Strong States, Weak States

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The world has undergone one convulsion after another during these last years. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old mechanisms that (nearly) coerced stability disappeared, which led to that, in general, each nation had to develop and maintain its own sources of stability and adaptability. The Arab Spring is a perfect example because of its very differentiated impact: while all semblance of order in Libya vanished and Syria endured days of catastrophe, Tunisia achieved a democratic election, Egypt reconstructed its old forms and Lebanon emerged relatively intact. What explains the differences and what does that tell us about the disorder characterizing Mexico in the last months and years?

An article and a book throw light on what permits or impedes adaptability in the face of highly volatile political, economic or social processes. In Resilient America, which could be translated as “The Adaptable United States”, Michael Nelson describes one of those anni horribili: in 1968, explains Nelson, the U.S. experienced urban disturbances, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam (the beginning of the end of that “adventure”), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the seizure  of the USS Pueblo spy ship by North Korea. “Not since the Civil War and the Great Depression, says Nelson, has the American political system been submitted to greater stress than in 1968…” and yet, to a remarkable degree, “the system survived”.

In Mexico we had one of those years in 1994 that ended up causing basic changes in the political structure of the country, sowing the seeds of the deepest financial crisis that the nation had ever undergone and forcing the transformation of the electoral system, eventually giving rise to alternation of political parties in the presidency. Although the cost in terms of legitimacy for the system was enormous, it could be argued that the country survived the crisis because it found the manner of adapting. In this, the contrast between that moment and 2014 is patent: on this occasion, and at least to date, the capacity of adaptation appears diminished if not inexistent.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton offer an interesting perspective in their article The Calm Before the Storm*, a text that fine-tunes and brings some of the concepts that Taleb developed in his previous books down to earth: The Black Swan, and Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. In this article the authors have focused on the way a political system administers disorder. Their central argument is that some political systems have the capacity to tolerate tremendous stress, while others collapse prior to the first tensions. The solidity or fragility of a system depends on the institutional structures of each nation.

Nelson deciphers the capacity of adaptation of the North American system at that moment because of its institutional structures (at some point he argues that “Madison rules America”, with this wishing to state that the separation of powers and political decentralization guarantees institutional behavior), as much as because the system-straining forces of discord were unaligned, they had no coherent political effect. More importantly, argues Nelson, the system includes mechanisms of dissention that allow any political force to express itself through perfectly established channels, whether these coincided or not with the government of the moment.

The Taleb and Treverton argument, more conceptual, is that taken at face value, centralization seems to make governments more effective, thus more stable. But that stability is an illusion. Centralization contributes to fragility. Although centralization reduces deviations from the norm, making things appear to run smoothly, it magnifies the consequences of those deviations that do occur. It concentrates turmoil in fewer but more severe episodes, which are disproportionally more harmful than cumulative small variations. In other words, centralization decreases local risks, such as provincial barons pocketing public funds, at the risk of increasing systemic risks, such as disastrous national-level reforms. Accordingly, highly centralized states, such as the Soviet Union, are more fragile than non-centralized ones, such as Switzerland, which is effectively composed of village-states. It would see they are talking about today’s Mexico.

The lesson would seem evident: Mexico is an extraordinarily diverse country in geographic, ethnic, religious and regional terms: While the Secretary of Finance is correct when he asserts that a development plan is required for the nation’s South that is distinct from that which has characterized the rest of the country, the solution that the current government has attempted –concentration of power, therefore concentration of responsibility- has done nothing other than exacerbate tensions. That exacerbation has translated into a disproportionate impact on the federal government, leaving it paralyzed. Instead of rendering it more effective, it has made it more vulnerable, more disposed to systemic attacks, therefore at greater risk for general stability. In retrospect, the chaotic decentralization of the last decade, as it turns out, had the benign effect of diversifying the systemic risk.

The latter does not imply that that is the lasting solution, but it does suggest that the present crisis is the product in good measure of having projected the characteristics of the State of Mexico –no alternation of political parties- to the remainder of the country, an increasingly more diverse and complex nation. Mexico must develop a political model that decentralizes power and establishes clear lines of responsibility, which in serious nations is called the Rule of Law.

*Foreign Affairs, January-February 2015

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).