Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nation building, from the bottom up

The Economist has a brief description of the state-building process in Somaliland, a de facto independent region within de jure jurisdiction of Somolia.

Aid and Somaliland: Mo money mo problems

The basic thesis is that in the absence of foreign support for the Somaliland state, the government was forced into developing a web of alliances and relationships with regional leaders, resulting in a government that is accountable to the people. Contrast this with the internationally recognized government of Somalia, a pathetic assemblage of warlords who have been constantly attempting to subdue the Somali people by force, backed by immense funding and direct military intervention from foreign states, including the USA.

I've been wondering for awhile if the USA's "nation building" activities have been fundamentally misguided, in that they are largely "state building" activities. This top-down approach assumes that foreigners can establish a functioning legal and political system, which will then create the conditions for the development of the economic and social relations that define a nation. This is the basic approach that Westerners have collectively used when dealing with their former colonies, and 50 years after decolonization, much of the territory assigned to these artificial states is still racked by warfare. I'm afraid of what will happen if the internationally recognized Somali government ever subdues Mogadishu, and then then seeks to assert its dominance over Somaliland.

This top-down approach ignores the fact that a legal and political system must be compatible with local culture, and even the most sensitive foreign intervention will probably fail to identify the appropriate structure for a given society. Even a native would often fail to establish a sustainable national system, simply because many of these societies lack the basic institutional framework on which a national government could be built .

The opposite approach would be "bottom up" nation-building: encouraging commercial relations and the development of dispute-settling frameworks. Once local institutions are developed, they can provide the framework for creating national institutions (for instance, when the USA was established, it was a relatively simple matter of getting 13 states with similar cultures to agree on a national constitution). This seems to be how the Islamic Courts Union got established in Somalia.

Of course, most "realists" would assert that a proper nation-building strategy would address the whole range of issues -- seeking synergies between the top-down and bottom-up approach. For instance, commercial relationships and a fair legal system help to support each other. However, when we allow the state to take the lead on nation-building programs, we will most likely see a bias towards state-building. In part, this is the consequence of perspective: the agents of the state think in terms of the state. But it also results from the ulterior motives of any outside participant in nation-building. They are not simply seeking security and prosperity (or even stability) for the people of the post-colonial territory in question, they are seeking their own economic and geo-political advantage. States have the ability to exploit their people, and by getting involved in the establishment of new nation-states, the ruling class of one nation essentially inserts itself into the ruling class of another nation.

This feature of state behavior is worth keeping in mind, lest we get fooled into once again bearing "the white man's burden".

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"The man who screwed an entire country ": Berlusconi

The Economist has provided an aptly named review of Silvio Berlusconi's Prime Ministership: The man who screwed an entire country.

While they focus on his economic policies (or lack thereof), I was most stricken by this comment:
Over the years, he has been tried more than a dozen times for fraud, false accounting or bribery. His defenders claim that he has never been convicted, but this is untrue. Several cases have seen convictions, only for them to be set aside because the convoluted proceedings led to trials being timed out by a statute of limitations—at least twice because Mr Berlusconi himself changed the law.
As hard as it is to admit this, George W. Bush looked tame by comparison. When Bush pardoned Scooter Libby of obstruction of justice (without spending a day in jail), I interpreted it as a message to all of his other henchmen that they were above the law. However, the extent of Berlusconi's crimes and the length that he will go to in order to retain power makes Bush look like an amateur. With any luck, the Italians will soon reign in this would-be tyrant.

Following the Libby pardon, I suspected that the Bush administration was covering up a variety of abuses of power. None have come to light yet, and if they aren't revealed in the next few years, I'm guessing we will never have solid evidence of anything. It's possible that the Libby affair was a one-off situation; alternative, it's possible that Obama and the Democrats endorsed any secret and extra-legal activities of the Bush administration, and so they will continue to play along.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Italians win referendums

Italian Referendums Deal A Blow To Berlusconi : NPR:

Without commenting on the content of these referendums, I must say that I am impressed by how the Italian people successfully opposed Berlusconi's formidable political/propaganda machine.
Italians turned out in large numbers for four referendums and voted overwhelmingly this week to overturn key legislation passed by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi had urged voters to boycott referendums on nuclear power, privatization of water utilities and trial immunity for the prime minister and other government officials. The vote was a humiliating defeat for the scandal-prone prime minister but does not automatically lead to his government's collapse.


Italy's three government-run TV networks and the three owned by Berlusconi himself more or less ignored the referendum campaign. The prime minister and several government officials said openly they would not vote, and urged Italians to go to the beach instead.


Cheers erupted when it was announced that turnout topped 57 percent, surpassing the quorum needed to validate the vote — the first time since 1995 the referendum quorum had been reached.


Each referendum was approved by around 95 percent of voters.