Development expert Paul Collier, the author of a recent and important book about how the West can best advance the welfare of the "The Bottom Billion" (more here), takes up the question of "the good coup" in a WaPo op/ed. Citing the dictators in Burma and Zimbabwe as prime candidates, Collier reasons that a military coup can be a good thing. Collier is cautious, however, in making such a pronouncement:
I find it a little awkward to be writing in praise, however faint, of coups. They are unguided missiles, as likely to topple a democracy as a dictatorship. But there is still something to be said for them.. . . as likely to topple a democracy as a dictatorship. Thailand comes immediately to mind. The Thai coup of 2006 toppled a democratically elected government; if the country were to experience yet another coup this year, it would be a crippling blow to Thai democracy. Truly, a Thai coup would be a bad coup. So how to rationalize -- legitimate -- a means of transferring power that seems anathema to the democratic ideal? Collier writes:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the international community has taken the rather simplistic position that armies should stay out of politics. That view is understandable but premature. Rather than trying to freeze coups out of the international system, we should try to provide them with a guidance system. In contexts such as Zimbabwe and Burma, coups should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance. (It's hard to imagine things getting much worse.) The question then becomes how to provide encouragement for some potentially helpful coups while staying within the bounds of proper international conduct.. . . should temporarily lose international recognition of their legitimacy. Of course, Collier has Burma in mind. I agree. On 23 May I blogged:
In fact, some basic principles are not that hard to draw. For starters, governments that have crossed the red line of banning U.N. food aid -- a ghastly breach of any basic contract between the governors and the governed -- should temporarily lose international recognition of their legitimacy. Ideally, such moves should come from the United Nations itself; surely banning U.N. help constitutes a breach of rudimentary global obligations. But realistically, other dictators, worried that they might wind up in the same boat, would rally to block action at the United Nations, so we must look elsewhere.
There is no excuse for the widespread conviction that a group of criminals in uniform, men who have the audacity to call themselves "a government," must first approve before the strong, rich, and free peoples of the world go to the aid of the cyclone victims. We should be in there now, saving Burmese lives with our ships and helicopters. . . .By turning away aid to cyclone victims, the Myanmar regime demonstrated its criminality. At such times as these a regime should not be recognized. Collier proposes a formal mechanism of international de-legitimization, which would be wonderful. At least the prospect of being "de- legitimized" serve as an incentive for a rouge regimes to behave with greater civility.
Collier reasons that UN recognition would be difficult to successfully withdraw. Therefore, he proposes that a withdraw of EU recognition might be the next best thing. Collier explains how this future mechanism of the European Union might function. Optimistically perhaps, Collier thinks the mechism could be used not just serve as a stick to keep dictators in line, but as a carrot to encourage any would-be coup plotters. Collier believes such a protocol could make good coups more likely to occur -- where and when they are most needed:
A collective E.U. withdrawal of recognition from the Mugabe or Shwe regimes would be an obvious and modest extension of the values that underpin the European project. Making any such suspension of recognition temporary -- say, for three months -- would present potential coup plotters within an army with a brief window of legitimacy. They would know that it was now or never, which could spur them to act. And even if the loss of recognition did not induce a quick coup, E.U. recognition would be restored after the three months were up.Is fear that the outcome of a coup would not be deemed legitimate actually that which has held back potential coup-makers in the past? We don't know the answer. It seems to me there is no harm -- and much that could be gained -- were the EU to implement Collier's proposal.
You can read my post concerning Collier's bold ideas about development here.