Spotlight on Geopolitics

President Obama’s May 19th speech is seen as a welcome change from past US foreign policy blunders in the Middle East. The revolutionary wave currently sweeping the Arab world has determined the American president to admit that political change is inevitable:

“the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work any more. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world – a world of astonishing progress in places like India and Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. And so a new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.” (Barack Obama’s State Department speech, May 19,2011)

The president has compared the Arab spring with the 1989 revolutionary wave in Europe and has promised financial support for Tunisia and Egypt. The latter will get one billion dollars in debt relief, as well as fresh financing for job creation and infrastructure. The speech also announced the creation of Enterprise Funds meant to stimulate development in the private sector and entrepreneurial activities in the two countries. These initiatives are, unfortunately, tributary to the Washington consensus agenda. As Erik Berglof points out in a recent Project Syndicate op-ed, however,

“The state has an important role to play in this [reform] process. Early calls in many countries to dismantle the state have given way to more sophisticated assessments. A strong state is needed to support nascent markets and enforce laws and regulations, and it must invest in productivity-enhancing education and health care.” (E. Berglof, Stuck in Transition, May 19,2011, project Syndicate)

He also argues that whilst transition in Eastern Europe was made difficult by the pre-existence of centrally-planned, collectivist economies, Arab countries have functional market economies, solidly based on private ownership rights.

The president’s speech alludes to the possibility of a pan-Arab common market of 400 million people, an idea I myself had initially entertained, before I discarded it as politically infeasible. Although the prospect of a common market encompassing all Arab countries is both logical and desirable, internal and external constraints combine to render pan-Arab initiatives unworkable in practice. As Gérard Dussouy observed in 2001:

“It is not enough to have a common language and civilisation, as well as territorial continuity, for political unification to become automatic. The experience of the Arab world – which occupies the same geographical area, even if bi-continental (North Africa and the Middle East) from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic – proves it […] The global failure […] of the unique Arab state project is largely due to the geopolitical configuration of the Arab world, because it always presented two apparently insurmountable handicaps. First, it lacks a leading power [..]. Second, the intrinsic weaknesses of Arab states, their rivalries, the tribal and nepotist practices in the way their states are organised and function, have maintained a geostrategic configuration which has invited external influences and interventions. More than any other region of the world, the Middle East was the indirect battleground of superpowers.” (G. Dussouy,”Les vicissitudes du panarabisme”)

Jean-Pierre Favennec reaches somewhat similar conclusions and states about Maghreb that

“Historically, North Africa has nurtured strong ties with European countries, from the colonisation of Algeria by France, of Libya by Italy, through to the French protectorates over Morocco and Tunisia, to the British presence in Egypt until the middle of the 20th century. Two countries play an important role for Europe: Algeria and Libya, due to their significant energy resources, especially natural gas. The proximity of the two Mediterranean shores makes Europe and North Africa natural economic partners.” (Jean-Pierre Favennec, “Relations avec l’Afrique du Nord”,2009)

These studies help explain why citizens of Maghreb countries, for example, have EU membership aspirations, while Syrians and maybe even the Lebanese gravitate towards Turkey. The American influence extends from Egypt through to Yemen. If Washington consensus pundits hadn’t been so adverse to geopolitics in the past, they would have grouped Yemen – and not Tunisia – together with Egypt in the same geopolitical sphere and considered extending assistance accordingly. As matters now stand, Tunisia can tap into ample assistance from the EU, whereas Yemen and Syria are still struggling to rid themselves of their long-time dictators.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, extending to Arab countries the type of assistance Eastern Europe has benefited from, and supporting human rights and democratic developments in the region constitute an important step forward for the United States’ Middle East foreign policy agenda. (sources: NYT, Project Syndicate)

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