Will the Tsunami Bring a Wave of Instability to Asia?

The tsunami, which left as many as 160,000 dead, hit countries with a tenuous hold on political stability – a province of Indonesia that is home to a violent separatist movement, a region in Sri Lanka that is currently at peace but has fought a long-running civil war. Crises, whether natural or man-made, tend to beget political instability. Will the political aftershocks of the tsunami be even stronger than the initial quake? An earthquake of devastating magnitude struck, in 1976, not far from Beijing. As the survivors’ stories trickled out, the world rushed to China’s assistance. But the Chinese government refused all outside aid and claimed the situation was well in hand. Partly as a result, the casualty figures were, in the end, astronomical. At least 242,000 died – the official figure, released years later – and some reputable sources claim that over 700,000 perished. The problem was the timing. It has been a basic tenet of Chinese political philosophy for more than two millennia that governments rule with the “mandate of heaven,” and that natural disasters – including floods, droughts and earthquakes – are a heaven-sent signal that this mandate has been revoked and the leadership had failed. In 1976, Mao was on his deathbed, and the unsteady Chinese government feared the political consequences of the quake. Lest anyone conclude their mandate was up, the government tried to cover up the earthquake’s magnitude, at the expense of Chinese lives.But then, Confucian teachings aside, there is ample precedent that natural disasters beget instability. Simon Winchester popularized the argument that the volcanic explosion which destroyed the Indonesian island of Krakatoa...

Iraq Could Help Stabilize the Middle East

In the new year, hope springs eternal: while Iraq seems a looming disaster, there is at least the potential that US efforts there could help stabilize the Middle East. The key is to apply lessons learned in the reconstruction of Japan. All eyes are on Iraq’s upcoming elections as the test case for America’s plan to bring to democracy to the Middle East. But elections alone do not build stable democracies. The US is failing to learn from history – and missing an opportunity to put the stability of the Middle East on a firmer foundation. In politics, it always matters who has the money, and in the Middle East, the wrong people have it. For decades the region’s political agenda has been set by oil-rich princes, tithe-rich ayatollahs, and aid-rich generals – to the detriment of both political openness and economic development. It is not easy for outsiders to change this kind of politics, but it is possible. Consider the lessons learned in Japan. Recent books by Aaron Forsberg and Sayuri Shimizu have shown that it was not just Japanese industriousness and ingenuity that made post-war Japan such a success. It was the unusual form of US aid. In Japan, as in Iraq, the early days were dark and difficult. Japan was economically devastated, politically authoritarian, and hopelessly exotic to its American occupiers. Two years into the occupation, Japan’s economy was stagnant and inflation was rising. But then the Americans made an abrupt change of strategy. In 1948, National Security Council policy statement NSC 13/2 abandoned attempts to reform Japan’s politics and economy along US lines and made...