The season of revolts


The Arab Spring is now well underway and appears to have spread to other continents as well. Early signs of a European Spring are visible in UK and Greece, and there is an American version in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Meanwhile, Anna Hazare provided a glimpse of how an Indian Spring may look like. The underpinnings of these protests may be different but at a broader level they signify the widening gulf between governments and their citizenry. In other words, hidden in these protests is a modern crisis of the nation-state system.

What triggered these public uprisings is hotly debated. However, in the context of the Arab world and Pakistan, the WikiLeaks disclosures may have played a major role. These secrets revealed how governments are playing a duplicitous role, especially about their dealings with the US.

The nations at the forefront of the war on terror in these regions are wedged between representing the sentiments and welfare of their public, and on the other hand, serving US interests. Many of these weak regimes have traditionally relied on US support to extend their otherwise untenable reign. The variance between the two tangents has progressed overtime, as public anti-Americanism grew. This resulted in an especially awkward position for the Sunni autocratic regimes of the Arab world, particularly when it comes to, for example, the Palestinian issue. The following comment that Prince Turki al-Faisal made during the Gaza crisis, reflects on the level of angst created by this disequilibrium. He wrote in The Financial Times on January 22, 2009:

“So far, the Kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain. When Israelis deliberately kill Palestinians,….people of conscience from every corner of the world are clamouring for action. Eventually, the Kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel.”

In short, WikiLeaks has put these governments on a collision course with their public, while increasing pressure to justify the variance between their public and private faces. To avert this public pressure, Pakistan has also asked US to not criticise its role in the war against terror publicly. For example, when it comes to the drone attacks, the government publicly criticises it but privately condones them.

On the other hand, the difference between the public and private stances of these actors makes the US unsure of its allies and results in mistrust. Furthermore, it indicates that these countries have been unable to garner public support for their participation in the campaign against terror, and this has pushed the US to now fight most of this war covertly.

In discussing the implications of the documents leaked by WikiLeaks, PoliTact noted in December 2010 that at a macro level, the leaks represent a reset button in international relations. From the American perspective, in the emerging multi-polar world, the status of the US as the sole super-power is being challenged, and it is not clear if traditional alliances can be relied upon in the future. It is crucial for America to narrow down the variance in public and private stances of various governments and leaders, and to create a realistic assessment of where these countries actually stand on policies and matters of international significance.

Nonetheless, the relentless American pursuit and the inability of its allies in the region to generate public support for the war against extremists, will likely result in the unravelling of many a nation-state.

There are of course additional factors that can cause a state to crumble. One of the essential responsibilities of a state is to protect the life and property of its citizen and provide opportunities for their economic wellbeing. Robert I Rotberg presented the following characteristics of a failed state in his article The New Nature of Nation-State Failure, published in Washington Quarterly of Summer 2002:

“The absolute intensity of violence does not define a failed state. Rather, it is the enduring character of that violence…Failure for a nation-state looms when violence cascades into all-out internal war, when standards of living massively deteriorate, when the infrastructure of ordinary life decays, and when the greed of rulers overwhelms their responsibilities…”

This characterisation matches the conditions in many third world countries, and the last part dealing with ‘greed’ also helps explain the present economic crisis in Europe and the US. Although, the description still misses an even more fundamental role a state should be performing, to epitomise the sentiments of its citizens. Revolts result from this deeper level of disconnect and disillusionment between the people and the rulers.

Like many other outcomes of the linked and globalised world, these public revolts are also transnational in nature. There appears to be two contradictory forces at work: on the one hand the technological advancements and social media are making the borders increasingly irrelevant, and on the other, worsening economics is causing nationalism to resurge. The future of nation-sate structure is dependent on how it reconciles the pulls and tugs that emanate from within, with those that act upon it from outside.

The writer is the chief analyst for PoliTact ( and and can be reached at [email protected].