It is always preferable and more illuminating to think outside the box when it comes to complex problems that continue to defy routine and conventional approaches. Indeed, if the problems were not so complex and intractable, there would be no need to give them so much thought to begin with. Perhaps none of our pressing issues was as successful as “regional security” in stimulating our friend and colleague Mamoun Fendi, always the source of fresh and inspiring ideas, to explore ways out of conventional boxes that lack the necessary boldness to face realities in our problematic Middle East. There is no denying the boldness of his ideas, which essentially proceed from the premise that security is achieved by either dealing with the disruptions, or by directly confronting the sources of the disruptions, especially in the case of enemies who are impossible to reason with and determined to perpetuate the threat.
In our region, identifying security problems begins with a survey of ongoing conflicts. Some are open, as in the case in Syria, Libya, Yemen and, intermittently, Palestine. Others are less open, as is the case in Iraq where it seethes to the surface on occasion in the form of assassinations and missile strikes and where you find militant groups that subscribe to assorted sectarian and violent ideologies. The least hasty and most thoughtful reading of this conflict-ridden panorama takes it back to the earthquake, known in the West as the Arab Spring, that rocked this region at the outset of the last decade, generating waves of security breakdowns and threats to the Arab nation state. Keen to take advantage of geopolitical upheaval, the Arabs’ neighbours pounced. Iran extended its reach into four Arab capitals; Turkey encroached politically and militarily into three Arab states; Ethiopia launched a bid to secure control over the Nile; and Israel set into motion the “Third Nakba” with its plans to add more Palestinian territories to those it absorbed in 1948 and 1967. It was as nadirs of security that the Arab region experienced the Crusades, the Mongol invasions, the Ottoman imperialist invasions and European colonialist invasions. Today, it is experiencing fresh invasions of non-Arab neighbours.
Our inside-the-box thinking neighbours found it hard not to yield to the temptation to exploit our strategic weakness to advance what they take to be their interests and to use violence and aggression to obtain what is not rightfully theirs. Simultaneously, the restoration of security will not necessarily bring a consensus over a framework for joint security, collective security cooperation or even a common code of conduct until the balances of power equalise. This is from inside the box, as is the fact that it will take time to rectify the imbalances and repair the flaws, many of which have their origins in the pre-earthquake period. Elsewhere in the world where profound changes in the international order has stirred fears for national security, thinkers are also re-examining some older boxes: Thucydides and what motivated the Peloponnesian War; Machiavelli and power at the heart of politics; and, more recently, Hans Morgenthau’s Power Among Nations and Henry Kissinger’s subtler understanding of balances of power as a key to security.
Regional security, from this perspective, does not begin with consensus over a political framework for collective action but by rectifying the balance of powers, not just militarily but also by fostering the will and capacity to forge deterrent alliances. Arab leaderships have called this the process of securing the foundations and unleashing the energies of the state by means of comprehensive reforms in tune with the modern age and human advancement. Indeed, this process is already in progress in some Arab countries. Although on the surface it may appear a type of isolationist or self-sufficiency movement, it is actually the beginning of the road towards rectifying regional equations, regardless of whether these countries’ foreign policies are still shaped individually rather than collectively at this stage. Economic recovery and lifting themselves out of the rubble of World War II was the Europeans’ first step towards the realisation of collective European security. Other steps quickly followed, from the creation of NATO to the establishment of the European Community which then evolved into the European Union. At the same time, it was essential to acquire nuclear arms in order to offset the imbalance in conventional arms that was overwhelming in favour of the Soviet Union. It was not until 1974 that Europeans met in Helsinki to establish the framework for European regional security order based on European borders as they stood at the end of World War II. Afterwards came the confidence-building, the mutual understandings and nuclear disarmament. Obviously, not all parts of the world share the same historical and geopolitical circumstances. But the basic inside-the-box rule still applies. It is important to re-establish a balance of power in all its hard, soft and smart dimensions.
While a number of Arab states were swept away by the chaos of the Arab Spring, others were spared that fate entirely. Meanwhile, countries such as Egypt and Bahrain managed to stay away from the brink and to emerge from the storm after a short period, which was only possible due to alliances that helped them avert catastrophe. So, the picture isn’t entirely bleak, and the dark portions have glimmers of light. As for non-Arab regional parties that have thrived for a decade on security disruption in the Arab region, they are having difficulties of their own on their domestic fronts and in their regional and international alliances. A range of complex dynamics are in play that have caused Iran to lose influence in Iraq and Lebanon, that kept the Houthis from attaining their goals in Yemen, and that etched a red line in the face of the Turkish incursion into Libya. Thanks to the stances of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and France and Germany, Israel has slowed its bid to annex more Palestinian territory.
This does not mean that the threats have ceased or that the regional strategic imbalance has been rectified. It means that Arabs have taken two major steps: one to secure the foundations of the state and the second to work together. Now the third step is to establish an effective deterrent alliance with the capacity to manage multiple and simultaneous threats and crises, while sustaining the processes of domestic growth and development without interruption. All this comes from the conventional and accepted international thinking on regional security. But there is still plenty of room for thinking outside the box. We can see some of it already in the handling of the Palestinian cause in the form of creating realms for human cooperation while continuing to press for legitimate rights. There is still plenty of scope for work, both inside and outside the box. The important thing is to keep thinking.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly