from Asia Unbound

A Review of Rachel Kleinfield’s "A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security"

Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon walks during a heads of states Collective Security Treaty Organization summit at the Independence Palace in Minsk, Belarus, on November 30, 2017. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

November 1, 2018

Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon walks during a heads of states Collective Security Treaty Organization summit at the Independence Palace in Minsk, Belarus, on November 30, 2017. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
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By Nicholas Borroz

In A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, Rachel Kleinfield explains why some societies are plagued by internal violence, how such violence undermines state functions, and how societies can restore order. Kleinfield, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, thoroughly examines the devastating effects of violence in places as varied as Baltimore, Tajikistan, Mexico, and the state of Bihar in India. Kleinfield starts off with an explanation of the problem. She then describes case studies where societies have managed to reduce levels of societal violence. Finally, she offers recommendations for how to help troubled societies achieve security. Early on, she describes her book as a “blueprint for action”—a resource that can help societies escape deadly cycles of perpetual violence.

The book’s critical takeaway is that nonwar, intrasocietal violence has vast consequences that can be as severe as the impacts of war. Kleinfield makes a compelling case, based both on statistical evidence and on anecdotes from her extensive travels and research. Although war receives more attention in headlines, she argues, intrasocietal violence triggered by corrupt elites is in many ways as serious a modern scourge.

In the first and second parts of her book, Kleinfield identifies five factors that explain how violence can become normalized and how citizens and governments can combat such normalization. First, governments trigger the spread of violence by politicizing security forces to the point of making them inept and brutal. Second, changing norms, triggered by politicians and other elites accepting and even encouraging violence, begin to pervade society; she notes that when corrupt politicians enable criminal activity, everyday people lose their inhibitions and start partaking in the violence. Third, members of the middle class allow the spread of violence, or in some cases they combat it; they are often not as affected as poorer members of society and can thus allow violence to fester, but when they do become mobilized they can wield significant resources to curtail violence. Fourth, “dirty deals” are often necessary evils to reduce intrastate violence; temporary agreements with violent groups give governments the space to make lasting improvements in maintaining law and order. Fifth is that an escape from endemic violence, and from the consequent polarization of society, is only possible when governments and civil society work closely together. She argues that both government initiatives and social movements must work in tandem to achieve success.

Kleinfield ends her book with recommendations to readers in relatively secure countries for how to help other societies wracked by violence. Her recommendations fall into three broad areas: training leaders and educating populations in peace-building; incentivizing intrasocietal peace deals to include provisions that will prevent future outbreaks of violence; and fixing issues in developed countries that perpetuate violence in the most troubled societies—for instance, opaque financial systems that can allow criminals to move funds without scrutiny, or foreign aid that may inadvertently support violent groups.

The book is very erudite and a pleasure to read, full of detailed reporting. She ranges widely in the instances she examines of violence spreading within societies. While this makes for an entertaining and educational read, Kleinfeld’s approach also makes the reader sometimes wonder if the situations she describes are similar enough to make for effective comparisons.

For instance, Kleinfield frames her study as looking at democracies, but she does not satisfactorily define what she means by democracy. She of course alludes to what a democratic order looks like—citizens “having a voice,” for instance. But nowhere does she come out and succinctly state what distinguishes a full-fledged democracy from a semidemocracy/hybrid regime or an outright autocracy. The ambiguity sometimes bubbles to the surface, when she discusses Mexico, for instance. She uses Mexico early on as an example of when dealmaking between politicians and criminals undermined democratic advances, but she then questions whether Mexico is a legitimate democracy. At the end of the book she excludes Mexico when recapping successful “recivilizing” democracies. Did she exclude it because it is not a democracy or because it was unsuccessful in curbing violence?

Given her background, Kleinfield surely has a definition for democracy in mind, but her lack of a definition in the book muddles some of the analysis. If she is interested in explaining how violence rises and falls inside of democracies, then this implies a relationship exists between political systems and violence; in other words, what holds true for violence inside a democracy may not hold true for violence inside an autocracy. But if the type of political system matters, then why does Kleinfield discuss Tajikistan? It seems that this country—which she describes as decidedly nondemocratic—would not have much applicability in comparisons to democracies. Later on, she compares Mexico and Sicily. But she implies the latter is part of a secure democracy, so are the two cases really comparable?

Kleinfeld also compares entire countries to portions of countries. She applies her arguments about the causes of societal violence to Colombia, and also to subnational entities like Bihar state in India and Sicily in Italy. Are they comparable? Given that one of Kleinfield’s key arguments is that governments can trigger the spread of internal violence, are there differences in the scope of violence triggered by national governments, state governments, and local governments?

Another point regarding Kleinfield’s take on governments is that it is unclear when a government’s abuse of violence becomes coordinated enough that some threshold has been passed; at this point, the problem is no longer individual opportunistic politicians but a coordinated effort of politicians and other actors destabilizing societies. How does one tell when a sufficient level of internal coordination is happening among politicians and other elites, sparking the normalization of violence? Particularly since such coordination is often illicit, surely evidence is hard to find. How does one find this evidence? What does it look like?

Although these questions may sound abstract, they have serious implications for Kleinfield’s argument. Without identifying clearly the threshold at which individuals politicians’ criminality and acceptance of violence sparks intrasocietal violence, one can argue individual corrupt politicians do not pose a serious threat to the stability of society.

Overall, A Savage Order is a detailed, rich, and informative read that raises as many questions as it answers. It leaves the reader more aware of a dire problem and with a sense of what its underlying causes are. A Savage Order will spur interested readers to make further inquiries into how to solve intrasocietal violence.

Nicholas Borroz is an international business doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland.

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