Foreign Affairs: The year authority broke down

The leader of the most powerful empire in history, after four years of much-heralded preparations, failed to properly launch not only his flagship reform, but even just its website.

US President Barack Obama at the White House 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama at the White House 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
It was a farce worthy of the Book of Esther. The leader of the most powerful empire in history, after four years of much-heralded preparations, failed to properly launch not only his flagship reform, but even just its website.
Citizens of the world watching US President Barack Obama scrambling to restore his honor between unfounded promises and confusing alternatives wondered with a mixture of anxiety and amusement: Is this the most powerful man in the world? And the answer was, and remains, that Obama still is the most powerful man in the world, but government is no longer what it once was.
The year that ends next Tuesday was exceptionally bad for political power, of whatever system or location, as social upheaval proliferated, governmental ineptitude soared, and the international system increasingly seemed like a lawless Wild West town begging a sheriff.
The fiasco in the fall surrounding Obama’s healthcare reform followed the eruption over the summer of revelations by ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, widely seen as the most colossal and severe document leak in American history.
Exposing American surveillance tactics and targets, who included world leaders from the president of Brazil to the chancellor of Germany as well as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – the leaks had no precedent, including the Pentagon Papers’ publication in 1971.
The latter, while elaborate, focused on one sphere of government activity, and that too in one arena only, namely US policy in Vietnam. Snowden’s, by contrast, exposed a global surveillance operation that, along with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks earlier this decade, raised doubts concerning any government’s ability to keep anything secret in an age of dramatically condensed and easily publishable information.
The failure so far to arrest both men further underscores a governmental ineffectiveness that increasingly seems like an unfolding zeitgeist’s hallmark.
The 16-day shutdown of the US government in October intensified a growing sense that the art of government has either grown dated, or somehow been forgotten.
The decline in governmental authority has not been unique to the US, or indeed to the free world.
The breakdown of power is global, and it is both horizontal and vertical, affecting interplay between strong and weak states as well as relations between the masses and their leaders.
In the international arena, China last year failed to impose itself on its North Korean satellite, which in March stunned the world with a festive announcement that it was making preparations for war with South Korea, and the following month threatened the US with a nuclear attack.
On the face of it, this kind of conduct reflects authority, but in fact it represents its breakdown, because in the previous world, the one inhabited by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather, Pyongyang knew its place in the global hierarchy, which was firmly under Beijing. Its saber rattling this year was clearly disagreeable to its sponsor, but in a world of declining authority, the North Korean dictator ignored China.
This spirit of anarchy resurfaced when Kim executed his uncle and deputy, who was pivotal in maintaining North Korea’s previously servile relations with the giant to its north.
China also failed to assert itself vis-à-vis Japan.
Beijing’s announcement of an air defense zone above disputed islands in the East China Sea was roundly ignored by Tokyo, which immediately sent fighter planes into the same zone, in disregard of China’s expectation that such sorties follow its approval. A consequent war of words smacked of Cold War dynamics, and only highlighted China’s failure to deliver geopolitical authority in Asia.
A similar pattern emerged in the Middle East. Syria launched gas attacks on its people in disregard not only of America’s threats but also of its Russian sponsor’s interests. The fact that both powers later maneuvered Damascus into a chemical disarmament deal is misleading. Strategically, the tail wagged the dog, as President Bashar Assad survived despite the powers’ desire that he leave.
This is, of course, besides the fact that within Syria, millions are displaced and starving while fewer than half the people have jobs, and the currency is hardly worth the paper on which it is printed – effectively, government has ceased to exist.
And that is beside the fact that in neighboring Iraq, 8,000 people were killed in sectarian fighting as another country effectively broke up, while the rest of the world all but lost interest.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, a fourth country arrived in the financial emergency room – and it, too, was treated to a full bailout program. The bailout of Cyprus came on the heels of the hefty bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
Though Germany loomed tall as a bastion of stability, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s impressive electoral victory en route to a third consecutive term, the EU that Germany lynchpins seemed in 2013 a crooked welding of irresponsible have-nots with disempowered haves. In an economically stagnant Western Europe, with Belgium on the brink of ethnic schism while Scotland and Catalonia inch closer to secession from Britain and Spain, “European authority” seems like an oxymoron.
Authority fared not much better in the Muslim world in 2013.
In Egypt, what initially seemed like a long-term Islamist incumbency came to an abrupt end, as president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were swept from power by a strange combination of rioters and generals.
The new government seemed initially to be imposing its will; however, violence soon erupted in Sinai and then crept to the Egyptian mainland.
This week a powerful explosion in a police station killed 14 people, making it ever more plain that even in authoritarian Egypt, authority remains mercurial.
Egypt’s failure to establish authority is arguably excusable, considering its weak economy and its 60-year military rule until the downfall of Hosni Mubarak nearly three years ago. That cannot be said of Turkey, a prosperous and relatively veteran democracy. After a decade of impressive stability under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government, thousands rioted in Istanbul, and millions throughout Turkey, as the government faced a grassroots protest movement whose eruption it did not see coming.
The riots’ trigger, a plan to build a mall and a mosque on one of Istanbul’s last parks, was but a pretext for letting out disgruntlement with a government that, as the protesters saw it, was trying to enter people’s daily lives too frequently and too deeply.
Subsequent corruption allegations involving Erdogan’s immediate circle, and the consequent resignations of three cabinet ministers followed by a broader shakeup, after mass dismissals of police officers involved in the graft arrests underscored Erdogan’s sense of diminishing authority.
Spontaneous riots also erupted this year in Brazil, Sweden and Thailand, each with own circumstances.
The Brazilian upheaval in June and July began with demands for free public transportation, which then evolved to a broader clean government agenda that swept through many cities. The Swedish riots in May involved disenfranchised Arab and African immigrants and focused on Stockholm. And the Thai unrest this month was driven by growing revulsion with the country’s parliamentary governments, making some demand that the king directly appoint a government of technocrats.
HOVERING ABOVE the decline in state power and the rise in people power was the zenith of wire power.
The contrast between the agility with which anonymous individuals abused computerized state data, and the clumsiness with which the White House handled its health insurance website, could hardly be more telling.
The same went for the gap between the speed with which the masses unleashed themselves through social networks on their governments, and the helplessness with which the governments repeatedly arrived for these showdowns.
The intensifying fear that the people are about to riot is making governments increasingly insecure and introverted. This is certainly true of the US, but also of China, which this year said it will ease its one-child policy, allowing some to have two children, and also shut down its notorious labor camps.
These are of course happy developments, but in an age of diminishing authority, they likely reflect fear of the people rather than altruism, let alone an appreciation for freedom.
The lawless information highway, it turned out, has come to constitute a menace to government wherever it is – even in North Korea, which uncharacteristically announced its purges, apparently realizing that in today’s world they would become known in any case.
Next year the trend will only intensify, as broadcast television’s retreat will accelerate in the face of online video alternatives that will arrive in millions of living rooms faster, sharper and cheaper through improved broadband infrastructure and redesigned TV sets.
The relationship between the rise of high technology and the decline in the power of states and superpowers remains enigmatic, but the actual crisis of political power is manifest and perplexing.
Pray for the state, cautioned the sages, because if it had not been for the state’s fear, people would swallow each other alive. In 2013, more and more people feared government less and less.
This trend may ultimately prove to hold more promise than menace, but it also might result in people turning on each other – perhaps as soon as