A year of deals

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 11 Feb 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said seeks out the big picture.

What follows may go against general tenor of the situation in the world and the region as it is perceived today. The global level is dominated by the Ukraine “crisis.” That appears worrisome in light of the tenor of the rhetoric, troop deployments and escalating exchange of demands to change this behaviour or that. The consequent, constant tension is reminiscent of scenes preceding the Cold War which all had thought had passed never to return.

At the regional level, which has entered the second decade after the spasms of the Arab Spring, what was broken remains broken and the foreign interventions that aided and capitalised on the fracturing are still at full blast, and not just in rhetoric but also in bullets and flames. Against the backdrop at both levels, various fiends and ogres have appeared in the form of cyber technologies, drones and missiles in the hands of assorted terrorist groups and similar proxies used by regional powers keen to win influence, promote ideologies and change realities in more dangerous and brazen ways. 

Washington’s decision to send 3,000 troops to various theatres in Europe (not near Ukraine) and other troops plus air power to the UAE send messages that Russian and Iranian expansionism has limits. Russia, for its part, is trying to reshape regional security again. It acts as though the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact had only collapsed yesterday and it was time to reverse that. Vladimir Putin’s remark that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical mistake of the 20th century may mean one of two things: that the remedy is to revive the society union, in which case Crimea, Ukraine and Georgia would become links in a chain calculated to return, or that the mistake can be corrected by restoring imperial Russia to its place in Europe and European alliances.

Whatever he meant, his attitude towards what happened more than 30 years ago is informed, on the one hand, by present-day circumstances - some global, relating to such questions as the pandemic and climate change, and others regional, having to do with the types of tremors that Brexit sent through Europe - and, on the other hand, by purely domestic circumstances connected with the governing systems of world powers.

In the Western camp, this latter factor is coming under a glare. Western liberal democracy and values, efficacy of government and the nature of domestic and foreign policies are being put to the test. Systems of government are being strained by mounting political and ideological pressures and fissures.

This millennium opened to the tune of George Bush Jr, leader of the “neoconservatives,” proclaiming the beginning of the “American century.” Less than a decade later, the war on terror had proven an utter failure. The price of invading Afghanistan and Iraq is incalculable, as is the price of exiting them 20 years later, plus the rest of the Middle East in the process. Less than a decade after the US assumed the global helm, Barrack Obama, the Democrat, took office. He felt that world’s problems had to do with the US overreaching itself. At that point, US strategy was caught between reducing its presence and the concept of “surge.” It was thought that the latter could win a war and, more importantly, generate a better negotiating framework for the US.

Then, in 2016, Donald Trump came to power, riding on the crest of a far right wave clamouring for “America First.” The isolationist, ultranationalist fervour spread to Europe (Britain), South America (Brazil) and Asia (India). Then, in 2020, the Democrats managed to regain power under Biden who made it clear he wanted to reshape the world, leading a league of democracies opposed to dictatorships. Democracy, at the time, was fraying and splintering. The US, itself, was losing its grip on the basics of the democratic game, from the filibuster to the composition of the Supreme Court to electoral laws.

The global political tremors combined with planetary tremors, such as the pandemic and global warming, yielded an unprecedented combination of raw power and interdependence. The first has been encouraged by advances in armaments, on the one hand, and advances in the technologies that enable meddling, on the other hand. We see, for example, drones and high precision missiles targeting countries in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and one power (Russia) engaging in electoral tampering and voter influencing through social media in another (the US). In the more than half a century that has passed since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, the number of nuclear nations has doubled. 

Yet, crucially, mutual dependency between different peoples and nations of the world has never been as great, regardless of geopolitical, geo-cultural and even geo-economic differences. The weave of intertwining interests and benefits has become so dense that a shortage in one place wreaks havoc everywhere. One salient example is Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and Russian reliance on Western technological advances in peaceful production. An even better example is the Chinese-US relationship. That epitomises the kind of global interdependence in which everyone relies on everyone else’s production and consumer markets.

Because of all the above mentioned tremors, the world is gripped by uncertainty, fear of losing control, and a sense of vulnerability to threats that no country, no matter how strong, can handle on its own. It is abundantly clear that there are certain universal issues, such as health and migration, that demand international cooperation. We also know that, while the world lacks sufficient political impetus to improve the international order that emerged in the wake of World War II and gave rise to the UN and its subsidiary bodies, it is possible to make deals in order to reduce international tensions. The anticipated deal between Iran and the US is a case in point. It will put a ceiling on how soon Iran can make a nuclear weapon, even if it leaves other sources of tension to be handled by future deals or learning to live with them.

The same applies to the situation in Europe where the ingredients for a deal are present. It is increasingly acknowledged in the West that NATO’s expansion to its current size has, indeed, provoked Russia to the type of behaviour we see today. Perhaps a halt to NATO expansion, keeping Ukraine independent and with close relations to both its Russian and European neighbours, would strike a happy balance for all. 

As for what we Arabs should do in this age of deals, it is to rely on ourselves, our components of autonomous strength and our vast capacity for mutual dependency with others. This opens the horizons for initiatives capable of restoring stability to the region and paving the way to the end of the quakes generated by the Arab Spring.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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