Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Why the World Needs a Bully: Syria’s Lesson on Hegemonic Stability Theory

by Paul Mitchell, Guest Contributor



Like it or not, the United Nations and the “international community” which it purportedly represents, is allowing the death of a country and endangering the stability – if we can call it that – of the entire Middle East.  Whether you want to call the situation in Syria a mere crisis, a revolution, a revolt,
or a rebellion, a reported death toll of over 70,000 people can be called nothing other than an atrocity.  The brutality is magnified by the fact that one side is using military aircraft, armor, and weaponry, and is fighting a civilian force that had been largely disarmed over years of oppressive rule.  With recent reports that chemical weapons have been used, and with a U.S. president that had implicitly drawn a line in the sand regarding the use of such weapons, something has to be done, right?  Unfortunately, with a U.S. president who, like former President Bill Clinton, believes whole-heartedly in the merits and capabilities of the United Nations, the answer is no.

The Hegemonic Stability Theory was developed by Princeton University Political Science Professor, Robert Keohane.   The main underpinning of the theory is that the world is better off with a powerful and sometimes aggressive state (the Hegemon), because there needs to be an enforceable, natural order in order to ensure global stability.  Liken the role of the hegemonic nation(s) to the strategy of the drill instructor during military boot camp:  in doing his job, the dislike towards him and the simultaneous desire to gain respect from him acts to unite the recruits – giving them something that, despite all else, can unite them. 

All one needs to do is examine the large-scale death events that have occurred in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union (which marked the end of bi-polar stability), and a very good case for Hegemonic Stability Theory emerges.  Under Bill Clinton’s Presidency, we saw Somalia: 350,000 to 1,000,000 dead; we saw Darfur: 400,000 to 1,000,000 dead; we saw Rwanda: 800,000 to 1.2 million dead; we saw Bosnia: 8,000 to 15,000 dead; and finally we saw armed conflicts in Haiti and continued fighting in the Balkans, as well as Saddam Hussein’s ongoing antics with UN weapons inspectors.  In almost all instances, and with the exception of the occasional cruise missile that was sent into Baghdad by U.S. cruisers in the Arabian Gulf, Bill Clinton deferred to the judgment of the United Nations as to when the U.S. (and thus NATO) would engage in a conflict. 

Under President Obama, who, like Clinton, believes in the importance of “leading from behind,” we have seen the rise of the Arab Spring and the revolutions that it produced: 10,000 to 30,000 dead in Libya, and now conflicting estimates of 70,000 to 100,000 in Syria.  The region has not been more unstable in decades.  Tensions have been escalating between Iran and Israel over the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and there is mass speculation that extremism is on the rise.  Aside from the Middle East, North Korea has given almost all nations on earth a scare with its increasingly violent threats and rhetoric.  The United States has stood by since 2008, and has only intervened when the UN approved AND when another NATO ally took charge of the mission.

Under George W. Bush, the situation was very different.  The U.S. was attacked by al-Qaida, and the U.S. went off to attack Iraq and Afghanistan with most of its NATO allies.  The death toll in Iraq to this day, including civilians and both sides of combatants is estimated at around 110,000 to 125,000, and in Afghanistan, somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 – certainly not insignificant numbers of casualties, but under different circumstances of the deaths under the other two Presidents.

To be clear, I do not blame Clinton directly for the death that occurred around the world during his Presidency, nor do I blame Obama for the instability which has arisen and spread during his.  A political science professor of mine once said “nothing is more powerful than an idea that has reached its time,” and maybe that is just what has happened in the Arab Spring.  But if we think about stability on a global level, it can be argued that the years under Bush and his neo-Conservative policies were much more stable than the years under presidents that have embraced the global-governance idea with which the United Nations entices us.  Many people died during Bush’s terms in the White House, but they were in concentrated areas.  Full-regional instability, even in the regions which these wars were occurring, was much less of an issue under Bush than it was under Clinton or has been under Obama.  Most of the historically “hot” conflict zones, like those in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa were calm or at least de-escalating.  Fighting in Lebanon, a massively unstable country, broke out in 2008 after a 1½ year escalation of tensions, but a resolution was quickly reached to avoid another civil war.  The threat of the most powerful military in the world setting its sights on their country, perhaps, was enough to bring the different factions to the table and find an amicable solution.

What we have witnessed is the Hegemonic Stability Theory at work.  During the years of the Cold War there was a clear choice: a state chose to be with the USSR or the USA.  During Bush’s War on Terror, a state was with “either with us, or against us.”  Under Clinton and Obama, though, we all live in an “international community” and there is no threat of violent or coercive force – no single entity to unite most of the nations of the world in saying “we ALL really do not like that bully, but I sure don’t want to be on his bad side.”  Some claim this is progress.  For the sake of stability in the world, I would argue that it is detrimental.  Some claim that the United Nations plays that role, but we have seen how much talking and time that it takes for the UN to authorize any sort of forceful action.  It is not a hegemonic force.

Syria will continue to tear itself apart, and the soft-power minded United Nations will continue to discuss “diplomatic options.” Meanwhile, Russia will continue to arm Assad’s government and the U.S. and its allies will continue to pretend that they are not providing military aid to the rebels.  If Bush was still the president, the prospect of a democratic Syria (and the useful buffer-zone that it would provide between Iran and Israel) would be too tantalizing to not at least enforce a no-fly zone.  He would probably even level the playing field by destroying Syrian government planes, tanks, and heavy weaponry with concentrated air strikes.  Obama will not do any such thing until either the UN approves or maybe Britain takes the lead.  Meanwhile, Iran and Israel will continue to jab at one another, Hezbollah will continue to kill civilians trying to flee, and the region will spiral more and more out of control – all because nobody dares move without a UN mandate and because the United States is afraid of looking like a bully.

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