As I write this, there are signs of a breakthrough or ease-up in the Ukraine crisis following news, true or not, of a reduction in the number of Russian troops undertaking manoeuvres. In the West, officials speak of a need to resolve the problem for the sake of all concerned. From Vienna come leaks that a new nuclear accord with Iran is on the verge of being signed, which would be impossible without Russian and Chinese efforts.
If an agreement is at hand between Washington and Tehran, why should this not be the case between Washington and Moscow? In a recent speech directly addressing the Russian people, President Biden pointedly stressed the friendship between the Russian and American peoples, suggesting that it was not Russia that threatened Ukraine but Putin with whom Washington should negotiate a type of Finlandisation strategy. Why Finland? That is another subject, which Henry Kissinger among others addressed. The idea is that Ukraine should remain an independent sovereign state that solved its internal problems without threat from Russia or protection from NATO.
For my part, I have long been of the opinion that the time of major wars has passed. There are tangible reasons for this, the first being the intensive interdependency between nations and peoples. Second, the world today faces many formidable challenges of a magnitude no country or even group of countries could handle on its own. The Covid-19 pandemic and global warming threaten all countries without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, language or political system.
Third, to compound the former threats, the stability of the global economic system is very precarious. Fourth, although terrorism has been defeated in part, it still has the power to rear its head against targets across the globe. Fifth, nuclear weapons can be more easily disseminated under a world order that has grown less effective. Sixth, outer space has become an open frontier for competition and conflict as never before.
In a recent edition of The Economist, the philosopher of history and military historian Yuval Noah Harari reiterates a conclusion he had drawn in previous writings, namely that warfare (like famine, deadly epidemics and other such threats) has declined. Never before in history had average national spending on armies been so low. At present, governments spend only around 6.5 per cent of their budgets on armed forces while far more is spent on education, healthcare and welfare. “We tend to take it for granted, but it is an astonishing novelty in human history. For thousands of years, military expenditure was by far the biggest item on the budget of every prince, khan, sultan and emperor. They hardly spent a penny on education or medical help for the masses.”
The problem with this view is that, while it might apply to wars that are costly to governments and to humankind, it does not apply to non-state actors such as terrorist organisations or regions steeped in anarchy, violence and proxy wars. This brings us directly to the Middle East, historically a theatre in world wars (including the Cold War), though not their centre. Today, this region is awash with terrorist violence and aggressive interventions by regional powers in other countries whether directly or through client organisations and militias.
The Middle East, which includes the Arab countries, Turkey, Iran and Israel, and its environment, which includes Afghanistan and Ethiopia, are at a critical juncture characterised, firstly, by the US withdrawal from the position of leadership and dominance it had occupied since the end of the Cold War; secondly, by the rise of China to superpower status and Russia’s return to that status; and, thirdly, by Beijing and Moscow’s desire to revise an international order that had prevailed since the end of the Cold War and to introduce alternative systems based on a tri-polar participatory approach that incorporate modifications to the world order that facilitate more effective collective responses to the above-mentioned universal threats. It is no coincidence that China, which had officially opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian support for the secessionist movements in Ukraine, would side with Russia in opposing NATO expansion to include Ukraine.
Most of these developments revolve around Europe, where the Ukraine crisis has surfaced, and Asia, where the movement of world trade and wealth is at its most intense. In this regard, once the Iranian-US nuclear deal is signed by Washington and witnessed by China, Russia and the EU, the Middle East will be left to handle the complex reality after the rest of the world turns to other business. In other words, rather than applying an effective comprehensive approach, the great powers are dealing with this region bilaterally and in accordance with unrelated questions on which hinge their respective interests and calculations of profit and loss.
Not that this is necessarily all bad for the region. It once again confirms that this region needs a regional security order to ensure the safety of its constituent countries, promote their right to national development, provide conflict resolution mechanisms and create channels for broadening cooperation and advancing economic growth. As to how to go about this, what is needed is a thorough awareness of the nature of the changes in the international order and more space for diversifying relations with great powers. Steps in this direction have already begun. Many countries in the region have also set in motion another course of action needed to develop a regional security order: the comprehensive reform projects that are underway in Arab states which have successfully weathered the Arab Spring and are as keen on regional development as they are on domestic development. Equally important, explorative talks and other interactions at various levels have begun in order to calm regional tensions, especially between Iran and the Gulf countries.
The region has changed since the AlUla Declaration was adopted in the last Gulf Cooperation Council summit. Where there once was an uninterrupted chain of spiking tension, political crises and volleys of propaganda warfare, the air is being cleared for fresh approaches. Those underscore the grave damage done to the security and welfare of the region and its constituent states, that are exploring formulas for peaceful coexistence, mutual security and collective growth. It is no accident that the AlUla Declaration was followed by an intensification of reconciliation efforts in the Gulf and collaborative efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean. All appears to be working towards a larger drive for regional peace and security and lasting solutions to chronic crises such as the Palestinian question.
So much has to be done to achieve regional security in the Middle East. Hurdles and obstacles are many, and the starting point is not clear. But there is no question it will require concerted action through official channels or initiatives undertaken by regional security research centres. History will remember those who show the greatest initiative.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.