Up Front

International Order in the Arab World

Bruce Jones

One year after the fall of Mubarak, the Arab awakening is still in flux, and so is the international order. In the interactions between the two, there is evidence to please both optimists and pessimists. In my chapter “The International Order and the Emerging Powers: Implications of the Arab Awakening” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East, I examine this tension that is throwing into disarray the values, alliances, and institutions that make up the changing global order.

A year ago, we would not have predicted that the Arab League would call for military intervention; nor would we have foreseen that a Security Council, whose composition at the relevant moment included Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, would vote to invoke the “responsibility to protect” and authorize NATO to mount a military campaign to halt aggression. Count one for optimists. Unfortunately, diplomatic fallout from that episode—which arose because the non-western powers perceived that the United States and NATO far exceeded the mandate they were given, taking a “protect civilians” mandate and using it to force regime change—is now stalling action in Syria (though developments on that front are starting to make some form of UNSC political action more likely). Even the score, for pessimists, for now.

More points on the gloomy side. It’s been evident from day one that a major package of both economic assistance and, more importantly, new trade openings would be necessary to help move the Egyptian economy forward, which in turn will be vital for medium term progress in Egypt’s democratic reforms. Europe looked the most likely candidate, but the deepening eurozone crisis has left the EU rudderless and not in the mood to spend large sums beyond its own borders. Facing a slowdown at home and the risk of a deeper slowdown if Europe stalls, China too has reined in its spending. The net result is that the new political forces in Egypt, including the Islamists, are left with one address to look to: Washington.

Things can still spin out of control in the region. Tensions between Turkey and Israel; between Turkey and Syria; and between Israel and Iran—all of these can turn into outright hostilities. Iran is lashing out, most recently by threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz. That threat has one unintended consequence, which was to concentrate minds in Beijing, who slammed Iran for its new nuclear activities and the threat on the Straits. While refusing to agree to an American request to stop buying Iranian oil, China is looking to diversify its sources and has stopped expanding its oil imports from Iran, perhaps bowing to the inevitable disruption.

Three things appear certain. There’s more turbulence ahead, before any form of democratic stability arises. The changing international order will continue to complicate the search for democracy in the Middle East; and vice versa. And through it all, the United States will still be a power unlike all the others—no longer able to dominate events, but left holding the bag nonetheless. It’s going to be an uncomfortable year. 

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