Sunday, March 6, 2011
Surviving Short-Term Shocks
Philip Stephens writes: The eventual removal of Gaddafi may not necessarily map an easy path to liberal democracy in the region
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 06/03/2011
Anyone who imagines that the Arab uprisings herald a short or smooth transition to democracy should take a glance at the western Balkans. Two decades after the fall of communism, the wounds have yet to heal in the former Yugoslavia. This in spite of a vast panoply of economic and political incentives proffered by the US and Europe.
The crisis in Libya as Muammar Gaddafi clings to power will not be the only violent rupture as authoritarian rulers begin to fall in the Middle East. Nor will the eventual removal of the Libyan leader map an easy path to liberal democracy and economic prosperity in societies so long imprisoned by authoritarianism.
Building the infrastructure of freedom and the rule of law will be a painstaking business.
The one prediction that can be made with some certainty is that the revolutions will be punctuated by protracted periods of chaos.
This is not a reason for anyone to throw up their hands in despair; nor for those of a "realist" foreign policy inclination to bemoan the passing of the age of autocrats. It does demand recognition that there are no quick fixes. Patience and perseverance will be at a premium. Sadly, we inhabit a world in which yesterday is usually deemed too late.
The big challenge is to develop a framework of assistance that will survive short-term shocks. This requires some points of reference. The West could start with five basic signposts for the long road ahead.
Celebrate the uprisings
It will seem obvious to most people that the world should be loudly cheering this historic advance for freedom and democracy. But too many still hold on to the pernicious idea that Arabs are unready for democracy; that, alone in the world, the Middle East's choice is between autocracies and Islamist extremism.
As it happens, the extremists of Al Qaida have so far been the big strategic losers from recent events. There has been no burning of US flags on the streets of Cairo; no visible clamour in Tunisia or Libya against imperialists.
The demands instead have been from a new generation seeking freedom and human dignity — values never high among Osama Bin Laden's priorities. All the more reason for outsiders to be unshakeable in their support for the advance of political pluralism.
Interfere only in extremes
The revolutions belong to the people of the region. When figures such as Tony Blair talk about "managing" the transition, alarm bells ring. The US and Europe carry too much historical baggage in this part of the world. The line not to be crossed is that between the offer of generous support and unsolicited efforts to meddle in democratic choices. If elections sometimes yield uncomfortable outcomes, so be it.
This caution should apply to present events in Libya. Those who want to get rid of Gaddafi now have all the right instincts. If he wages war on his own people, the UN must live up to its responsibility to protect. But the US and Europe should not unilaterally extend intervention beyond humanitarian assistance.
No time for penny-pinching
Military caution should be matched by economic generosity. The US and Europe should take a lead in mobilising resources so that democracy takes root in countries that eject authoritarian rulers.
Call it a Marshall Plan if you like, but in any event the assistance must be on a scale equal to the challenge and the opportunity. For Europe to plead poverty and hide behind its public debt problems would be an unconscionable betrayal of its own as well as the Middle East's future.
There are big incentives available in addition to money. Trade and investment concessions should be given to governments ready to open up their societies. Immigration rules should be loosened for states in transition. On both counts, Europe should be out in front. The European Union should also put to use its extensive experience in democratic institution-building. Further down the track, it should hold out the offer of strategic partnerships with new democracies. Nato should do likewise.
Work with the rest
America's power and Europe's proximity bestow particular responsibilities. But if the revolutions belong to the peoples of the region, the international response must not be seen as the property of the West. The world's rising states (and yes that includes China) have a big stake in peaceful change. Turkey, the region's only Islamic democracy, has a particular role and interest.
The net should be spread widely. If the West's political response to the revolutions is to secure international legitimacy, it must win the backing of the UN Security Council. Economic and development assistance should be top agenda items for the Group of 20 nations.
Understand the stakes
Political leaders will doubtless think of endless reasons to hesitate as the uprisings unfold. They will worry about the risk of disruption to oil supplies, about the threat that extremists are regrouping, about increased migration and about the constraints imposed by their own fiscal deficits. The temptations to temporise will be enormous.
The stakes are too high for that. On the one side lies the huge prize of a democratised and prosperous Middle East sharing universal values and pushing back against violent extremism. With the right investment, the Middle East states could follow the economic path blazed a couple of decades ago by the Asian tigers.
Conversely, if things go wrong for want of sufficient help, the costs, human and economic, will be many times higher than any western investment in success. Economic decline, soaring oil prices, radicalised populations and an uncontrolled tide of migration are all high on the list.
So am I optimistic that the world will rise to this challenge? Not really. Barack Obama gives a good speech but, as far as the Middle East goes, the US presidential resolve has hitherto fallen short of the rhetoric. In Europe, one has so far seen posturing from a bunch of politicians, more comfortable in complacency. Sometimes, though, political leaders are made by the moment. Let's hope that now is one of those.