Friday, June 20, 2008

Collier in favor of coups!

Paul Collier argues that, in light of international incapacity and unwillingness to deal with dictators, in order to topple tyrant regimes like that of Mugabe of Zimbabwe and General Shwe of Burma, the West needs to support coups by the country's own army. Quite disturbing argument at least for those who always drumbeat the virtues of democracy. But, as Collier argues, this is essential because if tyrants cannot be toppled by international pressure while they continue to plunder on domestic resources at the cost of starving/dying citizens, then it is better to support domestic coups, which might provide a glimmer of hope when there is none. He favors coups because the existing system of governance would simply get worse without change in power/leaders. However, coups, which are "unguided missiles," should be provided with a guidance system so that governance is better than in a tyrant's rule.

So how can the grossly excessive powers of the Mugabes and Shwes of the world be curtailed? After Iraq, there is no international appetite for using the threat of military force to pressure thugs. But only military pressure is likely to be effective; tyrants can almost always shield themselves from economic sanctions. So there is only one credible counter to presidential power: the country's own army.

Realistically, Mugabe and Shwe can be toppled only by a military coup. Of course, they are fully aware of this danger, and thus have appointed their cronies as generals and kept a watchful eye on any potentially restless junior officers. Such tactics reduce the risk of a coup, but they cannot eliminate it: On average, there have been two successful coups per year in the developing world in recent decades. A truly bad government in a developing country is more likely to be replaced by a coup than an election: Mugabe will presumably rig the runoff vote scheduled for Friday by intimidation. Or he could follow the example of the last Burmese dictator, who held an election, lost and simply ignored the result.

I find it a little awkward to be writing in praise, however faint, of coups. They are unguided missiles, as likely to topple a democracy as a dictatorship. But there is still something to be said for them.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the international community has taken the rather simplistic position that armies should stay out of politics. That view is understandable but premature. Rather than trying to freeze coups out of the international system, we should try to provide them with a guidance system. In contexts such as Zimbabwe and Burma, coups should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance. (It's hard to imagine things getting much worse.) The question then becomes how to provide encouragement for some potentially helpful coups while staying within the bounds of proper international conduct.

Good article! Read the full article in the Washington Post on June 22.