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Erik Fosse, a Norwegian cardiologist, worked in Gaza hospitals during the recent war."It was as if they had stepped on a mine," he says of certain Palestinian patients he treated. "But there was no shrapnel in the wound. Some had lost their legs. It looked as though they had been sliced off. I have been to war zones for 30 years, but I have never seen such injuries before."

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Will Democracy Make You Happy?

To travel to Moldova is to travel to a land submerged in a deep and persistent pool of despair. Faces are sullen and drawn. Everyone moves about listlessly, doing the Moldovan Shuffle. A cloud of despondency hangs in the air, every bit as real, and toxic, as the smog in Los Angeles or the coal dust in Linfen, China.

Statistically, Moldova may be the least happy nation on the planet. On a scale of 1 (least happy) to 10, Moldovans can muster only a 4.5 in self-reported surveys. They are less happy than their morose neighbors, the Ukrainians and the Romanians, and inexplicably, they are less happy than much of sub-Saharan Africa. What is truly mysterious, though, and deeply troubling for those in the business of nation building, is that Moldovan despair persists despite the advent of democracy.

This wasn't supposed to happen here. The mood in Moldova--and indeed in most of the former Soviet bloc countries--flies in the face of what is received wisdom in foreign-policy circles: Democratic nations are happy nations. Or, to put it another way, the path to national bliss is paved with democracy. Until now, the debate has centered only on how best to travel that path and at what cost. "This interpretation is appealing and suggests that we have a quick fix for most of the world's problems: adopt a democratic constitution, and live happily ever after," says Ronald Inglehart, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, and a man who has spent a career studying the relationship between democracy and happiness.

There's only one problem with this compelling and seemingly self-evident truism. It's not true. "To assume that democracy automatically makes people happy is to assume that the tail is wagging the dog," says Inglehart. In other words, the well-intentioned nation builders and democracy exporters have it backward. It's not that democracies make people happy but, rather, that happy people make democracies.


This remarkable finding isn't simply a new theory born out of thin air. It's based on hard data that social scientists on the leading edge of the emerging "science of happiness" are now employing to measure cultural artifacts such as trust and happiness, just as political scientists have for decades measured levels of democracy by comparing such metrics as press freedom and voting rights.

These social scientists do so through a disarmingly simple technique. They ask people, "Overall, how happy are you with your life these days?" Surveys such as the comprehensive World Values Survey have posed that question, with little variation, to people in more than 80 nations, accounting for some 85 percent of the world's population. They have produced a mother lode of data. Although the data are often contradictory, a few clear patterns have emerged. We now know, for example, that happy countries tend to be wealthy ones, with temperate climates and, crucially, stable democracies.

The question, though, is which comes first: happiness or democracy? Despite our earlier thinking, there is now growing evidence that a happy population, one where people are satisfied with their lives as a whole, is a prerequisite for democracy.

In the 1980s, happiness and democracy were closely linked (with a correlation of 0.8), thus cementing the democracy-equals-happiness theory in the minds of many political scientists and policymakers. But then came the so-called third wave of democracy, a flood of infant democracies that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. These nations have not enjoyed a happiness dividend, and, indeed, as in Moldova, many are less happy today than they were during Soviet times. Today, the correlation between happiness and democracy is only 0.25, less than a third of what it was in the 1980s. In more than 200 surveys carried out by the World Values Survey, 28 of the 30 least happy nations were registered in former communist states. The remaining two surveys were conducted in Iraq. In Russia, both subjective well-being (happiness) and trust have fallen sharply since its people began voting in relatively free elections. By 1995, a majority of Russians described themselves as unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives as a whole. The same is true of Moldova and several other former Soviet republics. (Russian misery, by the way, predates Vladimir Putin's recent crackdown on freedoms.)

Contrast the mood in the former Soviet states with that of China. During the past two decades, as China witnessed an economic boom, its citizens reported levels of satisfaction consistently double those of people in former Soviet countries. This, despite the fact that China remains a one-party communist state where an indiscreet Google search can land you in jail.

Clearly, democracy is only one source of human happiness, and indeed it may not be the greatest source. Economic growth appears to affect national happiness at least as much as democracy. Economic growth helps foster trust between citizens and the state, and trust is essential to democracy. That's why in nations such as South Korea and Taiwan, a spurt of economic growth has preceded democratic reforms.

What the evidence on happiness demonstrates is that happy people are much more likely to express satisfaction with their country's political regime, regardless of what kind that might be, than unhappy people. That's not to say that democracy doesn't matter. It does. All things being equal, democracy does provide a happiness boost. But all things are rarely equal.

Some studies point to a definite "happiness bonus" among the world's democracies, for example. In 1999, Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer famously studied the effects of their country's system of direct democracy on happiness levels. Switzerland makes a perfect laboratory for this kind of study; the country shares a common culture (if not language) and relatively even economic development. Yet the degree of democracy varies from one district to the next. Frey and Stutzer asked some 6,000 residents, both Swiss citizens and foreigners, one question: "How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" They found a clear correlation between the vitality of direct democracy and the subjective well-being, or happiness, of each district. The Swiss example proves that a bit more democracy makes a developed, already democratic country like Switzerland a bit happier. For the Swiss, direct democracy is the icing on their cake. But for nations with no cake, the icing is meaningless.


It isn't hard to fall into the old trap of assuming democracy is such a powerful force that it can sweep aside any cultural differences that might stand in its way. Confronted with the obvious goodness of free elections and self-determination, peoples of the world should shed their cultural vestiges the way a snake sloughs its skin, right? It's a compelling idea, a perfectly plausible one, but one that happens to be wrong. "Culture seems to shape democracy far more than democracy shapes culture," says Inglehart.

Indeed, this notion of cultural primacy is gaining favor, especially among foreign-policy realists such as Colin Powell. "There are some places that are not ready for the kind of democracy we find so attractive for ourselves. They are not culturally ready for it," Powell said in a recent interview with GQ. That is not to say, of course, that these places won't ever be ready for democracy. They just aren't ready now, and no amount of wishing, or purple ink, will make it so.

All of this can be a bit depressing for those who believe that foreign policy should be informed by an idealistic streak. But, as Iraq has demonstrated, midwifing a constitution won't necessarily turn a distrustful, unhappy society into a trusting, happy one. Of course, the science of happiness is in its infancy, and it would be foolish to base a foreign policy on its tentative conclusions. Social scientists may be able to measure, with some accuracy, abstractions such as happiness and trust, but they don't necessarily know how to produce these qualities--in a person or a nation. What these findings do remind us, though, is that democracy bubbles up to the surface when the time is right and not a second sooner.

Reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy #165 (March/April 2008) Copyright 2008, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A Modern-Day Tyrant?

As the 20th century drew to a close, Latin America finally seemed to have escaped its reputation for military dictatorships. The democratic wave that swept the region starting in the late 1970s appeared unstoppable. No Latin American country except Haiti had reverted to authoritarianism. There were a few coups, of course, but they all unraveled, and constitutional order returned. Polls in the region indicated growing support for democracy, and the climate seemed to have become inhospitable for dictators.

Then came Hugo Chávez, elected president of Venezuela in December 1998. The lieutenant colonel had attempted a coup six years earlier. When that failed, he won power at the ballot box and is now approaching a decade in office. In that time, he has concentrated power, harassed opponents, punished reporters, persecuted civic organizations, and increased state control of the economy. Yet, he has also found a way to make authoritarianism fashionable again, if not with the masses, with at least enough voters to win elections. And with his fiery anti-American, anti-neoliberal rhetoric, Chávez has become the poster boy for many leftists worldwide.

Many experts, and certainly Chávez's supporters, would not concede that Venezuela has become an autocracy. After all, Chávez wins votes, often with the help of the poor. That is the peculiarity of Chávez's regime. He has virtually eliminated the contradiction between autocracy and political competitiveness.

What's more, his accomplishment is not simply a product of charisma or unique local circumstances. Chávez has refashioned authoritarianism for a democratic age. With elections this year in several Latin American states -- including Mexico and Brazil -- his leadership formula may inspire like-minded leaders in the region. And his international celebrity status means that even strongmen outside of Latin America may soon try to adopt the new Chávez look.

The democratic disguise

There are no mass executions or concentration camps in Venezuela. Civil society has not disappeared, as it did in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. There is no systematic, state-sponsored terror leaving scores of desaparecidos, as happened in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s. And there is certainly no efficiently repressive and meddlesome bureaucracy à la the Warsaw Pact. In fact, in Venezuela, one can still find an active and vociferous opposition, elections, a feisty press, and a vibrant and organized civil society. Venezuela, in other words, appears almost democratic.

But when it comes to accountability and limits on presidential power, the picture grows dark. Chávez has achieved absolute control of all state institutions that might check his power. In 1999, he engineered a new constitution that did away with the Senate, thereby reducing from two to one the number of chambers with which he must negotiate. Because Chávez only has a limited majority in this unicameral legislature, he revised the rules of congress so that major legislation can pass with only a simple, rather than a two-thirds, majority. Using that rule, Chávez secured congressional approval for an expansion of the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 justices and filled the new posts with unabashed revolucionarios, as Chavistas call themselves.

Chávez has also become commander in chief twice over. With the traditional army, he has achieved unrivaled political control. His 1999 constitution did away with congressional oversight of military affairs, a change that allowed him to purge disloyal generals and promote friendly ones. But commanding one armed force was not enough for Chávez. So in 2004, he began assembling a parallel army of urban reservists, whose membership he hopes to expand from 100,000 members to 2 million. In Colombia, 10,000 right-wing paramilitary forces significantly influenced the course of the domestic war against guerrillas. Two million reservists may mean never having to be in the opposition.

As important, Chávez commands the institute that supervises elections, the National Electoral Council, and the gigantic state-owned oil company, PDVSA, which provides most of the government's revenues. A Chávez-controlled election body ensures that voting irregularities committed by the state are overlooked. A Chávez-controlled oil industry allows the state to spend at will, which comes in handy during election season.

Chávez thus controls the legislature, the Supreme Court, two armed forces, the only important source of state revenue, and the institution that monitors electoral rules. As if that weren't enough, a new media law allows the state to supervise media content, and a revised criminal code permits the state to imprison any citizen for showing "disrespect" toward government officials. By compiling and posting on the Internet lists of voters and their political tendencies -- including whether they signed a petition for a recall referendum in 2004 -- Venezuela has achieved reverse accountability. The state is watching and punishing citizens for political actions it disapproves of rather than the other way around. If democracy requires checks on the power of incumbents, Venezuela doesn't come close.

Polarize and conquer

Chávez's power grabs have not gone unopposed. Between 2001 and 2004, more than 19 massive marches, multiple cacerolazos (pot-bangings), and a general strike at PDVSA virtually paralyzed the country. A coup briefly removed him from office in April 2002. Not long thereafter, and despite obstacles imposed by the Electoral Council, the opposition twice collected enough signatures -- 3.2 million in February 2003 and 3.4 million in December 2003 -- to require a presidential recall referendum.

But that was as far as his opponents got. Chávez won the referendum in 2004 and deflated the opposition. For many analysts, Chávez's ability to hold on to power is easy to explain: The poor love him. Chávez may be a caudillo, the argument goes, but unlike other caudillos, Chávez approximates a bona fide Robin Hood. With inclusive rhetoric and lavish spending, especially since late 2003, Chávez has addressed the spiritual and material needs of Venezuela's poor, which in 2004 accounted for 60 percent of the country's households.

Yet reducing Chávez's political feats to a story about social redemption overlooks the complexity of his rule -- and the danger of his precedent. Undeniably, Chávez has brought innovative social programs to neighborhoods that the private sector and the Venezuelan state had all but abandoned to criminal gangs, though many of his initiatives came only after he was forced to compete in the recall referendum. He also launched one of the most dramatic increases in state spending in the developing world, from 19 percent of gross domestic product in 1999 to more than 30 percent in 2004. And yet, Chávez has failed to improve any meaningful measure of poverty, education, or equity. More damning for the Chávez-as-Robin Hood theory, the poor do not support him en masse. Most polls reveal that at least 30 percent of the poor, sometimes even more, disapprove of Chávez. And it is safe to assume that among the 30 to 40 percent of the electorate that abstains from voting, the majority have low incomes.

Chávez's inability to establish control over the poor is key to understanding his new style of dictatorship -- call it "competitive autocracy." A competitive autocrat has enough support to compete in elections, but not enough to overwhelm the opposition. Chávez's coalition today includes portions of the poor, the bulk of the thoroughly purged military, and many long-marginalized leftist politicians. Chávez is thus distinct from two other breeds of dictators: the unpopular autocrat who has few supporters and must resort to outright repression, and the comfortable autocrat, who faces little opposition and can relax in power. Chávez's opposition is too strong to be overtly repressed, and the international consequences of doing so would in any case be prohibitive. So Chávez maintains a semblance of democracy, which requires him to outsmart the opposition. His solution is to antagonize, rather than to ban. Chávez's electoral success has less to do with what he is doing for the poor than with how he handles organized opposition. He has discovered that he can concentrate power more easily in the presence of a virulent opposition than with a banned opposition, and in so doing, he is rewriting the manual on how to be a modern-day authoritarian. Here's how it works.

Attack Political Parties: After Chávez's attempt to take power by way of coup failed in 1992, he decided to try elections in 1998. His campaign strategy had one preeminent theme: the evil of political parties. His attacks on partidocracia were more frequent than his attacks against neoliberalism, and the theme was an instant hit with the electorate. As in most developing-country democracies, discontent with existing parties was profound and pervasive. It attracted the right and the left, the young and old, the traditional voter as well as the nonvoter. Chávez's antiparty stand not only got him elected, but by December 1999 also allowed him to pass one of the most antiparty constitutions among Latin American democracies. His plan to concentrate power was off to a good start.

Polarize Society: Having secured office, the task of the competitive autocrat is to polarize the political system. This maneuver deflates the political center and maintains unity within one's ranks. Reducing the size of the political center is crucial for the competitive autocrat. In most societies, the ideological center is numerically strong, a problem for aspiring authoritarians because moderate voters seldom go for extremists -- unless, of course, the other side becomes immoderate as well.

The solution is to provoke one's opponents into extreme positions. The rise of two extreme poles splits the center: The moderate left becomes appalled by the right and gravitates toward the radical left, and vice versa. The center never disappears entirely, but it melts down to a manageable size. Now, our aspiring autocrat stands a chance of winning more than a third of the vote in every election, maybe even the majority. Chávez succeeded in polarizing the system as early as October 2000 with his Decree 1011, which suggested he would nationalize private schools and ideologize the public school system. The opposition reacted predictably: It panicked, mobilized, and embraced a hard-core position in defense of the status quo. The center began to shrink.

Chávez's supporters, meanwhile, were energized and not inclined to quibble as he colonized institutional obstacles to his power. This energy within the movement is essential to the competitive autocrat, who actually faces a greater chance of internal dissent than unpopular dictators because his coalition of supporters is broader and more heterogeneous. So he must constantly identify mechanisms for alleviating internal tensions. The solution is simple: co-opt disgruntled troops through lavish rewards and provoke the opposition so that there is always a monster to rail against. The largesse creates incentives for the troops to stay, and the provocations eliminate incentives to switch sides.

Spread the Wealth Selectively: Those expecting Chávez's populism to benefit citizens according to need, rather than political usefulness, do not understand competitive autocracy. Chávez's populism is grandiose, but selective. His supporters will receive unimaginable favors, and detractors are paid in insults. Denying the opposition spoils while lavishing supporters with booty has the added benefit of enraging those not in his camp and fueling the polarization that the competitive autocrat needs.

Chávez has plenty of resources from which he can draw. He is, after all, one of the world's most powerful CEOs in one of the world's most profitable businesses: selling oil to the United States. He has steadily increased personal control over PDVSA. With an estimated $84 billion in sales for 2005, PDVSA has the fifth-largest state-owned oil reserves in the world and the largest revenues in Latin America after PEMEX, the Mexican state-oil company. Because PDVSA participates in both the wholesale and retail side of oil sales in the United States (it owns CITGO, one of the largest U.S. refining companies and gas retailers), it makes money whether the price of oil is high or low.

But sloshing around oil money isn't polarizing enough. Chávez needs conflict, and his recent expropriation of private land has provided it. In mid-2005, the national government, in cooperation with governors and the national guard, began a series of land grabs. Nearly 250,000 acres were seized in August and September, and the government announced that it intends to take more. The constitution permits expropriations only after the National Assembly consents or the property has been declared idle. Chávez has found another way -- questioning land titles and claiming that the properties are state-owned. Chávez supporters quickly applauded the move as virtuous Robinhoodism. Of course, a government sincerely interested in helping the poor might have simply distributed some of the 50 percent of Venezuelan territory it already owns, most of which is idle. But giving away state land would not enrage anyone.

Most expropriated lands will likely end up in the hands of party activists and the military, not the very poor. Owning a small plot of land is a common retirement dream among many Venezuelan sergeants, which is one reason that the military is hypnotized by Chávez's land grab. Shortly after the expropriations were announced, a public dispute erupted between the head of the National Institute of Lands, Richard Vivas, a radical civilian, and the minister of food, Rafael Oropeza, an active-duty general, over which office would be in charge of expropriations. No one expects the military to walk away empty-handed.

Allow the Bureaucracy to Decay, Almost: Some autocracies, such as Burma's, seek to become legitimate by establishing order; others, like the Chinese Communist Party, by delivering economic prosperity. Both types of autocracies need a top-notch bureaucracy. A competitive autocrat like Chávez doesn't require such competence. He can allow the bureaucracy to decline -- with one exception: the offices that count votes.

Perhaps the best evidence that Chávez is fostering bureaucratic chaos is cabinet turnover. It is impossible to have coherent policies when ministers don't stay long enough to decorate their offices. On average, Chávez shuffles more than half of his cabinet every year. And yet, alongside this bureaucratic turmoil, he is constructing a mighty electoral machine. The best minds and the brightest técnicos run the elections. One of Chávez's most influential electoral whizzes is the quiet minister of finance, Nelson Merentes, who spends more time worrying about elections than fiscal solvency. Merentes's job description is straightforward: extract the highest possible number of seats from mediocre electoral results. This task requires a deep understanding of the intricacies of electoral systems, effective manipulation of electoral districting, mobilization of new voters, detailed knowledge about the political proclivities of different districts, and, of course, a dash of chicanery. A good head for numbers is a prerequisite for the job. Merentes, no surprise, is a trained mathematician.

The results are apparent. Renewing a passport in Venezuela can take several months, but more than 2.7 million new voters have been registered in less than two years (almost 3,700 new voters per day), according to a recent report in El Universal, a pro-opposition Caracas daily. For the recall referendum, the government added names to the registry list up to 30 days prior to the vote, making it impossible to check for irregularities. More than 530,000 foreigners were expeditiously naturalized and registered in fewer than 20 months, and more than 3.3 million transferred to new voting districts.

Chávez's electoral strategists have also figured out how to game the country's bifurcated electoral system, in which 60 percent of officeholders are elected as individuals and the rest of the seats go to lists of candidates compiled by parties. The system is designed to favor the second-largest party. The party that wins the uninominal election loses some seats in the proportional representation system, which then get assigned to the second-largest party.

To massage this system, the government has adopted the system of morochas, local slang for twins. The government's operatives create a new party to run separately in the uninominal elections. And so Chávez's party avoids the penalty that would normally hit the party that wins in both systems. The benefit that would otherwise go to an opposition party gets captured instead by the same people that win the individual seats -- the precise outcome the system was designed to avoid. In the August 2005 elections for local office, for instance, Chávez's party secured 77 percent of the seats with only 37 percent of the votes in the city of Valencia. Without morochas, the government's share of seats would have been 46 percent. The legality of many of the government's strategies is questionable. And that is where controlling the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Court proves useful. To this day, neither body has found fault with any of the government's electoral strategies.

Antagonize the Superpower: Following the 2004 recall referendum, in which Chávez won 58 percent of the vote, the opposition fell into a coma, shocked not so much by the results as by the ease with which international observers condoned the Electoral Council's flimsy audit of the results. For Chávez, the opposition's stunned silence has been a mixed blessing. It has cleared the way for further state incursions, but it left Chávez with no one to attack. The solution? Pick on the United States.

Chávez's attacks on the United States escalated noticeably at the end of 2004. He has accused the United States of plotting to kill him, crafting his overthrow, placing spies inside PDVSA, planning to invade Venezuela, and terrorizing the world. Trashing the superpower serves the same purpose as antagonizing the domestic opposition: It helps to unite and distract his large coalition -- with one added advantage. It endears him to the international left.

All autocrats need international support. Many seek this support by cuddling up to superpowers. The Chávez way is to become a ballistic anti-imperialist. Chávez has yet to save Venezuela from poverty, militarism, corruption, crime, oil dependence, monopoly capitalism, or any other problem that the international left cares about. With few social- democratic accomplishments to flaunt, Chávez desperately needs something to captivate the left. He plays the anti-imperialist card because he has nothing else in his hand.

The beauty of the policy is that, in the end, it doesn't really matter how the United States responds. If the United States looks the other way (as it more or less did prior to 2004), Chávez appears to have won. If the United States overreacts, as it increasingly has in recent months, Chávez proves his point. Aspiring autocrats, take note: Trashing the United States is a low-risk, high-return policy for gaining support.

Controlled chaos

Ultimately, all authoritarian regimes seek power by following the same principle. They raise society's tolerance for state intervention. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British philosopher, offered some tips for accomplishing this goal. The more insecurity that citizens face -- the closer they come to living in the brutish state of nature -- the more they will welcome state power. Chávez may not have read Hobbes, but he understands Hobbesian thinking to perfection. He knows that citizens who see a world collapsing will appreciate state interventions. Chávez therefore has no incentive to address Venezuela's assorted crises. Rather than mending the country's catastrophic healthcare system, he opens a few military hospitals for selected patients and brings in Cuban doctors to run ad hoc clinics. Rather than addressing the economy's lack of competitiveness, he offers subsidies and protection to economic agents in trouble. Rather than killing inflation, which is crucial to alleviating poverty, Chávez sets price controls and creates local grocery stores with subsidized prices. Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.

Like most fashion designers, Chávez is not a complete original. His style of authoritarianism has influences. His anti-Americanism, for instance, is pure Castro; his use of state resources to reward loyalists and punish critics is quintessential Latin American populism; and his penchant for packing institutions was surely learned from several market-oriented presidents in the 1990s.

Chávez has absorbed and melded these techniques into a coherent model for modern authoritarianism. The student is now emerging as a teacher, and his syllabus suits today's post-totalitarian world, in which democracies in developing countries are strong enough to survive traditional coups by old-fashioned dictators but besieged by institutional disarray. From Ecuador to Egypt to Russia, there are vast breeding grounds for competitive authoritarianism.

When President Bush criticized Chávez after November's Summit of the Americas in Argentina, he may have contented himself with the belief that Chávez was a lone holdout as a wave of democracy sweeps the globe. But Chávez has already learned to surf that wave quite nicely, and others may follow in his wake.

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.]

Gunning For the World

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.]

The ad starts with a sober, simulated news report. A news anchor, looking directly into the camera, warns viewers about Brazil's proposed gun ban. "People are misrepresenting the disarmament issue," she says. "It won't disarm criminals." The anchor fades and a news-on-the-march montage begins, highlighting freedom's red-letter days. Nelson Mandela is released from prison. A single man impedes a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall falls. "Your rights are at risk," says the anchor, returning after the inspiring film clips. "Don't lose your grip on liberty." And then, to bring the message home, archival footage runs of thousands of Brazilians taking to the streets, restoring popular rule after more than two decades of dictatorship.

