Photo Gallery: Cozying Up to Autocrats

Foto: dapd

The Limits of Morality Sometimes It's Right to Cooperate with Dictators

The uprisings in the Arab world have prompted much hand-wringing among Europeans, who worry that the West has been too lenient with the region's autocrats. Sometimes, however, tolerating dictators is very much in the West's best interest.

The popular movements in the Arab world have generated surprisingly little political resonance in the streets of European capitals. There have been no significant expressions of sympathy for the demonstrators, and no angry protests in front of the embassies of those Arab countries where police and security services have shot regime opponents or beaten them to death.

Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt within only a few weeks, the normally opinionated European left is paralyzed from shock, while the reaction of European civil society consists primarily in moral self-doubt over whether our own governments have perhaps been too closely aligned with dictators on the southern shores of the Mediterranean who acted as the guarantors of stability in their countries. North Africa has been gripped by a wave of self-liberation, but instead of enthusiasm we show, at best, sympathy. Mainly, however, it is melancholy self-doubt that is on display.

It was a different story more than three decades ago, when a popular uprising in Iran toppled, after bloody fighting, the shah's regime and destroyed the power of the secret police. There were demonstrations in major Western European cities, and when the shah and his closest entourage fled from Tehran, it was celebrated as a sign of a victory by the common people. While the Americans, with the hostage crisis at their embassy, may see the Iranian trauma as a rescue attempt gone horribly wrong, the disappointed hope that the Iranian revolution would trigger a surge of democracy in the Near East and Middle East played a greater role in Europe. After initially downplaying the influence of the mullahs, Europeans turned away in frustration once it was no longer possible to overlook the repressive character of the mullah-controlled regime.

In Europe, the course of the Iranian revolution left behind a deep-seated mistrust of popular movements in the Muslim world. Europeans chose to take a wait-and-see approach, fearing that the Islamists could gain the upper hand in an uprising. Under the influence of such views, Europeans came to value the peace and stability guaranteed by pro-Western autocrats.

The melancholy self-doubts that are now taking shape are amplified by the images of European leaders cozying up to the region's dictators, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Were the Europeans too lenient toward these regimes, merely because the rulers wore civilian clothing and donned a pseudo-democratic cloak by holding occasional elections? Had they been bullied by the threat that Islamism was the only alternative to the dictators' regimes? Did they make moral concessions that have now proved to be embarrassing? Should they have been more insistent in calling for adherence to the principles of human rights, and should they have established closer contact with opposition groups?

Critical Reflection on the Past

The result of these self-doubts is that the Europeans are closely observing the current developments in the Arab world, but are not intervening and are waiting before taking sides. If we strip away the diplomatic verbiage, it becomes clear that the politicians and diplomats are also clueless -- at least as clueless as the civil society.

The debate that has now begun over whether the European democracies paid too much attention to their interests and not enough to their values in their interactions with dictators and autocrats in the Arab world is also an expression of this perplexity. Those who don't know what to do, and yet sense that they have to do something, resort to critical reflections on past deeds. That is not necessarily the worst solution. The only question is what the purpose of this self-imposed period of reflection is. Is it to analyze the new situation with a view toward a political reorientation, or is it aimed at self-recrimination?

The pitfall with this kind of retrospective reflection is that, in light of recent developments, it creates the impression that there was a direct, clean and decent course of action, and that the only reason it was not taken is that the Europeans were paying too much attention to their own interests. And because everything suddenly seems clear and unambiguous, we now insist that in the future we will orient ourselves more toward our values rather than our base interests. As a rule, this boils down to settling for the role of a critical observer.

Of course, there is a political cynicism that only recognizes values as long as they do not collide with one's own interests or, worse yet, which sees values as a continuation of one's own interests in normative clothing. Where values and interests diverge, the former are suppressed or bent so far that they conform to one's interests once again. As a rule, however, states, especially democracies, seek compromises that allow values and interests to be brought into balance. In the process, the pendulum can swing more strongly in the direction of values in some cases, while in others it swings toward interests.

The question of how much it costs to commit to values plays a key role in this respect. Values have their price, especially in the political sphere, where they are passed on to the whole population in the form of collectively binding decisions. Anyone who would like to put the focus on values as a matter of principle has to address the question of whether they are prepared to cover these costs. This question can easily be turned into a moral accusation, one that may be justified in some cases. Most of the time, however, actual ability interferes with moral intentions: To what extent can the costs of normative, self-imposed commitments be borne? And at what point is this no longer the case?

