In the United States, and much of Western Europe, the 1990s have often been remembered as a decade of triumphant stability, while the expected somnolence of the 2000s too often appeared marred by crises and upheaval. Consequentially, there has been a lot of handwringing amongst historians of the recent past and other political and social prognosticators searching for the moment of change. Questions about whether or not there was a tipping point, when it occurred, and what the transition from stability to instability consisted of, continue to plague writers looking at the last two decades. Yet a partial answer to questions about the location and nature of the point of inflection between stability and instability after the Cold War begins to emerge in Daniel Yergin’s latest book, The Quest.
The Quest for All-encompassing Theories
Enshrouded in the fog of the present, observers turned to competing theories about the nature of great politics within the labyrinth of international relations, to define the sources and to prognosticate the longevity of Western ascendency at the end of the Cold War. Arguments about the durability of the Pax Americana and the triumph of liberal democracies in general were initially framed as a contest of ideas between the triumphalism of Francis Fukayama, best articulated in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, and his fierce debate with his critics from within the political science community, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer.  On the one hand, Fukayama argued that the success of an alliance of liberal democracies, which emerged out of the wreckage of the Second World War, in their decade long struggle with Communism showed decisively that a fundamental truth of human nature was the quest for freedom and the realization of respect for the individual, and that these values could best, and perhaps only be actualized in capitalist, liberal democracies. One of the core implications of Fukayama’s argument was that the very human quest for self-realization would inevitably compel individuals, and consequentially whole societies, to build liberal democratic states, which shared a universal set of core values out of which a new harmonious and cooperative international order could be constructed. 
Read Mike Woldemariam’s, assistant professor at Boston University, new post at African Arguments about the origins of the simmering conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Mike argues that the conflict between the fraternal parties ruling in Ethiopia and Eritrea traces its origins to the sense of betrayal felt by each party, as well as, differing recollections of the ways in which Eritrea’s partition was won.
For several years, combat along the tense Eritrean-Ethiopian frontier has been entirely rhetorical. This changed on March 16th, 2012 when the Ethiopian government boldly announced that it had crossed into Eritrean territory in an attack on three military installations. Citing Asmara’s role in the January death and abduction of European tourists in Ethiopia’s Afar region, Ethiopia’s retaliation represented the first direct military confrontation between Eritrea and Ethiopia since the 1998-2000 border war.
Coincidentally, these events came one month before the 10th anniversary of the delimitation decision of the Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission. The EEBC was the product of the Algiers Accord, which formally ended the Eritrean-Ethiopian war by referring the border dispute to arbitration. The EEBC’s findings should have been the final chapter in the bloody border row between the two countries, but instead, gave the dispute new momentum. The crux of the problem was that Ethiopia rejected the EEBC’s decision when it realized that Badme, the small piece of disputed territory that triggered the border war, and which it had acquired at a high human cost, had been awarded to Eritrea. Addis later accepted the decision “in principle,” but demanded negotiations on the normalization of relations before it would permit the disputed border to be demarcated (and return Badme to Eritrea).
In early December of last year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution strengthening existing sanctions on the State of Eritrea. UNSC 2023, which passed by a vote of 13-0 with two abstentions, was the direct outcome of a scathing report published by the UN’s Somalia Monitoring Group in July of 2011. The report chronicled, in some detail, the full gambit of Eritrea’s destabilizing activity in the Horn of Africa, including Eritrea’s material assistance to Somalia’s Al-Shabaab.
Critics of the resolution have focused their attention on the veracity of the SMG’s claims, and by extension, the fairness of the UNSC 2023. While the truth of Eritrea’s activity in the HOA remains difficult to discern, it is clear that the UNSC resolution was somewhat arbitrary: Al-Shabaab has a number of external supporters, of whom Eritrea is likely the most marginal. But the discussion of “fairness” is beside the point, as such principles, though often invoked in international politics, are rarely of consequence. Power matters on the international stage, and for Eritrea, it is a commodity in short supply. Continue reading →
It has become common for the foreign policy elite to think of Omar El-Bashir–the dancing dictator– as a fool, idiot or a buffoon. See the video for an illustration of New York Times coverage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bXb5_WWtCQ
Or just witness the recent references to Omar El-Bashir in Condelezza Rice’s memoirs. In the excerpts released to the press, Secretary Rice says of El-Bashir that, “he looked as though he was on drugs.” When the image of El-Bashir as a buffoon is combined with his status as a fugitive from the International Criminal Court: wanted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, it becomes easy to dismiss El-Bashir, and by association the ruling NCP, as little more than an incompetent, backwards and irrational ruling junta with no strategic vision–except, perhaps, of the most vindictive and vicious nature, usually directed against its own citizens. (None of this is to argue that the NCP has not committed horrible crimes, usually against its own people, or even that Bashir’s regime has governed well.) Yet, the solidification of caricatures is always dangerous, especially when the caricature itself becomes the explanation.
Can a statelet be a regional power? Does size or population matter if a state possesses wealth? And if not at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, what are the sources of power and authority in the international system? Have we entered a world where even a lonely city-state can leverage the resources necessary to shape regional or global events?
The strange rise of Qatar as a regional actor has restored to center stage questions about the types of power that different kinds of actors can marshal within the international system.