Most Muslim states have not embraced democracy due to their unique historical experiences, the entrenched power of their military elites, and the toxic influence of their social institutions. Creating stronger democracies is the only way to enhance the Muslim world’s geopolitical significance.
by Ahsen Khan
Even though it was nearly twenty-five years ago, I still vividly remember what it was like to step aboard the USS George Washington for the first time. For those who are not familiar, the George Washington is one of ten Nimitz class aircraft carriers in America’s Navy. It is a massive warship made from 60,000 tons of steel that is over 330 meters long and functions as a floating airbase. When fully loaded with its complement of 90 aircraft, it displaces nearly 97,000 tons.
Building one takes 2,500 hundred workers about five years and costs $5 billion, but that is a relative bargain compared to the new Ford class of carriers which cost $4.7 billion in research and development on top of the $12.8 billion price tag to build. These ships are miracles of engineering that highlight America’s industrial might, wealth, and determination to remain the world’s dominant military power.
I would often stand on the GW’s monstrous 4.5 acre (36 kanals) flight deck and marvel at the resources that went into designing, building, and deploying it. Once built, carriers are manned by a crew of 5,000 sailors and airmen and cost another $1.18 billion a year. Which means that simply operating and maintaining these ten ships costs more than Pakistan’s entire annual military budget. That does not even account for the cost of their aircraft or the cruisers, destroyers, and fast attack submarines that escort them whenever they deploy, which brings the total cost to $21 billion a year.
These ships allow America to control the world’s oceans and the 40% of its population that lives within reach of them. They represent a huge investment in its military, but they are just one part of the military power that America has built and sustained since WW2.
Serving aboard America’s gigantic warships was a surreal experience, one that fed an obsession with trying to understand the factors that allowed it to build such a powerful military. But this was merely part of a larger obsession – trying to understand why the Muslim world has been so militarily weak for so long as evidenced by the repeated pattern of conquests it has been subjected to over the past few centuries. Solving the riddle of America’s power therefore holds the key to helping Muslims prevent more violence like the sort that has consumed Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and far too many other places.
America’s military is the result of several factors working together. It is a large country, well endowed with fertile land and abundant natural resources. Its borders are protected by the Canadian Shield to its north and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Some might argue that geography, by itself, is enough to explain America’s power. But a comparison with Russia and Israel suggests otherwise.
Russia has also been blessed geographically, though not to the same extent as America. Its western and southern borders have always been vulnerable to attack and its lands are not nearly as fertile. But it is still a large nation, with lots of natural resources and protected on its northern and eastern borders. It also fields a powerful military, but one that pales in comparison to America’s. Russia’s military is large and moderately well-equipped, but mostly used to secure its “near abroad.”
America’s military, on the other hand, extends its reach to the entire world. The easiest way to illustrate this point is to compare the number of carriers deployed by each nation. Between its Ford, Nimitz, America, and Wasp classes, America currently deploys a total of twenty-one aircraft carriers of various shapes and sizes. Russia, even during the height of its Soviet era power, struggled to deploy seven such vessels, most of which were incapable of launching fixed wing aircraft or deploying far from its shores. Of these seven, only one remains in service and it is currently in drydock. When it comes to projecting military power, the ultimate tool is the aircraft carrier. Russia’s inability to build more than a fraction of the carrier fleet built by America is one of many examples that highlight the limits of its power.
On the other end of the geographic spectrum is Israel, a tiny nation bereft of natural resources. Despite its diminutive stature, Israel fields the most powerful military in the Middle East and was able to establish its dominance over the Arabs long before America became its ardent supporter. Israel may not have aircraft carriers, but it does have a sophisticated nuclear triad, advanced tanks and fighter jets, and cutting-edge electronic warfare, signals intelligence, and missile defense capabilities. It also has a proven track record of dominating its enemies on the battlefield.
These examples are important because they show that geography, by itself, does not provide an entirely satisfying explanation. If geography were the only determinant of military power, both America and Russia would field roughly equal forces and Israel would have ceased to exist long ago. Geography has certainly played a part in allowing Russia and America to build their large militaries, but the contrasts between them and Israel’s example show it is not the most important factor in explaining why. Instead, we must look to the type of political institutions that govern these nations.
Russia has a long history of being ruled by authoritarian and absolutist political institutions and their negative impact largely explains its relatively weak military abilities. America, on the other hand, features an inclusive, democratic system. Israel does too, for its Jewish citizens, at least. These are the keys to their military power.
Combined, the seminal works Why Nations Fail and The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers show how democracy leads to military power. In the latter, Prof. Kennedy explains that modern wars will typically be won by the side with the greater industrial and technological capabilities. According to Kennedy, military power is based on factors ranging from “geography and national morale to generalship and tactical competence” but primarily rests upon “adequate supplies of wealth, which in turn derive from a flourishing productive base, from healthy finances, and from superior technology.” In Why Nations Fail, the authors show how democratic systems lead to the wealth, industrial capabilities, and technology highlighted by Kennedy.
In addition to being the most logical way to strengthen individual Muslim states, creating democratic political systems is also the only way to overcome their geographic weaknesses.
As Saudi Arabia’s military incompetence shows, by itself, wealth is not enough. It is the ability to design, build, maintain, repair, and use the weapons required to wage modern war that matters. Paying for them is just one step of many in the convoluted process required to master and incorporate them into an effective military force.
The most fundamental step in that process is creating democratic political systems. To be clear, democracy is about far more than elections. It is about devising a political system that uses institutional mechanisms to create pluralistic power structures and ensure governments are responsive to the needs of their people. Voting is just one of several methods used to achieve this. A true democracy establishes the rule of law and the primacy of the individual by creating independent and efficient courts that settle disputes fairly and protect the lives and property of citizens against government excess and each other. They also feature competent law enforcement, administrative, and regulatory agencies, and ensure freedom of speech and association. In doing so, they create an environment conducive to strong economic growth and technological development which can then be used to create strong militaries.
Most Muslim states have not embraced democracy due to their unique historical experiences, the entrenched power of their military elites, and the toxic influence of their social institutions.
Aside from generating the wealth and technology needed to build powerful weapons, democracies also provide significant advantages with respect to training the soldiers who will use them, which impacts the other factors listed by Kennedy relating to generalship and tactical competence. Wealth and strong free speech guarantees are vital ingredients needed to build vibrant schools that can educate future soldiers and give them the critical thinking skills necessary to thrive in combat. Once they enter military service, these soldiers will typically find themselves promoted based on their professional abilities and merit rather than their perceived loyalty to a particular regime due the ability of democracies to create apolitical militaries.
Taken together, these factors allow democracies to design and build sophisticated weapons, buy lots of them, and staff their militaries with professional and highly trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen who can use them with lethal effect. By inference, these ideas also show why the Muslim world’s lack of democracy has made its nations so weak and vulnerable to conquest. As a result, those who wish to understand the roots of the Muslim world’s weakness must focus on the prevalence of authoritarian and absolutist political systems throughout it and the ways these have stunted its economic and intellectual development, making it impossible to build militaries capable of protecting them from conquest.
At first glance, China’s military modernization would seem to contradict these arguments. However, its well documented issues developing adequate jet engines or advanced semiconductors as well as the intellectual property theft that has fueled much of its progress indicates its authoritarian system has also limited its technological development. In fact, its economy is already showing weaknesses that are directly attributable to its repressive political system as illustrated by its ghost cities, capital flight, and the efforts to control or silence many of its prominent entrepreneurs and their companies. Just as the Soviet Union did during the 1960’s, authoritarian systems may generate growth for a time, but in addition to negatively impacting technological innovation, they are inherently unstable and will inevitably retrench or collapse in on themselves.
Though it still suffers from certain authoritarian tendencies, Turkey’s example also supports these arguments. It has the most extensive experience with democracy in the Muslim world and is, consequently, one of its most advanced and powerful states.
The Muslim world’s authoritarian political systems have prevented such unity because they typically rely on patronage networks glued together by corruption and nepotism.
Despite the obvious benefits and the data provided by the different examples offered above, most Muslim states have not embraced democracy due to their unique historical experiences, the entrenched power of their military elites, and the toxic influence of their social institutions. This has led some to argue that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But as argued here in more detail, the history of the Rashidun era shows that not only are democracy and Islam compatible, but that democracy is the form of government closest to the Islamic ideal.
In addition to being the most logical way to strengthen individual Muslim states, creating democratic political systems is also the only way to overcome their geographic weaknesses. The Muslim world is divided into over 50 nations, none of which can compete with the Great Powers alone. As such, Muslims must come together the same way Europe did after WW2 to create new political and economic entities that can allow them to work together to prosper and protect each other through free trade and security alliances. Europe’s democratic political systems were a key factor in allowing it to unite and creating similar systems will be necessary if Muslims ever wish to do the same.
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The Muslim world’s authoritarian political systems have prevented such unity because they typically rely on patronage networks glued together by corruption and nepotism. These have made it impossible to build the sort of neutral courts and administrative agencies that can meaningfully connect Muslim states by creating fair and transparent ways for them to trade with each other on a large scale. This has, in turn, made it impossible to build the sort of relationships that can lead to a security alliance.
Pan-Islamic sentiments may seem antiquated in the age of the nation-state, but the inescapable truth is that humanity’s history is a violent one and most of our conflicts have a tribal dimension. As Sam Huntington explains in The Clash of Civilizations, the world can be broadly divided into civilizational groups that share common historical and cultural commonalities. According to Huntington, the Islamic and Western worlds constitute two such civilizations. These tribal dynamics explain why the West unequivocally backs Israel’s violence against the Arabs as it desperately tries to stop Iran from acquiring the same weapons it helped Israel develop. They also help explain Hindu India’s conflict with Muslim Pakistan. Even Europe’s rejection of Turkey is best understood in reference to their civilizational differences.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is intra-civilizational. But it has taken on inter-civilizational dimensions as Western nations side with Ukraine in their bid to box in their civilizational rival in Slavic Russia. There are certainly other contributing factors such as geo-politics and resource competition driving these conflicts but there is no denying their tribal nature.
The key to understanding these conflicts, and who ultimately wins them, is understanding how all the variables referenced throughout this discussion work together and shape each other. To do so properly, one must first recognize the primacy of political systems in shaping and impacting them all. As such, Muslim nations must build genuinely democratic and inclusive political systems if they ever hope to end the cycle of violence that has consumed so many of them. Doing so is the only way to overcome the many political, social, economic, technological, tactical, and geographic factors that have made it so weak for so long. Until that happens, Muslim nations will remain among the ranks of the conquered.
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