Stability..for Whom?

Accuracy of definitions*** lies at the core of any effort to understand reality and do science. The term that may be the single most critical term in international relations (IR), is “stability.” Tragically, we either do not know what the word “stability” means or we intentionally twist its meaning for our personal profit.

Scrutinize very carefully politicians’ glib references to bringing stability to the world, the context in which they make the remarks, and the resulting policies:
  • Bush: “Bringing stability and unity to a free Iraq will not be easy. Yet, that is no excuse to leave the Iraqi regime’s torture chambers and poison labs in operation”
  • Bush: at the United Nations, senior officials from many countries will meet to discuss the design and deployment of the multinational force. Prime Minister Blair and I agree that this approach gives the best hope to end the violence and create lasting peace and stability in Lebanon
  • Cheney: “For sixty years before September 11, we believed that we had to choose either freedom or stability, either democracy or security. We believed, in the case of the Arab world, that we could either uphold our principles or advance our policies. We were wrong. By purchasing stability at the price of liberty, we achieved neither.”

Everyone of course would claim to know exactly what “stability” in IR means. In fact, the meaning is so obvious it is axiomatic. But, on this academic, hair-splitting definitional exercise rests the very lives of millions of living, breathing human beings: not hundreds or thousands but millions and not millions over the course of history but millions in our lifetime.

More importantly—at least in the minds of some members of various elites, defining stability wrong costs a lot of money.

A country is presumably stable if it experiences domestic peace and the regime type is maintained. From that simple definition, much follows. If outside powers desire stability as a basis for investment or, indeed, as a basis for bases, they check to see if domestic peace exists and the political system has some staying power, then implement their policy, which will surely include steps to reinforce that stability.

But how is a system to respond to a changing environment without changing itself? If globalization requires efficient competitive practices, does this mean that a socialist dictatorship must evolve enough to allow businessmen the freedom to make decisions and develop a rule of contract law sufficient to attract foreign investment? How much such evolution can occur before the system has turned into a new system in which policy process and control mechanisms are fundamentally different? If a third world dictatorship in which the army can commit atrocities against its own people at will is undermined by an international financial crisis to the point that the people can assert sufficient political power to bring army officers who have violated civil rights to trial, does this mean a new system has evolved? Both the jailed army officer and the empowered villager could be forgiven for thinking so.

A more accurate picture of political stability is that of a system in which information flows into the system, which makes decisions leading to the implementation of new policies, which in turn modify the system. This system will, over the long run, have a good chance at achieving far more stability in our contemporary world environment of intense evolutionary pressures than the unchanging pressure cooker system, as any old-fashioned cook who puts the lid on too tight will understand.

But what have I just done? We began by stating that stability meant maintaining the system, while I have just said that an evolutionary system—one which by definition changes into something new—leads to greater stability.

Herein lies the point of belaboring the definition of “stability.” The first definition of stability as “screwing the lid on tight” is based on a definition of the stability of the political system that focuses on the governing elite. As long as the army protects the elite and the leader either endures indefinitely or is replaced on schedule and without violence (especially violence that affects the elite), stability is claimed, regardless of seething frustrations and desperate daily struggles for survival among the populace; secret police arrests of civil rights activists; paramilitary massacres of villagers; or persistent, low-scale civil war in remote rural regions.

An alternative definition of stability might respond to the question, “Stability for whom?” and require that the term “stability” be reserved as the term for a society that is stable for the majority of its population. Such a definition would be broadened to include the degree of tension, time, and direction. How long will stability last (e.g., only as long as popular demands are repressed?) and whether current policies are solidifying or imperiling that stability are crucial considerations. To call a volcano stable when the pressure just beneath the surface is rising may have some value for a day hiker but is a statement of no utility for local villagers.

A “level of analysis” problem lies at the root of this confusion over the meaning of “stability.” Is a country stable as long as the political system endures, even though the lives of individuals are in perpetual chaos? The answer depends on how closely you look, as shown in the figure “Level of Analysis.” But a political system is dynamic, so the answer also depends on the timeframe.

The effects from one level to another may be obscured by time delays, e.g., the causal link between a regime atrocity such as bombing a city and the formation of a fundamentalist insurgency weeks or months later.

Recognition that stability need not mean stasis opens the door to fundamentally new policies. Dictatorships no longer need to be propped up by foreign powers interested in establishing commercial or military ties because one’s imagination is opened to the possibility of a new system that would both address the desires of the population for, say, social justice or political participation and address the foreign power’s interests.

  • An oppressed population helped to gain social justice by a foreign power might well find it had no problem selling oil to that power.
  • A foreign power that chose to support a rise in the wages of banana pickers against the wishes of international corporations might find the new country a much more stable source of bananas.

Definitions matter because definitions influence perceptions and perceptions influence, to put it mildly, behavior. We may all agree that instability read as chaos, disease, and war is bad, while stability read as peace, progress, economic development is good. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between saying A.) that stability requires that the current leaders, current customs, and current inequities remain in place and B.) that stability permits all desired changes at whatever desired speed in leadership, custom, law, power relationships as long as those changes are achieved peacefully and with tolerance.

It would be difficult to imagine how to conduct a serious evaluation of the performance of any system without considering the concept of stability. In international relations, a misunderstanding of stability lies at the root of much of our constant surprise at the “sudden” onset of crises that were so typically forewarned for years by the distress suffered by some oppressed or marginalized group.

***My thanks to my departed friend and colleague, Professor Lee Frost-Kumpf, for stimulating me toward the line of thinking in this blog mere days before his tragic death.

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