The Cost of Change

The debate over forceful regime change in Iraq was a debate about such costs, which also consisted of moral paradoxes. Just because someone was opposed to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by military means, it didn't mean that he or she necessarily saw the Iraqi dictator as a humanitarian. It was enough to argue that the costs of his overthrow were too high, or to have doubts that the project would have a positive outcome.

The debate over the pros and cons of regime change in Iraq may have been an extreme case of calculating the costs of enforcing one's values, but essentially we always perform such calculations when we adopt a political position. Of course, we mainly do this intuitively and do not enter into a process of discursive reflection. The latter only happens when something has gone wrong.

In this sense, the costs of the alternatives should always be taken into account when considering the relationship between democracies on the one hand and autocrats and dictators on the other. Ever since there has been a massive opposition movement in which Islamists are represented but where they do not play the main role, the cost calculation is different from before. It is an old political principle that the opponents of dictatorial regimes must have demonstrated their support within the population and the inflexibility of their political will in a violent confrontation, before other countries will recognize them as an alternative to the status quo. The blood that is shed in violent clashes is a signal to the international community that a substantial portion of the population is no longer prepared to recognize the authority of the ruling regime.

The costs of asserting values change as the opposition's visibility grows. In this situation, it is politically astute to carry out a fundamental recalculation of those costs. The about-turn that democracies are now making is only political opportunism at first glance. In reality, it isn't just the political conditions in the countries in question that have changed, but also the costs of the previous stability.

Prizing Stability Above All Else

But couldn't the Europeans have changed their focus earlier, to avoid being seen as states that only react to circumstances, rather than ones that actively participate in shaping events? Perhaps, but then one would have to bear in mind the duration of authoritarian regimes like the ones in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. It is characteristic of these regimes that they are not based on outright repression, but that the rulers, by handing out offices, posts and sinecures, develop large groups of supporters extending well beyond the police, intelligence services and military. The dictator surrounds himself with a cloak of concern for his people, while the autocrat camouflages himself as a benevolent father of his nation.

This works as long the relevant groups in the society feel they have more to gain than to fear from the continued existence of this order. It changes when generations with high birth rates come of age. In societies with a high birth rate, the power of such patrimonial systems to hold society together begins to decline after 25 to 30 years. Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are textbook examples of that development. The revolutions there are primarily uprisings by young people against those older people who have profited from the regime. But the point at which individual expressions of dissatisfaction turn into a popular uprising depends on chance events that cannot be predicted in advance.

Offer of Support

The question of whether the relevant dictators and autocrats are dependent on Western democracies, or whether they have alternatives to the West, also plays a role when calculating the costs of normative self-imposed commitments. The way this worked was evident in the days of the East-West conflict during the Cold War: Whenever the West withdrew, the East would take its place -- and vice-versa. Things were different for a decade and a half after the end of the Soviet Union. But then the rise of China meant that the costs of normative commitments increased dramatically again.

When the Europeans isolated President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, the Chinese immediately appeared on the scene and seized the geo-strategic opportunities that arose. Since then, the West has acted more cautiously; insisting on values has become expensive. This certainly doesn't mean that one shouldn't insist on one's values. It is important, however, to know where one can afford to do so. Anyone who talks about how the Europeans have tolerated the regimes of North Africa needs to take a nuanced view of the situation. He or she should be aware that, at the latest by the time of the overthrow of the Tunisian president, Chinese commentators were emphasizing the stability of the region. That is not only a sign of where China's preferences lie in regard to the question of values versus interests -- it is also an offer of support to faltering autocrats.

Threat to European Prosperity

Of course, the stability of the region is also very important to the Europeans. A prolonged civil war in one of the Arab countries would threaten European prosperity and could potentially set the entire region on fire. The latter would have devastating effects and would jeopardize both European interests and values. In this sense, wanting stability isn't just a question of considering European interests -- it is also a political value in itself. It is politically unwise to bet on the development of a democratic order in places that lack the necessary structural preconditions, and where democracy is constantly in danger of turning into a civil war or an open military dictatorship. Politically speaking, the milder, patrimonial rule of an autocrat is preferable to either of those options.

Whether the recent revolts and revolutions in the Arab world will fundamentally change the prospects for democracy remains to be seen. One would hope that this is the case -- partly because it would make it easier for us Europeans to balance our values and interests.

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