Every day seems to bring news of another nation slipping into political crisis. With Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, Egypt and a host of others still not close to restoring stability, Venezuela and Ukraine have followed them into chaos. It's hard to know what nation will next fall off the cliff, but it's a sure bet that some will. Democratization was the most important strategic megatrend of the 1990s, but today it has been dethroned by pervasive, persistent and deep political turbulence, as both old dictatorships and new democracies prove unable to meet the mounting demands of a young population connected and mobilized by information technology.
Instead of adjusting to what will likely be a decade or more of turbulence, the United States is clinging to an old mode of statecraft predicated on a relatively stable international system with a consistent cast of sovereign states. Certainly there was periodic internal conflict and occasional state collapse in the old global order, but most of the time the United States could contain it and wait it out. When there were episodes of widespread revolutionary change during the breakup of the European colonial empires, however, American strategy was often ineffective, torn between incompatible desires for stability and political openness.
Now another round of global revolution is underway, and the United States is again perplexed and hesitant, frightened by disorder that it is unable to stop or control. American policymakers and policy experts have only begun to develop a national strategy for a time of turbulence. One of the most immediate challenges will be deciding how to deal with a reversal of the trend toward democratization and the emergence of a new wave of autocracy in many and perhaps all parts of the world.
This is actually an old conundrum for the United States. During the Cold War, policy experts and political leaders often debated the most effective way to deal with autocracies. Those on the political right considered friendly dictators a necessary evil. Abandoning them, conservatives argued, paved the way for repressive anti-American regimes. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 seemed to demonstrate that if Washington did not back friendly dictators, bad things happened. The political left drew different lessons from the same cases, arguing that U.S. support took away any incentive that friendly dictators might have to undertake reform and democratization. America's mistake, the left argued, was not that it abandoned the Shah but that it clung to him as long as it did.
Eventually, the United States did wash its hands of a few friendly dictators but sustained security partnerships with others. The issue of how to deal with autocrats was never resolved. Now pan to today, when the same question is again moving to the top of the strategic agenda. In the coming decades, political turbulence will encourage existing authoritarian regimes to hang on to power as long as they can. The world's autocrats learned from events in Egypt that to show weakness is to surrender power. Political turbulence will also give birth to new autocracies. There will be military coups; elected governments will become de facto autocracies by exorcising real political competition; and weak nations will fragment into small states ruled by strongmen of one sort or the other. The world of the future will see more autocrats than that of the immediate past.
To deal with this, the United States must define the extent and limits of its partnerships with autocrats, whether traditional or new ones. Washington will probably work with traditional autocrats who keep corruption and repression to tolerable levels, promise reform and, most importantly, convince the United States that they face imminent danger from extremists and terrorists, particularly ones with some sort of affiliation with al-Qaida. So long as regimes of this type resist the urge to kill their people openly, Washington will hold its nose and deal with them, though remaining willing to drop them if necessary.
The real challenge, though, will not be the doddering, old-style autocracies but the new types that will emerge. Imagine, for instance, a repressive Islamist regime that, unlike the 2001-era Taliban, does not provide sanctuary to al-Qaida or other transnational terrorist organizations. Conceivably, these regimes could emerge in Central and Southeast Asia, almost anywhere in the Arab world and in the Sahel region of Africa. Think of Saudi Arabia without oil or a long-standing relationship with the United States. How should the United States approach such a state? Would it be better to have no relationship at all with the autocratic regime and seek to isolate it, or to build modest ties and hope doing so encourages the regime to keep transnational terrorists at bay? Might the United States some day share intelligence and provide modest aid to a new Taliban regime in southern Afghanistan or a Taliban-like regime elsewhere?
Another new type of autocracy might be the modern equivalent of the bandit and pirate kingdoms that have existed throughout history: nations, city-states or microstates that rely on transnational criminal activity for a significant portion of their income. Moises Naim called them "
." Again, the United States would have to decide between attempting to isolate a criminal regime with the risk that cutting ties makes it increasingly hostile, desperate and violent, or cultivate some sort of arm's length relationship on the hope that this gives Washington a little influence and encourages some degree of moderation.
As is often the case in U.S. foreign and national security policy, domestic politics will shape strategy. Even though sustaining a relationship and even providing nonmilitary assistance to autocracies that limit repression and don't support transnational terrorism might give the United States leverage, it will always be a hard sell back home. Just as fragmentation and turbulence are the defining features of the global security system, hyperpartisanship is the defining feature of the domestic American political environment. No matter whether a Republican or Democrat occupies the White House, any security relationship with an autocracy, even one that makes strategic sense, will be used as a political cudgel against the administration. Hence as old autocrats hang on and new ones emerge, even a presidential administration that considers it wise to build or sustain a relationship with such leaders may be unwilling to buck the criticism this would generate and thus decide that attempting to isolate autocrats, with all of its shortcomings, is the only politically viable approach. The spread of autocracy and domestic hyperpartisanship will combine to make U.S. strategy less effective if not altogether paralyzed.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy
." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons
, appears every Wednesday.