- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
By Will Inboden
The in-boxes of the Obama team are already overflowing with indisputably serious challenges: Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and a global financial crisis for good measure. These by themselves are sufficient to overwhelm the bandwidth of any leaders, let alone those with comparatively little experience such as the President himself, or the cabinet principals at State and Treasury who have very few of their senior lieutenants in place. By some reports Obama himself has admitted to being overwhelmed and is finding the job much harder than he anticipated.
I hope things will get better. But I worry they might get worse. This is because some of the countries that the Obama team is understandably relying on to play constructive roles in current crises — or, at a minimum, is hoping will not cause further problems — may themselves be at risk of destabilization.
Here are four countries whose destabilization this year would cause a strategic shock. My criteria: nations that 1) are strategically important enough that major internal destabilization would shock the international system, 2) current U.S. policy assumptions depend on the governing structure remaining stable (even if leaders and parties might change), and 3) are not widely expected to be on the verge of collapse (compared to, say, Pakistan or Mexico, which are rightfully on everyone’s watch lists, or Russia as described in Arkady Ostrovsky’s grim but superb article in the latest FP).
In alphabetical order, they are:
1. China. Premier Wen Jiabao made headlines recently with his unusually vocal worries over whether the United States can make good on its $1 trillion debt to China. But that concern may pale in comparison with Wen and Hu Jintao’s other worries. Many commentators have already pointed out how the economic crisis is jeopardizing the implicit bargain between China’s one-party state and the Chinese people, which for the last two decades has been this: as long as the regime helps deliver consistent economic growth and rising living standards, the people will acquiesce in their lack of human rights or voice in their government, and will even tolerate high levels of corruption. Now the combination of rising unemployment as manufacturing jobs disappear, recurrent safety scandals fueled by corruption (from tainted consumer products to shoddy building construction), and periodic outbreaks of popular unrest (ranging from rural labor protests to the Charter 08 petition) all threaten to undermine the regime’s perceived legitimacy and perhaps even its rule.
However, Beijing has mastered the art of control, and has refined its ability to pre-empt unrest. Witness its roundup of dissidents and widespread surveillance before the Olympics last year, or its recent lockdown in Tibetan areas. Why would this year be any different? Here is where Minxin Pei’s bracing new analysis of the regime’s fragility comes in to play. The Chinese government has successfully suppressed dissent and monopolized power in the past because of the Party elites’ own relative unity. But slowing growth, diminished patronage, and the unprecedented pressures wrought by the financial crisis could induce all manner of fissures among Party elites. And in Pei’s words,
any of these sources of elite dissension could lead to confusion and turmoil within the Chinese state’s repressive apparatus, rendering it less capable of containing social instability and thus creating a vicious cycle of events that could result in progressive destabilization.
Meanwhile, 2009 is an auspicious year of anniversaries in Chinese history. It is the 90th anniversary of the May 4th movement, the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution, the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprisings, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and even the 10th anniversary of the Falun Gong’s first public protests. Some of these the regime will celebrate, others it continues to deny or suppress — but all will be in the minds of various groups in China, injecting further elements of passion and public mobilization to an already unstable situation.
What does all this mean — revolution and regime collapse, or just unrest and crackdown, or dramatic but peaceful reform, or just continued adaptation and muddling through? No one knows. Which is precisely the point. The Obama administration is depending on a stable, consistent Chinese government to deliver important equities on a range of issues from the Six Party talks to climate change to energy supplies to continuing to finance U.S. debt. Yet this same regime is brittle, uncertain, weak, and facing fractures among its elites and growing dissatisfaction among its people.
2. Egypt. Leadership successions don’t automatically mean instability. But changes at the top — especially outside a democratic process — introduce windows of uncertainty, which can quickly become instability when combined with other factors, such as economic decline, political repression, and regional tension. Hosni Mubarak has ruled for almost three decades and, at two months shy of his 81st birthday, is not a paragon of health or popularity. On a recent visit, I did not meet a single Egyptian who had any positive words for Mubarak. My queries elicited either frustrated complaints or the furtive silence that comes from decades of living in a tightly-controlled society. Meanwhile, Mubarak’s efforts to engineer a Pharaohnic succession by his son Gamal seem likely to succeed. Yet hopes for a stable transition — or even continued stability under the elder Mubarak — could be illusory.
