Whether in the Iraqi capital or Tripoli, or in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen or periodically in Gaza, the violence comes in complex forms rooted in the past and bodes explosively ill for the future. Our region has been ablaze for at least a century. The fires fuelled by ethnic and sectarian tensions are stoked by deviant, mercenary militias. But now the turmoil unfolds against a backdrop of global and international crises that have been accumulating one on top of the other for years.
The world today faces two sets of crises: universal existential crises in the form of pandemics and global warming, and volatile international crises. Four major political and economic issues shook the world in the past quarter century: the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the global financial crisis of 2008, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2019, and the war in Ukraine that began in late February and six months later is still ongoing with no end in sight.
Wars and the like generally end in one of two ways: either the complete and definitive victory of one side over the other, as occurred in World War II and the American Civl War; or with no definitive victory or defeat, which eventually leads to a form of negotiating process that reflects the balance of power and the desire to bring the conflict to an end. At present, no one can say whether one side or the other will win in Ukraine or whether either side is ready to sit down at the negotiating table.
Taken together, imagine how alarming all the foregoing is for Arab countries, especially those that are blessed with political stability having managed, first, to weather the Arab Spring; secondly, to launch ambitious comprehensive reform programmes to bolster the historic and political legitimacy of the nation state with the legitimacy of achievement and growth; and, thirdly, to articulate the desire to reach a just and stable regional peace in order to create an environment conducive to their security and development goals, to which testifies an array of agreements and efforts to resolve regional hostilities and reorder conflict-related priorities.
Nine Arab states rallied around these goals through a series of communications and consultations that took place ahead of the Arab-US summit in Saudi Arabia in July. The unified Arab discourse during that event reflected the extent of convergence between these states’ visions, not just with respect to Washington but also with respect to the world, the Middle East and the difficult challenges of our times.
Since the beginning of the present decade, these nine countries have worked to build bridges of cooperation in their regional neighbourhood in the hope of resolving a decade’s worth of cumulative problems. They simultaneously maintained balanced policies towards major world powers. But in contrast to the mode of the Non-Aligned movement or the Positive Neutrality of the 1960s, their policies proceeded from a precise definition of national interests and a methodical identification of what is and is not beneficial in that context.
This interest-based approach naturally compels these countries towards something greater than the sum of its parts. After all, no country has the ability to solve on its own matters of the breadth, depth and persistence of global warming, or to respond effectively to the repercussions of rapidly shifting international politics.
This is all the more true in the light of the uncertainty surrounding the Ukrainian crisis, an uncertainty that is increasing with every passing day, because the variables are not only contingent on the balance of powers, the ability to take the initiative and assert control, or to sustain the current attrition on human and material resources, but also on the internal circumstances of the nations concerned. No one will dispute the strategic importance or status of the US in international relations.
Meanwhile Washington is undergoing a severe domestic crisis. It may not resemble the types of political crisis that are common to the Third World and the Middle East. But it is escalating in an American fashion and threatens to turn the upcoming Congressional midterm elections and presidential elections into bitter confrontations reminiscent of 1930s Europe when the rising tides of fascist totalitarianism and racism jeopardised the institutional stability of the state. The anticipated face-off between the incumbent president, Joseph Biden, and the former president, Donald Trump, will not just be about who takes the helm but about the very identity of the US too.
At the same time, victory or defeat in Ukraine will give us a Russia totally different from the one we have known, a Russia not content with revising the world order but bent on changing conditions in Europe and exacting revenge for the humiliation it suffered on the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. As for China, which is determined to preserve the gains it has made from globalisation and has shown that it prepared to engage in a peaceful revision of the global order, it too raised worrisome military fangs during the last crisis over Taiwan, ignited by the needless visit of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The unpredictability surrounding the superpowers and their fluctuating domestic and external circumstances creates an additional source of anxiety to a world that has been fluctuating precariously in recent years. The only way to address this situation is through stable powers that converge on a set of shared special interests which, in turn, can be augmented when these interests converge with other nations keen to explore ways to work together and complement one another, thereby amplifying the benefit all around.
Previously in this space I spoke of the European experiment that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution known as the Concert of Europe. Not only did the arrangement give Europe the opportunity to overcome the repercussions of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, but it also gave rise to the economic, social and political reforms that produced institutions able to realise stability and to absorb the adverse affects of the first industrial revolution.
The concept was rooted in geopolitical realities closely related to the balance of powers in the emergent new Europe of those times and it continued to influence Europe’s regional and international policies until the 19th-century European order collapsed on the outbreak of World War I.
In our case today, the nine Arab states mentioned above and perhaps others have no choice but to make the transition from bilateral relations based on common interests to a formula for the pursuit of collective interests in order to respond effectively to current international and global realities. A Concert of Arabia could be the best mode for addressing urgent challenges, such as warding off epidemics, fighting global warming, overcoming energy or food shortages, and responding to the fluctuating circumstances of the great powers.
Given these countries’ position at international crossroads and at the heart of many of the world’s crises, their collective influence could be far-reaching. Actually, all this is at the heart of Arab reform policies which, with every change they make in Arab countries, are contributing to changing the region and the world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.