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Volume 3 Issue 8 | August 2009



Original Forum Editorial

Information Please--Nazrul Islam
The Man Who Never Sold Us Out-Shaheen Islam
Who are We?-- Jyoti Rahman
Photo Feature: Life is Elsewhere--Sohrab Hura
Entity--Zeeshan Khan
Live and Let Live-- Faisal Gazi
Holding the Guilty Accountable -- Mizanur Rahman Khan
Strong States, Weak States-- K. Anis Ahmed
Madiba Moments-- Nausher Rahman
Not in My Back Yard -- Salma A. Shafi
Dream or Reality?-- Abul Hashem
Nation Branding-- Khalid Hasan


Forum Home


Strong States, Weak States

K. Anis Ahmed ponders the path to respect

Nations, like people, are ultimately defined not just by the tragedies that befall them, but also by the manner in which they respond to them. The Pilkhana tragedy was one of the worst to strike our nation. We grieve for all the brave officers we lost, and also for the civilians who fell. As much as we might try, we have really no words or resources with which to console their families.

What are we to do in the face of such a calamity? Where does the nation go from here? The event could have de-stabilised the state in a grievous manner; its long-term implications are not necessarily fully known yet. The measure of order we have managed to retain in the face of such a catastrophe is a testament to the steadfastness of both our political and our military leadership. It is also an indication that while we might not be the strongest of states, we are more stable than we sometimes get credit for. But, how many more events or provocations can we withstand?

To deal with future crises of state, and even to thrive as a nation-state, we need to get a clearer understanding of certain fundamental issues. Why is it important for a state to be strong? What exactly is a state? Is a strong state only a matter of great military might, or is it something broader and more complex? Many people will not have the patience for theory when policy or tactical moves appear to be so pressing. But, in the absence of clear and correct theoretical understanding, those very policies and tactics can so easily go awry.

We need to recognise that most states actually exist in a state of chronic crisis. States not only exist in perpetual crises, but are often defined by them. The deepest crises of state usually centre around a few key issues -- territory or land, natural resources and the apparatus of state itself. Almost every real crisis -- and conflict -- of state can be traced back to a fight over the control of these elements. At times a dispute over identity or ideology may appear at the forefront of a struggle, but other elements almost invariably become integrally entwined even in such idealistic agitations.

These struggles almost invariably threaten violence, and thus the first and most defining purpose of state is to contain and mitigate violence. A state is not a state if it cannot exercise virtual monopoly on violence in a given society or polity. The paradox of the state is that it must wield such awesome power, while never (mis)using it against its own citizens.

All classical texts across cultures, from Chanakya's Arthashastra to Aurelius's Meditations, dwell on the dilemmas and tactics of maintaining this primacy of state power, while ensuring public good. This tension between an apparatus to maximise power and measures to mitigate its misuse has been the defining dilemma of what is known as sovereignty. The term sovereignty in its modern sense was first coined by the French jurist Jean Bodin in his 1576 treatise on law and public policy, Six Livres de la République. In a flash of brilliant insight, Bodin defined the sovereign as he who defines the exception to the law, whereas the magistracy merely enforces it. Once vested in kings, that power now resides in the people, and is exercised mainly through elected parliaments and other apparatuses of state.

The challenge of balancing power and its just use has run throughout the modern period as a debate on the primacy of "order" versus "rights." Through the ages, equally sound philosophers have leaned in favour of one value or the other. Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) stressed order, while John Locke's Two Treatises on Government (1689) emphasised rights. Pairings of such debaters run through recent times to figures such as Carl Schmitt (The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 1923) and Isaiah Berlin (Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958). There are even more contemporary theorists who are attempting to posit a post-binary debate, such as Giorgio Agamben (Homo Sacer, 1998), or Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (Empire, 2000).

This is not an academic treatise that can do any justice to such a long and complex lineage of ideas. Rather, I will attempt to present a few distilled insights from these long-running theoretical debates. The first and most important distillation to note is as follows; a state is first and foremost in charge of ensuring order. To do so, it needs to amass, indeed exert a virtual monopoly, on power. But, it must also find ways to ensure that that power is justly used. The debate of order and rights is not an either/or proposition, but a matter of fine balance requiring perpetual vigilance.

So, how has Bangladesh fared on these counts? Does it do a good enough job of maintaining order, or of balancing state power with civic rights? Based on its performance on these counts, should it be considered a strong state, weak state, failing state or a state-in-flux? While as a nation we are prone to excessive self-criticism, we must recognise that in many respects we have fared better than most countries in our stage of development. In struggles for power, under neither democracy nor dictatorship, have we seen the kind of brutish systematic repression (like in Pinochet's Chile) nor the mass killings (like in Pol Pot's Cambodia) that has been the sad fate of so many developing countries. For all our shortcomings, as a nation we have managed not to cross certain lines. But, such traditions can and should never be taken for granted; rather they need active cultivation.

To build a strong state, one must not only have a plan to cope with the most likely crises, but have a clear understanding of its primary threats in a more fundamental manner. States face two kinds of threats -- external and internal. By external, I don't mean only foreign threats -- against which one needs a panoply of resources ranging from the military to the diplomatic, and indeed economic. Rather, by external threats I mean threats that stem from outside the apparatus of state itself, but may well stem from within the country. External threats typically stem from ideological or ethnic insurgents, organised criminals, or terrorists. By internal threats, one means the threat inherent to the tsate from the different actors or apparatus of state itself. An increase in either of these threats can, of course, heighten the risk of the other kind as well.

Insurgents most commonly vie for land and natural resources, and, therefore, for a share of the apparatus of state, or even its entirety. Criminals and terrorists by contrast possess mainly mercenary goals, and the challenge they mount to the state is usually to further those ulterior goals. However, if, in the process of a conflict, the apparatus of state becomes too compromised then they too may be tempted to try a wholesale takeover -- as we see happening in Pakistan lately. Like most countries, we too have faced all these forces -- insurgents, criminals and terrorists. Once separatists in the Hill Tracts posed the most acute challenge to our state's integrity; today that dubious honour possibly goes to terrorists -- a common global problem.

Most states tend to survive these challenges, no matter how acute. Failures are, not surprisingly, more common in the Third World, especially in Africa. This little essay does not have the room to analyse why Third World countries, especially in certain regions, have been less able to cope with these typical challenges. To say they are "underdeveloped" becomes tautological. But it is quite apparent that, in addition to a failure to develop adequate powers, using what little power that may exist to suppress one's political rivals rather than against actual enemies of the state is a common feature of failing states.

While states dismembered by external forces are more easily noticed, the world map is littered with examples of internal failures like North Korea or Zimbabwe. While in many cases it is the army -- being literally the most powerful arm of the state -- that may overstep its bounds, it is not the only actor with such an opportunity or track record. Zimbabwe is a sad example of a country cannibalised not only by a politician and his party, but indeed by its liberator.

Once again Bangladesh has been relatively lucky. We faced our first and greatest threat -- and tragedy -- in 1975. Since then, our constitution has been set aside several times, most recently through the events and episode known as "1/11." We have been luckier than many comparable countries, because despite the periodic breach in our constitution, we have never been ruled by a civil or military dictator who was willing to hold onto power at all costs. Notice, for example, how our army or its commanders who actually held power several times, felt compelled to either legitimise themselves through an election, concede to mass movements, or actively allow the democratic process to resume.

One might say that the army always yielded to pressures seeking such a path back to democracy. Why has this been the pattern of our history? One might say that our army is fundamentally not interested in dominating the state but in playing its due part within the normal structure of the state. Or, maybe the army could not ignore the public pressure that has eventually mounted every time in favour of a return to democracy. The source of that public pressure is as universal as it is indigenous -- a desire for representative governance despite all its faults.


To understand the depth of our political culture one must re-think a common perception; democracy in this country was not entirely a gift of British colonial rule. The struggle for representative governance rather pre-dated what became a liberation movement from the British, and for us once again from Pakistan. So even today, the ordinary people in this country, farmers and traders in the rural areas, workers, students and professionals in cities, chafe at any ruler to whom they cannot talk back. Among other issues, one might say this was one reason why the 1/11 caretaker government lost its amazing initial popularity so fast and so deeply. While our elected leaders have proved venal and disappointing at different times, most Bangladeshis still do not want to give up a system which ensures some modicum of the right to speak.

Based on this exegesis, I would propose the following categories of states: A superpower is a country that can successfully invade a country with which it has no contiguous border (but, in this day and age it can hardly sustain a successful conquest). It can also exert undue influence in international bodies, and certainly over its neighbours. So, America is clearly a superpower, UK, Russia, France are relative superpowers, China is a rising superpower, whereas India is at best still an aspirant, but definitely a very strong state.

A strong state is a country that can reasonably defend itself against unreasonable pressures of superpowers, international bodies, and stronger neighbours. It can also hold undue sway over weaker neighbours. Japan and most developed countries in the EU, and also many rising ones like Brazil, India, even Iran, fall into this category.

The interesting point to note here is that the strength of states, while vitally dependent on their economic might, is not directly correlated to it. Iran is a much stronger state than many countries which have a bigger economy, even at a per capita level. Given proper strategic vision, it is possible even for an economic under-performer like us to become a lot stronger, and as one becomes strong as a state, the economy too has a better chance of improving rapidly.

Bangladesh clearly does not belong to the category of strong states -- yet. Then should we simply resign ourselves to being a weak state forever? Should we be content only to become a middle-income country by the time we turn 50? Or, should we take a more critical look at the relevancy of skewed development indices, and set a goal for ourselves based on other measures?

For Bangladesh, I would propose the following simple conditions to qualify as a strong state, and to embrace as a unifying strategic vision: A military that is strong enough to make the cost of invasion, let alone conquest, high enough to make it highly unattractive for any neighbour or distant power. Moreover, such enhanced powers could be used to better guard our land and maritime borders. In this day and age, one must also acquire serious technical know-how and diplomatic skills to represent oneself in not only international bodies such as the UN or WTO, but also in bi-lateral negotiations.

The capabilities listed above address the external aspect of sovereignty, but to become a truly sovereign and strong state, we must take the matter of internal sovereignty just as seriously. We must gain serious capabilities to fight any insurgents, terrorists or criminal organizations. No illegitimate force should find it easy to threaten violence against the state or its citizens and get away with it easily. But, the country must also develop a much more vigorous culture of civil and human rights. Stronger powers of vigilance and enforcement -- not just to deter all forms of violence, but also to collect taxes and uphold laws -- must occur in a context of an even stronger democracy. A high degree of balance between the powers of the state apparatus and the rights of the citizens, and a deep commitment to maintain and promote such balance, is the ultimate hallmark of a strong state.

To achieve the ideal of a strong state, one must work in tandem on two fronts -- national security and development. People who argue that one must cut military spending to increase education or health care deliveries are frankly clueless about the purpose of state. Security and development are not either/or propositions, rather one vitally depends on the other. So, what would all these theories mean in strategic and practical terms?

In case of national security, we might consider the following steps:
Pilkhana tragedy: Any crisis of this magnitude must be properly dealt with. So make the investigation as transparent and trials as speedy as possible. Try the convicted not only in a manner consistent with the law, but also in a manner that is satisfactory to the army, who are the most deeply wounded party in this crisis. Extraordinary measures, if needed, are perfectly warranted to restore their sense of pride and dignity. Exceptional crimes may call for exceptional measures -- the world did not always have an international court for crimes against humanity. But, all this must be done within the law; deaths of suspects in custody cannot be part of a sound process.

National Security Council: Not only America, but even India and many other democracies have one. It allows the actors most responsible for security of the state both to gather regularly for critical strategic reviews of risks and antidotes, and also to convene automatically in a moment of national crisis. A council firmly under civil leadership, but with military participation, could go a long way to closing an unfortunate rift between vital quarters of the state.

Parliament: As we have analysed, there is no greater protector of our constitution than our political culture. How better to strengthen it further than to allow the parliament, for once, to function? Avoid giving the opposition any easy excuse to boycott parliament. More importantly, a strong parliament requires strong and independent committees and members. To make them strong, we must revise anti-democratic clauses like Article 70. We must also provide all committees and members with adequate logistical and other supports, especially secretarial and research staff, to do their jobs.

Security and intelligence: Beef up the army and police -- and varsious intelligence agencies. Spend more on them than in the past. We have lost enough time in pointless leftist debates about the wisdom of such expenditure -- a sovereign country cannot afford such misguided morality. Train these forces on the actual enemies of state -- in our case, terrorists and organised criminals -- not on politicians, bureaucrats or businessmen. Create special teams to swat down crimes -- like extortion or eve-teasing -- that most diminish the quality of life for ordinary people. The quality of quotidian existence is a key ingredient of a healthy polity.

All measures to promote national security must be accompanied by focused and relevant development initiatives. Apropos, one might consider the following priorities at this time:

Roads, ports and power: A robust economy can itself be a great bulwark against all threats and conditions. Governments can no longer directly "grow" or "run" the economy. But they have a great enabling role. They must provide the infrastructure that the enterprising people of this country deserve. Bangladesh has every potential to become a great manufacturing hub, if we could only fix our roads, ports and power. We must be bold enough to pass a National Highways Act and create real highways, dig the coal we desperately need, and so on. These brave measures may aggravate special interest groups, but they will win plaudits from the masses. Such measures must be initiated immediately, so that their benefits can be tangible to the public before the next elections -- thus making the political cost of such measures tolerable for the ruling party.

Education, health care and population: Invest heavily at all levels of education. Create a unified curriculum, and modernise it, too. Let the government invest heavily in vocational training with a keen eye on foreign labour markets -- try for public-private partnerships in this area. At the tertiary level, re-vitalise the public universities with not only adequate funding, but also bold measures to institute some accountability among faculty and students alike. In the case of the private universities, stop decrying them all as bad, and make policies to really let the good ones flourish. Bring population control back as a priority -- we have already crossed all viable ratios of land-to-people. Invest on pre-emptive medicine. Along with a strong infrastructure, these basics are not only important -- as inherent goods, which are also the end objectives of a secure state -- but they in turn deepen a state's stability and thus ability to deliver both more security and other public good.

Reforms: Reduce the bloated bureaucracy, but train and pay the slimmed down staff like never before. To do that -- and to spend on security, infrastructure and social goods -- one needs resources, so focus on wealth creation and tax collection as a top priorities -- but don't harass the few who already pay, rather go after the millions who are eligible yet evade responsibility. A state can hardly be a state if it has no powers to collect taxes. Until it can do that, it won't be able to enforce much of its other laws either.

No government in our history has managed to articulate a strategic vision for us as a nation and a state. Such a vision cannot emerge if we do not embrace the issue of national security in an unembarrassed manner. Excessive dominance of welfarists in our public policy and dialogues has been an inhibitor to that necessity. It is high time that we adopt a national security stance, but one that is aligned integrally with the equally vital imperatives of civil rights and development.

The current government has indeed stated a clear intention to adopt many of the initiatives suggested here -- enhanced power supply, unified curriculum, and so on. But, so far these initiatives have come as items within an array of policies, not necessarily as part of an over-arching vision. To articulate such a vision in a clear and compelling manner for the public would be the first step in trying to become a strong state, and we should not be aiming for any goal less than that.

Photos: AFP

Dr. K. Anis Ahmed is Director, Academic Affairs at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.


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