The ‘strong’ state: threatening or protective?

By Steve Saideman

A few years ago, I worked with a great group of scholars on a core problem for anyone addressing civil wars: how do you develop a strong enough government so that it can thwart evil doers and deter potential rebels while assuring the citizens that its coercive power will not be used against them? The book did not make a huge splash partly because it was over-priced and partly because we did not have many great solutions. I am thinking of that book now because I see the problem so vividly in each of the media spotlights of August 2014.

The fundamental problem in Iraq now is not that the government did not have enough coercive capability but that the governors were using that capability against the Sunnis. The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunnis that force would only be used against those who were opposed to the government. Instead, promises were broken, and the focus was on exerting dominance, which then reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army that the U.S. had trained and equipped. The Sunnis who had opted to join with the less-bad choice of the U.S. in 2007 have now opted for the Islamic State.

The balance has shifted in Ukraine not so coincidentally after the Presidential election as the government is doing a better job of trying to assure the people of Eastern Ukraine that they will only harm those who are fighting the government. The use of force is not as selective as we would like, but, to the people of this area, Ukraine seems a better choice than the separatists. Recent news has proven that those sponsored by Russia have committed other crimes besides shooting down the Malaysian airline.

The Israel-Gaza conflict has many elements, but it also speaks to the challenge of balancing deterrence and assurance. Hamas has shown little interest in assuring Israel of anything. Israel insists that it only seeks to deter attacks but seems to forget a key component of deterrence is that the status quo has to be somewhat attractive. After all, deterrence is a threat with a promise —that if you do nothing bad, nothing bad will happen to you.

Democracy is seen as the solution to this problem of combining effective governance and restrained governance. Indeed, some of the chapters in our book make that quite clear. Yet, even in democracies, the balancing act continues with swings towards too much coercion and too little assurance leading to tensions and conflict. The situation in Ferguson in the U.S., where protests and even perhaps a riot have followed the shooting of a young, African-American man, illustrates this. We need police to have the capability to use force, but we need that use of force to be limited and targeted or else the police lose legitimacy. It is too early to say exactly what has happened in Ferguson, but the pattern in the U.S. over the past few years suggests that the wrong kind of discrimination has been taking place. Rather than being discriminate in the use of force by targeting carefully those who are most threatening, it seems like police forces, like Ferguson’s (and like New York’s) are discriminating on the basis of race. Again, deterrence only works if the government assures the citizens that they will only be targeted if they are engaged in unlawful behavior.

This is one of the reasons why due process is so very basic to democracy. Due process is not just about justice but about being careful: applying the coercive power of the state against the citizens only when procedures are followed to make sure that the targets are deserving. Due process may not always work out perfectly — some innocents are convicted, some guilty go free. But it is far better than capricious application of force. Or perhaps worse — when the use of force is discriminating but in the wrong way.

This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub  OpenCanada.

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