Last year’s Arab Spring seemed to suggest a seismic shift of sorts in that part of the world. Dictators were being thrown over and replaced with people’s movements, fledgling democracies forming right before our eyes. One of the things most promising about this for me was that it came from within, without some military action on our part. It seemed hopeful.
The past few weeks, however, have given many people pause. The public demonstrations and violence toward US embassies has dimmed our hope for that part of the world. The one thing about ruthless dictators is that they knew how to keep the unrest of the people off of the streets. Burning American flags in public demonstrations for them was stagecraft, a photo-op, a controlled field burning. Democratic protests, it seems, are far more combustible.
Now let me be clear right now. I don’t think the world is better off with the repressive regimes that have been replaced with democracies, even if those democracies have produced leaders we would not have wanted. I say this even aware of how this shift has hurt certain Christian groups, like those in Iraq who were tolerated by Saddam, but are now subject to local persecution. My sense is that a longterm repressive regime will tend to produce a fairly fundamentalist backlash once public sentiment is allowed to bubble to the surface. Call this a little international homeostasis. We are still experiencing the negative consequences of long term repression.
My larger point here is that we should expect this kind of initial instability. Ian Bremmer, in his influential book, The J-Curve (2006), talks about the relationship between openness and stability in a society. Some nations that are open are very stable, like the United States and other Western democracies. But closed countries experience a certain amount of stability as well. Repression can impose a certain order. However, ultimately those societies that are most open achieve a higher degree of stability.
What happens, though, when repressive regimes open themselves to change is that these societies become more unstable. Even if they create constitutions and hold elections, they lack the civic infrastructure, connective tissue if you will, and fundamental skills necessary to flourish in a more open environment. Some societies retrench–trade openness for stability–like Russia. They return to Egypt, to use a biblical metaphor. Others decide to stay the course, breath through the contractions, with the hope of greater stability on the other side.
Clearly, we have a stake in encouraging the latter approach. And we should. And I think we are. What we cannot do, from my perspective, is expect that there won’t be days of instability. I don’t think there’s a policy our government could pursue that would circumvent the foment that comes from transitions like this. Mitigate it perhaps. Shorten its duration, maybe. Avoid it? No.
I use the J-curve to help church leaders understand some of the risks related to change. The more significant the change, the more likely there will be a time of increased instability. The task of leadership in these cases is not to resort to greater measures of control, but to learn how to breath through birth pangs. When the world has set its hair on fire, leaders can’t respond in kind.