On the problem of commitment in Korea

October 19, 2017

I have argued that the key to achieving America’s long-term goals of security and peace in Korea could be a credible long-term commitment to keep American forces out of North Korea, because of China’s special security concerns in this area. Sanctions against North Korea cannot be effective without China’s full support, and such support cannot be expected as long as China fears that any political change in North Korea could open the way for American forces in Korea to advance toward China’s border. Thus, America could increase its ability to achieve its goals in Korea by conceding the priority of Chinese security concerns in the northern part of the Korean peninsula. Such a concession could benefit American interests, even if China offered no specific promises in return, because the reassuring nature of this concession would help to bring China’s interests into closer alignment with America’s interests in this region.

However, these benefits of such a commitment could be realized only if China considered the commitment to be credible. Several commentators have expressed doubts that the American government could make a credible commitment not to expand its military alliance with South Korea over the entire Korean peninsula, if such an expansion were to become possible after a change of regime in the North. Certainly, when the President has withdrawn from major international agreements that had been negotiated by his predecessors, it becomes more difficult for the international community to have confidence in the future credibility of his own long-term promises.

But even when an ability to make credible commitments seems questionable, it is still important for us to consider what such a commitment could achieve. If we do not recognize how a reputation for maintaining commitments could be beneficially applied in international relations, then we will not understand how shifting to an opportunistic America-first policy may actually weaken America’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals today. Furthermore, once we realize that credibility is at the core of the problem, then we can look for other ways to achieve it.

In this case, there is another option. If America’s credibility is weak, then it could be better for South Korea to take more leadership in these strategic questions. After all, American forces are stationed in the Korean peninsula only as allies of South Korea. The South Korean government could stipulate that these allied forces are permitted on its territory only for the limited purpose of repelling or retaliating proportionately against an attack by North Korea. South Korea could further promise that it would never allow its foreign allies to undertake the extended occupation of any territory in North Korea, unless China jointly agreed to such an intervention. Of course the exact terms of such a statement should be the subject of diplomatic discussions with both China and America. My main point is that it could actually be in America’s interest to encourage discussions between South Korea and China about how to craft a mutually acceptable agreement that could be credible and reassuring to China.

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Solving the Korean crisis with game theory

October 2, 2017

People have asked me whether game theory can offer any insights for finding a solution of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Let me suggest that the answer may be Yes, as I will try to explain here in a nontechnical note without mathematical analysis. Based on a few general points that one can learn from game-theoretic analysis, I will explain why an effective strategy for encouraging moderation and political change in North Korea may be possible only with a long-term American commitment to recognize and respect China’s vital security interest in North Korea.

The first lesson that students learn from game theory is that we should try to think about any conflict situation from the perspectives of all the parties involved. Game theory also teaches us that a strategy for inducing others to behave better should include, not only a threat to punish their bad behavior, but also a promise to reward their good behavior. If we have a problem in making such threats and promises credible, then it may be necessary to stake our reputation on them, so that we would lose our ability to influence others in the future if we did not act as promised in this situation. But game-theoretic analysis often finds that a party can increase its current power to influence others by accepting such commitments that could reduce its own freedom of action in the future.

Several years ago, I argued that American military threats against Iran only tended to increase Iran’s motivation to acquire its own nuclear deterrent; and so an effective strategy for deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons had to include an offer of better relations between America and Iran if Iran complied with international standards of nuclear nonproliferation. But I would be less optimistic that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could be deterred by such an offer of detente. The rulers of North Korea must fear that their grip on power may require perpetual military tension with South Korea and its American ally, because peaceful relations could enable the people of North Korea to discover the vastly greater prosperity and freedom that Koreans enjoy in the South.

As a result, North Korea has become a perennial source of international tensions, and it has invested heavily in destructive military capabilities, so that any military operation against North Korea would be extremely dangerous for its neighbors. Economic sanctions have remained as the primary instrument for deterring North Korean provocations, but such sanctions cannot be effective without China’s full cooperation. In the past, a lack of such cooperation has undermined America’s efforts to use sanctions for inducing better behavior by North Korea.

Thus, an effective American strategy for managing the Korean crisis depends on finding a way to induce better Chinese cooperation with international sanctions against North Korea. Threats to extend trade sanctions against China are unlikely to induce full cooperation, and such a trade war would be at least as harmful to America as to China. But it is a mistake to think only about threats when searching for strategies to induce others to cooperate. Americans need to think also about promises that America could offer to make China prefer full cooperation with sanctions against North Korean violations of nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

It might seem surprising that China has not been a stronger supporter of sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program. After all, no country would want an unreliable neighbor to acquire nuclear weapons. So what has limited China’s willingness to cooperate with America against North Korea? We must look at the situation from China’s perspective to understand what kind of promises could elicit the Chinese cooperation that is essential for solving the Korean crisis.

When we ask how the Korean situation looks from China’s perspective, we should recognize, first and foremost, that Korea was the starting point of the Japanese invasion of China in the early 20th century. Once Japan had achieved military dominance of Korea in 1905, Korea served as Japan’s base for invading China until the end of World War II in 1945. Of course the leaders of China know that their country is one of the most powerful nations in the world today, but people in China cannot forget the devastating Japanese invasion that entered China through Korea. We must understand that the people of China remember this history and demand that their leaders, who are responsible for their country’s security, must never permit the conditions for such an invasion to happen ever again.

But any threat that can effectively deter the rulers of North Korea must entail some risk of causing them to lose their grip on power. And any process of political change in North Korea, once it begins, could naturally open the way to a reunification of the peninsula under the government of South Korea, which already hosts American military forces. In that case, what would prevent American forces from moving north to the Chinese border? Such a possibility was intolerable to China in 1950, and we should understand that it is still intolerable for China today. This fear has made China resist any threat that could destabilize the North Korean regime.

Thus, to get China’s effective cooperation against North Korean militarism, America needs to provide some assurance that political change in North Korea would not expose China to any risk of foreign military forces on the Chinese border there. Indeed, one could argue that an American failure to recognize Chinese security concerns has been a factor in the Korean crisis since 1950, when America first tried to settle the crisis by moving its forces north to the border with China. Since then, China has seen only one clear way to ensure that powerful foreign forces should never return to its Korean border, and that is by maintaining the xenophobic regime of Kim Il Sung and his heirs as a buffer against all other powers. So any possibility of political change in North Korea will be strongly resisted by China unless it gets some credible assurance that its vital long-term security interests there would be respected even in the event of a regime change.

The fact that America and its NATO allies actually did move their forces eastward toward Russia after the end of Communism in Eastern Europe constitutes an unhelpful precedent which must be addressed. But there is nothing in North Korean history to resemble America’s long historical connection with Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Strong statements by American diplomats and leaders of both parties could give China some confidence that America would not use regime change to expand its power into northern Korea.

In the old language of 19th-century realpolitik, the key is for America to recognize the northern half of the Korean peninsula as being in China’s sphere of influence. Today, of course, agreements among great powers to recognize each others’ spheres of influence would be generally viewed as inconsistent with the principle of political self-determination for the people of every country. But in this case, a promise by America and its allies to respect a long-term Chinese sphere of influence in northern Korea could be actually the essential key to creating some possibility for the people of North Korea to change the political course of their country.

Thus, a credible commitment to keep American forces out of northern Korea could be the basis for a strategy to achieve long-term American policy objectives in Korea with Chinese cooperation. Some observers might consider such a commitment as a concession by America, but a game theorist would recognize it as a concession which could actually strengthen America’s ability to influence the situation.

See also the sequel “On the problem of commitment in Korea.”

Linking the best and worst of global trends

January 6, 2017

In a panel that is asked to focus on a few trends that are truly important for the world today, I want to note a connection between two great developments in recent years. One is among the greatest positive developments in human history: the miracle of declining global poverty rates even as population of the world grows. The other is a disturbing political development which became strikingly clear in the past year: a strong xenophobic discontent in America and other rich nations. We should see a fundamental connection between these two phenomena.

The greatest discovery of modern times has been the amazingly high long-run elasticity of national output with respect to the protection of property rights for citizens at large. Throughout most of history, states and empires kept peace between villages but protected property rights mainly for the benefit of an exclusive ruling class or oligarchy, whose members had responsibility for supporting and maintaining the state. In modern times, however, it was discovered that, when a nation extends reliable protection of property rights to millions of ordinary citizens without special political connections, the result can be to unleash widespread competitive entrepreneurial activity that can increase the national GDP and tax base so much that even members of the ruling elite may be better off without the exclusivity of their privileges.

The benefits of this discovery were at first confined to a small fraction of humanity in Europe and America. I have argued elsewhere that the successful development of the United States depended particularly on the long history of decentralized federal democracy here, going back to colonial times. But over the past 70 years, nations on every continent have gradually learned how to distribute political power and protection of law more broadly, to bring real benefits of modern economic development to more people everywhere.

By any moral standard, this is a good and great development.

This great global transformation since the early 20th century has vastly increased what we might call the effective global labor supply, that is, the world’s supply of people who live in communities where they can be employed by local firms that have competitive access to global markets. In the 70 years since 1947, the population of the world has increased by a factor of about 3. But the fraction of the world’s population who live in nations that can produce modern goods competitively for global markets has also increased by almost the same factor, from less than a third of humanity to a large global majority. So over the past 70 years, our planet has become about 8 times richer in globally employable labor, corresponding to an average annual growth rate of about 3%. This enormous growth of the effective global labor supply should be expected to have historic significance on a planetary scale.

Since the time of Malthus 200 years ago, pessimists who predicted diminishing returns in aggregate economic growth have been proven wrong. So by the late 20th century we became accustomed to thinking in terms of growth models with positive steady-state growth rates, even though everybody has always understood the impossibility of any physical quantity growing forever at a positive exponential rate on a planet that has a fixed finite size. But planetary limits may have been easier to ignore because, until recent decades, most benefits of modern economic growth were concentrated in a small fraction of the world. The material requirements for each 1% increase in per-capita consumption become vastly larger when people throughout the whole world are all involved.

The vast increase in the effective global labor supply, which is large relative to every other resource on our planet, must have an adverse effect on the real wages for unskilled workers in the countries where local firms have long had the ability to produce modern goods with globally trusted quality. A decline in real wages could be partially countered by technological change, but Robert Gordon has found that US productivity growth rates peaked during the years 1920-1970. Since then, much of global growth has come from poorer countries catching up with the great technological advances that America achieved previously.

Now a failure to meet expectations of continuing growth of real wages has led to mass discontent in the old developed nations in America and Europe. Many understand that something has changed in the relationship with the poorer nations of the world, but there is broad misunderstanding of how this change could be problematic for people in America. We economists have not adequately communicated the simple fact that aggregate living standards in America cannot be harmed by the availability of cheap imported goods from poor countries. But Americans’ comparative advantages and terms of trade can be adversely affected when people in the traditionally poor countries are no longer totally dependent on America and Europe for their supply of modern manufactured goods. Even if America erected trade barriers to block imports from foreign manufacturers, people in the rest of the world could not be compelled to buy American goods that they can now make more cheaply themselves.

But America’s new President-elect has promised to restore the past terms of trade which benefitted Americans a generation or two ago. We need to explain that such a promise could never be achieved by any renegotiation of international trade agreements, but only by reversing the political and legal changes in formerly poor countries which have enabled their people to participate in modern technological investment. Surely nobody should want to do that! We need to explain that the changes in trade which stir such discontent in America today are directly connected with global developments which have also generated historically unprecedented increases in aggregate human welfare across the globe.

How might our basic assumptions in economics change to better fit a world where people everywhere can participate in economic advances and investment?

  • It may be time to back off from models which suggest that good economic policies can promote infinite unbounded exponential growth in the broad global economy.
  • The global scope of modern production implies that limits on the planet’s ability to recycle waste products, which we used to consider freely disposable, may now require more active regulation or taxation by governments, to accommodate global ecological constraints.
  • Benefits of economic productivity may accrue relatively more to those who have positions of trust and power in global economic networks, less to the marginal product of unskilled labor, and so problems of income inequality may become more acute.
  • The whole global development miracle depends on the spread of good government, and trust in these expanding global economic networks can be maintained only with legal protection and regulation from governments and their international agreements. From this perspective, it may be appropriate for governments to tax those who benefit most from the global economy, to fund a safety net for those who benefit least. Indeed, social safety nets have been essential for modern development since the beginning of the industrial revolution, because efficiency-enhancing economic changes can be politically blocked by people whose existing livelihoods would be destroyed, unless they get some hope of benefiting from the increased productivity.

But the most important point goes beyond economic efficiency to a fundamentally ethical observation. Economists usually try to avoid ethical statements, but let me offer this one which, I think, we can defend by any ethical standards that value all human beings in any reasonably balanced way: If admitting all of humanity to participate in the benefits of modern economic development implies that we must forfeit hope for further exponential growth in our time, this is a price that we should be morally willing to accept.

[Text prepared for delivery at a session on “Where is the world economy headed?” at the Allied Social Science Associations meeting in Chicago, January 6, 2017.]

Memo to Democrats: Strengthen Congress

November 22, 2016

Many countries have had presidents who manipulated the great powers of their office to nullify constitutional constraints and establish a permanent grip on political power. But from George Washington’s first election until now, Americans always elected presidents who, in prior public service, had demonstrated their commitment to exercise power responsibly within legal and constitutional limits. In January 2017, however, America will for the first time have a President who has never held any public office and who, as a businessman, has a long record of manipulating laws to his personal advantage.

Throughout the presidential campaign, many consistently underestimated Donald Trump’s ability to market himself and denigrate his opponents in a relentless drive for power. Now his perplexing mixture of extreme and moderate policy statements must not distract us from the fundamental constitutional issues which may be at stake in the next four years if the new President continues on this trajectory: bending rules to augment his wealth and power, and undermining people’s trust in anyone who can oppose him.

Under the Constitution, Congress has the ultimate responsibility for enforcing legal limits on the presidency. Among all the challenges that Democrats must face as the loyal opposition under a Trump presidency, the highest priority should be to preserve and protect Congress’s ability to fulfill this vital constitutional role.

The President might try to weaken Congress by posing as a moderate who can play off Democrats against Republicans on contentious policy issues. But Democrats should recognize that defending the authority of Congress is more important today than any of the policy issues that they have debated with mainstream Republicans in the past. It would be better to make the President work with the majority leaders in Congress than to accept a few policy concessions from the hand of this President.

Filibusters to block Republican legislation could also be counterproductive. Obstructive filibusters would force Republicans to set policies less by legislation but more by executive orders, which would make the majority leaders more dependent on the President. After an election in which the Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress as well as the White House, people have a right to expect that Republican congressional leaders should take responsibility for setting new directions in public policy. Democrats should believe in their own message and have confidence that, if they do not interfere with this responsibility, the results will turn many voters back toward the Democratic party.

The President-elect won the recent election by making extreme promises to millions of voters which he cannot fulfill. When his performance in office disappoints his supporters, he will try to divert them by blaming others. Any effort to pin the blame on Congress as an institution must be countered.

The President could have a substantial incentive to campaign against Congress. When the President can undermine people’s trust in their congressmen, Congress can be deterred from considering any evidence for impeaching him.

In this regard, the President-elect’s call for term limits in Congress should be recognized as a particularly dangerous distraction. Term limits sound good, but they can actually reduce democratic accountability in a legislature, as experience in California has shown. Congressmen who cannot be re-elected must look elsewhere for their next job, and then they would have a greater incentive to serve someone other than their constituents. A better proposal for strengthening electoral accountability of Congress would be to reform the seniority system, which has served largely to reward voters for re-electing incumbents.

Term limits are a particularly dangerous idea today because their effect would be to weaken Congress. Simplistic comparisons between presidential term limits and congressional term limits are invalidated by the fundamental need to maintain Congress as an effective check on the nation’s most powerful official. Now more than ever, America needs leaders who can expect a long and successful career in Congress if they serve their country well.

America’s constitutional system depends fundamentally on a balanced distribution of power between the separate branches of government. Over the past century, a long expansion in the size and scope of federal agencies has entailed a steady growth of presidential power. Now, with a President-elect who has never exercised public power within constitutional limits, our best hope is that the next four years should be a time for strengthening the effective authority of Congress. For this vital goal, Democrats today should support the constitutional right of congressional majorities to legally direct the policies and actions of the federal government, even when those majorities happen to be Republican.

Postscript (Dec 2016): It is hard to predict how the next President might test the limits of his office, but I expect that one big constitutional question for America in 2017 will be whether the President of the United States should be able to develop his own cable TV news network while in office. We may shudder at the possibility that a private channel for influencing political perceptions in millions of households could be acquired with revenue from advertisers who desire favorable treatment from public agencies. But I fear that an act of Congress may be needed to prevent it.

Thoughts in the frenzied final month of the 2016 Presidential campaign

October 13, 2016

I was shocked this week to see that the Trump campaign is boasting about their candidate’s threat to send his opponent to jail if elected.  Every American who values constitutional democracy should be extremely concerned when a top contender for President openly threatens that he will use the powers of government against his political opponents.

Of course, nobody can be above the law, but judgments of the law need to be kept separate from politics.

In a political debate and in political rallies, Donald Trump has flaunted his plan to use the power of the Presidency to launch a publicly funded prosecution with the goal of sending Hillary Clinton to jail.  Does he expect her to respond by threatening that her White House would order a federal criminal investigation of his possible abuse of women or evasion of taxes?  Given a choice, Americans should reject the candidate who would use the Justice Department as a political weapon against his enemies.

Please pause and consider the consequences after a President’s discretionary political decision has led to the imprisonment of someone who recently won the votes of millions of Americans.  Thereafter, any other public figure who might be thinking about crossing the President on any matter would understand that such opposition could raise a very serious possibility of being put on the President’s next list of politically motivated federal prosecutions.  If Trump could to it to Clinton after some sixty million Americans voted for her, you have to worry that he could do it to you, unless you can prove that you are innocent of everything.  It would be prudent to avoid being put on the top of his political enemies list.

When everybody in American politics reaches this understanding, our Constitution will be effectively neutered.  People who believe that Donald Trump would then use his supreme power to implement policies that they favor might hope for some short-term benefits from this outcome, but I hope that all voters would agree that we share a vastly greater long-term interest in preserving America’s constitutional system of government.

Perhaps some might think that my fears have run on too far, in this frenzied final month of our presidential election campaign.  One could argue, however, that we should all have such fears in every presidential election.  The powers of the Presidency are enormous, and it is extremely difficult to remove a President from those powers once he or she is elected; and so we have to be concerned about the possibility that a President could abuse these powers to undermine the limits on that our parchment Constitution has defined for this most powerful executive office.  Perhaps it would be better to have a parliamentary system where the chief executive can be replaced any time, but for better or worse we Americans elect a President to hold the highest power in our country for four years.

The ultimate defense against the persistent danger of presidential dictatorship is to choose people whom we can trust to respect constitutional constraints.  When a candidate has spent years exercising public power with clear respect for constitutional constraints, then we can have some confidence that he or she will continue to do so in the highest office of national power.  For this fundamental reason, Americans usually elect presidents who have been governors or generals or influential senators.

The fact that Donald Trump has blamed Hillary Clinton for failing to change laws when she was a Senator (one among a hundred senators in a bicameral legislature subject to a presidential veto) certainly suggests some failure to appreciate the constitutional limits on what an elected official can do.  On the other hand, we know that when Hillary Clinton was in the White House as First Lady, her husband never appointed a special prosecutor to imprison political opponents; he only appointed a special prosecutor to scrutinize his own compliance with the law.

In fact, any public official who can accomplish anything in our constitutional system must do so by working cooperatively with others who are potential political rivals.  So electing presidents who have good track records in public service means electing people who are willing and able to reach across the aisle with respect for the rules of our constitutional political game.  That is how we have kept our parchment Constitution in business all these years.

So let me suggest that Americans should resolve together to make this a general rule for the future:  We should never support anyone for the Presidency who has not served responsibly in some other important public office.  Enthusiasts for Donald Trump could urge him to run for governor somewhere before offering himself for President again, so that we can see what he would do with real power in government.  It is not enough to be a genius in business.  To maintain the integrity of our constitutional system, we must see what a candidate would do with the power of some lesser public office before we entrust the candidate with the highest office in the land.

Remarks for a Conference on Decentralization in Ukraine (16 May 2014)

May 18, 2014

A decentralization reform that can earn broad support from popularly elected local leaders in all parts of Ukraine may be the vital key to reducing regional tensions and building a stronger democratic system. Uniquely among parliamentary democracies, the constitution of Ukraine has given the President the power to appoint and dismiss heads of local and regional governments. Such centralized control of local government has exacerbated regional tensions and hindered the development of trusted democratic leadership in Ukraine.

Democracy is about voters having a choice among alternative candidates who are trusted to exercise power responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is disappointing and fragile. This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office. But when the president picks the local-government heads, we should expect them to be regularly chosen from among the president’s loyal supporters who are unlikely to develop any independent reputations of trust with the voters. Thus, presidential control of local government in Ukraine has tended to block the development of new leadership trusted by the people.

With presidential appointment of local-government heads, a President may be tempted to allocate powerful positions in local government as patronage rewards for major supporters who want to enrich themselves. This temptation will be greatest in those regions where the President would expect few votes even if his appointees provided good local government. But then everyone in such regions may fear bad exploitative local government from a President whose popular support is based elsewhere. So Ukraine’s centralized political system has increased political tensions between regions.

Thus, a decentralization reform can be the key for reducing regional tensions and developing trusted democratic leadership for Ukraine.

Most importantly, democratic decentralization can guarantee that every region will have popularly elected local leaders who have real power to serve their communities and who have a real stake in the national political system. So decentralization can strengthen Ukraine by developing, in every part of the country, a broad base of popularly trusted local leaders who are willing and able to mobilize local political support for the nation. In this time of crisis, such empowered local leadership has been greatly needed.

Ukraine already has popularly elected regional and local councils, but presidential appointment of local-government heads leaves these councils with little real power. The simplest and most effective way to decentralize power is to allow these councils to choose their own local-government heads, with clear administrative responsibilities and budgetary authority.

National law must be supreme in all parts of the country, and no region should have any special privileges that are not enjoyed by other regions. But supremacy of national law should not mean that one national official could block local government actions without independent judicial authorization. No single national official should have the power to prevent locally elected officials from serving their communities.

Under the constitution of Ukraine, a majority of the Verkhovna Rada could vote to call new elections for a local or regional government at any time. This power of a majority of national legislators to send local governmental officials back to face their voters’ judgment is a good way to guarantee supremacy of national law.

Even without a constitutional amendment, a candidate for President could promise, if elected, to appoint as local-government head whoever is designated by a majority of the locally elected council. Surely millions might want to vote for a candidate who promised that people in every region should have local government run by their own elected representatives, and that popular local leaders throughout Ukraine should have opportunities to show how well they can serve their communities. But such a promise would mean giving away an important presidential power, which is hard for any candidate to do.

It is very good that decentralization reforms are now being discussed in the Verkhovna Rada. However, the discussion should not be limited to people who hold national offices which give them a vested interest in the power of the national government. Ideally, all citizens of Ukraine should participate in the debate on decentralization. But the most important people who need to be included in a detailed discussion of decentralization proposals are elected members of the local and regional councils.

A successful decentralization plan should be one that can win the active enthusiastic support of as many local and regional councilors as possible. Support from such local leaders throughout Ukraine will be vital for the nation in these difficult times. The nation needs local leaders who can mobilize popular political support in every part of Ukraine, and such local leaders must be motivated by a credible promise of some real power to serve their communities.

In particular, against an insurgency, the local leaders who can re-establish government authority in their community will need protection. National security forces should help maintain order in a crisis, but local leaders cannot rely on them indefinitely. In a democratic society, secure rule of law can be assured only with local political support. Allowing democratic local governments to take some responsibility for local policing is the most straightforward way to ensure that elected local leaders can be confident of the basic protection that they and their constituents need.

Decentralization may seem risky or inconvenient to those near the center of national power. But if national leaders in Ukraine today can recognize the need for some constitutional sharing of power with locally elected officials, then popular local leaders should actively prefer inclusion in Ukraine to any alternative. The result should be a stronger and more democratic Ukraine that can better serve all its people.

[This is the latest in a series of notes in which I have tried to offer some perspective on questions of political decentralization that are being debated in Ukraine this year.  This note was written for a conference in Kyiv on 16 May 2014.  As in the previous notes, I have tried to provide a short coherent perspective on some of the major issues.  Over the past several months,  the privilege of participating in discussions about the challenges facing Ukraine has helped to deepen my own understanding of fundamental political problems of centralized democratic systems. In particular, I have learned much from discussions with my colleague Tymofiy Mylovanov.  This note summarizes the most important issues as I understand them now, in mid-May 2014.]

[See also a subsequent perspective on the situation in Ukraine published on VoxUkraine in August 2014.]

What is Putin’s secret weapon?

April 18, 2014

Does Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have some secret weapon? It seems that, with a wave of his hand in the Kremlin, he can cause crowds of secessionists to gather on the streets of eastern Ukraine, crowds that somehow have enough local authority even to stop and disarm Ukrainian army units that confront them. One might wonder whether Putin has developed some mysterious ability to cause such crowds to materialize at his command from afar, while the leadership in Kyiv seems helpless to respond.

Some have argued that Putin may be applying dark arts of espionage that he learned in his years as a KGB officer in East Germany before 1990. However instructive that experience may have been, let me suggest that it may be a distraction from understanding the real secret to Putin’s tactical mastery in the eastern provinces of Ukraine today. Secret agents and commandos cannot accomplish much without local political support.

Putin’s ability to manage people in local government developed when he worked for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg between 1991 and 1996. Then in 1997, most significantly, Vladimir Putin became President Boris Yeltsin’s deputy in charge of relations with Russia’s 89 regional governments. According to Andrew Jack (Inside Putin’s Russia, 2006, p. 79), Putin has described this position of presidential deputy for regional-government relations as perhaps the most interesting job in his career.

For the better part of a year, it was Putin’s job to negotiate political deals with locally elected leaders in all the provinces of Russia. Surely he then spent much time on the phone with local leaders, making promises and threats to win their cooperation in managing politics and public policy throughout Russia. In this work, he developed sinews of power that reached out from Moscow to every part of Russia.

Ukraine’s provinces today have locally elected councils but, under Ukraine’s constitution, a presidentially-appointed governor actually supervises the state administration in each province. Thus, without much effective power under the constitution, these provincial councilors have little stake in the political system of Ukraine. In a province where local voters did not support the current president or prime minister, nobody with popular support in the province may have any real stake in Ukraine’s government at any level, local or national.

But in winning their local elections, the provincial councilors have proven their ability to mobilize thousands of local residents for political action. However minor their role may seem under the constitution of Ukraine, these locally elected councilors have power to make crowds materialize in their communities.

Surely Putin has long understood, better than anyone else, how a few calls and promises from the Kremlin could readily recruit many of these local leaders in eastern Ukraine, to win their cooperation in organizing local residents for pro-Russian demonstrations. To an unappreciated provincial councilor who has gotten words of assurance that he or she would be warmly welcomed into Putin’s party of power, the idea of secession from Ukraine into Russia could become quite appealing. No bags of cash would be needed.

We may wonder, did Putin leave these calls to his presidential deputies, or did he personally call many of these local leaders in Ukraine? We must also wonder, how many provincial councilors in eastern Ukraine have gotten any competing calls from any high-ranking leader of the current Kyiv government?

Ukraine is considering constitutional reform proposals to decentralize power. A decentralization reform can strengthen Ukraine against the current threats to its sovereign integrity only if the reform can convince elected local leaders throughout the country that they will have some real power to serve their communities under the new decentralized system. National leaders of Ukraine should be actively discussing the details of such reform proposals with sympathetic members of the provincial councils in disaffected regions, to formulate a reform plan that can win the loyalty of popularly elected local leaders in every part of Ukraine.

Thus, Putin’s secret weapon should not seem so mysterious. The deep question now is whether leaders in Kyiv have realized the vital importance of negotiating with these locally elected leaders, to get their support for preserving the sovereign integrity of Ukraine within its current recognized boundaries. Surely there are still some of these local councilors who would welcome such a call from Kyiv.

Decentralization done right can strengthen Ukraine

April 3, 2014

Ukraine is in crisis, and this crisis has been exploited by Russia to seize Crimea. At the root of the crisis lies a lack of genuine political competition that limits the supply of trusted national leaders and provides for corruption that paralyzes governance institutions. Unless popularly elected local leaders are given a greater stake in the political system of Ukraine, reactionary forces within and outside of Ukraine would be further invited to take advantage of the country.

In a nation that is as centralized as Ukraine, the benefits of power become concentrated in a small group around the president or prime minister and the party that supports them. As a result, there can be large parts of the country where nobody feels any investment in the national political system. When there is external threat to national sovereignty, people in these disaffected regions have little or no interest in defending their political system.

The worst possible structure may be that which Ukraine currently has: While power is effectively concentrated in the central government around the President and Prime Minister, every province has popularly elected provincial councilors who have electoral mandates that could enable them to legitimize a secession, but who have little actual power and so have little or no incentive to defend the constitutional system of Ukraine. As soon as possible, the provincial councils should be given some real power to spend public funds and exercise some local patronage power so that they should value their positions in the constitutional structure of Ukraine. This could be done most easily by allowing the provincial councils to select their own governors.

A country is strong when, in every community throughout the nation, there are local leaders who are widely trusted and respected in their community and who have a stake in the national political system. When a constitution devolves a real share of power to democratic local governments, it guarantees that every community will have elected local leaders who have a vested interest in sustaining the constitutional system that has empowered them, and who have proven their ability to mobilize a substantial fraction of the local population for political action.

We should think a bit more about what could be an optimal devolution of power to maximize the number of local political leaders who have effective incentives to defend integrity of Ukraine and the interests of the public. It might be better in Ukraine to decentralize relatively more power to district and municipal councils, and so relatively less to the provincial councils, in comparison to what might be normal in many other countries. These lower-level councils, if empowered by Ukraine, could help provide a bulwark against secession and capture of their region. Being more numerous, it would be harder for outsiders to bribe all these local councils, and a treasonous group of provincial councilors would have more difficulty leading a secession if the district and municipal leaders in their province opposed secession. The national government could more easily dissolve a treasonous provincial council if the lower-level councils remained loyal.

Thus, a good decentralization reform should distribute administrative responsibilities and budgetary authority both to provincial councils and to lower-level district and municipal councils, in a balanced way. And each of these sub-national councils should know that their much-valued authority could be immediately suspended by the Verkhovna Rada if they ever moved to endorse secession from Ukraine.

A successful decentralization reform is challenging. Some might argue that centrally appointed prefects should continue to hold veto power over the policies of regional and local governments. If the veto can be easily exercised, the central government will be able to continue to control regional policies without accepting responsibility. Provisions for close supervision or control of the local governance decisions and the budget by nationally appointed prefects could become an excuse for transferring such local power back up to the center.

Even if centrally appointed officials who supervise local decisions are made independent from the central government, they might have little incentive to guarantee that policies of local government will be responsive to preferences of local residents, instead of just depending on which group got a national majority in a presidential election. The prefects who do not have a political stake in localities they supervise will be at risk of capture by third parties or may abstain from the decision making process in critical times. The brutality and the corruption of the previous government was only possible because the officials entrusted with the responsibility to check abuse of power had no motivation to do so once pressured. Genuine decentralization requires letting locally elected leaders take full responsibility for the quality of their local public services, good or bad.

Many fear decentralization on the grounds that Russia officially supports federalization. Russia’s position should make us vigilant but it is not a reason to discredit the idea of decentralization. Instead, it must become an occasion for an open and informed debate. The true motives of the Russian government are murky, and it could even advocate one position with the goal of stimulating others to oppose it.

The Russian government might support federalization despite or even because of its belief that federalization in the form proposed by the Russian government is impossible. Russia might desire to further polarize the country, while posturing to be involved in a search of diplomatic solution. If coupled with a hostile reaction to the idea in Kyiv, the Russian support of federalization might succeed in reinforcing the fears of a “government of victors” by the Russian-leaning parts of the population, and it could then cause others outside Ukraine to doubt whether the new government can be trusted to engage in a political resolution of the crisis. A recent statement on decentralization by a local Rada in the East of Ukraine will feed the fears of secession and the reaction in Kyiv is unlikely to appeal to the statement’s signatories.

On the other hand, a decentralization that would actually benefit Ukrainians everywhere might also let the Russian government claim some success in protecting ethnic Russian “minorities,” removing rationale for further military action.

We should develop a better understanding of alternatives. Russia, if existentially threatened by encroachment of the Western ideological and economic values, would try to subvert any government in Ukraine. In a centralized Ukraine, the effort would be applied to the president, who could be vulnerable to corrupt pressure on his business and family. It would be more difficult for outsiders to dominate a decentralized Ukraine overall, even though some individual leaders of regions or municipalities might be more susceptible to foreign influence.

The current institutional framework in Ukraine has been conducive to dictatorial tendencies of the central government and to the suppression of political competition. Recurrent crises have ensued. A proper change in the institutions should be worked out through careful public discussion in Ukraine. In the text of our decentralization initiative, endorsed by many academics in the West and Ukraine, we call for a public debate about the right way to conduct decentralization for Ukraine. Decentralization should be a part of the solution, and Ukraine does not need endorsement of Russia or the Council of Europe to tip the balance in favor of a specific option.

With T. Mylovanov

On the question of decentralization in Ukraine

March 2, 2014

Democracy is about voters having a choice among alternative candidates whom they can trust to exercise power responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is inevitably disappointing and fragile. A presidential election can give prestige to its winner, but it does nothing to develop the broader supply of trusted alternative candidates on which the success of democracy will ultimately depend. This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office.

Do people in Ukraine feel frustrated by a scarcity of candidates who have developed good reputations for exercising power responsibly in elected office? In other countries, trusted candidates for national leadership are regularly found among governors and mayors who have proven their abilities by delivering better public services in the government of a province or a large city.

But the Сonstitutions of Ukraine (in both currently disputed versions*) have given the President the power to choose all provincial governors. The incumbent President is the national politician who would have the most to lose from the development of more trusted competitive candidates for national office. Under this constitutional system, we should expect provincial governors to be regularly chosen from among the President’s loyal supporters who are unlikely to develop any independent reputations of trust with the voters.

The transition to an independent democracy in Ukraine was never going to be easy, but I believe that this deeply flawed constitutional structure was also an important contributing factor that people should recognize and try to change. The best hope for developing trusted democratic leadership would be from decentralized local politics in which governors are ultimately responsible to the local voters within their province.

Some who hope to gain national power might be tempted by the prospect of appointing dozens of supporters to powerful local offices throughout the country. But those who truly want to build a strong competitive democratic system in Ukraine should consider supporting constitutional reforms that would decentralize some share of responsible power to locally elected leaders in each province.

Locally elected councils already exist in each province or oblast of Ukraine. A constitutional reform to give these local councils the power to choose their own governors could be a vital step toward easing regional tensions and building stronger democracy in Ukraine.

For more information, see the Ukraine Decentralization Initiative website.

*Note: There has been some dispute about the legality of constitutional amendments that were passed by the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) in 2004. These amendments increased parliamentary control over the national government but did not affect Article 118, which gives the President the power to appoint and dismiss the heads of local state administrations.

[See also my 2011 blog post about decentralization in Egypt and Ukraine.]

Empowered local government is the best foundation for democracy

March 2, 2014

Successful democracy requires more than just elections. For democracy to be effective, voters must have a choice among qualified candidates with proven records of public service who have developed good reputations for exercising power responsibly in elected office.

When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is inevitably fragile. This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government, where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office. When locally elected leaders have full responsibility for both the successes and failures of their local administration, then those who succeed will enlarge the nation’s vital supply of popularly trusted leaders.

We must recognize, however, that new competition from popular local leaders may often be against the vested interests of established incumbent national leaders. In a centralized state where governors and mayors are appointed by the national leader, these positions may be among the most valued rewards that a leader can offer to loyal supporters.

Then what leader could afford to disappoint his or her supporters by letting such valuable positions be given away by local voters instead? It is not surprising that national leaders have often chosen to retain centralized control of local government, even when political decentralization could strengthen their country’s democratic system.

Look at the example of Egypt.

The importance of the Egyptian people’s aspirations for more democratically accountable government is recognized throughout the world. If the transition to democracy there had started with local elections, many factions would have gotten opportunities to start building reputations for responsible democratic leadership in different areas.

But in a presidential election, only one candidate can win the prize of centralized national power. Like Egypt’s old 1971 constitution, its recent 2012 constitution promised to transfer authority to locally elected councils, but only gradually, after a delay of some years that would allow current national leaders to retain power over local government.

Such centralization might have seemed convenient for the short-term interests of national leaders, but it left Egypt’s new democracy perilously vulnerable to fears of another autocracy. Empowerment of trusted local leadership throughout the country could have done much to reduce such fears.

Excessive centralization can also harm economic development. People in poor communities can build and maintain roads and schools and other local public goods that are essential for economic development, but they can accomplish this only when their efforts are coordinated by local leaders whom they trust. Such trust can be expected only from leaders whose authority is based in local politics. Local officials whose positions depend on national political patronage are inevitably less concerned about developing trust among the residents of a small poor community.

Interactions between local politics and national politics can strengthen democracy at both levels. As I have observed, local democracy can strengthen national democratic competition when elected offices in municipal and provincial governments provide a ladder of democratic advancement that effective leaders can climb from local politics into national politics.

But conversely, national democracy can strengthen local democratic competition when national political parties provide alternatives to established local leaders. Local political bosses should know that if they lose popular support then they could face serious challengers from a rival national party.

For such mutually-reinforcing interactions between local politics and national politics, the institutional pillars for a strong democratic system should include both a multi-party national assembly and elected local councils with clear autonomous responsibilities.

A constitutional system with democratic local government can become politically stable once it is established. When governors and mayors are locally elected, they become local power-brokers from whom national politicians must regularly seek support in their competition for national power, and so it then would be very costly for any national leader to threaten the constitutional powers of these elected local officials. Thus, a transition to a decentralized democratic system, once achieved, can be self-sustaining.

[This article was published in the World Post on February 3, 2014.]