2016 Theme #1: The Loss of Great Power Leverage

January 4, 2016

This week I am addressing themes I see playing out in 2016.

A number of systemic, structural forces are intersecting in 2016. One is the decline of Great Power leverage.

Once a nation's civil society--broadly speaking, the institutions of social cohesion--has been shredded so that power rests in the hands of the few, the nations becomes exquisitely vulnerable to coups and regime change.

As the seminal book Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook (1968) explained, coups are a function of the concentration of power: if political power (and by extension of that leverage, economic/financial power) has been concentrated into the hands of a few, changing governments (and indeed, entire systems of control) is greatly simplified: kill, imprison or exile this handful of insiders, and the pyramid below will be yours.

This vulnerability makes any nation run by a small clique a very tempting target to Great Powers and neighboring nations seeking to become regional powers.

Nations with diverse civil societies--by definition, societies with a tolerance for dissent and multiple circles of civil, political, religious and economic power--cannot easily be captured by coups, as power is too diversified to be consolidated in a few hours by a tiny clique or the agents of a foreign power.

So by stripping their social orders of dissent and diverse circles of power, dictators and monarchs create a vulnerability to external meddling that would not otherwise existed.

Those nations with oil wealth have reaped the sorry harvests of The Oil Curse, the fatal tendency of corrupt elites to use this hydrocarbon wealth to reward their cronies and provide enough social welfare (bread and circuses) to keep the restive masses compliant.

Stripped of capital and talent by the dominance of the oil sector, the rest of the economy stagnates and withers, leaving the nation highly vulnerable to any decline in oil revenues--from either a decline in production or in the price of oil (or both).

These two conditions have left the non-Elite populations in oil-dependent Mideast nations with few opportunities for steady employment, which is the cornerstone of positive social roles.

Though it's easy to focus on foreign meddling/intervention in the region, we shouldn't overlook the underlying source of instability and Great Power meddling: the decades-long destruction of civil society by these nations' elites to secure their power.

Ironically, once these tiny elites lose their grip and the nation fragments, it becomes much more difficult to impose one's will on the remains of the social order and economy. Ultimately, this is the reason why the U.S. has withdrawn from direct "nation-building"--it's much easier to topple or prop up a dictator and his tiny clique of cronies than it is to rebuild a civil society and economy destroyed by corrupt elites milking their nation's oil.

The blowback/karma from suppressing or dismantling civil society is conflict and/or coup, and an open invitation to Great Power intervention: look at the juicy leverage offered by the concentration of power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

As civil societies in the Mideast fall apart, the leverage of Great Powers declines accordingly. When dictators and tiny elites lose their grip, a coup can only change those who have lost the leverage of control. A coup takes hours or days, but rebuilding a destroyed civil society takes decades.

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