Russia poisons its enemies, Germany’s obsessed with fiscal responsibility, and America’s addicted to spreading democracy. A list of policies governments ought to kick.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The New York Times published an interesting article recently suggesting that the Russian government has been murdering dissidents, critics, exiles, former officials, and other alleged enemies, often by poisoning them. Prominent cases include Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, and Alexander Perepilichny, who died while jogging in 2012 but whose body was later found to have contained extracts from a rare poisonous plant.
What struck me about this disturbing piece was the continuity of this policy over many decades. As the Times article makes clear, political murder — and in particular, the use of poisoning — seems to have been hard-wired into some key organs of the Soviet/Russian state, going all the way back to the days of the NKVD and maybe even back to the Tsars. Leon Trotsky was no threat to Joseph Stalin by 1940, for example, but the latter still had him killed in exile in Mexico. Dealing with dissidents and other opponents in this way became a standard operating procedure, with a durable bureaucracy dedicated to maintaining these capabilities as part of Moscow’s repertoire, even when the people targeted are at worst minor irritants and killing them does more damage to Russia’s international position than leaving them alone.
Such behavior, in short, is a bad habit Moscow has yet to break.
But Russia is hardly unique in this regard. In fact, most (all?) states have some “bad habits” — well-established but questionable practices that remain in place even when the justification for them is no longer apparent (if it ever was). As the extensive literature on bureaucratic politics teaches us, such behavior often persists because a part of the government is committed to it and wants to keep itself in business. Just try telling the Air Force that manned aircraft are on the way out. Because eliminating entrenched agencies is difficult (and all the more so when they are secretive), bad habits can linger long after they have ceased to be useful. They can also persist because they appeal to widely held values, or because well-organized interest groups within society work overtime to defend them, even if the habits themselves are damaging.
Take the United States, for instance. U.S. officials can’t bring themselves to stop trying to spread democracy willy-nilly, no matter how often such attempts backfire. It is partly because democracy, liberty, freedom, etc., are baked into American political culture, making it hard for critics to argue that other societies might be worse off if they suddenly became democratic. This policy also persists because various government agencies, NGOs, and hybrid organizations (such as the National Endowment for Democracy) are committed to the enterprise. Encouraging democracy isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but the United States keeps trying to do it even when the consequences are likely to be harmful. It’s a bad habit we can’t seem to break.
Similarly, the U.S. government persists in thinking it can solve complicated political problems through airpower, and especially through “targeted assassinations” in distant lands. Such tools may be useful in certain contexts (for example, they seem to have helped degrade the Islamic State faction in Libya), but using airpower to try to win complex counterinsurgency campaigns has failed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. But because both the Pentagon and the CIA are committed to these tools, and because they give presidents a cheap way to “do something” without putting a lot of boots on the ground, this reflexive response to messy problems in faraway places is becoming another bad habit.
Finally, our “special relationships” with certain Middle East countries — e.g., Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt — are a classic case of a bad habit we can’t quite quit. Each of these relationships may have made good sense in the past — though all of them should have been more conditional on our clients’ good behavior — but the strategic and moral rationales behind each one have been growing weaker over time. Yet the “special relationships” persist and, in some cases, expand, even as the negative consequences accumulate.
That’s the advantage of being a wealthy and extremely secure superpower, by the way: A global superpower can probably afford a few bad habits. But being able to afford one’s vices doesn’t make them virtues.
Other states have plenty of bad habits of their own. After independence, Israel adopted a strict policy of reprisal toward the Palestinian Fedayeen operating in the ill-defined borderlands left after the 1948 armistice. This policy included attacking Jordanian, Egyptian, and Syrian forces — in part to give these governments an incentive to crack down on the Fedayeen — and it may have made sense back in the early 1950s. As Jonathan Shimshoni showed in his book Israel and Conventional Deterrence, this policy worked pretty well with Jordan. Unfortunately, it also contributed to an intensifying spiral of hostility with Egypt and thus played a role in causing both the 1956 and 1967 wars.
Today, of course, the reprisal policy involves using the powerful Israel Defense Forces against a vastly weaker set of Palestinian groups, which inevitably causes disproportionate civilian casualties. The damage to Israel’s international image outweighs whatever strategic benefits might be gained, but it is a habit Tel Aviv cannot seem to break. Meanwhile, the Palestinians remained mired in their own set of bad habits — internal rivalries, corruption, and counterproductive forms of resistance — practices that have set their own national aspirations back for decades.
And what about Germany? Given its experiences with the disastrous 1923 hyperinflation, it is not surprising that postwar Germans have been hypersensitive about a stable currency and obsessed with fiscal responsibility. As Christopher Alessi observes: “The German Bundesbank was established in 1957 as the world’s first fully independent central bank with a simple but all-encompassing mandate: to keep the price of the German deutsche mark stable by limiting inflation.”
This perspective continues to dominate Germany’s approach to economic policy, which is why Berlin insisted on harsh austerity policies after the 2008 financial crisis, policies that prolonged the recession and imposed excessive hardships on a number of European countries. What made sense in the 1950s did not make sense in 2009, but German policymakers focused solely on the bad habits of the Greeks and others and downplayed both their own role in creating the crisis and their overly rigid commitment to fiscal orthodoxy.
Can a nation’s bad habits be broken? Of course they can. Germany and Japan used to have a very bad habit of trying to conquer their neighbors, but both nations seem to have successfully abandoned that impulse for good. The United States used to tolerate slavery and the racism that accompanies it, but it has spent the past century or more trying to rid itself of that poisonous legacy, albeit imperfectly. Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew famously transformed a notoriously corrupt port city into a model of probity, its undemocratic features notwithstanding. And Egypt’s Anwar Sadat abandoned Gamal Abdel Nasser’s bad habit of trying to lead the Arab world and focused solely on trying to advance Egypt’s particular interests.
But as we all know, breaking a bad habit isn’t easy. As the German and Japanese examples suggest, sometimes change comes only after a major national disaster, like an addict who has finally hit bottom. Breaking bad habits is also less likely when both actions and consequences are concealed from view, whether we are talking about Russia’s reliance on poisoning or the National Security Agency’s overly energetic attempts to “collect it all.” And when bad habits are firmly rooted within the existing political institutions — as is the case in highly corrupt societies — rooting them out can be nearly impossible.
All of which reminds us that we must be — yes, my favorite word — realistic about the ability of complex societies to change their spots overnight. That fact can be reassuring in some circumstances, insofar as it helps insulate successful policies from opponents who mistakenly want to overturn them. But it also means that policies that have simply outlived their usefulness can be as hard to eradicate as kudzu. The next time you find yourself thinking some charismatic new leader is going to sweep into office and fix everything: think again.
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