Doing some research the other day, came upon this pretty interesting piece on the BBC. There is always a lot of talk of the US as a modern imperial state, much of it I think misguided. However, it is certainly true that since the Second World War, and largely as a result of the Cold War mentality, for America to protect its interests abroad has meant exerting its influence in an often very heavy-handed manner. I think this piece does a good job of explaining how this kind of imperialism defers from the more intentional imperialism of European colonialism of prior centuries.
With that in the background, it has frequently been noted in the last decade or so that US influence is in many ways waning. Certainly the lack of a UN Consensus backing the invasion of Iraq was troubling for US foreign policy. I think more significant have been recent shifts in the global economic situation in the wake of the financial crisis: talk of moving major commodities to a currency other than the dollar and the continued growth (especially in domestic consumption) of the Chinese economy both spoke more of the decline in American influence than anything else in recent history, I think, until the uprisings in the Middle-East began.
The Middle-East has been a vital part of US interests since World War II for a couple of reasons. On a strictly diplomatic front, America has a special commitment to the security of Israel, and keeping the Middle-East stable has been seen as necessary for that end. On an economic front, the Middle-East supplies a vital resource- oil- and keeping the region stable is essential to the economic interests of the US and many of its allies. For both of these reasons, promoting democracy has generally taken a back-seat to promoting stability in the region, even if that stability meant keeping in power a dictator who was less than friendly to his own people, Egypt being the ultimate case and point.
So the recent wave of uprisings across the Middle-East has put the US in a bit of a tight spot. On the one hand, these uprisings are based on the principles that supposedly stand at the center of American civic society: freedom, self-determination, the government serving the interests of the people, protecting human rights. On the other hand, these democratic uprisings threaten the stability of a region the US has long worked to keep stable. Equally alarming to American interests is that in many ways these uprisings are anti-US. The long oppressed citizens of the Middle-East are not unaware of who has been propping up their autocratic governments. If these uprisings succeed, not only is it likely the region will be less stable, it is almost certain the attitude of the region’s governments toward the US will take a turn South. Ultimately, it seems, these considerations have prevailed and kept the US from taking an active role in addressing the situation in the Middle-East.
Libya seems to be the exception. Even here, though, we see reluctance to act. The US let Britain and France take the lead in pushing for international backing on a no-fly zone. Then the US suddenly stepped in and beefed up the resolution (but only when it was clear Arab states were on board as well). At first, the US seemed content to let other nations take the lead on military action. It only became apparent later that the US is taking an active role in the strikes taking place on Libyan targets now.
The division between the European role in this and the American role in the Middle-East lately has been quite interesting. Long before Obama put any pressure on Mubarak in Egypt, London and Paris were demanding he leave. France has already recognized the rebel coalition as the legitimate government of Libya. Together, they and the UK have been demanding military action to defend the rebels for over a week. The US only decided it supported this kind of intervention two days ago. It seems, in other words, that in this current crisis the perception that Europe acts as a kind of extension of American foreign policy is also being unraveled a bit.
Ultimately, what I think this amounts to is that the current Middle-East crisis is marking very visibly a major geo-political shift. Undoubtedly these revolutions will rewrite the history of the Middle-East for some time to come. However, I think they represent something even more significant than that. Many commentators have expressed doubts about democracy really taking root in the Middle-East after these revolutions. They may be right- I highly doubt these countries will move immediately from autocracy to full-fledged democracy. Very rarely does such a change happen in any part of the world. However, if the shift that occurs bolsters the independence of these states, that in itself will be something remarkable. If we begin to see governments emerge that are more focused on their domestic political situation than on the political situation in Washington, that are willing to pursue their own interests apart from, and even in spite of, American interests then these revolutions will reflect a major shift in the global balance of power.
Both because I am more a student of economics than of foreign policy and because it seems economic problems have played a significant role in the uprisings we have seen thus far, this discussion shifts in my own mind into an economic analysis. For many of the Gulf-states, the huge economic potential of their region is largely being realized. Look at the UAE or Qatar or Kuwait, countries that are remarkably successful economically. This success is not just seen in domestic terms either- the amount of foreign investment coming out of Dubai is staggering. What if a country like Egypt were to begin developing economically with the same intensity that the UAE has seen? What if Cairo were to become an economic powerhouse of a city like Dubai? What about Tripoli? How likely is this, we might ask? Well, for whatever governments come to power after these revolutions to stand a chance of lasting their top concern is going to have to be economic development. Much of the unrest in the Middle-East is a result of countries who are facing high levels of poverty and unemployment while an elite few enjoy the spoils of the nations oil-wealth. Domestic economic development will have to become a priority for new governments, and I would not be surprised if they look at successful nations like the UAE as models. If new degrees of privatization and competition drive their markets upward, it could have dramatic geo-political effects. A Middle-East driven by its own interests, asserting its independence from Western powers, and enjoying the spoils of a surging economy could very well be a region with a lot more ability to influence and direct international affairs, especially given the significance of their top commodity- oil- for the rest of the world.