A year of abject government failure

Across the globe, the major failures of 2011 have boiled down to governance breakdowns, from Europe's debt crisis to the Arab Spring.

Lowy Interpreter

This was a year marked by the failure of government. As you will see below, the examples of policy failure that we have to choose from in 2011 are nothing short of epic.

The long-term story is still good. For most of humanity, there's never been a better time to be alive, and standards of governance play a major part in this improvement in human welfare, as we've learnt this year from some unexpected places: there's the African renaissance, for instance, and the surprising news that Iran has negotiated the implementation of some painful economic reforms. China seems to have weathered the financial crisis thanks to dramatic government stimulus measures, and let's not forget Australia's exceptional economic performance, largely down to some brave and principled political leadership over the course of the last thirty years.

Perhaps this is what makes the shortfalls and reversals of 2011 so especially disappointing; governments everywhere have failed to meet the standards expected of them. Consider the following:

The euro crisis

The Lowy Institute's Mark Thirlwell has described it as a policy failure of truly epic proportions. Without going deeply into the economics, it seems that European elites have for decades tried to tune out the misgivings of their people, assuming a that if they created the economic and political structures, a deeper sense of shared European identity would follow.

The fact that this has never happened makes it very difficult for the governments of richer European countries to now ask their voters for sacrifice in order to bail out the troubled southern euro members. And yet the preferred technocratic solution to the current crisis – a fiscal union to match the monetary union – will actually exacerbate this identity crisis. So even if the current crop of leaders solve the immediate debt problem, the political disjuncture will endure, and may yet undo the entire structure. No wonder David Cameron baulked.

The US financial crisis

The financial crisis throws into sharp relief the broader governance problems the US faces. The sclerosis in American government and the influence of the finance industry over politics has made it difficult to pass stimulus measures to revive the economy, and has frustrated attempts to reform the finance sector.

What's more, although the rancour and bitterness seen in Washington are not historically unusual, the ideological extremism certainly is new, as is the erosion of traditions that used to moderate party differences. It has always been possible for one party to block the Administration's senior appointments indefinitely, to delay legislation through filibustering, and to create a show-down with the president over the debt ceiling, as happened this year. But until the mid-90s or so, those things just weren't done to the same extent, because all the players agreed it was impossible to govern the country under such conditions. Those common traditions of behaviour – as important to governing as a constitution – are breaking down.

The Arab Spring

This one should not require a whole lot of explanation. Arab autocrats and theocrats have been trying to hold back, or at least control, the forces of reform for decades. In 2011, the dam finally broke. The regimes that have been toppled (and others that face opposition but still survive) just could not meet the needs of their people because, to varying degrees, each of them grossly misgoverned their countries. The failure of these governments to provide even basic services is surely at the heart of the opposition they have faced this year.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya

True, the move to end the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began well before 2011. But the death of Osama bin Laden in May created momentum and credibility behind the idea that counter-terrorism ought to be primarily about killing or capturing terrorists, and it further deflated the argument that the US and its allies needed to embark on endless costly nation-building exercises to reduce the terrorist threat. The Libya operation also showed that heavy-footprint foreign intervention is out of vogue.

Western governments have made colossal mistakes in their domestic duties in recent years (see above), so it's no wonder people are going cold on the idea that these same governments are capable of rebuilding the economies and political systems of entire foreign nations.

Southeast Asia

This is perhaps a surprising inclusion, given the generally positive economic trends in the region, and it's something of a cheat, because none of what follows is unique to 2011.

But there's a strong case that Southeast Asia's emerging economies are well and truly stuck in the middle-income trap, and lack the qualities that allowed Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan to move up from there to developed status. Countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam all suffer from corruption, patronage, weak institutions and a lack of strong, reforming leadership. There are precious few signs that any of them will make significant inroads into these structural problems.

WikiLeaks

The WikiLeaks phenomenon illustrates the new limitations on government in the information age. Most governments floundered in response to the WikiLeaks revelations, and there is little evidence that they are thinking seriously about how to operate in an environment of perhaps radically compromised confidentiality.

WikiLeaks itself did not do a great deal of lasting harm in 2011. But it provided an important example for others to follow, in that it illustrated the power of what has been called the 'super-empowered individual'. Individuals and small groups now have access to fantastic quantities of information in any number of realms, including information systems but also biology and physics. There's tremendous potential for isolated people with little support to spur incredible innovation. But they can also do outsized harm. WikiLeaks showed that governments are almost powerless to stop them.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.