Even the most optimistic economic figures forecast anemic growth of 3.2 percent this year, with even sharper declines from key revenue streams such as tourism and Suez Canal traffic. All the while, the population continues to boom, in both its numbers and its resentments. Egypt embodies all the maladies of the non-Gulf Arab world: widespread unemployment and even more underemployment, few channels for popular expression, and a resilient and growing Islamist movement. This is a difficult combination in any year. But add to it instability on the Gaza border and the pressures of the financial crisis, and serious destabilization in Egypt is a real possibility. Which should caution the Obama team against relying too heavily on this traditional US ally and regional leader for any important policy.
3. Nigeria. This is one of those states that somehow has continued to function despite recurring fears every few years among outside observers that it is close to collapse. Until now the real story has been Nigeria’s remarkable resilience, in the face of severe inter-religious conflict, massive corruption, persistent fissures along tribal lines, Niger Delta banditry, ungoverned spaces in the south, and Sharia-governed places in the north. While Nigeria’s past successes should caution any doomsayers, could this be the year that things really do fall apart? President Yar’adua suffers from a persistent and mysterious ailment that brings periodic rumors of his imminent incapacitation or even demise. Nigeria’s immature democratic institutions and dysfunctional political system are not geared to smooth succession. Plunging oil prices, simmering religious tensions, and diminishing government budgets all produce a new level of state fragility. Add to that a painful currency devaluation, severely constricted foreign capital flows, and a precarious banking system, and Africa’s second largest economy has many reasons to worry.
The more jaundiced realists out there might well respond, "yes, but how much does Nigeria really matter geopolitically?" Not as much as China, admittedly, but it is Africa’s most populous nation, home to the world’s tenth-largest petroleum reserves, and a regional leader such that as Nigeria goes, so goes much of Africa. Not to mention that if Nigeria deteriorates any further, we can all expect to get a lot more emails from this guy asking for our bank account information.
4. Turkey. On the question of religion and politics, Martin Luther was famously quoted that he "would rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian." Many of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters believe that he is just such a "competent Turk" — with many appreciating his competence, and many also appreciating his "Turkishness" (which to Luther meant Islam). Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is Turkey’s dominant political force, and it has enjoyed popularity and electoral support from a combination of improved governance, robust economic growth, and catering to the growing Islamic currents in much of the country. A young Turkish investment banker told me last year — before the economic crisis — that he and his professional friends enthusiastically supported the AKP because they believed it has managed the economy well, and they were completely indifferent about the religious agenda.
Turkey is not being spared in the economic maelstrom, but having survived its own banking and currency crisis in 2001, a plausible case can be made that Turkey may weather this one with less severe hardship than other countries. Yet questions persist — and concerns are growing — about Erdogan’s Islamist affinities and agenda. And even though the crisis hasn’t reached devastating levels, the downturn is still significant, as the lira hits new lows and industrial output plummets. Turkey’s risk of instability comes less from the economic crisis than a military coup. Yet the crisis is creating conditions that may make a coup more likely. As Turkish civilian elites — such as the investor mentioned above — see the economy shrivel, they may be increasingly inclined to shift their support from Erdogan to his opponents in the military. And the restive military may see this as the opportunity they have been waiting for.
Though a military government would likely not jeopardize American use of the Incirlik Air Force Base, a coup would still introduce potentially significant instability. What it would mean for the Kurdish issue and the Iraq border, an internal Islamist backlash, regional tensions, or further economic turmoil could all produce strategic shocks.
All four of these countries may well weather this year without serious destabilization. But all four are at more risk than is conventionally acknowledged. And if any one of them does experience internal turmoil, an external strategic shock would also ensue. The Obama administration is no doubt hoping for stability. But they should also plan for instability.