New approach in an imperfect world
THE current Syrian quagmire which has spilled over to Europe in the form of the refugee crisis gives grounds for a review of relationships between the power brokers, the “Western” alliance of the U.S. and Western Europe regarding the kind of support, engagement, neutrality, opposition and wars with the rest of the world. The West has highlighted political and economic principles as a major factor in engaging with the rest of the world, notably, promoting the democratic process and open economies. Measures have been taken to realise the latter, enshrined in treaties like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other multilateral and bilateral agreements.
It is the political front that holds the greatest challenge. The west must accept a non-optimal democratic scenario in countries that in many ways owe their problems when Europe arranged the world map in the form of nation states that in many ways had no bearing on how the inhabitants in those countries had lived, relate to neighbouring tribes, ethnic and religious groups and states.
Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria demonstrates a naivety, in particular, in understanding that the glue in these nation states often lacks the democratic optimal because for the often diverse public, democracy is a low rank next to family, ethnicity, religion and sect. When the leadership structure in these countries is broken, the West cannot game plan the outcome. In Afghanistan, the Russians before and Americans subsequently could not foresee the chasm that pervades the country, which has been in a state of war for over 40 years.
Iraq, whose sharply divided religious, national, ethnic and tribal loyalties had been held in check by a brutal but effective party and dictator, has imploded. The American could not foresee the pent up religious antagonism and lack of political infrastructure which the Bath party had obliterated for half a century. The Americans could not see that without that infrastructure, the centuries’ old alliances, notably the Sunni/Shia divide would be the determining factor. In Libya, the Dictator, who had again brutally defined and implemented the nation state concept with his highly heterogeneous people, was removed. Again, there was no game plan on what/who would succeed, in a country with no political infrastructure in the western sense. Syria, which has been imploding for the last four years, has caught the West napping, without a realistic or effective strategy.
The actions of the West have come to bite them in various ways, notably, in the lives of soldiers killed, long-term injuries, financial and now the wave of refugees flooding Europe. But there are other areas that require the West to take the non-optimal approach, in particular, with its allies or poster boys/girls. These include Rwanda where Paul Kagame, who has been in power for two decades, is reported to want to stand for a third term. In Asia, Singapore recently re-elected a party that has been in power for over 50 years, as has the party in neighbouring Malaysia. The West has accepted the non-optimal democratic structure in these countries because of impressive gains in the economy, infrastructure and political stability – indeed the administrations in these countries claim, with much justification, that they stay in power because they deliver what matters.
Egypt is another case where the administration, which came to power in a questionable way, is battling religious extremists and struggling to keep its position as the West’s ally and regional power.
The West needs to reappraise its policies and the four war-torn countries noted above should teach it lessons to guide future approach. Firstly, Iraq and Libya were huge mistakes that must not be repeated. The approach must be engagement with non-violent incentives and penalties and the record suggests that this works.
Gadhafi had been trying to make up, paying billions in fines and reparations to victims and positively engaging the West. Iraq could have been persuaded and penalised to stop invading other countries and Saddam never had the bomb anyway. The recent Iran deal is a good example of how soft power works. While there was case for intervention in Afghanistan because of the havoc and destruction of the World Trade Centre, it should have been short, to teach the perpetrators a lesson and capture the prime suspect. The Americans were very close to getting Bin Laden but let him slip away very early in the campaign. In the case of Syria, the West has no option other than to engage the Assad regime. A less optimal approach may get him to promise elections, holding him into account with non-violent incentives and penalties and possibly allow for the Assad family to go into peaceful exile. The West may not have to provide military assistance to Assad as the Russians are doing so, but it must not oppose the Russians.
The non-optimal approach should avoid the military course and interventions wherever possible. A careful analysis of alternative scenarios will ensure that the West adopt a real politic position. Egypt should be nudged but as a friend. A similar approach should be taken for Rwanda, Singapore and Malaysia. These non-optimal democratic “allies”, with the exception of Egypt, have delivered very significant benefits to their people. All have demonstrated that sound, efficient and open economies result in impressive economic growth and development and political stability. They should be supported and other countries should be encouraged to adopt that approach. Yes there is still ISIL and other religious extremists but it must be noted that Gadhafi and Assad had kept lids on such extremists so in a way, regime change has come to bite the West far more than had those despots been left alone.
The West must acknowledge, accept and even support countries that have developed cohesive nation states, avoided conflict, and delivered economic growth, even with doses of repression. It should obviously oppose and work against repression and violence but make use of soft power. The new world order should see the West adopt policies and relationships with less developed countries based on a composite set of criteria. I would like to stress that as a democrat, I believe in free and fair elections, impartial judiciary with the relevant political and economic infrastructure.
I do not believe though that these can or should be used as the only arbiter of the West’s relationship with the rest of the world. The guiding principles should be peace, co-existence and acceptance that non-optimal democracy for probably the majority of people in the world is the only deal in town. Regime change is not always the panacea and indeed it can be the worse option in many countries where the concept of the nation state is still in transition.
• Rogers is the Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO).