After WW2 large numbers of countries fell to a (now discredited) political philosophy called communism. Firstly in Eastern Europe, then elsewhere in the world. In an April 7, 1954 news conference President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”
It was because of this domino theory that America entered into the Vietnam war, they wanted to stop one domino falling and thus prevent the spread of communism to many other countries.
Now we have domino theory all over again, but this time instead of oppression taking countries over we have the reverse, oppression being overcome by people power. And the weapons the people are using are YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Which means that unlike the previous domino theory, which relied on countries physically next to each other falling, the new domino countries can be anywhere that the interwebs reach.
This has only been possible very recently with the emergence of the smartphone as a primary internet device in the hands of vast numbers of people. It is possible to video government oppression with a smartphone and, literally within seconds, make it available to the whole world. The current popular uprisings are an unintended consequence of smartphone technology.
So far just two nasty regimes have fallen, Tunisia and Egypt, with Libya teetering on the brink. This makes it look like an Arab phenomenon. There are 22 countries in the Arab League, only three of which could be considered to be at all democratic. So there is lots of room for revolution. Here is the full list: Kuwait, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Djibouti, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Mauritania, Comoros and Somalia.
Many countries on this list have seen levels of recent popular dissent, most notably Yemen and Bahrain, which has led to the leaders in most of these countries to suddenly discover the need for reform. They hope that by dictating the pace of change that they can control the agenda. It will be very interesting to see how this pans out over the coming weeks.
Obviously the big one is Saudi Arabia, for the simple reason that, by an accident of geological history, they have the most oil buried under their sand. One fifth of the world’s proven reserves, which is of immense strategic importance to the West. The Saudi government have thrown much money at a welfare state, but it is still a very nasty, oppressive regime where ordinary people, especially women, have very little in the way of rights and freedoms.
If Saudi starts to crumble it will be fascinating to see how America jumps. On the one hand their strategic interest says they should support the oppressive dictators. On the other hand their supposed core values of freedom and democracy should place them against the dictators. With Obama, the weakest post war American president, in charge it is difficult to know what they would do.
But it is not just Arab countries that could fall to this wonderful contagion, there are plenty of other candidates. Former communist regimes with nasty dictatorships such as Belarus, Uzbekistan, Cuba and even the big two of Russia and China. And then there are the regimes that are nasty without being tainted by communism, countries like Myanmar, Zimbabwe and a whole clutch of very badly run African dictatorships.
So the potential for upheaval is immense. Some dictators will react, like the Arab countries, with a pre-emptive strike of reforms. Other will have crack downs to increase their oppression, just like Gaddafi tried. What is for sure is that we are in the midst of immense, seismological, world events analogous to the falling of the Berlin Wall and that hundreds of millions of lives may be touched.
And what can the West do amongst this? In the short term it is very bad news for us, our lifestyle depends on global stability, take that away and things could go very pear shaped very quickly. So we need to do our best to make the reforms happen very quickly and with the least upset, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. We really don’t want to see a Libya situation repeated, especially in bigger and more strategically important countries.
But our biggest concern should be nation building. The people in these popular uprisings have not gone through such immense trauma just to have another dictatorship or theocracy imposed upon them. Here we can help a lot. With constitutions, with elections, with building the foundations of vibrant democratic states. And they need not be modelled on our own democracies, technology such as enabled these uprisings can also be used to create a more popular and representative form of democracy.
We are all in this together as citizens of the world and we deserve for it to be a better place.