Old States, New Threats

Like minds: Hugo Chavez chats with Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, as they arrive together in the Caribbean island's Sandino province.
Like minds: Hugo Chavez chats with Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, as they arrive together in the Caribbean island's Sandino province. (AP)
By Robert D. Kaplan
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Crossing a border has always carried a special drama. Moments after my train crossed from Hungary to Romania in the 1980s -- from a country run by a liberal communist regime to one under the banana republic-style jackboot of Nicolae Ceausescu -- the Romanian customs officials tried to confiscate my typewriter. It was the reverse of my experience going from Iraq to Syria: The sense of fear left me as I departed Saddam Hussein's penitentiary state and entered a merely repressive dictatorship, where the worst thing that befell me was that news sources did not return my phone calls. More recently, when I crossed from the enfeebled democracy of Georgia to a province of southern Russia, overseen by the quasi-autocratic Vladimir Putin, the thuggery of the police suddenly intensified.

Borders may be eroding and stateless terrorist groups like al-Qaeda proliferating, but don't be fooled: The traditional state remains the most dangerous force on the international scene. Perhaps the greatest security threat we face today is from a paranoid and resentful state leader, armed with biological or nuclear weapons and willing to make strategic use of stateless terrorists.

These old-fashioned bad guys often have uncertain popular support, but that does not make them easy to dislodge. We don't live in a democratic world so much as in a world in the throes of a very messy democratic transition, so national elections combined with weak, easily politicized institutions produce a lethal mix -- dictators armed with pseudo-democratic legitimacy. And they come in many shapes and forms.

Of course, there are the traditional dictatorships like that of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong Il, who have evoked the morbid, crushing tyrannies of antiquity, using personality cults to obliterate individual spirit and keep populations on a permanent war footing. Then there are warlord-cum-gangster states, including Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia and Charles Taylor's Liberia, where the face of the regime has been a thug in a ski mask or a child soldier bent on sadism. In these, the leader is surrounded by chaotic layers of criminal organizations that recall medieval chieftaincies and the beginnings of Nazi rule, before the brownshirts were eliminated in 1934 and Hitler consolidated power.

There are Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran, built on economic anger and religious resentment, where oil and nuclear power have become symbolic fists raised against a perceived oppressor -- whether it be the gringos or the Great Satan. And there are the time-warp tyrannies, like that of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has turned Belarus into the political equivalent of a Brezhnev-era theme park, and the shadowy Burmese generals who have kept their country in a condition of sepia-toned, post-World War II poverty, even as the rest of Asia has undergone economic growth. There is the comic-opera, natural gas-rich regime of Saparmurad Niyazov in Turkmenistan, with his Disneyfied personality cult and slogans ("Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi," ghastly echo of "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer"), and the grim, unrelenting thuggery of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where bitterness against former white rulers has become a pretext for grabbing wealth.

These categories are loose and overlapping. What they have in common is that the rulers can exploit the whole panoply of state power, without regard for the will of the people. The irony of Iran has been that, for years now, a significant portion of its population has been decidedly less anti-American than almost any other state in the Middle East, and yet the clerics and their lumpenproletariat revolutionary cohorts like Ahmadinejad have, through manipulated elections, been able to retain control of the security and foreign policy establishments. Chavez, Mugabe and Lukashenko are also hated by vital parts of their populations.

Because states are harder and more complex to rule now (the result of urbanization, rises in population and independent media), a strongman requires not only coercion but an energizing ideology to whip his supporters into a frenzy and keep opponents at bay.

Television also puts individual charisma at a premium. While advanced democracies in the West tend to produce bland, lowest-common-denominator leaders, less open electoral systems, in which a lot of muscle and thuggery is at work behind the scenes, have a greater likelihood of producing rabble-rousers.

And there also is an economic component. The fist that Ahmadinejad and Chavez hold up to America is a sign of deep unhappiness and latent instability at home. But do not expect sanctions to weaken the Iranian regime or, more particularly, the Hamas-led Palestinian government: Shared sacrifice can help mobilize the population behind a regime, especially one that has come to power through popular decree.

Social tensions have exploded as a result of the unleashing of market economies that create rapid but uneven growth. The backlash of the have-nots has led not only to Chavez's rule in Venezuela, but also to the election of the leftist populist Evo Morales in Bolivia -- an indigenous Aymara who stands against the forces of globalization. Morales has cut his salary in half and has called capitalism "the worst enemy of humanity." Upon assuming office, he made visits to Venezuela and Fidel Castro's Cuba. In moral terms, he is not a bad guy, let alone a war criminal, but he is part of a leftist drift in Latin America that poses challenges for U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, cold-turkey democracy in Russia in the 1990s has produced a backlash in the form of Putin's low-calorie autocracy, more popular among Russians than Yeltsin's regime. And the failure so far of democracy in Iraq only strengthens the hand of Syria's Bashar al-Assad next door in maintaining his sterile, Baathist grip over Damascus. For Russians and Syrians, personal security comes before Western-style freedom.

The most suffocating of these dictatorships sit atop a cauldron of anarchy. For they rule by eliminating all legitimate forms of social organization between the ruler on top and the tribe and extended family below. Removing such leaders, while morally justified, is fraught with risk. Nobody should think a regime collapse in North Korea would be any prettier than it has been in Iraq. The breakdown of a governing infrastructure, combined with the guerrilla mentality of the Kim family regime's armed forces, could spawn widespread lawlessness, with insurgencies led by former generals vying for control.

What's more, the enduring difficulties in Iraq -- I supported the invasion -- should stand as a warning for how to handle North Korea, all of whose neighbors, including China, are on much better terms with the United States than were Iraq's.

Despite the dangers they represent, such crushing, Dear Leader tyrannies are not our major concern. The future problems of the United States lie more with regimes that thrive on information exchanges with the global media, using it as their megaphone, in the way Chavez does, and ones in such a condition of underdevelopment, tribal animosity and physical insecurity (take Taylor's Liberia) that the state, to the extent it exists, becomes psychologically isolated from any mitigating global forces.

Globalization is a cultural and economic phenomenon -- not a system of international security. Indeed, the notion that a state's sovereignty carries less weight these days because the international community will not tolerate grave human rights abuses seems relevant only in the case of poor, marginal states like Liberia, Somalia and Haiti, where no great power has an overriding interest in maintaining the regimes. Nevertheless, just look at how hard it has been to get Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Bashir, to cooperate in alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur. As for Taylor, multilateral action has finally brought him to justice, but only after the "Lord of the Flies"-style children's army he supported killed and mutilated thousands of people in Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile, the tyrants from big states continue to use the global media as an equalizing weapon against the United States and the rest of the West. They may also use what Yale political science professor Paul Bracken calls "disruptive technologies," referring to nuclear and biological weapons -- the secrets of which cannot ultimately be protected. A host of new powers, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, can, by concentrating on such technologies, render our tanks, bombers and fighter jets impotent. Our military edge against these traditional bad guys is slipping even as our military gets better because our relative power in the world depends on a status quo that cannot be maintained.

We are entering a well-armed world, with more players than ever who can unhinge the international system and who have fewer reasons to be afraid of us. That's why a resentful state leader, armed with disruptive technologies and ready to make use of stateless terrorists, poses such a threat. Hussein was a wannabe in this regard. According to a Joint Forces Command study, parts of which appeared in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, he was preparing thousands of paramilitary fighters from throughout the Arab world to defend his regime and to be used for terror attacks in the West. Looking ahead, Ahmadinejad would also be a prime candidate for such tactics, as would Chavez, given his oil wealth and the elusive links between South American narco-terrorists and Arab gangs working out of Venezuelan ports.

We face a world of unfriendly regimes, even as our European allies are compromised by burgeoning Muslim populations and the Russians and Chinese deal amicably with dictators, because they have no interest in a state's moral improvement. Never before have we needed a more unified military-diplomatic approach to foreign policy. For the future is a multidimensional game of containment.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of "Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground" (Random House).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company