Category Archives: geopolitics

Thucydides, Democracy and Africa

Bertrand Russell once said that one reads a book either to enjoy it or to boast about having read it. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponessian War (HOTPW) provides both reasons. For one the name Thucydides is very much in vogue currently as a result of the geo-political problem known as Thucydides Trap. This describes a situation in which a rising power and an established power are driven towards conflict by factors within and without their control.

But this book at the same time provides significant reading enjoyment. It gives numerous insights into human nature as well as military and political strategy. On numerous occasions he outlines both the immediately ostensible goals of a course of action as well as its ulterior and knock-on effects. His dissections of negotiations and parleys also provide a good measure of wisdom in how to analyse whether a proposition is beneficial for both parties involved in it or for only one party.

That being said, he acquits himself of his task of chronicling history admirably and in a balanced manner. He does this despite executing various duties as an Athenian officer in the course of the war. What is most troubling is how towards the end of the book Athens becomes riven by factions part of which contribute considerably to its eventual downfall from its lofty heights.

From these events, as well as from the general political climate globally, the question of whether democracy really is the best system of government for man comes into question. This question has been raised earlier on the blog.

Before proceeding I wish to point out that my ancestors followed a democratic system of government. I hail from Kenyan Meru stock. (There is Tanzanian Meru which is also Bantu.) So my ancestors happened to have some form of democratic system in which there were two sides of government per age-group namely the Kiruka and the Ntiba. Each ruled for a period of 7 years. During Kiruka rule the Ntiba would form some kind of opposition and vice-versa. During a change of guard market places would be uprooted, policy errors dissected and the litany of wrongs by the immediately preceding regime was generally denounced. This provided some sort of societal catharsis and cleansing. It was a unique system of government which even colonialists found remarkable, this deep within ‘the dark continent.’

This is not said in order to talk up the Meru people, but rather to make the point that this is not a reactionary view against the prevailing system of government globally. As a Meru, I respect my ancestors; as a Kenyan I respect the law; and as a child of the universe I hope to have the good sense to acknowledge a system that works well elsewhere. That being said, for all we know the OECD could well be the modern version of the Delian league. As can be seen from history, for the most part democracy works. So let us launch into its analysis.

Chief among the concerns that democracy addresses is the human desire for justice; both in terms of equitable governance and before courts of law. The concentration of power within a monarchical system makes it very easy for persons with access to the king’s ear (or hand or generally those close to him) to defeat the law, and in effect be above the law. Within a democracy, the judicial system sits outside the reach of the executive and (in theory) provides some form of check and balance to the executive and the legislature. The phrase “in theory” is bracketed because the nomination of Gorusch to the SCOTUS shows that in many situations the judicial system is very much a part of political rough and tumble. It is also for this very reason that presidential election petitions are overwhelmingly in favour of the incumbent, not just in Africa but globally.

In terms of equitable government, democracy makes an entity’s governors accountable to those governed. In theory this makes the governors pursue choices that are politically expedient, such as ensuring that proceeds from national resources such as say the Suez Canal, are distributed equally among all citizens. In practice and human nature being what it is, governors frequently seek to subvert this accountability by dividing and conquering the governed along whatever fault-lines are available. Once divided the citizens will vote for ‘their man,’ regardless of how equitably he has governed or how accountable he has been.

Another concern which democracy addresses is that it provides some pressure valve or ventilation so to speak on the geo-political system. When citizens are pre- occupied with their own leaders and elections, they are unlikely to start expanding their territory at the expense of their neighbours. Conversely, should one neighbour such as India see that a border is contested with say Pakistan, then it is in their interests to fund the Pakistani opposition or faction which would support their claim to the disputed territory. This was a move that classical Grecian city states used frequently as is accounted within HOTPW. 

On the flip side, democracy presents certain knotty questions which do not have straightforward answers. Most of these occur in fringe cases but eventually, in accordance with the law of entropy they will likely affect the socio-economic well-being of a political entity.

First and foremost is that democracy provides the means for factional interests to override national interests to the detriment of all. This happens moreso during times of crisis. For example towards the end of the Peloponessian war, Athens was politically and militarily paralysed by factions to such an extent that at some points had the Spartans walked in they would have easily conquered Athens.

