Ambassador El-Sayed Amin Shalaby is a career Egyptian diplomat, prolific writer, lecturer, researcher, and commentator. The recipient of the 1994 State Appreciation Award and the 2009 State Award for Excellence, he has a special interest in politics and foreign policy, as well as in culture, and how these things converge and diverge in his life and the lives of others.
A long-time contributor to the Opinion pages of the Al-Ahram Weekly, Shalaby’s writings reflect expertise gathered from his 35-year diplomatic career and his 15-year chairmanship of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFA).
You have written several books about US foreign policy. How do you view US foreign policy under new US President Joe Biden? Do you expect changes from under previous US administrations?
From Biden’s statements during the presidential elections, it could be seen that he refused, if not condemned, almost all of former US president Donald Trump’s foreign policies on issues starting from relations with Europe and the Middle East and extending to all other foreign-policy issues. Now that he has taken office, the features of Biden’s foreign policy are becoming clear.
Biden was vice-president during former US president Barack Obama’s two terms in office, and there is the expectation that Biden will be careful not to replicate what Obama did. Obama came up with a major initiative on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of the two-state solution, and he also called for ending Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories. Biden was there when Obama’s initiative was frustrated after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress behind his back, causing Obama’s initiative to be neglected.
So, Biden is very much aware of what can happen in coming up with a major initiative on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, he may consider some gestures such as resuming financial aid to the Palestinians, this having suffered huge cuts under Trump, returning to supporting the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which Trump ended, or reopening the office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington, which was closed by the Trump administration in September 2018. These things would mark clear differences between Trump’s and Biden’s policies.
Biden is likely to agree with Obama on the Iran file. Biden always opposed Trump’s policy in withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal that was concluded by Obama in 2015. Biden has long made it clear that he will resume the agreement with Iran.
In addition, unlike Trump, Biden is clearly in favour of a return to close and traditional relations with European allies in the framework of grand strategic concepts. Trump was clearly not friendly to the Europeans. He even attacked the EU and supported Brexit, the UK’s exit from the EU. Biden is expected to put great emphasis on consulting and coordinating with European allies on all foreign policy issues, rather than taking unilateral steps.
Do you expect changes to US relations with Egypt under Biden?
There are two views regarding US relations with Egypt. The pessimistic view expects clouds to gather over relations on the assumption that Biden will raise questions about human rights issues in Egypt, which Egypt will not accept.
The more optimistic view believes that Egypt that Biden will be dealing with is different from Egypt of five or six years ago. Egypt’s post-2013 regime is consolidating, initiating internal reforms and building major development projects.
Regarding foreign policy, Egypt has succeeded in establishing a broad international base for its foreign relations. At present, Egypt enjoys the support, understanding, and cooperation of major foreign policy players including major Arab parties, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Biden administration will be aware of Egypt’s status and of Cairo’s growing role in the Middle East and the world. The second view says that Biden will seek cooperation with Egypt, at least regarding conflicts in the Middle East.
There was a recent gesture from Biden towards Egypt in his administration sending a request to Congress to provide almost $200 million for military equipment. Some observers saw this as a signal of the new administration’s possible new approach to its relations with Egypt.
You recently finished the second part of your book On the Threshold of my Eightieth Year: Glimpses of Life, People, and Books. What messages did you want to convey in it?
I wanted to write about my feelings since my early youth and until I turned 80 years old. I have gathered a lot of experience in life through the people I have worked with and have been impressed by the books I have read and the thinkers I have met.
The book quotes extracts from these political and cultural thinkers. It includes conclusions about my experience in life, and these may be a guide for readers, particularly younger ones.
Are you currently working on other books?
I have just finished writing my book Chapters on China. I borrowed the title from former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s book On China, in which he wrote about his visits to China after his first secret journey to Beijing in 1972. This was the trip that paved the way for former US president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China that ended the quarter-of-a-century hostility between the US and China.
Chapters on China is a review of Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies since the opening up to foreign trade and investment and the implementation of free-market reforms by former chairman Deng Xiaoping, whom I consider to be the second greatest leader of China after Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. Deng initiated the developments that caused China to become the second largest economic power in the world.
The book will be published soon. I have also finished another culturally-centred book under the title A Follow-Up on Culture and Politics.
You made good use of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic last year. What lessons do you believe the world has learnt from it?
The coronavirus sent a strong message to the world to be more united and to world leaders to cooperate to face such challenges. It also cast light on the importance of what we call global issues, namely climate change, immigration, and organised crime, all of which are just as threatening to the world as the coronavirus.
You talk in your books about the world order and about a bi-polar and multi-polar world. Where do you think we are today, and what is the future of the conflict between the superpowers?
I have followed the development of the world system since the end of World War II, when it was characterised by the bi-polar system of the US and the former Soviet Union that lasted until the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the world scene. The US then emerged as the world’s only superpower.
The US succeeded in becoming the only superpower, and the rest of the world recognised that status and started to deal with the US as such until the end of the Clinton administration towards the end of the 1990s. Analysts, thinkers, and historians were all asking a major question: what would the US do with that status?
The question was being asked until former US president George W Bush came to power and all the ensuing developments, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were seen as catastrophic for US foreign policy and impacted the US status in the world.
From this point onwards, historians and analysts, encouraged by the emergence of other powers, mainly China, Russia, Europe, and India, started to think again. They reached the conclusion that the world was approaching a multi-polar system.
The US remains a major power, but it does not control war and peace decisions alone. We are all aware of the way in which China is now regarded in US political circles as the main challenger over the next 20 to 30 years. There is a consensus now in the US that China is the main challenger. The Trump administration called it the “main danger” or main enemy of the US.
You have written books on personalities such as the British historian Arnold Toynbee, the US politician Henry Kissinger, and the Swedish economist and diplomat Dag Hammarskjold. Why did you choose these three?
From my early years, I have been very much attracted to reading biographies of political leaders, especially those who have an interest in politics employing a cultural approach.
I was very much impressed by Toynbee’s writing about civilisations, for instance, and his fair and objective approach in describing the world’s civilisations, including eastern civilisations, and how he opposed others who were more centred on the European civilisation. He talks about Eastern civilisations, among them the Islamic civilisation. Toynbee was also fair about the Palestinian issue, and he criticised his country’s role and the way it handled the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
I was also very interested in Kissinger in the sense that his intellectual powers contributed to his rise as a major diplomat and statesman in US and world politics. I wrote a book in the mid-1970s on Kissinger that focused on the historical and philosophical sources of his thinking and how these contributed to his rise.
I examined two major pieces of his in particular. The first was his dissertation for his Masters degree on the meaning of history, and the second was the dissertation for his doctoral degree, called “The world restored”. This was an expression of the intellectual and philosophical bases that were reflected in Kissinger’s diplomatic and foreign policy performance when he was in office.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly