June 5, 2015 by Darius
[If you study international relations and political science, it’s impossible to avoid coming across Carl von Clausewitz. While Clausewitz’s credentials may have been a bit thin in his primary specialty, military theory, he has given us a number of pithy quotes. One of his most famous is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Most of the time, though, we never get to war: politics alone suffice. In my study of international relations, politics, and world history, I’ve discovered a few fundamental themes that seem to get lost in the shuffle. I’ll call them “Darius’s Rules of International Engagement.”]
Here’s my third rule: don’t underestimate the resilience of an unstable government or system.
Unstable systems, by their very nature, contain intractable problems that are not being addressed. Left unaddressed, these problems will eventually bring down the system. History is full of examples. In the US, slavery, for instance, was known to be a major source of friction within the United States even before there was a United States. Despite the inherent instability of the arrangement, the US puttered on as a half-slave country until western expansion forced the issue. Even though anybody could (and did) predict in the founding years of America that slavery would become a major dividing issue, it took more than 70 years and a bloody civil war to finally resolve the problem.
The Middle East is full of unstable systems. For instance, US and British analysts have been predicting the imminent downfall of the Jordanian state since the mid-1950s. Jordan’s problems are vast: more than half of its population is made up of Palestinian refugees, its royal family was imported from western Saudi Arabia, and its borders are completely arbitrary. It has always been surrounded by more powerful and natural countries with more charismatic leaders. To top things off, 80% of Jordan is desert and it has faced water shortages for decades. Today, though, Jordan is not only still here, it’s the most stable country in its Arab neighborhood. Jordan’s problems haven’t gone away. Its instability has simply been eclipsed by those around it.
Similarly, when the British East India Company seized the first part of India in 1757, it was ludicrous to think that a private company representing a small island in the North Atlantic could rule from thousands of miles away over a population that numbered in the hundreds of millions. Yet India didn’t gain its independence until 1947. That’s staying power for you.
Fundamentally, it boils down to this: you can bank on the prediction that an unstable system will collapse or otherwise resolve itself into a more stable configuration. Just don’t expect it to happen tomorrow.