Diplomats and the media like to talk a lot about Stability. Stability is good, instability is not.
They maybe have a point. Not much good usually comes out of heavy political instability. Unless it is the overthrow of a bad regime or dictator, in which case it is not instability but ‘people power’.
But what is stability? Most things are stable – until they aren’t. A house being eaten by termites can look fine and imposing until the instant it collapses.
Hard though it is to believe now, back in the early 1980s the West (not least the FCO itself) hailed post-Tito Yugoslavia as a “pillar of stability in the Balkans”. On my first diplomatic posting in Belgrade (1981-84) the paralysis of Yugoslavia’s convoluted ‘socialist self-management’ collective decision-making processes became ever more evident, to me at least.
Yet the senior official policy line remained. Yugoslavia was a “pillar of stability” and (more importantly) had to be kept as such. The alternative was unthinkable – and tended to stay very firmly unthought.
As an Embassy Young Turk in those leaden pre-email and pre-fax days I argued about all this inconclusively with the then Ambassador and my other exasperated bosses, plus anyone from London who might listen. They insisted that even if I was right and Yugoslavia faced difficult times, it would “muddle through somehow”.
That familiar formula got me thinking. What did it actually mean? Hence my first FCO rant, in early 1984: “Yugoslavia and the ‘Muddle Through Somehow’ Theory”.
My basic point was as follows. The Muddle Through Somehow (MTS) metaphor conveyed a number of interesting assumptions:
“… general notions of pragmatism; a certain degree of homely confusion; perhaps an absence of precise planning and control (“muddle”) but at least a broad sense of direction (“through”); … an absence of drastic, shocking, violent or cataclysmic change”.
But, I asserted, MTS as a very concept made sense only if it did not cover everything. World War Two had not exactly been a MTS event. In each case there had to be agreed non-MTS events (for Yugoslavia eg civil war or Soviet military intervention to prop up communist rule) whose likelihood also had to be assessed hard-headedly.
I tried to weigh all this up, and concluded that there was a serious chance of drastic non-MTS internal tensions escalating across Yugoslavia in the years to come as the various republican leaderships diverted attention from the country’s grim economic problems and played the card of mass nationalism. Kosovo was a particularly likely flashpoint:
“One has an eerie feeling of being perched on a sandcastle with the waters of economic logic slowly but surely eroding the base.”
These exchanges read rather well now from my point of view – after many tens of thousands of violent deaths, plus billions of international taxpayers’ dollars thrown not very successfully at the problem. Oh, and look: here comes Kosovo again.
Yet it took a while for all that to unfold. Yugoslavia did Muddle Through Somehow. Until it didn’t.
Hence the core diplomatic policy conundrum: over what timescale is success measured?
And don’t we all face unsettling Non-MTS foreign and maybe not so foreign events as the mass impact of disruptive technologies increases apace – as people get more and more and faster and faster linked up?
To be continued.