Expert Commentary

How Valuable are the Indicators?

Jack Goldstone
Senior Fellow, Mercatus Center, George Mason University

A few years ago, my colleagues and I published an article on forecasting instability in nations around the world.  Two things stood out in that paper.  First, the main determinant of instability was the type of regime.  States with partial democracies, especially ones that exhibited marked factionalism among political groups, were the most likely to experience civil war or descent into authoritarianism.  By contrast, both full democracies and fully autocratic regimes tended to be rather stable. 

 Second, surprisingly few other factors mattered.  We identified infant mortality (which proxies both income and state effectiveness); state discrimination against particular groups; and spill-overs from severe regional instability as the only factors that determined instability across the board.

The second finding seemed more radical than the first.  Surely a long list of “drivers” of instability existed: prior conflicts, population change, inflation, economic downturns, corruption, droughts, spikes in food prices, unemployment, state abuses of power, and others.  Yet in fact, surveying all cases of ethnic wars, civil wars, revolutions, and democratic collapse since 1955, we found that none of these factors had a systemic and consistent relationship to instability.  Yes, there were many cases in which one or more of these factors seemed to bring on regime crises.  But in many other cases, these drivers seemed to have no effect – how else could Mobutu Sese Seko remain in power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 32 years?  Or how could Robert Mugabe remain master of Zimbabwe since 1987?

The answer is not that these factors are irrelevant.  They may indeed play an important role in some countries, particularly if they build up over many years.  Yet they have no value as short-term predictors of political instability.  This is because the whole model of “drivers of instability” is the wrong way to think about the dynamics of regime stability and collapse.

The “drivers of instability” model assumes that stability is the normal, inertial state of a society.  Like a solid wall, society stands firm if nothing damages it.  But as a variety of forces batter that wall – such as inflation, corruption, state abuses, economic decline, etc. – cracks appear and it will weaken. If the forces grow too large, it will collapse.  

However, societies are dynamic entities, constantly being reshaped by the people who comprise them.  Rather than just a wall, a society is like a wall surrounded by workers who are constantly repairing, reinforcing, and extending that structure.  The “wall” can thus take quite a lot of battering from a variety of forces, as long as the society is able to manage making extensions, reinforcements, and repairs to cracks and flaws.  Thus well-functioning societies — whether they are democracies, party states, or dictatorships – normally exhibit a high level of resilience and are able to manage quite a range of stresses without falling into instability.  The so-called “drivers of instability” turn out to be rather common across time and space; but major instability is not, and the biggest cases – from the collapse of communism to the Arab Spring – turn out to be hard to predict.

So what factors affect resilience?   The most important factor is elite loyalty and commitment to supporting the existing regime.  If elites are reasonably loyal and unified, they can respond to crises by directing state resources to manage those difficulties, even making short-term sacrifices or compromises to do so.  An example today is Russia under Vladimir Putin, whose authoritarian regime has effectively exiled or intimidated disloyal elites and created a loyal core of oligarchs, bureaucrats, and military officials who are enabling Russia to remain strong and stable despite facing a massive ruble collapse, high inflation, economic contraction, and international sanctions.  Of course, such resilience may not last forever – at some point, elites may become divided over the best course forward or become disaffected.  That is what happened in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak when the army essentially defected over the issue of national leadership passing to a non-military leader, Mubarak’s son Gamal.  However, as long as elites remain loyal and united, resilience tends to triumph over various stresses.

It is difficult to spot elite disloyalty and divisions, especially in fully authoritarian regimes where such matters are often suppressed or deliberately hidden.  However, it is easy to identify in partial democracies, where factional feuds among elite groups appear as violations of civil and electoral rules.  Resilience will also be lower in societies with fewer resources and less effective state services (shown by high infant mortality); in societies where state discrimination marginalizes certain groups and thus forfeits their loyalty; and in societies where many surrounding states in the region are unstable or in conflict, providing havens for state opponents and lack of nearby allies or reinforcements for states facing their own difficulties.  Thus all these factors had significance in our model.  But the literally hundreds of other suspected drivers of instability that we tested had no consistent and systemic effect on short-term instability.

As to the value of the overall model, at the time we published our results in 2010, the model did a good job at predicting instability up to about 2005.  After that date, however, the world seemed to experience an unusual period of political stability.  It seemed that partial democracies in particular had gained a newfound durability as there were fewer new incidents of democratic collapse or civil war around the world than the model forecast.  This was a puzzle.

From the vantage point of 2016, however, the puzzle seems to have faded, as instability has returned with a vengeance.  It now appears that the long economic boom that ended in 2007 may have helped vulnerable regimes enjoy an extended life; since then rates of instability have returned – unfortunately! – to more expected levels.  Aside from the Arab Revolutions, we have seen a collapse of democracy in Thailand and now Turkey, regime failure and civil war in Ukraine, and revolutions or major rebellions in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali, and South Sudan, as well as continuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The lesson from our work is that trying to prevent instability by addressing so-called “drivers of instability” is futile; that is a misdirected effort.  The best way to prevent instability and conflict is to focus on state resilience, including elite unity and loyalty, state effectiveness and services, and discrimination.  One must be especially careful (as we learned in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Egypt) in seeking to displace successful autocrats that what is left behind is not a highly factionalized and partially democratic state, as that is the weakest type and most likely to fall into more pronounced conflict.  Our work also suggests that external actors will often be ineffective; if elites are unwilling to work to mend their own divisions there is little that others can do to prevent conflicts. 

Most distressing is that instability cannot be ended simply by addressing poverty (though that can be somewhat helpful), or by promoting economic growth (states from Iran in 1979 to Egypt in 2011 failed despite years of strong economic performance).  As long as state leaders act in ways that produce divisions and disaffection among their own elites and people, state crises will continue to occur.  In many cases, seeking to prevent the spread of conflict by strengthening neighboring states or preparing to deal with the humanitarian fallout of state crises, will be the most effective course to take.

The Author is Jack Goldstone

Jack A. Goldstone (PhD, Harvard University) is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr. Professor of Public Policy at HKUST, and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.  and a Senior Fellow at the Mercatus Center.  He has won major prizes from the American Sociological Association, the International Studies Association and the Historical Society for his research on revolutions and social change, and has won grants from the MacArthur, JS Guggenheim Foundation,... Read More

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