Zakaria on Engagement

by Nathan Hamm on 6/27/2005

Fareed Zakaria makes the case for engagement rather than isolation when it comes to dealing with ugly governments.

I realize that it feels morally righteous and satisfying to “do something” about cruel regimes. But in doing what we so often do, we cut these countries off from the most powerful agents of change in the modern world—commerce, contact, information. To change a regime, short of waging war, you have to shift the balance of power between the state and society. Society needs to be empowered. It is civil society—private business, media, civic associations, nongovernmental organizations—that can create an atmosphere which forces change in a country. But by piling on sanctions and ensuring that a country is isolated, Washington only ensures that the state becomes ever more powerful and society remains weak and dysfunctional. In addition, the government benefits from nationalist sentiment as it stands up to the global superpower.

As opposed to Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, Zakaria points out that the United States engagement in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan helped empower society. (Much more could be said about the extent, etc., but suffice it to say that isolation would have probably done more harm than good in these cases.) This has kind of been a theme around here lately regarding Uzbekistan. We surely should not allow terms of engagement to be dictated to us, and we should not value engagement so highly that we pursue it at all costs. It should, however, still be our policy.

And, I can’t help but use this opportunity to once again mention my favorite Robert Kaplan quotation which comes from Eastward to Tartary.

I am afraid that calls in Western capitals for “democracy — while branding as “evil” those who do not comply — is an evasion, not a policy. Holding an election is easy. But because the “state,” as Buckhardt says, “is a work of art,” building one from scratch requires guile, force, and years of toil. … The only way to ensure that the latter triumphs [liberal democracy] is not to force elections on societies ill prepared for them but to project economic and military power regionally, through pipelines and defense agreements. If our weight is felt, our values my follow. But if we only lecture sanctimoniously, new empires that arise in the Near East will not reflect our values. The human landscape is grim, but great powers throughout history faced grim landscapes and were not deterred from pursuing their goals

–via glory in the comments

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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