more sophisticated and effective in their net censorship. The Egyptian regime also found ways to block the satellite television signal of Al Jazeera.
Almost all electronic communication is susceptible to censorship on the scale that the Egyptian government practiced for a few days.
For subtler censorship, that seeks to filter out specific sites, there are tools to work restrictions. One of the best known is Tor, free software which encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through a distributed network of computers run by volunteers. Tor won’t help if the entire internet is disabled in a region, but it helps in situations like China and Iran where censors seek to block specific sites.
Good: Word of Mouth.
Poor: Almost electronic communication
Improvement: Tor Project & other anti-censorship software
6. Possibility of Anonymity
In a totally free society, anonymity might not be necessary. Anonymity, after all, has its downsides. Anonymity protects individuals from the consequences of their actions. In a well running and free society, anonymity can be used to commit crimes or engage in legal but socially disapproved-of behavior that wouldn’t happen if the person’s reputation were at stake. Reputation also has a tremendous number of benefits to society, in terms of establishing credibility and track records which other individuals can use in determining how to engage with an individual or organization.
In a totalitarian society, anonymity is very different. When reprisals come for simply speaking out against oppression, or pointing out government corruption, anonymity is a valuable tools. It helps whistle blowers, amateur journalists, and others stay alive and safe long enough to help a movement get to critical mass.
None of us live in totally free societies, and none of us knows what might happen in our societies a generation or two down the road, and so I maintain that anonymity is an important tool to maintain everywhere. In totalitarian states, it is even more clearly vital.
Online tools are not so anonymous by default. Authorities in both Egypt and Iran have apparently used Twitter and Facebook to track down activists and arrest them.
Nevertheless, if used carefully, services like Twitter, many blog-hosting services, and many email services can provide a degree of anonymity. The risk in each case (in addition to unwittingly giving out identifying details) is that the operators of the services themselves have information on users of their services that can be used to track them down. The Tor software I mentioned earlier combats this, by hiding where you are connecting to a web service from.
Television and Radio are seldom anonymous, for obvious reasons, though they do have exceptions. Newspapers vary. Underground newspapers with anonymous authors have been published from time to time. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet was originally published anonymously, as were other pamphlets of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Yet the necessity of having a printing press and a physical distribution mechanism puts physical paper dissemination at greater risk of discovery.
Great: Blogs, Email, Tweets with anonymity software such as Tor
Variable: Newspapers, Leaflets, electronic communication without anonymity software
Poor: Facebook, Television, Radio
7. Broad Availability
The final factor is how many people actually have the technology and the ability to use it. Printed pamphlets are useless without literacy. Twitter is useless if no one has computers or cell phones.
The printed word, television, and radio are now nearly ubiquitous. SMS is not far behind and has the advantage of being with people wherever their now-ubiquitous cell phones are.
Email, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are sadly still behind in adoption. Evgeny Morozov points out that at the start of Iran’s “Green Movement” protests in 2009, there were less than 20,000 registered Twitter accounts in the country. No democratizing technology, however effective (as Twitter could be) will succeed with such low penetration.
Broad availability is not necessarily pro-democracy. If a communications technology is dominated by a single voice, broad availability simply increases the volume of that voice, and turns the technology into one of control rather than one of liberation. With only a single voice, heard everywhere, you have 1984.
Broadest: Television, Radio, Print
Broad: SMS, Email
Less Broad: Facebook
Least Broad: Twitter
The perfect pro-democracy communication technology of today would have the diversity of voices, low overhead, and virality of Twitter, with built in anonymity (for those who choose it), a way to route around censors, and broad adoption well beyond what Twitter has today.
In the meantime, are communications technologies pro-democracy? Some are. Television, Radio, and Print have the potential to be, but can become dominated by dictators who use them to amplify their own voices. The technologies that empower the greatest number of voices to reach the greatest number of listeners in the most voluntary, viral, and bottoms-up manner are those that will have the most positive impact on democracy. Print once filled that role. We are witnessing the rise of SMS and the Internet, which are already more inherently pro-democratic than any information technology before them, and which are still growing into their tremendous potential.
Four days before the unrest broke out in Egypt, Hilary Clinton made the case that access to the internet and other information and communication tools is a basic right. Secretary Clinton sees it clearly that as the ability to access information and communicate their own thoughts disseminates through society, it exerts an inexorable liberalizing and democratizing force on the world. The technologies of the net, with their plethora of voices, and fundamentally more supportive of democracy than the centralized and top down technologies of television and radio which they are now supplanting.
The rise of many-to-many, peer-to-peer communication tools should give us hope for the future of freedom around the world.
I posted recently that the situation in Egypt provides important lessons for US foreign policy. Specifically, the US should have been pressing for democracy in Egypt decades ago, and making US military aid to Egypt contingent on steps towards a free press, free elections, and personal civil liberties, instead of coddling and financially supporting the convenient dictator there.
Without rehashing the whole post, there are two separate reasons for that:
1) Supporting dictators tends to produce blowback, as in the case of the Iranian Revolution, where revolutionaries saw the US, accurately, as the sponsor of the dictatorial and corrupt Shah of Iran who oppressed them.
2) The US is founded, as a nation, on the idea that governments should be of the people and for the people. To actively support dictatorships that oppress their people is not only shortsighted and counterproductive (because it produces inevitable blowback), it’s also hypocrisy of the worst sort, and a violation of the values upon which the United States was established.
It seems that the US administration is warming a bit to this, at least rhetorically. For instance, Business Week reports that:
Clinton said in Munich that governments in the Middle East must make the transition to openness and democracy “a strategic necessity,” warning that “all of our interests will be at risk” if they don’t.
I agree with Secretary Clinton’s remarks. Worldwide democracy is a strategic benefit to the United States, and indeed to the world as a whole. The interests of both the US and residents of Middle East are indeed at risk if democracy isn’t embraced, as non-democratic regimes will eventually fall, and the less democratic they are, the more dangerous and chaotic their falls will be.
Freedom House is a non-profit that has spent years tracking, analyzing, and trying to rally US and world support around the cause of freedom throughout the world. I consulted their 2010 Freedom in the World list, searching for the least free places in the world.
There are many. One, however, stands out as being both extremely repressive, and a close US ally: Saudi Arabia. On a scale of 1 through 7, where 7 is the most repressive, Freedom House gives Saudi Arabia a 7 on political rights (essentially none) and a 6 on civil rights (close to none). Saudi Arabia scores an overall 6.5 on Freedom House’s 7 point scale of repressiveness, just barely better than 7-scoring North Korea, Burma, Somalia, and Libya. Saudi Arabia is in the same category of freedom as Cuba, China, Syria, and Chad. In comparison to Saudi Arabia’s 6.5 score on the 7 point of repression, dictatorial Egypt scored only 5.5.
Indeed, Freedom House goes so far as to rate Saudi Arabia as half a point less free than Iran, one of the countries that George W. Bush labeled as part of an Axis of Evil. If you’re less free than a member of the Axis of Evil, what does that say about you? It says that you’re a repressive dictatorship of truly world class proportions.
How repressive? Perhaps the worst is the plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Women cannot vote. Women cannot drive. Women cannot be seen in public without the presence of a male relative, by law. Women cannot represent themselves in court – they must have a man represent them. If a woman is a witness in a trial, her testimony, by law, counts 1/2 as much as any male witness. In cases of inheritance,women in Saudi Arabia receive a half share relatively to their male relatives.
The anti-female attitudes of the regime go beyond ridiculous and into the despicable. Freedom House reports that:
The religious police enforce a strict policy of gender segregation and often harass women, using physical punishment to ensure that they meet conservative standards of dress in public. In 2007, a court sentenced a Shiite woman from Qatif, who had been raped by seven men, to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being alone with a man who was not her relative at the time of the attack
The woman was eventually pardoned by the King for her “crime” of being alone with a man who was not a relative.
Women are not the only victims in Saudi Arabia. Like Egypt or Iran, the country has elections of a sort. However, political parties are banned, as are most rallies and public gatherings. Only roughly 20% of the populace can vote. Those voting rights only extend to voting for seats in city councils. At a national level, bills are created and voted on by the cabinet (all appointed by the King) and ratified by the King. Speaking out against the King or the ruling family is illegal. Saudi’s complain that in recent sweeps to pick up ‘terrorists’, Saudi police have used the opportunity to arrest unrelated reformers and political organizers. Allegations of torture are common among those who fall into police custody. The Shiite minority, who make up 10-15% of the population, are effectively barred from holding government posts and receive little state protection against assaults from the Sunni majority. Shiites making the pilgrimage to Medina in 2009 were attacked by Saudi religious police.
The media is tightly controlled, with members of the ruling family owning part or all of most allowed newspapers and television stations. Journalists are banned at the slightest provocation. Saudi Arabia’s version of the Great Firewall blocks an estimated 400,000 websites that the Saudi’s consider dangerous. While Twitter and Facebook are currently allowed in the country, Saudi officials have censored the twitter accounts of specific activists and in November of 2010 blocked Facebook entirely for a short period.
Any way you slice it, Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship. The populace has no say in the governance of their country. Women in particular face some of the worst repression anywhere on earth.
There are worse dictatorships on the planet, but none are such close allies of the United States. In October of 2010, the United States approved its largest ever arms sale to any country, selling more than $60 Billion of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia, including F-15 fighters and the latest generation of AH-64 Apache assault helicopters. Those top of the line aircraft are only allowed to be sold to countries the US considers close allies.
The situation is reminiscent of Egypt. Saudi Arabia doesn’t need direct US support to stay solvent – its oil wealth provides that. But by selling the most advanced arms in its arsenal to the Saudi Kingdom, the US is indeed supporting the dictatorial regime there.
Could Saudi Arabia be the next Egypt? In Egypt, 25% of people aged 20-24 are unemployed. The frustration and lack of future opportunity this represents has been cited as a contributing factor, along with corruption and the lack of political freedom, in the revolution on Cairo’s streets. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, 40% of people aged 20-24 are unemployed and people have even less political voice than in Egypt. The combination of lack of opportunity plus lack of political voice is an explosive one.
I don’t expect Saudi Arabia to collapse any time soon. While unemployment is high, Saudi Arabia provides a wealth of social services to its population, which blunts their frustration for the time being. Nevertheless, change will come eventually, and on current course and speed that change will not be gentle. Saudi Arabia is a ticking time bomb. The autocratic government keeps the pressure contained for now, but the higher the pressure builds, the more explosive the transition will be. If the US wants long term stability in Saudi Arabia, and if the US wants to live by its own principles of freedom, equality, and a government ‘of the people and for the people’, then we should start acting now to press the rulers of Saudi Arabia to liberalize.
A good first step would be for the Saudi regime (and indeed, all regimes, everywhere in the world) to lift restrictions on speech, on the press, and punishments for criticizing the regime. A vigorous debate on the future of Saudi Arabia, held by its citizens, can then help chart a future course towards greater equality of men and women, greater personal freedoms for both genders, and greater participatory democracy. Those steps won’t be easy. They’ll all come with their share of challenges and hiccups. They’ll take time. But as we’ve seen in Egypt, attempting to contain the pressure too long can result in a dramatic release of pent up steam. Better a gradual release of that pressure in an orderly transition than a violent explosion. And better we treat the people of the world according to the values we believe make us great than out of shallow and short term self interest.
Watching the news about Egypt and the debate as to whether Twitter, Facebook, etc.. are inherently pro-democracy, I’m struck by a connection to Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Tainter speculates that societies ultimately face two problems. One, the marginal return on their investments drops over time. Each new unit of energy or currency or labor they expend nets them less and less benefit than the last. Two, societies continually create additional internal complexity to solve problems they’ve run into. Those additional layers of complexity consume resources without giving back. Ultimately with growth slowing and the cost of complexity rising, societies collapse under the weight of the new social structures they’ve created. For a while, the added complexity allows societies to accomplish more, but eventually the diminishing returns cause the complexity to become a negative to the society, and then it collapses.
Tainter’s theory is relevant to understanding the future of every society on Earth. It’s been used to predict that collapse of US society and the collapse of industrialized society at large.
I think Tainter’s point is interesting, but that he likely confuses the term “complexity” with parasitism. His two primary examples, the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, are both cases where the ruling classes (the upper “layers” of society, if you will) used political and military power to control the lower classes and (in the case of Rome) to conquer neighbors and extract plunder and tax revenues from them.
The weight that eventually caused the collapse of both the Maya and the Roman Empire wasn’t just any sort of complexity, it was an upper layer of society that was largely parasitic, consuming more and more of the resources of society without producing much value.
I’m struck by this in the case of Egypt. The protests in Egypt are fueled by the frustration of lack of opportunity and the anger of lack of ability to change the system or even speak out against it. The lack of opportunity has two causes:
1. Egypt has a state-dominated economy which has historically been mismanaged. (It has improved significantly in the last 10 years, but that may be a case of too little, too late.)
2. Egypt is incredibly corrupt, and that corruption comes from the top in the form of crony capitalism. For instance, Egypt scored a 3.1 on a recent index of corruption, with a 1 meaning the most corruption, and a 10 meaning no corruption. The corruption comes in the form of bribes to government officials to receive licenses, get contracts, find housing, or almost anything else in public life. One prominent rumor in 2000 was that Egypt postponed approval of Viagra for local sale because Pfizer had yet to offer a large enough bribe to the Minister of Health. More broadly, developers wishing to do business in Egypt have frequently been advised to offer subcontracts to firms owned by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s son.
Neither state control of the economy nor rampant corruption that lines the pockets of ministers and high officials is truly a form of additional ‘complexity’. It’s parasitism.
By contrast, services like Twitter and Facebook or more basic telecommunication via cell phones, SMS, and email do increase the societal complexity of a country. They increase the number of voices being heard. They add density to the social graph.
Yet that complexity does not belong to the old world of Hosni Mubarak’s government or its elite friends. It belongs to the younger generation on the street. Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, email, and SMS add complexity, but it’s a peer-to-peer complexity that empowers those who use those tools. That peer-to-peer complexity may cause a collapse, but not of the side that uses it.
One of the limits of The Collapse of Complex Societies is that it doesn’t consider any societies where the complexity is largely peer-to-peer rather than hierarchical. Arguably, such social structures barely existed until the invention of the Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press. Yet it’s interesting to consider the impact the movable-type press had on society. It accelerated the Renaissance and helped usher in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, the additional complexity of information flow between people that increased literacy and easier printing brought didn’t lead to collapse. At the same time, it also empowered Martin Luther to challenge the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and start the Protestant Reformation. The printing press undermined the hierarchical authority of the Church. It didn’t lead to the collapse of the Catholic Church, but it led to its schism and the formation of Protestant churches that had less hierarchy.
Martin Luther's 95 Theses Pamphlet destabilized the hierarchical Catholic Church, one of the first examples of peer-to-peer communication technology overwhelming a top-down hierarchy.
Electronic communication media, and especially the many-to-many media of blogs, tweets, and Facebook, are having a similar effect. They’re building peer-to-peer density, which is undermining the most hierarchical and parasitic layers of society.
I’m optimistic about the future of both Egypt and of modern society as a whole. The new complexity we build in our societies seems less and less about stacking additional layers of hierarchy, and more about building additional tools to connect people in an ever denser network graph. That strikes me as fundamentally less parasitic and more empowering than the hierarchical layers of complexity that Tainter organized.
We should expect the collapse of parasitic and top-down societies and institutions, and the emergence of more and more network-centric institutions and societies.
Above: An Egyptian soldier is held aloft by a crowd of protesters in Cairo.
By contrast, both the regular Police and State Security were fairly brutal in attempting to repress the protests. Egypt, like many other countries, has mandatory conscription. Whereas certain people specifically seek out roles in the police force, effectively self-selecting for certain ideologies or personality types, the lower ranks of the Army reflect a fuller cross-section of Egyptian society, and if anything are likely to tilt towards the poor.
I wonder: does that fact explain anything about the behavior of the Egyptian Army in this situation? The Generals in Egypt are unlikely to represent such a broad cross section, but they might reasonably wonder whether their troops actually would fire on protesters if ordered to do so.
Could it be that mandatory conscription is pro-democracy? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Over the last few days, Egyptians have taken to the streets, demanding that Egyptian president and dictator Hosni Mubarak step down. The protests so far haven’t had a religious or anti-American bent. They’re not Islamist. They are a wave of people – mostly young people – expressing their frustration at corruption, joblessness, economic stagnation, and above all, at the lack of political and personal freedoms that we in the West enjoy.
I am a US citizen, but I was born in Egypt, have returned multiple times, and have family there today. It’s difficult to find fans of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mr. Mubarak is the third ‘president’ of Egypt and has held that role for 29 years. While Egypt has elections of a sort, they’re largely charades orchestrated to rubber stamp Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. Egyptians essentially have no say in who governs them. Nor are they allowed to speak out against the government. That alone is an offense for which one may be imprisoned, beaten, or occasionally killed.
Yet Egypt is also a recipient of American aid. Since 1975, the US has sent more than $40 billion in direct military aid to Egypt, out of a grand total of $60 billion in military and economic aid. That aid keeps the totalitarian regime in power.
The US has done this for clear reasons. Egypt was the first Arab country to recognize and make peace with Israel. For that, Egypt is rewarded with aid. In addition, Egypt is a key military partner. US and Egyptian forces conduct joint exercises in the area every year. And Egypt is the site of the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane that connects Europe and the Mediterranean to the Gulf, India, China, Japan, and more. Along with the Panama Canal, it’s one of the most vital and vulnerable sea passages in the world. The US, along with rest of the industrialized world, has a vested interest in keeping the Suez Canal open and under stable management. Egypt provides that.
For those reasons and more, the US has continued to prop up the government of Hosni Mubarak for decades. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have both urged Egypt to embrace free speech and allow more dissent and hold more open elections, but those words ring hollow when the US continues to send $2 billion a year in aid to the country. What’s more, no administration has been willing to mix the issues of US support and domestic political reform.
Vice President Joe Biden said a few days ago that Mubarak is not a dictator and that he should not step down. Mr. Biden knows full well that Mubarak is a dictator – an unelected and unpopular leader who uses torture, summary arrest, and a perpetual ‘state of emergency’ to maintain power.
Ten months ago, in March 2009, Hilary Clinton said that human rights violations shouldn’t interfere with a planned trip by Mubarak to Washington DC, and that she considered Mubarak and his wife friends of the family.
There are good reasons for the United States to want a stable and pro-US government in place in Egypt. Yet the protests on the street today show how supporting convenient dictators can have negative consequences. If those protesters on the street do manage to topple Mubarak, what will a new government in Egypt look like? What will its attitude be to towards the US, given that the US has supported a regime that has oppressed the Egyptian people for the last 30 years?
The reality is that if a new Egyptian government is hostile to the US, that will be in part a natural response to US behavior. For multiple decades, the United States has put dollars into the hands of a dictator who suffers no dissent. The tear gas Egyptian security forces are hurling into crowds was made in the United States. When Egyptian security forces open fire and kill protesters, there’s a case to be made that they’re doing so on American dollars.
The US has a long history of supporting convenient dictators. America did so with the Shah of Iran, who rewarded American patronage with sites for US military bases useful for force projection. America did so with Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, reversing the US stance on the coup that brought him to power and even on his country’s flagrant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because Pakistan was a potential ally help in tracking down Al Qaeda. And the US has done so with Hosni Mubarak, helping him suppress democracy in exchange for his support of Israel and of US military and foreign policy aims in the region.
