When I was involved in policy debate we used to have abstract discussions about “anarchy” and “totalitarianism” and a lot of things in between or beside those terms like “dictatorship” or “world government”. Variously people would argue that any of those items had their good or bad points, depending on what the situation required (or dictated, due to lack of better argumentative options).
We often had those discussions in a bit of a vaccum. This was particularly true for anarchy. There just aren’t many examples of long-term anarchy as a governing style, either because anarchy fails on its own merits or because anarchy isn’t allowed to exist by other interested parties, namely the people who have eyes for power. Since there is almost always someone who wants power, anarchy is really only that time period between the fall of one leadership entity and the ascent of another.
Like my dog Maxine, nature and politics abhor a vaccum. You’d have to have some special circumstances to prop up anarchy for any real period of time, something that creates an incentive for people to NOT take power, but also ensure that nobody else has power either.
Which, of course, brings me to Iraq. NBC decided today to officially call it a Civil War. As Talking Points Memo observed, that seems an inadequate description, and opted instead to call it straight-up anarchy, with the leather jackets and mohawks and everything. We know the power vaccum exists; it’s quite clear. It sure seems like anarchy to me. Everyone for themselves, and nobody’s in charge that’s willing to put anything on the line.
(Here’s a handy definition of anarchy: If for months on end you can’t tell whether the people wearing the official police uniforms are the official police or the people who killed the official police, that’s anarchy.)
We used to talk all the time about this stuff as an abstract concept, and now it’s happening right now in real time. Which is better, today or when Saddam was in power? Anarchy vs. dictatorship? Here’s my answer: You can always depose a dictator or a totalitarian government. What comes next may or may not be a better option, but it is an option. What’s the solution to anarchy, once it gets going? Install a government? Tried that, a couple of times in fact.
And what does it mean that the preferred solution, and perhaps a large reason we have anarchy today, is that there wasn’t enough of a “world government” (read: UN) presence in the endeavor in the first place?
Thinking back to various political science discussions over my life, this is what I now believe to be true:
1. Hegemons that act against meaningful world sentiment, and display incompetence and arrogance in the process, will see their spheres of influence shrink dramatically in short order.
2. Anarchy sucks.
3. Anarchy on any large scale can only happen if hegemons allow it to happen. The international community will typically try to fill a power vaccum unless they are thwarted by the interests of individual hegemons.
4. When hegemons screw up, the first call they make for a solution is to an international body.
5. Since the most powerful hegemons view international bodies as threats to their hegemony (or at least autonomy, a main goal of hegemony), they spend great energy thwarting the international bodies.
6. If a hegemon screws something up badly in the eyes of the world, it will either have to cede power to an international body or another hegemon to fix the problem.
We could have chosen a different path after 9/11. We could have had multinational forces in a rebuilt Afghanistan, perhaps could have undertaken a smoother Iraqi regime change. We could have made the first real commitment to a strong international body that has resources and respect and a mission, and would we have been diminished for that? Quite the opposite, sadly. Our grandkids would have ridden that wave of progress and good will towards the 22nd century.
Instead, we have what may be our best case study to date in anarchy, and a missed opportunity to ponder for generations to come.