Could the Arab Spring Create a New Balance of Power in the Middle East?

"The political transformations and new foreign-policy alignments emerging in the ashes of the Arab Spring create a unique window of opportunity for regional realignment." 

This summer will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 would herald total war to Europe, destroy empires and political systems, and usher a new order for the continent as well as the Middle East.

International-relations history features only a few watershed moments when a new international order emerges, usually built upon the ashes of human suffering and devastation. When emperors, kings, presidents and religious leaders renegotiated international order, war always preceded. In his influential book After Victory, John Ikenberry analyzes these very moments in history. The “settlements” of 1648, 1713, 1815, 1919 and 1945 offered critical junctures in which major-power conflict had sufficiently destroyed the existing order to permit the reorganization and rebuilding of international order. Ikenberry argues that during post war junctures, victorious powers may either use coercion to dominate the system, withdraw, leaving the intermediate powers to fend for themselves, or pursue a systemic transformation in an attempt to lock its post-conflict advantage for the foreseeable future. In 1919, the United States abandoned the international system, leaving an inherently flawed League of Nations that, without the lead power, was unable to prevent the rise of fascism (what we might now call ‘rogue states’) in Europe and Asia. In contrast, the 1945 settlement witnessed the transformation of the international system through the creation of a set of organizations that added a constitution-like quality. Whilst the United States and other victorious powers locked in their post-war advantage (through a Permanent Seat in the UNSC), the UN Charter became the universal organizing principle for international relations. Binding institutions and international law acted as restraint on concentrated power. Post-1945 international relations witnessed a stable political structure in which states’ returns to power were low while returns to cooperation through international institutions increased.

Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, regional order in the Middle East has been a mixture of hegemonic stability (extended deterrence by the United States) and balance of power between regional states, oscillating between different coalitions and outside powers.

It does not take a Frank Underwood to see that the cards in the Middle East have been continually reshuffled since 2011. The fall out of the Arab Spring has brought immense human suffering to the Middle East. The violent revolution in Libya has yet to consolidate itself into a new constitutional democracy. The horrors of total societal destruction and warfare in Syria remind us of the fields of Flanders and that although technology and warfare have evolved over the past hundred years, tragically, the Hobbesian state of human nature remains. And then there are the crushed dreams of democracy, dignity and human rights in Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. There, the ‘deep state’ remains strong and resists political change.

However, these conflicts represent a series of systemic shocks to the regional order. They provide an opportunity for peace and stability to rise from the ashes. Without trivializing the trauma of combatants and civilians, perhaps the centennial of the first total war could be the beginning of a new regional order for the Middle East. What it needs is vision and political will—two qualities rarely found among leaders.

In fact, statesmen are rarely revolutionaries. It is often preferable to preserve the status quo rather than change it. International-relations history tells us that it is even difficult for the hegemon to impose its will on other members of the international community and bring about radical change. The Foreign Policy Analysis literature, therefore, tends to characterize statesmen as canoeists who prefer to go with the flow rather than paddle against the current. More often than not, the concept of “muddling through” is used to describe the entire foreign-policy decision-making process of great powers. Recently declassified CIA documents on the Clinton administration’s foreign policy towards the Bosnian conflict reveal the struggle between the “Never Again” and “Limited War” schools within the administration. As a February 1995 NSC Former Yugoslavia Bosnia Review reveals:

“- On the one hand, our own principles, as well as public and Congressional pressures, make it difficult to disengage and effectively abandon the Bosnians.

- On the other hand, we do not presently have the means to attain the political goal we have set—negotiated settlements that deprive the Serbs of some of their ill-gotten gains—and we have not been prepared to commit those means. Moreover, there is limited public support in the U.S. or in Europe for doing so.”