The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Notes on Libya, etc.

February 21, 2011

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news, you undoubtedly know that Libya is in the midst of a revolution. The Libyan government understands that all too well; hence, the increasing force deployed against opponents of the regime. Tripoli can’t be pleased that some of its military and its diplomatic corp are defecting from the regime.

Anne Applebaum has written a column comparing the revolutions to 1848. That’s not a terrible comparison, insofar as we’re looking at a combination of transnational networking and demonstration effects triggering modular uprisings in different countries. But similar processes were at work in the Colour Revolutions, the post-WWI upheavals, the Protestant Reformations, and, albeit in a very different institutional environment, the cascading uprisings that marked the end of the Soviet Union. The kinds of reforms sought by the “median” regime opponent in the Middle East of 2011 would also look pretty familiar to those in Europe of 1848. But there are some important differences with 1848 and not a few of these other examples.

One of them, perhaps most relevant to the 1848 comparison, is how the regimes involved and the aims of their opponents fail to map onto any major source of international polarization (on this point, see John Owen’s excellent The Clash of Ideas in World Politics). We don’t have an international system increasingly polarized between authoritarian and democratic regimes. Most of the regimes involved are allies of democracies. These uprisings do not pit liberalism against fundamentalism, whatever some on the ideological fringe claim.

It is possible that 2011 could make the democracy-authoritarianism distinction more salient to international politics. For that to happen, existing democracies would have to be much more proactive in terms of throwing their weight behind the revolutionaries, and countries such as China would have to come to see their interests as requiring them to (1) shore up existing authoritarian regimes and (2) undermine new democracies. I don’t see this as likely, in large part because many of the current uprisings threaten pro-western governments and, if successul, are likely to produce regimes slightly less likely to support US and European “interests” in the Middle East (I use the quotations because I believe long-term US interests and values are best served by democratic Arab governments).

On the other hand, we do see a sense of solidarity among disparate pro-democracy protesters, pro-union protesters, and anti-austerity protesters across the globe. So far, the evidence for this strikes me as amounting to little more than anecdotes of a very ephemeral sense of collective effervescence among disparate movements operating under conditions of globalization. Thousands of miles wide, inches deep.

However, the statements and gestures of solidarity should remind US citizens what people in autocratic environments understand very well: that collective bargaining (and power in union) matters not simply for economic justice, but for the health of civil society and democracy. Union mobilization proved crucial to Mubarak’s fall. The military regime now running Egypt has sought to limit union actions. Whatever their faults–and they have many–unions are a crucial check against economic and political oligarchy. We ignore this at our peril.

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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.