Europe, the United States, and Middle Eastern Democracy: Repairing the Breach

Tamara Cofman Wittes and Richard Youngs

Tensions between the United States and the European Union since the 2003 war in Iraq affected many arenas of Middle East policy, but perhaps none has come to encapsulate those tensions as much as the quest to advance democracy in the region. This paper looks beyond the highly charged, Iraq-related deterioration in the transatlantic relationship in order to assess the real similarities and differences in the two actors’ democracy promotion strategies in the Middle East.

The United States and European Union disagreed on some notable issues regarding Middle Eastern reform, and serious mistrust developed between them as they developed their post-9/11 diplomacy on this issue. Yet, the substantive divergence in policy is not as great as is now routinely presumed. Both actors made strong commitments to supporting Arab democracy in the wake of 9/11 and articulated an understanding that democratic development in the Arab world was important to the security of Western states. In light of mounting regional security challenges and certain electoral outcomes, such as the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, both actors shifted some way back toward realist alliance-building with autocratic Arab regimes. Additionally, both parties have been reluctant to engage with Islamist opposition groups, but have done so in various instances.

Fundamentally, European and American officials struggle with the same two challenges: whether and how to offer Arab governments significant incentives for democratic reform, and how to mesh the longterm objective of supporting democracy with shorterterm strategic objectives. In short, both actors share the same challenge of transcending the fundamental ambivalence about the “democracy project” that hampers their policy effectiveness. Advancing sustainable and meaningful political reform in the Middle East will require the efforts of governments on both sides of the Atlantic. American and European policymakers should build upon their shared strategic framework to forge a new partnership on behalf of Arab reform. In this vein, the paper suggests several concrete steps that European and American governments should take:

  • Avoid concretizing divergent rhetoric in disparate European and American mechanisms or institutions. Brussels and Washington should consider setting up a higher-level transatlantic forum for coordinating policies in the Middle East, along the lines of the U.S.-E.U. strategic dialogue on Asia established in 2005.
  • Continue issuing joint diplomatic statements on the need for and desired shape of Middle Eastern reform. The Atlantic community should leave Arab leaders in no doubt of the West’s continued interest in and attention to democratic growth and human rights improvements in the Middle East.
  • Coordinate rewards on offer for democratic reform. The Atlantic allies should seek common criteria for determining such rewards and coordinate on the use of positive conditionality to induce greater reform and ease the costs of change.
  • Uphold the principle that local civil society can seek and accept foreign assistance. The European Union and the United States should articulate clearly and forcefully that their links to and support of Arab civil society are non-negotiable.
  • Coordinate positions on engagement with Islamists. Western defense of peaceful political activism should not be selective, and transatlantic pressure should be wielded when regimes crack down on nonviolent Islamist organizations or prevent them from meeting with Western donors.
  • Improve coordination in the provision of non-governmental aid. American and European government funders should engage in more sustained and regular dialogue on funding strategies for democratic development in specific states, and how to use their funds most efficiently to achieve common goals.
  • Stress jointly that democratic development in the Middle East is a common interest of Europe, the United States, and the peoples of the region, not a means to other ends. Democracy should be supported as a system that meets the aspirations of Middle Eastern citizens for greater say in their government, and not simply because it is judged as instrumental for Western interests.

Challenges to greater transatlantic policy coordination and effectiveness derive not only—or even primarily— from the invasion of Iraq. They also result from the more prosaic fact that the European Union and United States approach the issue of Middle Eastern political reform from different angles. The United States is still struggling to build a framework for its engagement of Middle Eastern society that would invest its views on democracy with greater legitimacy and credibility in the region. The European Union, for its part, needs to demonstrate that its already-existing forms of multifaceted engagement can translate into a more tangible contribution to democratization. If European and American policymakers wish to move beyond the ructions of recent years, they can and should focus on their points of relative similarity as a foundation from which transatlantic cooperation in the Middle East can, cautiously, be rebuilt.

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