The Domino Theory

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 00:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In S/E and South Asia, Eastern Europe, Egypt and the Maghreb

President John Kennedy justified the USA’s larger and larger involvement in Viet Nam by citing the Domino Theory. The basis was that of one land in a region came under the influence of communism; the surrounding countries would also fall to communism, like a set of dominos. The USA used this to justify interventions the world over.

President Eisenhower in 1954 said: “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominos set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”


This theory held that if South Vietnam went communist, next would be Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma and so on. The feeling was that unless the US took a stand in Viet Nam to beat back communism, the forward march would be inexorable.

I recall that a colleague who was being interviewed for the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, in the 1970s, being asked by a ‘politically appointed’ Additional Secretary how he felt about the ‘inexorable forward march of communism in South East Asia’! Such was the general feeling of exuberance of pro-communist acolytes at that time!

Stalling the domino impact

Some have argued that although the US had to retreat from Viet Nam in ignominy finally, its intervention in that country stalled the domino impact. There were unsuccessful attempts by communists to take over in Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Lee Kuan Yew and Walt Rostow among other have argued that the fact that the Americans held the line in Viet Nam temporarily gave the ASEAN countries time to consolidate and engage in economic development, which prevented a wider domino effect.

Noam Chomsky (of the Galle Literary Festival flip flop fame – attending one year and calling for a boycott in the next) believes that the domino theory is roughly accurate, if the people of one poor country see the people of another poor country take control of its own economy and succeed, the former, Chomsky has said, will want to emulate the latter.

Strategic influence

Even in South Asia, there are examples of the potential of the domino effect having a strategic influence on a nation’s foreign policymakers’ thinking. The world’s reaction to events in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the fear of Islamic fundamentalism raising its head has clearly prompted many nations into pre-emptive action.

The Maoist domination in Nepal is another factor which has prompted diverse reactions in various countries’ self interest. The Indians are worried about the rise of Naxalite Maoism in their BIMARU states (Bihar, Maharashthra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.)

The rise of violent Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka concerned India, ironically, though once nurtured by RAW, which was dealing with separatist forces within itself, like the Sikh Khalistanis.

Burma, being firmly supported under the military stranglehold by the governments in its neighbourhood, is due to the preference for a predictable rule by generals who can be easily bought over to an alternative system of good governance of a nation run on Buddhist principles working in the interest of Burma’s own poor.

Terrorist organisations in neighbouring sovereign states have been covertly and overtly supported, also through international diplomatic initiatives, only to be viciously put down when domestic nationalist groups begin to emulate the terrorists’ demands for a separate state or even more autonomy within a nation!

The Indian experience with the former East Pakistan is also very interesting in this regard. Having first played a key role in dismembering Pakistan, today India is having ongoing border and other numerous disputes with the sovereign government in Bangladesh.

Domino Theory in action

In Eastern Europe, we really saw the Domino Theory in action. President Ronald Reagan once famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” He was pointing to the Berlin Wall and speaking at the famous US Army’s Check Point Charlie, separating Berlin from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

The Ossies (East Germans) finally took Reagan’s advice some years later and the Soviet Satellite states fell like the proverbial dominos into the waiting arms of NATO and the European Community, much to the unhappiness of the defunct Warsaw Pact!

Islamic fundamentalism

The domino theory has come into focus today, because of events unfolding in the Maghreb Region of North Africa, Yemen and Egypt. The Maghreb, meaning sunset in Arabic, catches up the Western states like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.

In an attempt to forestall the onward march of Islamic fundamentalism, the world has supported a number of undemocratic ‘strong men’ in the region. But with Tunisia’s Ben Ali forced to bolt to Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Mubarak coming under popular pressure to democratise and/or go away and the governments of Jordan and Yemen under pressure, the sentiment is that the rest of the Maghreb will fall to Islamic fundamentalism or be given an opportunity to democratise.

From the way events are unfolding, it looks like in the final analysis the Egyptian Armed forces will call the shots. Lame duck President Mubarak has sworn in two military men as Vice President and Prime Minister and the troops in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the focal point of the protests, have pledged that they will not use live ammunition against the protestors.

The Army has recognised that the protesters have genuine grievances. The Vice President has said that he has been tasked with negotiating a reform process. The Egyptian Army is the tenth biggest in the world and always has played a pivotal role in Egypt’s politics.

Mohammed El Baradi, a well respected Egyptian and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who headed the International Atomic Agency in Vienna, has returned to join the protestors and is being recognised as their leader. He intended to contest Mubarak at a future presidential election.

Mubarak has pledged not to re-contest the presidential election and to request the Parliament to enact term limits for the president. What is referred to as the Tiananmen option does not seem available in Cairo, shooting down the protestors and mowing them down with battle tanks.

The tinder box of Tunisia, educated youth unable to find jobs commensurate with their qualification, marginalisation of the middle class from political power, an autocracy of the elite, corruption, human rights violations, rising food prices and lack of good governance and democracy, exists in Egypt, as well across the Maghreb region. This was so in Eastern Europe too.

Nothing is predictable

However the lesson of history is that nothing is predictable and everything is uncertain. A senior British Law Lord, retiring from the Bench after a glittering 30 year career on the Bench of upholding the Rule of Law, said in his farewell address to the assembled Bench and Bar at the Inns of Court said: “All my experience has made me firmly believe that there is only one law that is universal in application and certain, that is the Law of Unexpected Consequences!”

Mubarak has thrown in the towel, to the extent of not re contesting, so has the President of Yemen, who has also declared that he will not re-contest. King Abdullah of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet of ministers.

Are the dominoes beginning to fall in West Asia? Will Egypt’s Army ease the transition to democracy or will the Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood call the day, or will the military enthrone another dictator? Will it begin the domino roll in the Maghreb like in Eastern Europe?

Fighting back

But at the time of writing pro Mubarak forces seem to be fighting back. They are taking on the protestors in Tahrir Square. The scenes were medieval – plain clothes riders of camels and horses charging into the crowd with whips, slashing left and right – reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade: ‘Canons to the right of them, canons to the left of them...’ but the Egyptian Army’s canons on the parked battle tanks around Tahrir Square were silent! Why?

One rider pulled off his horse by the protestors allegedly had a police identity card! Will Mubarak be able to hold up the Egyptian domino and do a repeat of what Walt Rostow and Lee Kuan Yew said the US did in Viet Nam, stall the forward march of Islamic fundamentalism/democratic forces, to allow the Maghreb’s autocrats to take effective counter measures?

The world is watching, especially its dictators and autocrats!

Whatever happens, the Egyptian people and those of the Maghreb region are going to relive the old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times!’

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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