One question that always nagged at me over nearly half a century in the course of my career was whether the international order was changing and, if so, in what direction. How would this affect related issues, such as the shape of the regional order in the Middle East or the Arab region (or the “Arab homeland” as some prefer to call it, or the “Arab world” as others would have it)?
I often could not help observing that the question seemed more pressing for the Arabs, featuring frequently as a focal concern in their political and intellectual forums. In other countries, the question tended to be confined to academic circles and, sometimes, the whispered conversations of politicians. During noisy, clamorous times in Western countries, such as election seasons, the question never surfaced at all. Perhaps that is because over there, they believe they are the core of the contemporary order. That consists of a Europe and US joined at the hip with a couple of far-flung limbs in Japan and Australia.
In the Arab region, the subject always caused knitted eyebrows. Change in the international-regional order has ominous connotations. It conjures up centuries-old memories of the post-World War I period, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the partition of our region, which has continued to splinter ever since then. Not that I was ever fully convinced that a unified or integrated Arab entity had ever truly existed, apart from that imposed by dint of the relationship with the Ottoman caliphate or the various colonialist powers.
In all events, the subject has grown more and more pressing since the 1960s, and it has been posed with increasing frequency with each passing decade. Today, we hear the question everywhere. It’s as though a new global order is already sprouting as we speak, and our task is to identify its features, assess its potential impacts and determine whether the sprouts herald good or impending ills.
One problem that always arises at such moments is that the very concept of “order” implies a steady succession of events with identifiable and predictable inputs and outputs. In other words, it fuses change with stability.
This begs the question of how exactly the international or regional order is changing or when we will have a new regional order that is different to what we have known. In the space of only three years, the subject of radical universal change arose twice: first when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and then when the war in Ukraine broke out in Europe. Both sent tremors across the globe.
The search for an answer to the question takes us back to three theories of change. The first sees the key in the “forces of production” and the concomitant prevailing “technologies” of production. Fundamental changes in these reorder relations between different components of society and between society and the state. Marxist theory made this the cornerstone of change. It explained the difference between feudal, capitalist and socialist societies and the transformations ushered in through the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
The second theory attributes change to ideas. Change occurs when a system that is based on a core idea comes in contact with or is superseded by another idea. Hegel is foremost among the philosophers who put great store in ideas as the origin of social orders. Religions generated sociopolitical orders centred on the idea of Jews as a divinely chosen people, on the martyrdom of Christ and universal redemption from sin, or of the Prophet Mohamed as the seal of the prophets and messenger of the last divinely revealed religion.
In the secular world, Plato’s utopian city served as the core of a political ideal that he expounded on in The Republic and translated into practical terms in Laws. Moving into the modern era, the great ideals that inspired the American and French revolutions were grounded in the idea of a “social contract.” They turned the philosophies of John Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu into the driving forces behind the liberal approach to relations within and between states.
The third theory tends to be advocated by conservatives. Based on direct deduction from public life, it focuses on the quest for “power” and its impact on the balance of power in a given order. Change occurs as the result of a disequilibrium created by a rising power that eventually succeeds in shifting the balance in its favour and generating a new equilibrium. A whole train of philosophers and political scientists have elaborated this line of thinking, starting from Machiavelli and not ending with Henry Kissinger.
The three theories seemed to be at work in an interconnected way in the current regional and international orders. Changes in the forces of production have taken us from the second industrial revolution associated with World War II to the digital/IT revolution that helped spur globalisation and then to the fourth technological revolution, artificial intelligence, which appears to be unfolding in tandem with a reversal in globalisation and a return to the nation state and its unitary identity.
The second theory has been embodied by US President Biden who divided the world into “democrats” and “autocrats,” pushing each side to form their particular order or bloc. The equilibrium between the two blocs is currently in flux due to China’s powerful rise, regardless of the fact that it began on the backs of Western companies. We are thus watching a new order emerge out of an old order, which centred around a single hegemonic power, and a shift from a unipolar order to a tri-polar or multipolar one. The war in Ukraine is the watershed; it will determine the nature of the balances to come.
The three theories are at work simultaneously at the regional level in this part of the world as well. Technology played a major role in the outbreak of the Arab Spring and uprisings against political orders that were mired in cycles of stagnation and decay. Facebook and Twitter were the tools for mobilisation and, more generally, the new technologies became instruments for acquiring power. A country could assert major regional and international influence not solely through the deployment of its wealth but also by dint of a satellite TV station with worldwide reach and even the ability to monopolise broadcasting football matches.
The ideas that had prevailed in this region after World War II were inspired by the concept of Arab nationalism, which at first unified political entities and then redivided them. Today, a new idea has taken hold. It is based on the “nation state” as the crucial key to national cohesion. The recent Arab Summit in Jeddah reflected the shifts in the balance of power between the classical powers that had prevailed since World War II and the emerging powers whose rise is built, not just on wealth, but also on factors such as efficacy and maximising the potential of their youth.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly