Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Middle East’s “Game of Thrones”

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 26, 2011 15:12 UTC

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” That’s a line from “Game of Thrones,” the new HBO television series that is conquering American popular culture.

But it could just as easily refer to the no-holds-barred battles we are watching in Libya and Syria. What is hardest to grasp is how these regimes are both strong and brittle. Their rulers are ruthless dictators prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in power — and for decades that can work. Until, suddenly, it does not.

We are not very good at understanding the win-or-die dynamic of these sorts of political systems: Not so long ago, everyone from the U.S. State Department, to Harvard, to the London School of Economics, to Vogue magazine, to blue-chip Wall Street money managers treated the Assads and the Qaddafis like rulers capable of gradual liberalization and even democratization.

Part of the problem is that the Cold War habit of mind, with its division of the world into two rival, ideologically cohesive camps, dies hard. Its legacy today is our tendency to look for a new, black-and-white division, this time into democracies and dictatorships. (Remember the axis of evil.) But modern dictatorships come in many different varieties. The ones that are collapsing in the Middle East are examples of what political scientists call “sultanistic” dictatorships.

According to Jack A. Goldstone, a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, the defining characteristic of a sultanistic regime is that it has no purpose apart from maintaining the leader’s personal authority. “A sultanistic regime is one in which the leader of a country has managed to gain control of all the levers of state power,” Mr. Goldstone said. “No one has any secure rights, and the leader rules with absolute authority.”

The case for open-source government

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 18, 2011 21:14 UTC

Maybe we are all thinking too much like Bolsheviks and not enough like Googlers. For Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries, the big question was “Kto kogo?” — essentially, “Who has the upper hand?”

Kto kogo remains the paradigm at the center of the fiscal battles roiling the Western world: young vs. old; rich taxpayers vs. poor welfare beneficiaries; public sector workers vs. private sector ones; wealthy Northern Europe vs. bankrupt Southern Europe; small government conservatives vs. big government liberals.

But a few people — writers, activists, even politicians — are examining the current woes of the Western state through a very different prism. You could call it the Government 2.0 approach, and its fundamental thesis is that the biggest question is not how much to spend and how much to tax, it is how to adapt the state to the information age.

Remedying recession, reducing debt

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 12, 2011 20:46 UTC

We all know there are three important things about real estate: location, location, location. That double repetition, which the late and great word sleuth William Safire traced back to a 1926 Chicago Tribune classified ad, is still with us because it is succinct and true.

You can think about the economic and political woes of the Western world today in the same way. It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs.

But over the past two weeks the political battles over government debt in Washington and Frankfurt, the street battles in Britain, and the volatility of markets everywhere have obscured that reality. The talk instead has been about share prices, credit ratings, police tactics and political dysfunction.

What happens when citizens lose faith in government?

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 5, 2011 14:32 UTC

Tolstoy thought unhappy families were unique in their unhappiness.

But when it comes to countries, these days the world’s gloomy ones have a lot in common. From Fukushima to Athens, and from Washington to Wenzhou, China, the collective refrain is that government doesn’t work.

“2011 will be the year of distrust in government,” said Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm.

For the past decade, Mr. Edelman has conducted a global survey of which institutions we have confidence in and which ones are in the doghouse. In 2010, the villains were in the private sector — from BP, to Toyota, to Goldman Sachs, corporations and their executives were the ones behaving badly.

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