The Enduring Myth of Monoliths

In this day and age, most convenient fictions are easy enough to spot, with a high level of cynicism running rampant and an active “peanut gallery” component to the discourse in the form of bloggers. Which is why it’s so troubling to me that some basic narratives remain virtually unchallenged, or if opposed, done so quietly and on a small scale. In this instance, my grief is with the propensity of commentators and policy-makers alike to rely on the convenience that monolithic perceptions of institutions provide.

There are times where the concept of a monolithic institution is expedient, when attempting to give broad overviews of situations. There’s also a level of analytical use to seeing things from a zoomed-out, macro level, rather than examining the nuts and bolts of an institution. However, there’s a responsibility to investigate past the surface once that initial glance is achieved. In reality, monoliths are more often than not anything but unified once you delve into their inner workings, a lesson that the United States has been horrendously slow to grasp, sometimes leading to disastrous presumptions and bases for policy decisions.

During the Cold War, everyone knew that the Communist World was a group of states linked by the singular notion of communist domination over democracies. As should have been apparent as far back as Josef Tito’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948, the idea of Communism being a single-minded organism, as opposed to a colony of individual thinkers, was a myth. Instead, the myth of a partnered Russia and China managed to hold on for decades, with the fact that the two were both Communist in their form of government making any differences in policy between the two dismissible. It took until the Nixon Administration to realize that the split between the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was large enough to be able to use it to the advantage of the United States, prompting President Richard Nixon’s much heralded trip to China.

A distressing need to have simplicity in narrative is apparent when examining opposition movements, in this particular instance the uprising in Syria. For the last two weeks, we’ve been informed of the need to “arm the Syrian opposition” to take action against President Bashar Assad and the security forces of Syrian. Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain came out recently in favor of running guns to the Syrian opposition, though they would put it a different way, and they aren’t alone in the Senate. Even the editorial board of The Washington Post has come out in favor of providing supplies to the opposition:

So how to stop the massacres? The most available and workable solution is tactical and materiel support for the anti-regime forces, delivered through neighbors such as Turkey or the Persian Gulf states. Opponents say that would increase the violence, but violence in Syria will continue to escalate as long as the regime believes it can survive by force. Others worry that radicals among the opposition will be empowered. But what will strengthen extremists the most is the failure of democratic nations to act and the entry of groups such as al-Qaeda into the vacuum.

Despite the weight of the Post’s opinion, it doesn’t circumvent the fact that beneath the thin veneer of unity in cause, the removal of Assad, there is no one opposition movement. The Syrian National Council (SNC), composed of exiles, dissidents within Syria, and the Local Coordinating Committees, has assumed the mantle of international darling of the same vein as the Transitional National Council in Libya. However, there’s a small hitch in that analysis; the National Coordination Committee, a divergent group based entirely within Syria, and composed of enough groups to deny the SNC sole legitimacy. Then there’s the matter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is itself a splintered group of former soldiers and transplanted fighters looking to take on Assad, as Marc Lynch points out in his new CNAS piece. Any semblance of a united front is a myth formed from their hatred of the Assad family.  I had a lengthy conversation with Adam Elkus, Dan Trombly, Rei Tang, Dan Solomon and Robert Caruso on this and other Syria topics on the Intervention podcast, so go listen for an in-depth conversation on the situation as it stands.

When speaking of opposition movements in general, it’s extremely easy to cast them as “the opposite of X”, X being whatever leader or idea has fallen out of favor at present. What has to be clear, however, is that the divergent views that may be allied together towards a certain goal in the short-term are likely to be fractious on the coalition once that goal is met or denied completely, if a goal can be decided on in the first place. As Trombly wrote in December on Russia’s at the time nascent protester movement, the streets of Moscow were filled with Russians from across the political spectrum. Leftist, far-leftist and nationalistic parties have come together in the goal of defeating Vladimir Putin, but they are no means united. In the strong likelihood that Putin wins the upcoming election in the first round, how likely is it that the coalition can hold together at the seams?

The same can be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was viewed, despite extreme differences from city to city, and within cities themselves, as a singular entity. I recently had the chance to listen to an Occupier talk about why the system broke down, and came away with the belief that the educated elite sought to make changes in the system as it stood, but the group never coalesced around a united set of goals. Once winter set in, and the breadth of views, from reforming the political system to creating a system of shared wealth to the need to draw the state into crackdowns, led to a muting of the voice of the group in favor of complacency, exposing to all the lack of unity visible previously to many. The simplistic narrative that surrounds both of these movements prevents understanding of how they, and other movements, function, in favor of a broad-brush stroke.

Those working against state interests aren’t alone in being accredited with non-existent unity. The state itself is often seen as a monolithic institution, rather than a collection of individuals, at the risk of sounding overly constructivist. In developing strategies and plans of countering actions that go against American interests, the offending regime and state are the only components taken into account it would seem. This isn’t to say that states are falling out of favor as the preferred standard unit of international relations. No matter how the sands may be shifting, power is still held in state institutions, for good or for ill, and at a certain point attempting to map every variable that would affect a state’s decision-making process would become overly cumbersome to planners. However, there does exist a responsibility to not gloss over the effects of decisions taken against states on those people who reside within the border. There is a difficulty, I must admit, in reconciling the knowledge that policy-tools from economic sanctions to the use of force are legitimate protests against a state’s actions, when the people of that state have no agency in their state’s choices.

Nowhere is this sharper for me than the US’s policy in Iran. Following the effects of sanctions on the population of Iraq was covered extensively by the media in the mid-1990s, broad, sweeping embargoes fell out of fashion for a time. In their place, target sanctions against elites or “smart sanctions” were seen as the wave of the future, capable of inflicting pain upon governments  while sparing their people. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a reversal of that trend in Iran, with the potential for the same to be seen in Syria. It’s tough to realize that the collapse of the rial isn’t just preventing Tehran from replacing centrifuges in their nuclear facilities, but keeping families from being able to buy bread, when the democracy present in Iran exists so-far as the Ayatollah allows it. I’m not saying the Obama Administration’s policy of sanctions is a failed one. But Americans in general, and policymakers in particular, have to be cognizant of the multiple dimensions inherent in the many stages of conflict, and willing to be brutally honest about the effects of any action taken.

Finally, the concept of international institutions writ large, and the United Nations in particular, often face down the convenience of monoliths. There is a basis for this interpretation when considering the United Nations, but for a much smaller set of instances than the general population and many commentators are able to discern. When actions are taken by the Secretariat, the team of international public servants headed by the Secretary-General, this is a viable instance of the United Nations acting as an institution of its own. However, when critiques are lobbied at the UN, it’s often in reaction to perceived inaction, most recently following the Syria vote in the Security Council. Here we see the result of the United Nations as a collection of states, in that Russia and China voiced their displeasure with a prescribed action, and under the rules all have agreed to, vetoed said action. The easier idea to grasp is that the United Nations has its own flag and therefore is clearly the source of the problem; it’s much easier to separate the two tracks that the body has to balance.

Without that nuance, you get policy-makers and legislators like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher denouncing the institution as a whole and the works it performs on the basis of its inclusive membership. International institutions serve the will of their states, in allowing the powerful to set agendas, to dominate discourse, and push methods of actions. However, they also serve to amplify and enhance those aims. The United Nations is a collection of states acting in their own interest. The United Nations is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Both statements are true, rendering more simplistic narratives false.

What this all comes to is a frustration with the simplest narratives gaining the most traction and amplification. Broad strokes are fine, so long as they’re quickly replaced with more thoughtful examinations of the issues and institutions being dealt with. If they aren’t, they become a crutch for policy-makers to lean on, continually surprised when they turn out to be made of rubber. I get that nuance is annoying; it gets in the way of quick and easy decisions. But I prefer difficult reality over convenient mythology any day.

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