Daily Archives: 17 November 2004

Robert Kaplan’s "Modest Degree of Fatalism"

On 14 November 2004, Robert Kaplan published an op-ed piece (filed from Guam!) in the New York Times headlined Barren Ground for Democracy.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, communist satellites like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary promptly evolved into successful Western democracies. This transition was relatively easy because the countries boasted high literacy rates, exposure to the Enlightenment under Prussian and Hapsburg emperors, and strong industrial bases and middle classes prior to World War II and the cold war. In retrospect, it seems clear that only the presence of the Red Army had kept them from developing free parliamentary systems on their own.

But the idea that Western-style democracy could be imposed further east and south, in the Balkans, has proved more problematic. Beyond the Carpathian mountains one finds a different historical legacy: that of the poorer and more chaotic Ottoman Empire. Before World War II, this was a world of vast peasantries and feeble middle classes, which revealed itself in Communist governments that were for the most part more corrupt and despotic than those of Central Europe.

Unsurprisingly, upon Communism’s collapse, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania struggled for years on the brink of anarchy, although they at least avoided ethnic bloodshed. Of course, Yugoslavia was not so lucky. Though democracy appears to have a reasonably bright future there thanks to repeated Western intervention, it is wise to recall that for 15 years it has been a touch-and-go proposition.

Undeterred, Wilsonian idealists in the United States next put Iraq on their list for gun-to-the-head democratization. But compared with Iraq, even the Balkans were historically blessed, by far the most culturally and politically advanced part of the old Turkish Empire. Mesopotamia, on the other hand, constituted the most anarchic and tribalistic region of the sultanate.

In addition, the Balkans are affixed to Central Europe, and were thus a natural extension of it as NATO expanded eastward. Iraq is bordered by Iran and Syria, states with weakly policed borders and prone to radical politics, which themselves have suffered under absolutism for centuries.

Western intellectuals on both the left and right underplayed such realities. In the 1990’s, those supporting humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia branded references to difficult history and geography as “determinism” and “essentialism” – academic jargon for fatalism. In the views of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, group characteristics based on a shared history and geography no longer mattered, for in a post-cold war world of globalization everyone was first and foremost an individual. Thus if Poland, say, was ready overnight for Western-style democracy, then so too were Bosnia, Russia, Iraq – and Liberia, for that matter.

That line of thinking provided the moral impetus for military actions in 1995 in Bosnia and in 1999 in Kosovo: interventions that reclaimed the former Yugoslavia into the Western orbit. But the people who ordered and carried out those interventions, liberal Democrats in general, were canny. While they agreed with the idealists’ moral claims, they realized that it was the feasibility of the military side of the equation that made the interventions ultimately worth doing. Yes, they also favored democracy in places like Liberia, but they were wise enough not to risk the lives of Americans in such endeavors. They intuited that a modest degree of fatalism was required in the conduct of international affairs, even if they were clever enough not to publish the fact.

via Oxblog

I certainly share Kaplan’s “modest degree of fatalism”–if not downright pessimism–but I think he overstates his case as a result of his unfortunate inclination toward historical and cultural determinism (and essentialism), which I don’t share to the same degree. In fact, I’m adamantly antiessentialist. That’s why I like to focus on exceptions and outliers.

For one thing, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland did not “promptly” transform themselves into respectable democracies. They started rather painfully well before 1989. Hungary revolted very bloodily in 1956, Czechoslovakia more peacefully in 1968, and Poland all during the 1980s. Each led eventually to very modest reforms and tiny cracks through which civil society could begin to sprout.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania didn’t get the same headstart. I remember a Romanian telling me in 1983-84, “We’re not the Poles. When trouble comes, we take our sheep up into the mountains until it passes.” Maybe this only supports Kaplan’s case for cultural determinism–or essentialism.

A second issue is Kaplan’s claim that Bosnia and Kosovo are now within the “Western orbit.” That doesn’t speak too well for the Western orbit. Remember the exit strategy? It was just around the corner in 1998, and still just a few corners away in 2002. I’m sure European wisdom will prevail eventually, perhaps before the next fin de siècle.

Finally, I think Kaplan underestimates the power of redemptive suffering. I suspect redemptive suffering might help explain how Japan and Germany overcame their catastrophic militarism after World War II, and even how Afghans have begun to overcome their self-defeating fractiousness–at least enough to complete a national election of historic import. But perhaps my notions of redemptive suffering just betray the determinative cultural legacy of my Judaeo-Christian heritage. Or perhaps it was my Shiite, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Plains Indian Sundance heritage in a prior life.

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