Sitting in Limbo

The government of Abkhazia and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization take issue with Graeme Wood's "Limbo World."

After spending only a few days in our country, Graeme Wood ("Limbo World," January/February 2010) dismissed Abkhazia as a "fake" country filled with "functionaries in neckties" whose language is a "linguistic freak show." Wood's flippant tone shows a lack of respect for our people and history. His misrepresentation of Abkhazia, past and present, is disappointing and discouraging.

On Dec. 12, in a turnout of 73 percent, 100,740 Abkhazians cast votes for a chief executive. President Sergei Bagapsh was re-elected with 59.4 percent of the vote in a vigorously contested race, declared fair and free of fraud by both international observers and local NGOs.

This is the third presidential election my country has held since gaining independence from Georgia in a bloody war 16 years ago. Despite ongoing hostilities from our larger neighbor, Abkhazia is rebuilding its war-damaged schools and hospitals and rewriting laws to meet international standards.

We are expanding relations with countries such as Russia and Turkey, modernizing our tourism industry so that visitors to the 2014 Sochi Olympics can enjoy our beaches, and rebuilding libraries so the next generation has the historical understanding to avoid past mistakes.

I do agree with Wood on one point: The post-Cold War world has not devised a satisfactory method for determining a country's legitimacy.

Still, while the justices at the International Court of Justice in The Hague debate the legitimate markers of statehood, Abkhazia's people are building a country. Like the founders of the United States, Abkhazians have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for independence and understand that the mantle of nationhood is earned. We cherish that opportunity. We hope that someday Wood will return to our country with an open mind and a willingness to see what we are creating: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

—Nadir Bitiev
Deputy Official Representative to the President of the Republic of Abkhazia
Sukhum, Abkhazia


We welcome Graeme Wood's analysis of so-called "limbo" states, but fear that it will remain little more than an enjoyable series of colorful pen-pictures. His references to "fake countries" and "wannabe states" are intended to be wry, but undermine the significant role played by what are more accurately described as "de facto states."

The very real contribution that de facto states make to good governance and democracy, both regionally and within their own territories, goes beyond mass production of miniature desk flags. The glib description of Somalilanders doing "quite a bit of dying for their land and for their spaghetti" does not progress our understanding, but worse, risks reinforcing false perceptions.

It's disappointing that little attention is devoted to the fact that many de facto states enjoy more vibrant democracies and accountable institutions than many U.N. member states. It fell to Maxim Gundjia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister, to make this point in the article, referring to the quality of life in Afghanistan.

We must ask why there is such reluctance, in a globalized world, to open the United Nations beyond its current 192 states. It is, after all, a community of nations, and to do so would be to democratize the international system.

Wood's article adds to the growing corpus of articles and study into de facto states, and we hope it will not be his last on the subject. We might have hoped that it would dwell on newer ground, but it is nevertheless important in ensuring that debate about the future global system does not remain in a state of limbo itself.

—Marino Busdachin
General Secretary
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
The Hague, The Netherlands


Graeme Wood replies:

Nadir Bitiev and Marino Busdachin wish that I took limbo states more seriously. I assure them that I regularly treat more established states with equal or greater insouciance in my writing and that in my experience the ability to welcome gentle ribbing is a mark of a country that has arrived.

I must correct one false impression. Bitiev assumes my description of the Abkhaz language as a "linguistic freak show" is snide, when in fact the vice here is jealousy. I wish I spoke a language as eccentric as his own. Abkhaz (which, incidentally, has produced a rich literature, some of it available in translation) has 67 consonants and only one vowel, giving it one of the most skewed ratios of any tongue.

Like many limbo states, Abkhazia was born in a moment of ethnic conflict, in this case related to Abkhazians' understandable fear that they would occupy a second-class status in Georgia. Part of ethnic pride is linguistic pride, so I can understand tetchiness on this point. But I would encourage Abkhazians to embrace the oddity of their language, as I have in my so far unsuccessful attempts to learn it.


Model Behavior

Political scientists Stephen Majeski and David Sylvan question the usefulness of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's predictioneering.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's article ("Recipe for Failure," November 2009) and The Predictioneer's Game, the book from which it is drawn, present political outcomes as stemming from the preferences of individual politicians, groups, or states. However, the choice in many situations is between particular policies and not eventual outcomes. Because Bueno de Mesquita ignores the relation between preferences and concrete policies, his model explains much less than he thinks it does.

Whether they're deciding what the United States should do in Afghanistan or which course of action the international community should follow on global warming, leaders face choices about specific policies. Should combat forces be sent to a particular province at a particular time? Should cap-and-trade arrangements of particular sorts be implemented over a certain period of time?

The fact that particular actors may have preferences for certain outcomes means little-at least without some kind of assessment as to the probability that a given policy will result in a specific outcome. Because, as we have discussed elsewhere, those assessments are often anything but exact, in practice, policymaking revolves around which policy options are already in place, most easily adjusted, or readily available: in other words, around organizational capabilities and not actors' preferences.

Bueno de Mesquita's model appears to work because all the heavy lifting about policy alternatives has already been done. He simply feeds the existing policy options into the model as a starting point. Hence, the decisions he models as being taken by actors with specific outcome preferences are tantamount to cutting the ribbon after a construction project has finished.

Stephen Majeski
Professor of Political Science
University of Washington
Seattle, Wash.


David Sylvan
Professor of Political Science
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Geneva, Switzerland

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita replies:

I thank Stephen Majeski and David Sylvan -- longtime critics of my efforts to model foreign affairs -- for taking the time to try to think about the policy process from a modeler's point of view. Unfortunately, I have, apparently, not been clear enough for them to have properly understood my approach and how it is used in practice. Their ribbon-cutting metaphor misses the mark.

As I explain in
The Predictioneer's Game and elsewhere, one of the essential methods of predicting outcomes is to focus on alternative what-if scenarios and alternative ways of framing issues. The modeling effort provides the opportunity to look at alternative strategies and alternative policies, sorting out analytically which are likely to produce better or worse outcomes and then attempting to frame the issues around the preferred policies and approaches of the decision-makers whose interests one is trying to analyze.

Organizational capabilities, of course, constrain choices. But that is one of the reasons why my model's inputs examine what stakeholders say they want rather than what might be their true preference. After all, the positions they stake out on issues are strategically chosen, taking into account what they think is feasible given the personal and organizational constraints they face.

The Predictioneer's Game opens with an example of just such institutional and organizational constraints shaping policy positions when it discusses the differences between the actions of Leopold II in Belgium and in the Congo Free State. Perhaps when Majeski and Sylvan have a chance to read the full book they will see that there is no incompatibility between my approach and their perspective except for the formalization of the logic in my models.