The ad was the first in a series that aired on Brazilian prime-time television last October, when both sides of the country's gun control debate engaged in a heated exchange about the future of gun laws in South America's largest democracy. Proponents of the gun ban proposed outlawing the commercial sale of arms and ammunition to civilians, capping a series of controls enacted in recent years. Unless you were a police officer, a soldier, or a private security guard, you wouldn't be allowed to acquire a gun or the bullets to fire one. The idea was promoted by nongovernmental organizations in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, adopted by two presidential administrations, and then delayed for years due to the lobbying efforts of Brazil's arms manufacturers. Finally, it was to come to a vote, the first time any country held a popular referendum on gun laws.

But Brazil's gun poll was never just about Brazil. Brazil was merely the most recent battleground state in a raging global debate over gun rights. A week before the vote, the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which represents more than 500 gun control organizations worldwide, coordinated an international day of support for the Brazilian ban. Demonstrations took place in Britain, Italy, South Africa, and Turkey, among other countries. Passage of the ban, IANSA said, would "reinforce the movement in favor of gun control in other Latin American countries riddled with armed violence, and back the efforts to control private gun ownership at [an] international level."

Polling numbers heading into the last month of the campaign gave gun control advocates every reason to be optimistic. As late as mid-September, support for the proposed ban was running at 73 percent, thanks in part to the backing of the federal government, the Roman Catholic Church, and Globo TV, a large media conglomerate. Yet, when Brazilians went to the mandatory polls on October 23, they handed the international gun control movement one of its most stinging defeats, rejecting the ban by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. The number of civilians in Brazil who legally own a gun is estimated to be only about 2 million. In other words, some 59 million Brazilians voted to preserve a prerogative the vast majority of them will never enjoy.

There was no single reason for the landslide defeat. Many voters voiced their discontent with a government mired in a corruption scandal. Others distrusted the government's pitch to disarm because they distrust the government. But few doubt that the ad campaign made the difference. During the three weeks the ads ran, support for the ban plummeted. "They didn't talk about guns," says Guaracy Mingardi, a São Paulo-based crime researcher affiliated with the United Nations. "They talked about rights."

The idea that owning a gun is a human right as dear as, say, the freedom to protest, was new to most Brazilians. But the rhetoric used in the Brazilian commercials echoed talking points used by local pro-gun groups in Australia, Britain, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere. Such a line of argument might not exist if not for the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), which had shaped, tested, and honed the message before many of these groups ever existed. The NRA, perhaps America's most powerful political lobby, serves as spiritual godfather to gun groups around the world. Nor does it see its pro-gun agenda as one that stops at the water's edge. Indeed, shortly before the vote, NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam said, "We view Brazil as the opening salvo for the global gun control movement. If gun control proponents succeed in Brazil, America will be next."

The NRA may not be actively funding gun lobbies around the world -- the organization claims its charter prohibits it -- but its influence is felt in much more than dollars. It lends support to the anti-gun control effort at the United Nations. It promotes lines of argument, strategy, and political tactics that others adopt for local use. And, if you contact the association, its representatives will come to explain how to get it done. Although many of the nra's members may not own a passport, their leaders are savvy operators in international politics. For all their red-blooded American pretensions, they have a deep understanding of how globalization works. "We live in a very globalized society," says Thomas Mason, the American gun lobby's top representative at the United Nations. "[Y]ou can't say what happens in Scotland doesn't affect the United States, because it does."

Fight club

From handguns to shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, there are an estimated 600 million small arms in the world, a majority of them in private hands. For many, firearms are one of the great destabilizing elements in the developing world, at the root of conflicts in Africa, banditry in Latin America, and the proliferation of criminal enterprises around the world. In Brazil alone, according to one estimate, violence, most of it gun-related, saps more than 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

In the late 1990s, a loose affiliation of development and antiviolence nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and academics came together to curtail the largely unregulated trade in small arms and light weapons. This broad coalition had reason to believe their effort could be a success: Earlier in the decade, they had quickly formed an international consensus against the use of land mines. In 1997, 122 countries signed onto the Ottawa Convention, a global treaty that prohibits the production and use of the explosives and outlines a plan for their destruction. Many of the same groups now sought another killer to vanquish. "What we got at the end of the Cold War was a relief from the obsessive focus on the nuclear threat, and then it became possible to see other threats, like the weapons actually killing hundreds of thousands of people every year," says IANSA Director Rebecca Peters.

On average, 38,000 people are killed in Brazil each year by firearms, principally handguns. It's for this reason that the global gun control movement long considered Brazil a potential showcase for the positive effects of curbing legal access to arms. And, ahead of last October's gun-ban vote, all signs suggested the tide was moving in their direction. Brazil's last two presidential administrations embraced U.N. gun control recommendations and, between 1997 and 2003, the Brazilian congress passed some of the most restrictive gun legislation in the democratic world. Since 2004, a buy-back program collected and destroyed more than 400,000 weapons. The number of homicides in Brazil fell by 8 percent in 2004, the first drop in 13 years, which gun control advocates attribute to the new measures.

This same string of events was at least partly responsible for the NRA's arrival in Brazil. In August 2003, Charles Cunningham, a top lobbyist for the group's Institute for Legislative Action, traveled to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to address sports shooting organizations, gun collectors, and other gun rights advocates. At the time, the Brazilian congress was months away from passing a new round of gun restrictions, and Brazil's smattering of pro-gun groups were ill-prepared to do much about it. One of the groups in attendance was the Rio-based National Association of Gun Owners and Retailers, the closest approximation to a Brazilian NRA. The group's membership rolls stood at 1,200 in 1998. But, just five years later, they were down to 400 members. The pro-gun movement, to the degree it existed at all, was dispirited. "We didn't have the necessary number of members to start an efficient campaign of any kind," explains Leonardo Arruda, the group's spokesperson. "So people began to quit."

The group that invited Cunningham and hosted the events, the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, wasn't faring any better. A far-right religious and nationalist organization, its influence lapsed with the demise of Brazil's military dictatorship in 1985. None of Brazil's other pro-gun groups had much of a presence outside shooting ranges and the Internet. Nor did Brazil's arms industry take the ragtag collection of gun enthusiasts seriously, preferring to work directly behind the scenes with politicians.

Reflecting the organizers' underdog anxieties, Cunningham's talks were billed as offering "effective pro-gun strategies in an anti-gun culture." Several hundred people attended in each city. Cunningham spoke about the U.S. Constitution and the history of the nra's growth. Gun owners, he explained, had to be centrally coordinated, yet locally represented in every region. It was important for gun groups to put aside their differences and fight disarmament with one voice. They should remember that disarmament only favored criminals. Gun control, Cunningham told them, is about more than guns: "It is about freedom." The speeches ended in applause.

Some pro-gun activists stayed away from the talks. They didn't want to be seen as anything but homegrown. But it was the first time any sizeable collection of gun groups had gathered together to talk strategy. "It was important because [Cunningham] was kind of a catalyst," says Lincoln Tendler, editor of Magnum, Brazil's only gun magazine. "It made people feel better. If it worked for the Americans, it could work for us."

Spreading the word -- quietly

It hasn't worked for just the Americans, of course. During the last couple decades, the NRA has assisted gun rights advocates in fighting anti-gun legislation in Australia, Britain, and Canada. Australia was one of the NRA's earliest foreign venues, and where it made the biggest impact.

In the early 1990s, as Australia began tightening its gun control laws, the head of the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia (SSAA) twice visited the NRA's headquarters outside Washington, D.C., to absorb lobbying and public relations know-how. (The NRA picked up $20,000 worth of his travel expenses.) In return, in 1992, the Australians welcomed then NRA President Robert Corbin, who embarked on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand. Corbin met privately with pro-gun interests and gave media interviews. Part of his objective was to soften the violent image of the American gun lobby among the Australian public. Still, he was anything but delicate when encouraging Australian gun advocates to adopt hardball political tactics, if they cared about keeping their weapons. "They call us the Evil Empire and they hate us," Corbin said of the NRA's opponents. "But we win."

As was the case in Brazil, the Australian visit helped catalyze the country's gun rights movement, but to a more obvious extent. The Australian group launched its own legislative action institute in 1993, inspired by the NRA's lobbying arm. Australian gun owners even organized the Australian Shooters Party, and in 1995 won a seat in the New South Wales state parliament -- reportedly the only legislator in the world elected solely on a pro-gun platform.

Yet the NRA's Australian excursion did little to endear itself to the Australian public at large. Their link to the NRA has marked the Sporting Shooters' Association for easy criticism, especially in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, where a man shot and killed 35 people at a tourist area in Tasmania. "The general public only sees what's in the media," says Jeanine Baker, president of the SSAA's South Australia chapter, "and usually that's the extreme side of the NRA." Baker doesn't believe the NRA is extreme, but "outspoken" -- because it has to be, she says.

Some uneasiness about NRA influence cropped up in Canada in 2001, when some gun owners there became concerned about the association's close ties to the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action (CILA), another gun lobby modeled on the NRA's lobbying arm. In an e-mail to members, Executive Director Tony Bernardo justified the relationship. The NRA, he said, was "instrumental in the formation of CILA" and provides "tremendous amounts of logistic support." He added that, although the NRA's charter prevented it from providing money, "[t]hey freely give us anything else."

The Canadian link is still close. In December, an NRA official was scheduled to offer a "legislative training workshop" at the annual meeting of CILA's parent organization. "How do we protect our rights?" went the promo for the event. "By being more politically active and effective at the grassroots [level]. And who better to show us how than the most powerful lobby group in the world, the National Rifle Association and their Institute for Legislative Action."

The NRA mostly prefers not to talk about its international operations. "[W]e don't discuss the content of private meetings," says the NRA's Arulanandam. And it generally downplays what is by all appearances an increasingly international role. That's hardly surprising, for two reasons. Its members tend to be traditional conservatives, whose views on matters of foreign policy steer toward the isolationist. "We've helped where we can," Arulanandam concedes, "but we're committed to the preservation of rights in this country." Further, the NRA probably understands better than anyone that its muscular, America-first image doesn't go over very well overseas, especially at a time when anti-American feeling runs so high abroad. Jairo Paes de Lira, a São Paulo gun rights activist, says communication with the NRA dried up well in advance of the gun-ban vote, essentially by an unspoken mutual understanding. "We're both on the same side, but we didn't want to give the impression that there was this foreign influence in the referendum," he says.

For this reason, one of the NRA's simplest sources of influence on groups overseas may be as a global pro-gun think tank. Gun rights activists surf NRA sites looking for research, statistics, or leading thinkers who advance arguments that might help their cause. One such advocate promoted heavily on the NRA's Web site is John Lott Jr., an American economist who caused a furor in the United States when he argued that the more guns there were in a society, the lower the crime rate. When his 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime appeared in Portuguese, Brazilian gun rights activists adopted it as a sort of anti-gun control bible. One enthusiastic gun rights activist in São Paulo bought 1,500 copies and distributed one to each member of the Brazilian congress. Denis Mizne, executive director of Sou da Paz, a São Paulo-based gun control organization, says he has seen many Brazilian pro-gun materials translated directly from the NRA's promoted materials. "To adopt the line and the concepts, it's easy," he says. "You just go to the [NRA's] Web site."

But the NRA has hardly settled for a passive approach in advancing its agenda overseas. Otherwise, it wouldn't need a presence at the United Nations.

Showdown at the U.N. Corral

When Thomas Mason arrived at the United Nations, diplomats weren't greeted by the swaggering cowboy they had expected. The former Oregon state representative is the American gun lobby's emissary to the United Nations and other international forums. Over the past decade, he has developed a reputation as a canny strategist and cordial operator, despite the fact that he works in territory that could only be described as hostile. In a 2004 televised gun debate held in London, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said that his group's presence at the United Nations should be considered oppositional, not participatory. Again, it's a message the NRA repeats for its dyed-in-the-wool conservative members who view international institutions such as the United Nations with skepticism. Mason's tenacity and diplomatic instincts, however, have made the NRA an active and well-represented player in the world body. The 61-year-old lawyer is always "looming" over whatever is happening, says Peters of IANSA, to make sure he's always part of the process. For his own part, Mason views the NRA's presence as fair play in what he calls a "cultural war." Any symbolic victory for gun control at the United Nations, he says, represents a tactical advantage elsewhere. Letting an international body make even minimal declarations about domestic gun ownership would be one of those victories. "It would delegitimize firearms on a world stage," he says. The opposite, of course, is true as well. That's why the defeat of the Brazilian gun ban, rejected by nearly 65 percent of voters, was a major defeat for the gun control movement. "[I]n the real political world, 65 percent is Pearl Harbor," says Mason.

The NRA's presence at the United Nations dates back to 1996. Believing that international momentum for gun control was picking up steam and that the NRA was being left out of the debate, it obtained official status as a nongovernmental organization at the United Nations. The following year, it helped establish the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities. The new group, chartered in Brussels, is an umbrella organization of more than 30 firearm groups and manufacturers from around the world, and has become the primary voice of the pro-gun movement at international gatherings. Mason is now the World Forum's coexecutive secretary (the other slot is reserved for a European).

Of course, adding gun rights advocates to the U.N. crowd -- an internationalist mix of diplomats, activists, and academics -- has led to some cringe-worthy instances of culture clash. At one U.N. conference meeting on small arms, a pro-gun speaker from the Single Action Shooting Society, which bills itself as being "the closest you'll get to the Old West short of a time machine," reminisced about his childhood joys of playing cowboys and Indians. The NRA argument that the wider possession of firearms could actually prevent genocide hasn't gone over well, either. "The World Forum matters because it gives an international veneer to the NRA's activities," says Natalie Goldring, a Georgetown University expert in international security issues who advises gun-control groups. "I think [Mason] thrives on controversy. I believe he thoroughly enjoys the fact that his mere presence in the [U.N.] building is an annoyance to those of us who want to stop the killing."

Naturally, Mason sees his role as being more than a thorn in the gun control movement's side. He argues that the United Nations' position on small arms is currently driven by the myth of a global gun problem. The real problem, he says, is crime (which is, incidentally, the same message the NRA broadcasts in the United States). To that end, the World Forum supports affixing serial numbers to firearms to help trace illicit sales. But if you're not going to disarm criminals, Mason insists, you're not proposing a real solution. The United Nations' goal "is not real disarmament. [It] is, to a great extent, various countries going through an exercise of so-called disarmament that enables them to mollify their liberal constituencies," he says.

Mason's lobbying might have been much less effective if he didn't have an ally in the White House. At the first U.N. conference on small arms in 2001, the head of the U.S. delegation, John R. Bolton, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stunned the hall with a strident opening statement, declaring that the United States "will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures abrogating the constitutional right to bear arms." What emerged from the conference was a diluted, legally nonbinding "program of action." One dropped provision involved the sale of guns to "nonstate actors," which in context might be more accurately called "rebel groups." The greater loss in the view of gun control advocates was the elimination of wording that called upon governments to regulate civilian ownership. "The U.N. agreement was never going to be about banning civilian ownership," says Rebecca Peters of IANSA. "It was going to be about regulating it."

Nevertheless, the hollowed-out U.N. document was one of the biggest victories for the NRA's international agenda. That is, until Brazil.


In the five years since the 2001 small-arms conference, the NRA has refined a message that experts say is working. Few countries have implemented the U.N.-recommended measures. A report released by IANSA last July concluded that the "glass is still 95 percent empty" for gun control advocates. The same was said in a progress report two years earlier. Given the lack of progress, Goldring says the NRA's fears of "gun grabbers" are overblown -- and the gun control movement is on the ropes. "This is like bird flu, right?" says Goldring. "The concern is that it will start somewhere else and end up here [in the United States]. And, by fighting international efforts, they're actually fighting the domestic groups as well.... I wish the NRA were right. I wish we were going to see a groundswell of support. I just don't think it's going to happen."

If you asked people in Bosnia, Botswana, or, for that matter, Brazil, what the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stands for, most of them would probably have no idea. But the unexpected defeat of Brazil's proposed gun prohibition suggests that, when properly packaged, the "right to keep and bear arms" message strikes a chord with people of very different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures, even when that culture has historically been anti-gun. In fact, the Second Amendment may be a more readily exportable commodity than gun control advocates are willing to accept, especially in countries with fresh memories of dictatorship. When it is coupled with a public's fear of crime -- a pressing concern in most of the developing world -- the message is tailored for mass consumption. "It's a very simple argument, simply phrased," says Mizne of Sou da Paz. "But to answer it, we needed a more complex argument." So, in exchange for nuance, the gun control crowd loses out.

The international gun control movement doesn't lose every round. In the last decade, in Australia, Britain, and Canada -- all countries where the nra was either advising gun groups or aiding them outright -- strict gun control measures passed with strong popular support. Tight controls passed in South Africa, too, though with greater resistance. But, since the nra has become serious about pushing its agenda at the United Nations, the momentum for gun control has stalled. The pro-gun lobby, whether the nra or its locally inspired disciples, works to limit the conversation to crime and illicit trafficking. The gun-control lobby argues that you can't address small-arms violence without restricting legal access to guns. Thus, the great logjam in international firearms talks. Gun control advocates insist they are not interested in circumscribing the rights of gun-owning Americans. "The U.S. is not actually much interest to us," says Peters. "We just want to work in countries where we can actually make progress."

But, when the gun control movement is most honest with itself, it must know that it will never make real progress until the United States becomes a target for its efforts. Around half the world's guns are produced in the United States, and Americans possess, by far, the world's largest private arsenal. For the gun control movement to achieve its real goal -- restricting the global supply of firearms -- the United States must be part of the equation.

So, if the NRA has such a seemingly insurmountable advantage, why does it bother promoting its agenda in the world's distant corners? Because, it will tell you, it has a global market to protect. And, even if it isn't a fair fight, doing battle with the United Nations and promoting fears of a global gun-grabbing conspiracy is a boon for fundraising and publicity back home. By that measure, it may not matter if the NRA wins the next time there is a public referendum on banning guns. It wins all the same.

Merchants of Morality

For decades, Tibet’s quest for self-determination has roused people around the world. Inspired by appeals to human rights, cultural preservation, and spiritual awakening, tens of thousands of individuals and organizations lend moral, material, and financial support to the Tibetan cause. As a result, greater autonomy for Tibet’s 5.2 million inhabitants remains a popular international campaign despite the Chinese government’s 50-year effort to suppress it.

However, while Tibet’s light shines brightly abroad, few outsiders know that China’s borders hold other restive minorities: Mongols, Zhuang, Yi, and Hui, to name only a few. Notable are the Uighurs, a group of more than 7 million located northwest of Tibet. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs have fought Chinese domination for centuries. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs face threats from Han Chinese in-migration, communist development policies, and newly strengthened antiterror measures. And like the Tibetans, the Uighurs resist Chinese domination with domestic and international protest that, in Beijing’s eyes, makes them dangerous separatists. Yet the Uighurs have failed to inspire the broad-based foreign networks that generously support and bankroll the Tibetans. International celebrities—including actors Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, as well as British rock star Annie Lennox—speak out on Tibet’s behalf. But no one is planning an Uighur Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C. Why?

Optimistic observers posit a global meritocracy of suffering in which all deserving causes attract international support. Howard H. Frederick, founder of the online activist network Peacenet, has argued that new communications technologies help create global movements in which individuals "rise above personal, even national self-interest and aspire to common good solutions to problems that plague the entire planet." And Allen L. Hammond of the World Resources Institute recently wrote that the combination of global media, new technologies, and altruistic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may soon empower the have-nots of the world, bringing them "simple justice" by creating a "radical transparency" in which "no contentious action would go unnoticed and unpublicized."

But even while a handful of groups such as the Tibetans have capitalized on the globalization of NGOs and media to promote their causes, thousands of equally deserving challengers, such as the Uighurs, have not found their place in the sun. While the world now knows about East Timor, similar insurrections in Indonesian Aceh and Irian Jaya remain largely off the international radar screen. Among environmental conflicts, a small number of cases such as the Brazilian rubber tappers’ struggle to "save" the Amazon, the conflict over China’s Three Gorges Dam, and the recent fight over the Chad-Cameroon pipeline have gained global acclaim. But many similar environmental battles, like the construction of India’s Tehri Dam, the destruction of the Guyanese rain forests, and the construction of the Trans Thai-Malaysia gas pipeline are waged in anonymity. Whole categories of other conflicts—such as landlessness in Latin America and caste discrimination in South Asia—go likewise little noticed. To groups challenging powerful opponents in these conflicts, global civil society is not an open forum marked by altruism, but a harsh, Darwinian marketplace where legions of desperate groups vie for scarce attention, sympathy, and money.

In a context where marketing trumps justice, local challengers—whether environmental groups, labor rights activists, or independence-minded separatists—face long odds. Not only do they jostle for attention among dozens of equally worthy competitors, but they also confront the pervasive indifference of international audiences. In addition, they contend against well-heeled opponents (including repressive governments, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions) backed by the world’s top public relations machines. Under pressure to sell their causes to the rest of the world, local leaders may end up undermining their original goals or alienating the domestic constituencies they ostensibly represent. Moreover, the most democratic and participatory local movements may garner the least assistance, since Western NGOs are less likely to support groups showing internal strife and more inclined to help a group led by a strong, charismatic leader. Perhaps most troubling of all, the perpetuation of the myth of an equitable and beneficent global civil society breeds apathy and self-satisfaction among the industrialized nations, resulting in the neglect of worthy causes around the globe.

Pitching the Product

The ubiquity of conflict worldwide creates fierce competition for international support. In a 2001 survey, researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Washington, D.C., identified 126 high-intensity conflicts worldwide (defined as large-scale armed conflicts causing more than 1,000 deaths from mid-1999 to mid-2000), 78 low-intensity conflicts (100 to 1,000 deaths from mid-1999 to mid-2000), and 178 violent political conflicts (less than 100 deaths from mid-1999 to mid-2000). In these and many other simmering disputes, weak challengers hope to improve their prospects by attracting international assistance.

Local movements usually follow two broad marketing strategies: First, they pitch their causes internationally to raise awareness about their conflicts, their opponents, and sometimes their very existence. Second, challengers universalize their narrow demands and particularistic identities to enhance their appeal to global audiences.

Critical to the success of local challengers is access to major Western NGOs. Many groups from low-profile countries are ignored in the developed world’s key media centers and therefore have difficulty gaining visibility among even the most transnational of NGOs. Moreover, despite the Internet and the much-ballyhooed "CNN effect," repressive regimes can still obstruct international media coverage of local conflicts. In the 1990s, for example, the government of Papua New Guinea did just that on Bougainville island, site of a bloody separatist struggle that cost 15,000 lives, or roughly 10 percent of the island’s population. During an eight-year blockade (1989–97), foreign journalists could enter the island only under government guard, while the rebels could dispatch emissaries abroad only at great risk. India has used similar tactics in Kashmir, prohibiting independent human rights monitors from entering the territory and seizing passports of activists seeking to plead the Kashmiri case before the U.N. General Assembly and other bodies. Less effectively, Sudan has tried to keep foreigners from entering the country’s vast southern region to report on the country’s 19-year civil war.

Even for causes from "important" countries, media access—and therefore global attention—remains highly uneven. Money makes a major difference, allowing wealthier movements to pay for media events, foreign lobbying trips, and overseas offices, while others can barely afford places to meet. For example, long-term support from Portugal helped the East Timorese eventually catch the world’s attention; other Indonesian separatist movements have not had such steady friends. And international prizes such as the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, and the Nobel Peace Prize have become important vehicles of internationalization. In addition to augmenting a leader’s resources, these awards raise a cause’s visibility, facilitate invaluable contacts with key transnational NGOs and media, and result in wider support. For instance, Mexican "farmer ecologist" Rodolfo Montiel Flores’s receipt of the $125,000 Goldman Prize in 2000 boosted the campaign to release him from prison on false charges stemming from his opposition to local logging practices. Not surprisingly, such prizes have become the object of intense salesmanship by local groups and their international champions.

Local challengers who have knowledge of global NGOs also have clear advantages. Today’s transnational NGO community displays clear hierarchies of influence and reputation. Large and powerful organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth have the resources and expertise to investigate claims of local groups from distant places and grant them legitimacy. Knowledge of these key "gatekeeper" NGOs—their identities, goals, evidentiary standards, and openness to particular pitches—is crucial for a local movement struggling to gain support [see sidebar]. If homegrown knowledge is scarce, local movements may try to link themselves to a sympathetic and savvy outsider, such as a visiting journalist, missionary, or academic. Some Latin American indigenous groups, including Ecuador’s Huaoroni and Cofán, Brazil’s Kayapó, and others, have benefited from the kindness of such strangers, who open doors and guide their way among international networks.

Small local groups with few connections or resources have more limited options for raising international awareness and thus may turn to protest. Yet domestic demonstrations often go unseen abroad. Only spectacular episodes—usually violent ones—draw international media coverage. And since violence is anathema to powerful international NGOs, local groups who use force as an attention-grabbing tactic must carefully limit, justify, and frame it. For example, the poverty and oppression that underlay the 1994 uprising by Mexico’s Zapatista National Liberation Army went largely unnoticed at home and abroad for decades. In the face of such indifference, the previously unknown Zapatistas resorted to arms and briefly seized the city of San Cristóbal on January 1, 1994. Immediately tarred by the Mexican government as "terrorists," the Zapatistas in fact carefully calibrated their use of force, avoiding civilian casualties and courting the press. Other tactics also contributed to the Zapatistas’ international support, but without these initial dramatic attacks, few people beyond Mexico’s borders would now know or care about the struggles of Mexico’s indigenous populations.

The NGO Is Always Right

To improve their chances of gaining support, local movements also conform themselves to the needs and expectations of potential backers in Western nations. They simplify and universalize their claims, making them relevant to the broader missions and interests of key global players. In particular, local groups try to match themselves to the substantive concerns and organizational imperatives of large transnational NGOs.

Consider Nigeria’s Ogoni ethnic group, numbering perhaps 300,000 to 500,000 people. Like other minorities in the country’s southeastern Niger delta, the Ogoni have long been at odds with colonial authorities and national governments over political representation. In the late 1950s, as Royal Dutch/Shell and other multinationals began producing petroleum in the region, the Ogoni claimed that the Nigerian federal government was siphoning off vast oil revenues yet returning little to the minorities who bore the brunt of the drilling’s impact. In the early 1990s, an Ogoni movement previously unknown outside Nigeria sought support from Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and other major international NGOs. Initially, these appeals were rejected as unsubstantiated, overly complex, and too political. Ogoni leaders responded by downplaying their contentious claims about minority rights in a poor, multiethnic developing state and instead highlighting their environmental grievances, particularly Shell’s "ecological warfare" against the indigenous Ogoni. Critical to this new emphasis was Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa’s recognition of "what could be done by an environment group [in the developed world] to press demands on government and companies."

The Ogoni’s strategic shift quickly led to support from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club. These and other organizations provided funds and equipment, confirmed and legitimated Ogoni claims, denounced the Nigerian dictatorship, boycotted Shell, and eased Ogoni access to governments and media in Europe and North America. In the summer of 1993, as the Ogoni’s domestic mobilizations brought harsh government repression, human rights NGOs also took notice. The 1994 arrest and 1995 execution of Saro-Wiwa ultimately made the Ogoni an international symbol of multinational depredation in the developing world, but it was their initial repositioning as an environmental movement that first put them on the global radar screen. (For its part, Shell countered with its own spin, attacking Saro-Wiwa’s credibility as a spokesman for his people and denying his allegations against the company.)

Similar transformations have helped other local causes make global headway. In drumming up worldwide support for Guatemala’s Marxist insurgency in the 1980s, activist Rigoberta Menchú projected an indigenous identity that resonated strongly with left-leaning audiences in Western Europe and North America. Her book I, Rigoberta Menchú made her an international symbol of indigenous oppression, helping her win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, year of the Columbus quincentenary, despite her association with a violent rebel movement. As anthropologist David Stoll later showed, however, Menchú and the guerrillas may have enjoyed more backing among international solidarity organizations than among their country’s poor and indigenous peoples. According to Stoll, external support may have actually delayed the guerrillas’ entry into domestic negotiations by several years, prolonging the war and costing lives.

Mexico’s Zapatistas have also benefited abroad from their indigenous identity. At the beginning of their 1994 rebellion, the Zapatistas issued a hodgepodge of demands. Their initial call for socialism was quickly jettisoned when it failed to catch on with domestic or international audiences, and their ongoing demands for Mexican democratization had mainly domestic rather than international appeal. But it was the Zapatistas’ "Indianness" and their attacks first on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and then on globalization that found pay dirt in the international arena. (Little coincidence that the day they chose to launch the movement—January 1, 1994—was also the day NAFTA went into effect.) Once the appeal of these issues had become clear, they took center stage in the Zapatistas’ contacts with external supporters. Indeed, the Zapatistas and their masked (non-Indian) leader Subcomandante Marcos became potent symbols for antiglobalization activists worldwide. In February and March 2001, when a Zapatista bus caravan traversed southern Mexico and culminated in a triumphant reception in the capital’s central square, dozens of Italian tute bianche ("White Overalls"), activists prominent in antiglobalization protests in Europe, accompanied the Zapatistas as bodyguards. Even the French farmer and anti-McDonald’s campaigner José Bové was present to greet Marcos.

Focusing on an internationally known and notorious enemy (such as globalization or NAFTA) is a particularly effective way of garnering support. In recent years, multinational corporations and international financial institutions have repeatedly served as stand-ins for obscure or recalcitrant local enemies. Even when a movement itself is little known, it can project an effective (if sometimes misleading) snapshot of its claims by identifying itself as the anti-McDonald’s movement, the anti-Nike movement, or the anti-Unocal movement. Blaming a villain accessible in the developed world also forges strong links between distant social movements and the "service station on the block," thus inspiring international solidarity.

Such strategies are not aimed only at potential supporters on the political left. The recent growth of a well-funded Christian human rights movement in the United States and Europe has helped many local groups around the world. One major beneficiary is John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, made up mostly of Christians from southern Sudan fighting against the country’s Muslim-dominated north. Rooted in ethnic, cultural, and religious differences, the conflict has been aggravated by disputes over control of natural resources. Since fighting broke out in 1983, the war has attracted little attention, despite the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. As late as September 1999, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly stated that "the human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people." However, in the mid-1990s, "slave redemptions" (in which organizations like Christian Solidarity International buy back Christians from their Muslim captors) as well as international activism by Christian human rights organizations began to raise the conflict’s profile. The start of oil extraction by multinationals provided another hook to attract concern from mainstream human rights and environmental organizations. Joined by powerful African-American politicians in the United States angered over the slave trade, conservative NGOs have thrown their support behind Garang’s group, thereby feeding perceptions of the conflict as a simple Christian-versus-Muslim clash. These NGOs have also found a receptive audience in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, thus boosting Garang’s chances of reaching a favorable settlement.

By contrast, failure to reframe obscure local issues (or reframing them around an issue whose time has passed) can produce international isolation for a struggling insurgent group. Two years after the Zapatista attacks, another movement sprang from the poverty and oppression of southern Mexico, this time in the state of Guerrero. The Popular Revolutionary Army attacked several Mexican cities and demanded an old-style communist revolution. But these rebels drew little support or attention, particularly in contrast to the Zapatistas and their fashionable antiglobalization rhetoric. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Landless Peasants Movement and smaller movements of the rural poor in Paraguay and Venezuela have suffered similar fates both because their goals seem out of step with the times and because their key tactic—land invasions—is too controversial for many mainstream international NGOs. In the Niger delta, radical movements that have resorted to threats, sabotage, and kidnappings have also scared off international support despite the similarity of their grievances to those of the Ogoni.

Leaders for Sale

If marketing is central to a local movement’s gaining international support, a gifted salesman, one who identifies himself completely with his "product," is especially valuable. Many individual leaders have come to embody their movements: Myanmar’s (Burma) Aung San Suu Kyi, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, as well as the Dalai Lama, Menchú, and Marcos. Even when known abroad only through media images, such leaders can make a host of abstract issues seem personal and concrete, thus multiplying a movement’s potential support. For this reason, international tours have long been a central strategy for domestic activists. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, for example, Sun Yat-sen crisscrossed the world seeking support for a nationalist revolution in China. Attracting international notice when he was briefly kidnapped by the Manchus in London, Sun found himself in Denver, Colorado, on another lobbying trip when the revolution finally came in 1911. Today, for well-supported insurgents, such roadshows are highly choreographed, with hard-charging promoters; tight schedules in government, media, and NGO offices; and a string of appearances in churches, college lecture halls, and community centers. In November 2001, for example, Oronto Douglas, a leader of Nigeria’s Ijaw minority, embarked on a six-city, seven-day tour throughout Canada, where he promoted the Ijaw cause along with his new Sierra Club book Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta.

What transforms insurgent leaders into international icons? Eloquence, energy, courage, and single-mindedness can undeniably create a charismatic mystique. But transnational charisma also hinges on a host of pedestrian factors that are nonetheless unusual among oppressed groups. Fluency in a key foreign language, especially English; an understanding of Western protest traditions; familiarity with the international political vogue; and expertise in media and NGO relations—all these factors are essential to giving leaders the chance to display their more ineffable qualities. Would the Dalai Lama appear as charismatic through a translator? For his part, Subcomandante Marcos has long insisted that he is but an ordinary man, whose way with words just happened to strike a responsive chord at an opportune moment.

Most of these prosaic characteristics are learned, not innate. Indeed, many NGOs now offer training programs to build advocacy capacity, establish contacts, and develop media smarts. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in the Hague regularly holds intensive, week-long media and diplomacy training sessions for its member "nations," replete with role plays and mock interviews, helping them put their best foot forward in crucial venues. (Among others, Ken Saro-Wiwa praised the program for teaching him nonviolent direct action skills.) One of the most elaborate programs is the Washington, D.C.–based International Human Rights Law Group’s two-year Advocacy Bridge Program, which aims to "increase the skills of local activists to amplify their issues of concern globally" and to "facilitate their access to international agenda-setting venues." Under the program, dozens of participants from around the world, chosen to ensure equal participation by women, travel to Washington for one week of initial training and then to Geneva for three weeks of on-site work at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. In their second year, "graduates" help train a new crop of participants.

Successful insurgent leaders therefore often look surprisingly like the audiences they seek to capture, and quite different from their downtrodden domestic constituencies. Major international NGOs often look for a figure who neatly embodies their own ideals, meets the pragmatic requirements of a "test case," or fulfills romantic Western notions of rebellion—in short, a leader who seems to mirror their own central values. Other leaders, deaf to the international zeitgeist or simply unwilling to adapt, remain friendless and underfunded.

The High Price of Success

Many observers have trumpeted global civil society as the great last hope of the world’s have-nots. Yet from the standpoint of local challengers seeking international support, the reality is bleak. The international media is often myopic: Conflicts attract meager reporting unless they have clear relevance, major importance, or huge death tolls. Technology’s promise also remains unfulfilled. Video cameras, Web access, and cellular phones are still beyond the reach of impoverished local challengers. Even if the vision of "radical transparency" were realized—and if contenders involved in messy political wrangles in fact desired complete openness—international audiences, flooded with images and appeals, would have to make painful choices. Which groups deserve support? Which causes are more "worthy" than others?

Powerful transnational NGOs, emblematic of global civil society, also display serious limitations. While altruism plays some role in their decision making, NGOs are strategic actors who seek first and foremost their own organizational survival. At times this priority jibes nicely with the interests of local clients in far-flung locations, but often it does not. When selecting clients from a multitude of deserving applicants, NGOs must be hard-nosed, avoiding commitments that will harm their reputations or absorb excessive resources. Their own goals, tactics, constituencies, and bottom lines constantly shape their approaches. Inevitably, many deserving causes go unsupported.

Unfortunately, the least participatory local movements may experience the greatest ease in winning foreign backing. Charismatic leadership is not necessarily democratic, for instance, yet external support will often strengthen a local leader’s position, reshaping the movement’s internal dynamics as well as its relations with opponents. Among some Tibetan communities today, there are rumblings of discontent over the Dalai Lama’s religiously legitimated leadership, but his stature has been so bolstered by international support that dissident elements are effectively powerless. Indeed, any internal dissent—if visible to outsiders—will often reduce international interest. NGOs want their scarce resources to be used effectively. If they see discord instead of unity, they may take their money and clout elsewhere rather than risk wasting them on internal disputes.

The Internet sometimes exacerbates this problem: Internecine feuds played out on public listservs and chat rooms may alienate foreign supporters, as has happened with some members of the pro-Ogoni networks. And although much has been made about how deftly the Zapatistas used the Internet to get their message out, dozens of other insurgents, from Ethiopia’s Oromo Liberation Front to the Western Sahara’s Polisario Front have Web sites and use e-mail. Yet they have failed to spark widespread international enthusiasm. As the Web site for Indonesia’s Papua Freedom Organization laments, "We have struggled for more than 30 years, and the world has ignored our cause." Crucial in the Zapatistas’ case was the appeal of their message (and masked messenger) to international solidarity activists, who used new technologies to promote the cause to broader audiences. In fact, for most of their conflict with the Mexican government, the Zapatistas have not had direct access to the Internet. Instead, they have sent communiqués by hand to sympathetic journalists and activists who then publish them and put them on the Web. Thus the Zapatistas’ seemingly sophisticated use of the Internet has been more a result of their appeal to a core group of supporters than a cause of their international backing.

Perhaps most worrisome, the pressure to conform to the needs of international NGOs can undermine the original goals of local movements. By the time the Ogoni had gained worldwide exposure, some of their backers in the indigenous rights community were shaking their heads at how the movement’s original demands for political autonomy had gone understated abroad compared to environmental and human rights issues. The need for local groups to click with trendy international issues fosters a homogeneity of humanitarianism: Unfashionable, complex, or intractable conflicts fester in isolation, while those that match or—thanks to savvy marketing—appear to match international issues of the moment attract disproportionate support. Moreover, the effort to please international patrons can estrange a movement’s jet-setting elite from its mass base or leave it unprepared for domestic responsibilities. As one East Timorese leader stated after international pressure moved the territory close to independence, "We have been so focused on raising public awareness about our cause that we didn’t seriously think about the structure of a government."

The quest for international support may also be dangerous domestically. To gain attention may require risky confrontations with opponents. Yet few international NGOs can guarantee a local movement’s security, leaving it vulnerable to the attacks of enraged authorities. If a movement’s opponent is receptive to rhetorical pressure, the group may be saved, as the Zapatistas were. If not, it will likely face its enemies alone. The NATO intervention in Kosovo provides a rare exception. But few challengers have opponents as notorious and strategically inconvenient as Slobodan Milosevic. Even in that case, Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova’s nonviolent strategies met years of international inaction and neglect; only when the Kosovo Liberation Army brought the wrath of Yugoslavia down on Kosovo and after Milosevic thumbed his nose at NATO did the intervention begin.

Historically, desperate local groups have often sought support from allies abroad. Given geographical distance as well as political and cultural divides, they have been forced to market themselves. This was true not only in the Chinese Revolution but also in the Spanish Civil War, the Indian nationalist movement, and countless Cold War struggles. But the much-vaunted emergence of a global civil society was supposed to change all that, as the power of technologies meshed seamlessly with the good intentions of NGOs to offset the callous self-interest of states and the blithe indifference of faraway publics.

But for all the progress in this direction, an open and democratic global civil society remains a myth, and a potentially deadly one. Lost in a self-congratulatory haze, international audiences in the developed world all too readily believe in this myth and in the power and infallibility of their own good intentions. Meanwhile, the grim realities of the global morality market leave many local aspirants helpless and neglected, painfully aware of international opportunities but lacking the resources, connections, or know-how needed to tap them.

Clifford Bob is an assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University. Reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy # 129 (March/April 2002). Copyright 2002 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.