The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Exit and loyalty

January 29, 2011

Great powers find themselves compelled to support regimes they consider problematic, unpleasant, or even odious. The United States is no exception. Many of its friends and allies have far greater democratic deficits than Egypt, although few receive more combined U.S. aid than Cairo does. 

Sometimes those allies will have revolutionary moments — points at which the forces for regime change are strong enough that no one can be sure whether the government will prevail. Sometimes they will have what might best be described as pre-revolutionary periods. During these periods it looks like a revolutionary moment might come, but no one is quite sure. Egypt is in a pre-revolutionary period, which means:
  • The US has less influence over Mubarak’s government than it would if the regime were under greater threat; and
  • The US faces much greater uncertainty about the costs and benefits of calibrating its level of support for the regime and the pro-democracy protesters. 

The Obama Administration cannot pull a “Ferdinand Marcos” in Egypt; despite all that aid, Mubarak is less dependent on Washington than Marcos was. While I expect that the hearts of most people in the Obama Administration are, like most other Americans, with the brave men and women protesting on the streets of Egypt, they also need to worry about the geo-strategic costs of alienating — or losing completely — an important regional ally, whether by supporting a doomed regime or undercutting a survivor. 

If things go badly, the ultimate fault will lie with decades of U.S. policy. From a realpolitik perspective we can understand why democratic great powers will support undemocratic regimes. But it is unforgivable for any great power — democratic or not — to lack exit options, e.g., to fail to cultivate other sources of support such that it can pivot to them when a regime begins to bend and shake upon its long-obvious cracks. 
It is doubly unforgivable for a liberal great power to lack variants of those exit options that allow it to more fully support a people’s democratic aspirations, whether by:
  • Making use of concomitant leverage to pressure a regime to enact liberalizing reforms;
  • Being more secure in the knowledge that democratization will not threaten its geo-strategic interests;
  • Pivoting to supporters within civil society; or
  • Doing all of the above.
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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.