These policies are extremely shortsighted. They belie a lack of faith in one of the founding principles of the United States: that governments are created by the people, for the people. Americans generally believe democracy to be the best form of government ever created, and yet in US foreign policy America often turns its back on freedom and democracy in order to achieve short term goals.
There will always be short term threats. There will always be economic resources the US needs access to. There will always be locations where the US wants to place military bases, or countries to fly over on the way to others. Yet we Americans shouldn’t allow these temptations to distract us from either our long term safety or from the values and principles that have made the United States such a great nation.
Those values and principles center on liberty – on personal freedom of expression, on the right of the governed to choose who governs them, on protection from tyrannical excesses. If we believe that all men and women are endowed with certain inalienable rights, then we should behave that way in our international affairs. Today the US behaves as if only Americans are endowed with those rights. The world sees this behavior, and the trust afforded the United States is diminished by it.
Moreover, all principles aside, it is simply in the long term best interests of the United States and the entire world to encourage democracy, liberty, and widespread prosperity across the whole of the planet. Democracies seldom war with one another. They seldom produce terrorists. They do tend to lower corruption, lower populace frustration, and lift prosperity. More democracies in the world would mean fewer hotspots for the US military planners to worry about. They’d mean fewer potential terrorists in training. They’d mean more natural allies for the United States and other democratic powers to work with to solve global problems.
The coming decades will only increase the extent to which spreading democracy is in the best interest of the United States, and to which supporting dictators, however tempting in the short run, is a threat to American security and global security. The last decade made it clear that highly motivated individuals and small groups can wreak tremendous havoc against vastly superior nation states. Witness 9/11. Yet the continued development of technology makes it possible to imagine terrorist actions that would make 9/11 pale by comparison.
Nuclear terrorism, always a threat, remains on the table. Bioterrorism, until now largely a hypothetical, will become more and more plausible as the basic tools of biotechnology continue their exponential drop in price and their dissemination to hobbyists. Electronic attacks will become more and more dangerous as industrialized nations built computer-controlled smart grids and increasingly connect physical infrastructure to the global net.
No amount of security can be guaranteed to catch all threats. And as it becomes possible to put together terrorist threats with less money, less expertise, less time, and fewer people, traditional security mechanisms will become less and less effective. That does not mean the US and other democracies should give up on efforts to catch and stop terrorist acts. It does mean that we need a complement to enforcement. Prevention, as they say, is the best medicine. And the best form of prevention is to eliminate or reduce the conditions that lead to the frustration, hopelessness, and anger that help breed terrorists.
John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” I believe Kennedy was correct. I would augment his statement with a corollary: Those who help oppress a people will inevitably be the targets of their rage.
When Iranian students toppled the Shah in 1979, they rightly perceived the United States as the sponsor of the corrupt and unelected dictator who’d oppressed them for decades. That did not help their attitudes towards the US. It stoked their anger and helped build a new regime that fundamentally rejected the US and the western way of life and which has spent the past 30 years training, funding, and arming anti-American terrorists.
If Egyptian protesters do manage to topple Mubarak (which, as an American with roots in Egypt, I hope they do), they will have every reason to be hostile to the US. That hostility is unlikely to translate into better governance or a better ally. American complicity in oppressing democracy produces blow-back in the form of anti-American sentiment and anti-American action.
It’s time to stop thinking short term. It’s time to stop placing military alliances, access to economic resources, or even peace treaties above the spread of the principles of liberty and self-determination. It’s time for America to place its principles above its short term self interests. And if the US does so, I firmly believe that it will enhance its standing in the world, its safety, and the condition of hundreds of millions of men and women.
In the long run, democracies make the best friends and allies. In the long run, encouraging democracy – through free and fair elections, through personal freedom of expression, through the establishment of a free and uncensored press – is the best foreign policy investment any free nation can make.
I look forward to the day when an American administration makes encouraging worldwide liberty and democracy – for both pragmatic and principled reasons – the #1 US foreign policy goal.