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the Complete Review
the complete review - politics / current events

Breaking the Real Axis of Evil

Mark Palmer

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Breaking the Real Axis of Evil

Title: Breaking the Real Axis of Evil
Author: Mark Palmer
Genre: Politics
Written: 2003
Length: 325 pages
Availability: Breaking the Real Axis of Evil - US
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil - UK
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil - Canada
  • How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025
  • On the cover and elsewhere the author's name is given as "Ambassador Mark Palmer"; 'Ambassador' is apparently a title (or honorific), and not the author's first name.

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Our Assessment:

B : admirable idea, fairly well set out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Spectator . 23/10/2003 John Tabin
Foreign Affairs . 1-2/2004 G.John Ikenberry
National Review A+ 24/11/2003 Michael Potemra
Wall Street Journal A 16/12/2003 Claudia Rosset

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Mark Palmer wants, quite literally, to save the world. (...) He explores a vast toolbox for democrats, both outside and inside democracy, examining the techniques available for nudging closed societies open, and listing at one point 198 methods of nonviolent action (including, for instance, 23 types of strike and 25 types of economic boycott). For activists, this portion of the book is a remarkable resource. (...) That he misunderstands the world’s democracies casts a shadow of doubt over Palmer’s judgments on its dictators." - John Tabin, The American Spectator

  • "He challenges the prevailing scholarly wisdom about the potential for democratic change, arguing that uprisings are possible in even the most backward authoritarian states -- if only the United States and its partners provided proper encouragement." - G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

  • "Palmer has written a wonderful book -- a moral and intellectual tour de force.(...) But whether we use the existing U.N., or create an entirely new system, America's duty is clear: rid the world of dictators, for the sake of their peoples and in the interest of our own national security." - Michael Potemra, National Review

  • "(O)ne of the best but least noticed books among all the tomes addressing the quest for peace in the post-Sept. 11 era. A mix of broad argument and gritty guide, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil is basically an inspired field manual on the why and how of replacing tyranny with democracy -- the sooner the better and, where possible, without violence.(...) Not that this book is perfect. Mr. Palmer's prose style is more utilitarian than lyric. (...) It needs to become a well-thumbed manual on the desk of every diplomat and leader who claims to represent the Free World." - Claudia Rosset, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mark Palmer really wants to spread democracy. Most people believe dictatorship is a bad thing, but don't think there is that much that can be done about them, short of military intervention or domestic revolt. Palmer is convinced that a transition to a democratic system can be effectively fostered and supported from outside, as well as within -- and that democracy everywhere is a goal well worth aiming for. Breaking the Real Axis of Evil is both a manifesto (his term) and a how-to guide of how to get rid of all the bad guys (by 2025, no less).
       A long-time diplomat, Palmer has a good deal of first- and second-hand experience of nations that have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy, particularly in the wake of the Soviet collapse. He's convinced that people everywhere want the freedoms democracy (as we understand it) guarantees, and he thinks it's the obligation -- and just plain common sense -- of the rest of the world to do its damnedest to support those struggling for democratic goals -- and to make it clear to the dictators that their days are numbered.
       Dictatorship is bad, Palmer maintains, and it's hard to disagree. His hit list of the "Forty-Five Least Wanted" -- the 45 remaining dictators spread across the world that he wants to get rid of by 2025 -- and his brief descriptions of their years of misrule make for a fairly convincing case that this is one system that doesn't work (unless enrichment of a tiny elite and subjugation of the masses is what one is looking for in a government). The mistreatment of their own citizens is usually reason enough to think that these people shouldn't be in power, but Palmer also reminds of the terrible destabilizing effects internationally such regimes can have. It's no coincidence that the countries that are currently of the greatest concern to the rest of the world are dictatorships (excepting, of course, the US, whose military intervention (and post-war misrule) in Iraq has unfortunately lost it much of the good will and trust it had until recently, and made it the most feared nation around -- a situation that one hopes is an aberration, the fault of a few deeply misguided folk in the junior Bush administration).
       Palmer believes that people everywhere want democracy -- in the form of free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, the right to strike and to demonstrate, etc. -- and that foreign powers (governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), individuals, and international organisations) can (judiciously) intervene to facilitate a transition to such a system. Admirably, he believes that the obligation of foreign representatives -- such as ambassadors -- is to the people of a country, and not to its regime, and when the regimes are doing things that are obviously not in the interest of the citizens it should serve (all forms of repression, personal enrichment, etc) then foreign interests should side with the people.
       Palmer finds that the historic examples of supporting autocrats -- in the case of the US everywhere from Chile to Iran -- suggest that little good comes from it, certainly not in the long term. It is here, of course, that his idea will be most heavily attacked: ever-popular Realpolitik dictates that supporting a dictator -- as long as he's "our" dictator is the way to go. Even the second Bush administration, claiming to want to bring democracy to the Middle East, kowtows to many of the worst dictators on Palmer's list, from Saudi Arabia through the generally overlooked post-Soviet Central Asian states to Pakistan, allowing these regimes to get away with things that go against all American principles (and, in the long term, likely pose grave additional threats to American interests).
       But Palmer suggests that received wisdom often errs, as even in the case of the Soviet satellite states before the fall of the USSR much could have been done (and, occasionally, was, often locally, by ambassadors such as Palmer (in Hungary)), but State Department and other governmental inertia failed to see or take advantage of many of the opportunities. Familiar with all levels of American government and the bureaucracy, he shows that success has often depended on a few enterprising individuals, and he'd like to make the system more conducive to all such efforts.
       Palmer offers examples of past successes of regimes pushed towards democracy, and suggests a variety of approaches, some tailored to specific situations, others more general. His focus is essentially entirely on non-military intervention: he wants change to come from within, helped by a supportive outside world. He believes that information and even just hope can be very inspiring, and with a concerted effort by democratic governments, NGOs, and other organisations these illegitimate regimes can be made to devolve power to where it belongs: the citizens.
       Breaking the Real Axis of Evil is full of suggestions. Everything from the appointment of new deputy secretaries in the American government (one "assistant secretary for democratic transitions" and one "assistant secretary for ousting dictators") to calls for shaming these regimes (which he is confident would also bother them), he shows that there are many ways of turning up the heat on these characters. Again and again he also emphasises the importance of reaching the masses, rather than focussing exclusively on dealing with the regimes themselves (which are, after all, essentially illegitimate).
       There are a variety of problems with his approach, notably the thin line between being helpful and meddling (with the meddling often becoming -- or being seen as -- self-interested, i.e. the concern being that regime change is just an opportunity for foreigners to grab hold of resources or the like), as well as the deeply entrenched economic interests many influential foreign companies have in many of these countries. But Palmer argues that change is inevitable -- and better for everyone concerned in the long term -- (and it's hard to argue with him about that) and that it must be done.
       Palmer is also a fan of the NGOs (and GOs), understanding that international cooperation is essential in order to be effective. He explains what many of them have done and looks to strengthen these institutions.
       The case-histories are also interesting -- and give some hope that what he suggests isn't so far-fetched at all.
       The list of "Least Wanted" is occasionally baffling, insofar as one is stunned that some of these creeps could maintain power for so long (and be allowed to do so, often with foreign, even American support). (Note that one of the 45 has been axed since publication of the book -- Charles Taylor, in Liberia -- but Palmer might think of adding Nepal to his list .....) But, with a few exceptions, one imagines change could be effected relatively easily (and peacefully), following Palmer's suggestions. 2025 doesn't sound entirely unrealistic -- if the will is there. Past (and current) experience suggests that might be expecting a bit much, both in the arena of international cooperation as well as in the domestic (American) political scene.
       Palmer's gung-ho enthusiasm -- and the fact that the cause is such a good one -- are fairly infectious. He understands there are difficulties with accomplishing some of what he proposes, but he knows this goal is important enough that all hurdles should be overcome. The book is packed with information, but it's still something of a lump -- not exactly a great, fluid read. Packing all the world's dictators together also proves a bit much. Palmer explains there are different kinds (and he divides them up, by category and geography), and while the underlying issue is the same, each poses different problems and issues, many of which are (necessarily) just touched upon here.
       Breaking the Real Axis of Evil is well worth working through. For one, it's a good reminder of the fact that there are some really nasty men (all men, as Palmer reminds the reader) who rule (generally remarkably badly) over a lot of people. For another, it does show, over and over, that it need not be so -- and that it wouldn't take that much to make the world a better place.
       Not a particularly well-written book, but an important and useful one with an admirable ambition.

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Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: Reviews: Mark Palmer: Democracy-fostering institutions: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mark Palmer worked for the US Foreign Service in various capacities.

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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