A more insidious demerit is the assumption that citizens have the capacity to discern the best course of action. One underlying premise of democracy is that the (vast majority of) citizens are mature, informed and educated voters. Or to use psychological terms, the expectation is that voters are at the stage of post-conventional development. Out here in Africa, with poverty levels and unemployment rather high, this is a rather faulty premise. For example, when the USA was thinking through the issue of slavery, crowds would gather to hear Stephen Douglas and Lincoln debate on the issue. They would in this manner gain an informed opinion on the issues at hand and could be trusted to thereafter select the best course of action. In today’s multiplicity of media sources, sound-bite segments and photogenic politicians the voters are getting more and more opinions and less and less information and often alternative facts. In the even that a democracy is guided rather than direct, then the system must be engineered to make it so. Thereafter the system itself must be defended. This most illuminating piece by Jonathan Rauch points out where and how the American system was engineered as a guided democracy and dismantled into a direct democracy.

Last (that will be tackled here) but not least is a tangential result of the above problem. In many cases progress requires one to adhere to a temporarily disadvantageous line of action in exchange for a long term benefit. One of the best examples of this is the difference between India and China in economic progress. By virtue of the fact that Chinese political action is guided and controlled, they have the liberty to pursue a steady course of action for a long duration without fear of needing to appease disaffected or disgruntled voters. If they wanted to delay joining the WTO, they did. If they wanted to move populations into a city and farm maize on that land, they could. If they need to set up tariffs and incentives for domestic commerce they can. India on the other hand has had several changes in the direction of its commercial and economic policy. Sometimes the economically correct party was voted out of power. As a result India’s economic growth has to some extent been hindered by its political system of government.

A more extreme expression of this problem is that in today’s media-bombarded, instant-coffee, Ctrl+C-Ctrl+V generation delayed gratification is increasingly a hard sell. It wants what was advertised, and it wants it now. By this means democracy’s chief weakness is emphasised which is its tendency to result in massive debts, whose repayment results in widespread disaffection resulting in the rise of demagogues, fascists and tyrants. The irony of this particular problem is that Greece, which itself bequeathed the world democracy as a system of government, is currently reeling under the effects of imposed but necessary austerity measures after freeloading on the Euro for a while. On the flip side of this, Iceland which was also hard-hit by the effects of the 2008 recession, is set to vote in pirates and comedians.  But Iceland after following rather unconventional economic paths are currently on a solid footing going forward.

In summary, it should be clear that for all its merits, democracy presents loopholes through which the fabric of a political entity can be worn thin. As such these must be guarded against. But generally speaking one should not criticise without offering alternative solutions. The question would then arise, what really is the best system of government for man? I would propose a monarchy, specifically one under-girded by Mosaic law. At which point there would be a general hue an cry about how outdated this is. But that discussion on the perfection of Mosaic law can be left for another day.

The meaning of Donald Trump

“It’s unbelievable.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to what is simultaneously the best and the worst job in the world, ‘yuuuge’ introspection has been going on in national capitals, foreign policy think tanks, economic think tanks, by firesides, on social media, everywhere. How did we get here? When did the rain start falling on us? Dear God, please forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil…

It goes without saying that the effects of a Trump government/administration/regime will be widespread and far-reaching. For starters he will control the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons from Jan 21st, so if Putin ticks him off cockroaches could be running the world 100 years on from now. Cockroaches are the only creatures unaffected by nuclear fallout. US generals have been researching the constitution to cross-check how much they have to obey his commands. US generals can be a handful. During the Bay of Pigs showdown JFK, JFK himself was one day away from losing control of them. Bush 2 followed hawkish advice, plunged into Iraq, then ended up having a rather public dust up with these generals.
Across the pond, someone said that one could hear a pin drop in the capitals of Eastern Europe as US election results came in. Eastern Europe has traditionally relied on the Cold-War NATO doctrine of ‘an attack against one is an attack against all’ to stand their ground in the face of the Russian military juggernaut. This doctrine has been questioned by Trump on the campaign trail. And so it remains to be seen whether and how much he will stand by US allies should Putin extend his reach beyond Crimea. Angela Merkel, as close to a philosopher queen as Europe has had in a while, has quickly and quietly taken up the mantle of the defender of Europe. Increased patrols on the Russian border have been agreed upon beginning in early 2017. Joint air force patrols have become a normal thing in Scandinavian countries.

