The Arab Spring – updated challenges and outdated responses

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick Sunday morning posting inspired by two commentaries plucked out of the Swedish foreign ministry’s list of current readings. Taken together, they arguably reflect two fundamental factors at risk of being obscured by the frenetic flow of images and information constantly pumping out of the contemporary Middle East – namely the unprecedented nature of some of the underlying changes driving the unrest and the antediluvian inability of human governance institutions to react effectively.

First out is Thomas Friedman, with an NYT commentary on how the Arab Spring is driven “not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well.” Friedman goes beyond my (and others’) observations last year that the Arab Spring was partly motivated by distributional inequalities related to land rights to observe that the productivity of land in the Middle East and North Africa is fundamentally threatened by climate change. For instance, a UN report found that persistent winter droughts wiped out 800,000 Syrian farmers in the five years leading up to the current revolt, and such trends appear to be the new rule rather than the exception.

Friedman extensively cites a report by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington recommending a broader vision for responding to the environmental as well as the political risk factors in the Middle East:

“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.

However, a second commentary by Timothy Garton Ash demonstrates how difficult engineering such a response may be. Garton Ash alleges that Syria is being left to an “Ottoman fate” – one that is almost entirely subject to local and regional calculations of power and interest that have have little time for the suffering of ordinary civilians caught up in the violence. Garton alleges that the reason that Europe, in particular, has failed to recognize its interest in seeking a just resolution of the issue is related to its dithering over Turkey’s candidacy to the EU:

The balance of forces around Syria would be different if the historically new, shared sovereignty model of the EU had reached out to embrace Turkey, as it has been promising to do – incredibly, in both senses of the word – for nearly 50 years, since the association agreement of 1963. But it has not. Europe, as Europe, is inaudible on Syria as on so many other issues. And so the fate of that country’s brave resisters and suffering civilians depends on the old-fashioned regional competition of diverse sovereign powers.

 Garton Ash’s implication that a humanitarian intervention should be sought in Syria will be controversial, in the context of a much broader debate raging over this issue. However, his other implication – that Europe has still not learned that failure to positively engage with its periphery will ultimately bring negative consequences – is harder to dispute. This finding is particularly poignant on the 20th anniversary of Europe’s dithering over the breakup of the former Yugoslavia – and particularly worrisome in light of the new climate change-related challenges to regional and global governance that we were so blissfully unaware of back then.
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2 responses to “The Arab Spring – updated challenges and outdated responses

  1. Is the Syrian uprising a “democratic movement” as you and so many other commentators blithely and simplistically assume? Your and Thomas Friedman’s analyses reflect the very muddled Western response to this Arab spring, I.e. viewing this through a very American lens of democracy versus dictatorship. The reality, I fear, is much more complicated. In fact, the Europeans are right to be more cautious in their approach, for the Syrian uprising is a revolt of Sunnis…the other minorities in Syria are very quiet indeed. Indeed, we are right back to the Ottoman age, in a cauldron of competing minority interests. This is no time for moral grandstanding.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment Paul. I expect that you might find me cognizant of the issues you raise if you look at some of my earlier postings. However, rather than grandstanding any further, let me respond with a few questions. 1. Do the Europeans have an approach to Syria, and if so is it likely to be effective? 2. Would the realistic prospect of Turkish accession into the EU be likely to have a positive or negative role? 3. Is it not a bit contradictory to accuse others of oversimplifying and then boil Syria down to a Sunni revolt? I don’t mind a bit of criticism (especially where its fair), but some counteranalysis would certainly make for more interesting reading.

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