Modern Tunisia | Antifragile foreign policy

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In 1789, Benjamin Franklin said:  “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. Now, in 2021, we hereby add Bennifer’s inextinguishable love to that list. 

We cut now to a photo of John explaining that reference:

Truthfully, we don’t care about Bennifer. No one does (we hope). But we do appreciate the distraction from more bad Covid news - so for that, we thank them for their service.

This week:

  1. 🐫 Modern Tunisia: ten years after the Arab Spring.

  2. 💪 Antifragile foreign policy: how to live in an unpredictable world.

NB: thanks to travel schedules, our audio version will be up a little later than usual.

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🐫 Modern Tunisia: ten years after the Arab Spring

By Helen

Every year, 25 July is a day of jubilee for Tunisians. It marks the day Tunisia became a republic back in 1957, and celebrates the abolishment of the monarchy (unaided, I must note, by Meghan Markle).

This year, 25 July was even more memorable than usual:

  • 🥇 The country celebrated 18-year-old Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui’s epic Olympic win in the men’s 400m freestyle in Tokyo. Hafnaoui upset Aussie and American favourites from lane eight (major ‘Eric the Eel’ feel-good vibes a la Sydney 2000. Incredible).

  • ✊🏽 But the euphoria was short-lived. By the afternoon, anti-government protests took place in the capital, Tunis, and several other cities. Widespread frustration at the country’s steady economic downturn (the worst since 1956) and the government’s botched COVID-19 handling (Tunisia’s per capita death rate is the highest in Africa, with a 7% vaccination rate) fuelled the unrest.

  • 🔨 Tunisian President Kais Saied (dubbed the ‘RoboCop’, see below) responded to these protests by dismissing the government. He fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechich, assumed all executive power, and froze parliament for 30 days. He also sacked some senior ministers, shut the Al Jazeera offices (accused of sympathising with his opponents), and banned gatherings of three people or more. His opponents accused him of a power grab, while his supporters filled the streets in jubilation.

President Saied promised that he would restore power to parliament and appoint another prime minister at an unspecified time ‘when the situation settles down’. 😬

But some in Tunisia are not convinced. Having only just emerged in January 2011 from a brutal 23-year dictatorship under former-president Ben Ali, Tunisians are now cautiously watching to see how this latest development will unfold to test this ‘beginners-level democracy’.

The darling of the Arab Spring

So how did things in Tunisia get to this point? To answer that, let’s first do a recap of the Arab Spring.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring, a series of pro-democracy uprisings across largely Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Back in December 2010, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohmed Bouazizi self-immolated in protest against endemic government corruption. His death kicked off countrywide and regional protests, and the eventual toppling of then-Tunisian president Ben Ali, ushering in the nation’s transition to democracy.

In the decade that’s passed, Tunisia has emerged as the only ‘success’ story from the Arab Spring.

Among the countries which ousted their dictators during the movement, only Tunisia has remained a democracy. It has free elections, free speech, a liberal-democratic constitution, peaceful transitions of power, and political candidates spanning the religious and ideological spectrums.

And that’s no small feat in such a combustible region, not exactly short on autocrats:

Long-simmering problems in Tunisia

But a successful transition into a democracy has not guaranteed socioeconomic equity or dignity. The unaddressed root causes of the Arab Spring have only deepened and metastasised:

  • Youth unemployment remains one of the highest in the region, with over a third of young people lacking job prospects.

  • An economy that’s tourism-dependent and exports cheap agricultural goods while importing more expensive energy and industrial goods.

  • Frequent political stalemates in government due to electoral laws; the stalemates produce a fragmented parliament with slim majorities, resulting in slow reform.

  • Lower-socioeconomic Tunisians remain susceptible to recruitment by extremist terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

  • The healthcare crisis has only worsened during the pandemic.

All these issues combined to create public discontent with the Tunisian government. The frustrations felt by the average Tunisian meant that President Saied’s dismissal of the government actually received huge public support.

Videos posted to social media showed crowds celebrating Saied’s moves. According to some opinion polls, ~87% of Tunisians supported his ‘brave’ and ‘decisive action’ to rid the country of what they viewed as an ineffective and corrupt government.

Zoom out

As you can see, it’s a complicated situation in Tunisia, which is why many western allies of the country have been hesitant to call the developments the c-word (a coup, in case there’s any confusion). They’re hopeful that Saied will keep his word and restore power to parliament.

Here are some broader takeaways about Tunisia's journey during the Arab Spring until now:

  1. Transitioning to democracy is not a straightforward, linear process. Sometimes it’s one step forward, ten steps back, and democratic institutions take years to become fully formed - Europe learned this from the failed 1848 rebellions. The transition to democracy also requires huge international and diplomatic support to succeed, something that's lacking in the current climate.

  2. Democracies require more than just elected governments to survive - they need a strong civil society. Tunisia’s civil society was instrumental in wrestling the country's wobbly transition from the brink of collapse in 2013 (for which they won the Nobel), and may be called on again to facilitate national dialogues.

  3. If things spiral downhill, Tunisia’s developments will test whether US President Biden’s vocal commitment to protecting democracies translates into military action. After all, Tunisia is important to the US for counterterrorism purposes and as a bulwark to protect the southern flank of NATO.

  4. There's been a lot written about democracy as an aspirational model of governance. But as one interviewed Tunisian street vendor put it: what’s the value of a vote when you can’t eat? Perhaps people just want jobs and a social safety net, regardless of what political system creates that environment. So unless these root political and economic issues are resolved, there will always be Tunisians who believe that the democratic model doesn't deliver.

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💪 Antifragile foreign policy

By John

⭐ This piece is inspired by Nassim Taleb's book Antifragile. It's a fascinating read about risk and randomness. I’ll do my best to adapt its ideas, but you can also check out a summary here.

On my first day as a baby diplomat, Dennis Richardson* - Australia’s chief diplomat at the time - gave my cohort some advice:

Everyone needs to formulate a worldview. Develop an opinion about how the world works and why, and then figure out what Australia should do about it.

Last week I explored some ideas for figuring out ‘how the world works and why’ by using the VUCA mental model. This week I’ll explore the second half of Varghese’s equation: if the pace of unpredictable geopolitical change is increasing, how should countries respond?

But first, a little detour…

The purpose of foreign policy

DFAT promotes and protects Australia’s international interests to support our security and prosperity.

- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)


I’ll translate:

The world is really scary and unpredictable, and because we’d like to not be robbed or killed, we'll do everything we can to promote stability and predictability.

And that’s not just Australia, that’s the goal of just about every foreign service on earth. In fact, trying to exert some control over the world in order to avoid unpredictable events has been the aim of every nation from Ancient Rome to Modern China.

The problem is, no foreign policy can ever reliably predict or prevent 'black swan events'.

For example, perfect military planning still wouldn't have saved the world in 1983, if a Soviet military officer named Stanislav Petrov had decided to fire nuclear missiles at America. Instead Petrov delayed launching the missiles, suspecting that the Soviet early-warning alarm was malfunctioning. He was right, and the world got very, very lucky.

Now hang on just a minute, wasn't that just gut instinct from a brilliant officer? It wasn't luck, it was flawless analysis!

Perhaps, but almost certainly not. The truth is, we humans love to ascribe good results to wise decisions, and dismiss poor outcomes as simply bad luck. Driving home drunk without crashing is ‘because I’m just a superb driver’, while getting pulled over by the police is ‘just my luck’.

Nassim Taleb believes humans underestimate the role of randomness and luck in the world so much that it negatively affects our decision making on an almost daily basis.

He calls this idea 'fooled by randomness' and yes, he’s calling us all idiots (and especially Edward Snowden).

What is antifragility?

Antifragility is Taleb’s answer for how to live in that mostly random world:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists random shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

- Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Taleb.

For example:

  • the rule of law: the acquittal of a murderer due to police corruption during the investigation might be seen as a shock to the system. But that stressor actually improves the judicial system overall, because citizens now have an increased belief in its fairness and impartiality.

  • weight training: lifting heavy weights stresses human muscles resulting in tiny tears and temporary damage. But after a short while the muscles repair themselves and the body becomes stronger as a result of the stress.

For a fuller explanation, check out this excellent video explainer.

Antifragility is not the same as stability

But John, you said that most foreign policies are focused on stability and predictability. Isn’t that the same as mitigating the risk of random shocks? And why do you ask yourself so many rhetorical questions?

No, and I’m not sure… should I be worried?

Let’s run a quick experiment:

👞 Step 1: Imagine a giant depression ravages the globe. Think about the political, economic, and social consequences of that disaster. Now list the five countries you think would come out the other side of that shock in the best shape.

👡 Step 2: Consider the five principal sources of geopolitical fragility according to Taleb:

  • a centralised governing system

  • an undiversified economy

  • excessive debt and leverage

  • a lack of political variability

  • no history of surviving past shocks

👟 Step 3: Repeat Step 1.

Did your list change? I'll bet it did, particularly if your initial list included countries like Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, or Australia.

When we apply the idea of antifragility, messy regimes like Italy (whose political chaos is legendary) come out as more likely to thrive than more stable, in-control countries.

Key takeaway: any policy that pursues stability first is not preparing for uncertainty or randomness. A stable system merely kicks the can down the road until an inevitable black swan shock. How badly that black swan event affects the ‘stability focused system’ will most likely be down to luck.

So what might an antifragile foreign policy look like?

The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.

- Boris Johnson, according to his former adviser Dominic Cummings

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a completely chaotic foreign policy. Or for Boris Johnson to be in charge of it, either:

Let's take a few key pillars of antifragility and adapt them into some foreign policy rules of thumb:

  • Never lever up. Aka the first rule of gambling. A country that cultivates ‘us vs them’ narratives and demands that others ‘pick a side’, is essentially staking its future on randomness. While one country might believe that their side will triumph in any great showdown, the outcome will actually be in large part random.

  • Run many small experiments. Antifragile systems tinker liberally. In the foreign policy context, this might include funding interesting ideas with no obvious, immediate gain. Or perhaps it means rethinking the role of embassies; could digital embassies be the future of foreign services? Small bets on lots of outcomes increase the upside and decrease the downside of unpredictable shocks.

  • Pursue multilateralism. Regional or global cooperation is antifragile. Black swan shocks to a global system are distributed across many countries, meaning any one shock is less likely to destroy a country. More than that, with each stress test a multilateral organisation can learn and adapt, making it antifragile.

And there are many, many other ways in which the concept of antifragility can be applied to foreign policy.

Navigating an uncertain future

I think too many foreign policies are focused on pursuing stability at all costs as the antidote to an increasingly unpredictable world. And too many foreign policies are reactionary, responding inconsistently and often poorly to events as and when they happen.

I think we can do better. Acknowledging that the world is changing quickly and in unpredictable ways does not mean we ought to hunker back down behind national borders and prepare to ride out the storm.

Antifragility provides an alternative - a way of thinking and acting that allows us to not only engage with the world and its randomness, but also grow stronger because of it. We could do a lot worse.

*The original version of this piece incorrectly said that Peter Varghese was the head of the Australian foreign service when I joined. Do forgive my error.

➕ Extra intrigue

  • "I am overheated" are the lyrics from Billie Eilish’s new album Happier Than Ever. But did you know she was actually singing about the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report? Released on Monday, the report delivered the strongest warning about climate change yet. With November’s COP26 meeting fast approaching, here’s hoping the report scares some politicians into action.

Update: Billie Eilish was not singing about climate change. But we can report that Eilish cannot be defeated, deleted or, as it turns out, repeated.

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