In Asia things are a bit dicier. China’s military budget continues annual increments, alongside construction of airfields in the Spratly Islands. To say that these islands are hotly contested is a gross understatement. Their very name is an issue and reflects where a person is leaning on the matter. Besides Ghina, Japan and the Philippines also claim ownership and control. At stake are massive underwater oil reserves, besides territorial control of trade routes. The problem with this issue is that it threatens to draw in two big powers into a contest of egos, prestige and credibility despite it not being a core concern for the United States. This issue, by extension, serves as a litmus test for US containment of Chinese expansionism in Asia. Duterte, who has presided over a massive anti-drug pogrom in the Philippines, has flip-flopped between US and Chinese allegiance but `looks forward to working with’ Trump. Other countries reading into this are South Korea (North Korea’s neighbour) as well as India and Indonesia. These are not small populations.

In the Middle East, Iraq and Syria continue to present conundrums to any and all think tanks. Non-interference means continued bloodshed and chemical weapon usage. Engagement risks snowballing out of control. Russia’s only aircraft carrier is in the Baltic Sea threatening Turkey and the Baltic States. Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing opposing sides. Turkey, no longer the ‘sick man of Europe,’ is taking advantage of this transition to create a buffer zone for themselves. In the process the Kurds are losing hope of an independent autonomous state. And after all that Syria’s shared border with Israel could always serve as a flashpoint for Arab-Israeli conflict.

‘Out here’ in Africa, the prospect of a Trump presidency presents both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity stems from the West finally understanding how electorates elect known demagogues and what post-poll protests are. Also, Trump is unlikely to stand by trade treaties such as AGOA among others, greatly reducing African sources of foreign currency as well as denying a leg up on the economic ladder. Africa will be forced to trade with herself, something which she is absolutely not doing enough. The threat is darker. A Trump presidency officially calls into question democracy as a system of government for man. Besides that the platform on which Trump ran is likely to embolden repression of human rights and strengthen autocratic regimes. The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that the US no longer needed to prop up pro-West dictators. As such democracy had a field day in the early 90’s in Africa. So now we may be looking at the sunset of that day.

Globally also, climate change is fast becoming the biggest threat to societal stability. The polar ice caps are melting faster and faster, reducing their reflection of solar insolation as well as raising sea levels. This has knock-on effects meaning the said warming accelerates. In terms of human effect it means unstable weather, exacerbated food scarcity, increased poverty, emigration from coastal areas and so forth. Climate change has been one of Obama’s most understated and undersold legacy areas, both in terms of what he was able to achieve as well as how he achieved it. His accord with China on this laid the groundwork for groundbreaking global agreements on this. Trump is a patent climate-change denier and looks set to appoint an EPA head who is a staunch fossil fuel advocate. In his world it’s all ‘climate be damned.’ China’s Xi Jinping is now officially on record warning Trump not to backtrack on this.

Someone once joked that death had the wrong list earlier this year. And someone else later clapped back that they now understood why death had that particular list. Jokes and effects aside we can now look at the causes. How did we get here? In this context ‘here’ means both Trump and Brexit. Polling has officially fallen into disrepute as a valid source of credible information. The media also has culpability in this matter and continues to mix up signal and noise. Before we go too far, it must be noted that Hillary lost white counties that voted for Obama twice. The implication is that the US has been voting for anti-establishment candidates since Bush senior or junior depending on how you look at it. The media is getting the narrative wrong in the sense that it is spotlighting Van Jones whitelash theory and the entire alt-right as opposed to the simple and basic economic anxieties theory.

