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Another "Axis" to grind? The dangers of glibness

With apologies to my associates here at FP, I find myself in some disagreement with the packaging of the current issue, and especially the special section on the "Axis of Upheaval."

The "axis of evil" was an unfortunate catch-phrase dreamed up in 2002 to scare the American people into supporting a foolish war. Its fatal flaw was the implication three very different regimes -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea -- were somehow in cahoots and should be dealt with in a similar fashion. The result, as readers have surely noticed, was failure on all three fronts.

A term like "axis of upheaval" is likely to mislead us in much the same way. It suggests that there is a high degree of connection, congruence, or coordination between a set of regrettable but largely unrelated problems. Grouping these diverse situations under a single rubric makes them all sound scarier, but that’s not a smart move when they are in fact of widely varying importance. Lumping them under one heading is a sort of glib mental shorthand that makes it harder to identify which problems must be addressed quickly, which can be put off, and which should be ignored.

For the world’s major powers -- and especially the United States -- the central strategic challenge today is figuring out how to allocate finite economic, military, and political resources. Great power rivalries are presently muted, so the big decisions involve minor powers like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, or unstable trouble spots like Pakistan, Somalia or Darfur. In each case, the same question recurs: should we intervene or should we stay out? Making the right call requires focusing on the particular circumstances of each case and the extent to which it actually threatens vital interests. When action is deemed necessary, we also need a strategy that is appropriate for the specific problem at hand. Russia’s situation bears little resemblance to the state of anarchy in Somalia, the drug war in Mexico or the crisis in Gaza, and we are more likely to judge each problem correctly and fashion a smart response if we resist the temptation to see them as part of some broader global trend.

In his introduction, Niall Ferguson suggests that these current troubles share the same features that ignited World War II: ethnic distintegration, economic volatility, and empires in decline. This claim makes the situation sound alarming, but the good news is that an even more important ingredient is missing. Today, there are no territorially expansionist and highly risk-acceptant great powers like Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, countries that combined significant military power with deeply revisionist ambitions. Ironically, the main revisionist power in recent years has been the United States, which spent the past 15 years expanding NATO into Eastern Europe and then tried to "transform" the Middle East and Persian Gulf by force. Yet even George W. Bush didn't seek to redraw borders the way that Hitler or Tojo did. For the foreseeable future, the danger of a global conflagration is minimal.

Even if today’s instabilities are exacerbated by ethnic competition, financial turmoil and other background conditions, there’s nothing especially novel about the phenomenon of "upheaval." During the 1950s, there were coup d’etats, revolutions, or civil wars in Iran, Korea, Guatemala, Iraq, Lebanon, and Hungary (to name but a few), and subsequent decades witnessed mass killings in Indonesia and Cambodia, revolutions in Libya, Iran and Nicaragua, a "dirty war" in Argentina, a genocide in Rwanda/Burundi, Zimbabwe’s descent into turmoil, and protracted conflicts in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and many other countries. Yet as the Human Security Report Project (and several other studies) have shown, the overall level of global violence is significantly lower today than it has been for most of the past century.

It is also worth remembering that outside powers have at best a mixed record at managing upheavals outside their own borders. Foreign intervention in the French revolution helped trigger two decades of great power war, and Western efforts to suppress the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 backfired too. As Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece on Somalia shows, U.S. interference there has repeatedly made a bad situation worse, because U.S. leaders simply didn’t know what they were doing. Nor should we forget that the complex problems we now face in Central Asia are partly the product of centuries of imperial meddling, a legacy that also complicates the West’s relationship with much of the Middle East. It is hard to believe that more meddling now is going to make things significantly better. The spread of nationalism and the persistence of other forms of local identity eventually destroyed the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British, and French empires, and those same forces will confound outsiders’ attempts to impose order on those unhappy societies where instability is now rife.

This is not to say that the international community should simply ignore these various problems or believe that they can always wall them off. But the right course of action is to evaluate each case separately, both to figure out how serious a threat it poses and to fashion a response that has some chance of working. Above all, we need to take a calm and cool-eyed approach to these challenges, so that we focus on the threats that matter most and on the cases where we have a clear strategy for success. Somalia may be the "most dangerous place in the world" to visit, but that doesn't mean it poses the greatest danger to the rest of the world. A phrase like "axis of upheaval" may help sell magazines and give commentators something to talk about, but it is more of an obstacle to our understanding than an aid to it.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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