That being said, this alt-right deserves a special mention for the wrong reasons. Now the danger with close elections is that the extreme wing of the winning side mistakes their side’s win as a direct mandate for them. This is what is happening with the alt-right. In a year when Republican messaging and communication strategists shed tears at the official appropriation of ‘American exceptionalism’ by the Democratic party during the DNC, the Republican Party’s fired up base had rather different views on what makes America exceptional. This happened in a year when 6/6 of America’s Nobel Prize winners in science and economics are immigrants. The beneficial effects of immigration on demographics, the economy and innovation among others, cannot be overstated.
But looking further out, how do we correct our assumptions and mental models? What social and philosophical outposts accurately pointed in this direction? Who was previously discounted or overlooked but turned out to be right? The least recent predictions should carry the most weight. I will start with homespun thinkers.
1. Oyunga Pala, one of Kenya’s foremost and controversial writers on Kenyan masculinity wrote a think piece all the way back in August about how human nature is drawn to bad boys. It’s kind of like the way spiders mesmerise flies against their will and then eat them up. I will admit that spent a portion of my teenage years filtering Pala’s views on masculinity. Most importantly he contrasts Obama and Trump as being different responses to the call to manhood. One response is to be a good man a la Obama, the other is to be good at being a man a la Trump – screw norms, survive, reproduce, rule.
2. David Ndii has written an insightful analysis on economics going back to the 1800’s. In summary his take is that globalisation (and I might add neo-liberalism) has hollowed out the industrial cores of Western society. As such globalisation can now officially be critiqued for its long term benefit to the majority of society. Ndii references Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, those widely acclaimed historical sages, while outlining their conflicting theories for us. Most importantly he quotes an oft-hidden and oft-discounted tenet of free trade ideas. That free trade depresses wages in industrialised countries. He references Greece as an ironic twist of history.
3. Michael Moore predicted Trump’s rise in a widely quoted article. It covered very accurately the Rust Belt, the place of the older white man in modern day America, and of all things the schadenfreude of reality TV! It sure is going to be an interesting ride these next four (or less hopefully) years. I think it says something that it is Oyunga Pala and Michael Moore; ie men who have spent time analysing the male psyche; who saw his rise before the rest of us.
4. Noam Chomsky predicted the rise of a Trump-like figure 6 years ago. Chomsky is the most widely quoted and cited scholar alive today. His Wikipedia article says that he favours anarcho-syndicalism. He also tends to think that the Republican Party, by virtue of being climate change deniers is the most dangerous organisation in human history.
5. Peter Turchin is the closest thing to Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s fictional series called The Foundation. Hari Seldon was a historian-and-mathematician who would feed historical data into mathematical models and produce socio-political predictions accurate enough to almost be 100% correct. Peter Turchin has written several pieces on societal development and decline. He predicts a reckoning within the American system around 2020. The factors which he aggregates are ‘elite overproduction’ expressed in terms of elite income and wealth gaps (idle rich gentry who then aggregate into camps with increasingly polarised positions), societal economic inequality and finally the stagnation/decline in living standards for the majority of a populace.
6. Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist, wrote two prescient think pieces on the American democratic system. He describes a two-party gatekeeping system to the castle of the American government. The system functions by distributing or re-distributing prosperity or poverty as the situation dictates. It claims to serve the masses, but all too often benefits the elites. His pieces, especially American Fall, dovetail quite accurately with Hillary Clinton’s statement ‘apres moi la deluge.’ An interesting caveat on the system – some of the sentinels guarding this castle included mass media. But mass media’s monopoly on news, truth and public opinion has now been disrupted by social media, a truth borne out by the fact that Clinton out-spent Trump in swing states 3-1. Trump’s twitter handle as well as fake news on facebook were a ruthlessly effective counter-strike. Naval’s theory is also backed up by the fact that Obama was the first social-media candidate. Unfortunately for us Trump has been the second. Despite the best wishes of the gatekeeper system, direct democracy as opposed to guided democracy, has officially arrived.
7. Balaji S Srinivasan a partner at Andreesen Horowitz places the new divide at the growing gulf between the nation-state and technology. His theory postulates that the Westphalian nation-state has been eroded over time in much the same way that the ‘divine right of kings’ was eroded over time. Balaji also proposes that technology has been eroding the boundaries of nation states and what it means to belong to a political grouping. He sees the rise of the EU and Mercosur free residence agreements as an accelerating trend which may be replicated here in Africa. With time, the power of trans-national corporations could exceed that of nation-states. (Goldman Sachs vs Greece comes to mind.) Balaji poses the question “Who will be around in 2025, Google or the EU?” He advocates a book called The Sovereign Individual which was written by authors who predicted Wall Street’s Black Tuesday, the pending collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Yugoslavian War. The book states that we have moved from an industrial society to an information society.
And with that, the main theories concerning the rise of Trump have been covered. So we can finally cover my personal hopes and wishes in this whole matter. On the one hand I wish Trump brings up the birther issue and forces Obama out of America. Then Obama can come home to Kenya. Then we can elect him president, bigly! Then we can live happily ever after. My plan is so good, it will make everyone happy. Everyone tells me this. It’s unbelievable.