One of our professors recently quipped that it’s been “all revolution, all the time” around here. Not quite, but we have indeed remained strongly engaged as a university contributing to the Arab world’s transition to democracy. The “Tahrir Dialogues,” a forum open to the public organized by our School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, has been bringing together prominent Egyptians to debate issues such as constitutional reform, political parties, anti-corruption measures, and the upcoming elections.
But the Cairo Review of Global Affairs now moves on to another region for our Summer issue, offering a Special Report on South Africa. Managing Editor Scott MacLeod traveled to Pretoria for an exclusive interview with South African President Jacob Zuma, who makes a compelling argument for multipolar global governance. South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan expands on the theme in a piece about the group of emerging nations known as BRICS, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and, the newest member, South Africa.
We are also privileged to publish an important article related to global governance by the former Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim; he provides a fascinating look at his country’s policies in the Middle East. Rounding out our theme is an eloquent essay on Nelson Mandela’s legacy by John Carlin, an author and journalist who has spent many years closely studying South Africa’s liberation leader.
Two decades ago, South Africa underwent a historic transition from apartheid to democracy. Today, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East are in the midst of political transformation. In this print edition and online at www.thecairoreview.com, the Cairo Review continues to bring you insights about our changing world.
Dean, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
A Woman’s Business
Women in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are making appreciable strides in social development. They now outnumber men attending universities in most Arab countries. Disparities in literacy and enrollment in primary and secondary education have fallen dramatically in the last few decades. The impact of these changes can be seen in the labor market as well. As a result of better educational opportunities and growing economies, employment for women has been rising at a faster rate than for men.
Moreover, the World Bank reports an overall growth in the number of businesses owned and managed by women in the region. But according to Maha ElShinnawy, professor of leadership in the School of Business at the American University in Cairo, much work still needs to be done to advance entrepreneurship among Arab women—an increasingly hot topic in policy circles. She cites one study showing that women were the principal owners of only twenty percent of companies surveyed in MENA, a percentage notably lower than that found in other middle-income regions, such as East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America. “Creating this entrepreneurial culture is important for women because of the way many women interact within the workforce,” ElShinnawy explained. “Women may enter and leave the workforce several times throughout the course of their lives. Having the ability to create, sustain, and grow businesses allows women to maintain this connection, but on their own terms.”
ElShinnawy runs the Middle East outpost of the 10,000 Women initiative, a global undertaking by the U.S. investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs to give women greater access to business and management education. The initiative is grounded in the premise that investing in women is one of the most effective ways to reduce inequality and facilitate inclusive economic growth. Research by Goldman Sachs, the World Bank, and others suggests that investing in business education for women can lead to more productive workers, healthier and better-educated families, and more prosperous communities. 10,000 Women operates in twenty countries (besides Egypt, they include Afghanistan, Brazil, China, India, Rwanda, and the United States) partnering with academic institutions and non-governmental organizations to create programs that are relevant to students’ cultural and business environments.
The continuing barriers to women’s entrepreneurship are numerous, ElShinnawy said. They start with ignorance among many women about the very concept of creating a business. Among the specific hurdles is a lack of access to capital, which itself might be due to being shut out of a traditional world dominated by influential men. “They don’t have access to networks of mentors from whom they can learn and take advice,” ElShinnawy said. Another barrier is corruption and lack of business ethics, which some believe negatively affects a gender that is seen as less comfortable operating in such a climate.
As director of the 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership program at AUC, ElShinnawy offers a practical, skills-based business education that she describes as “somewhere between a short-term executive training and an MBA.” Many of the students are women who already own businesses and want to learn how to expand them or improve their service delivery. Graduates of the program constitute a network of mentors for successive classes of students.
ElShinnawy, named as one of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2011 by CEO Middle East magazine, sees the Egyptian revolution as an opportunity for women entrepreneurs. She hopes that a transition to democracy will prove a turning point for ethics in business—and for ethics in business education as well: “Ethical business goes hand in hand with entrepreneurship. A growing business is wholly dependent on its customers with whom they must develop a rapport. On a policy level towards creating a more entrepreneurial society overall in Egypt, creating accountability must be one of our first concerns.”
Old Funny Song
Vendors in Tahrir Square have been doing a brisk business selling T-shirts of various colorful designs that usually have “January 25” emblazoned on the front. Certainly the first day of the Egyptian revolution, when tens of thousands initially gathered in Cairo’s central square, was a milestone. Now, with the television cameras largely gone and souvenir stands taking over, the revolution might appear to be over. Egyptians know better, perhaps none more than Hossam El-Hamalawy.
He’s something of a rockstar political activist, thanks partly to his popular blog3arabawy (www.arabawy.org). Since he started blogging in 2006, he’s been in the vanguard of online activists who bravely called the Hosni Mubarak regime to account with reports, photographs and videos exposing political repression in Egypt. His blog posts became more indispensable than ever on January 25, when he quickly—and correctly—predicted that the revolution would succeed because Egyptians were fed up. 3arabawy has become a model for activists in the Internet age, deploying the digital journalist’s full arsenal, including Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Scribd, Bambuzer, and, of course, Twitter (he has more than thirty thousand followers). The 3arabawy site derives its sophisticated look in part from a haunting portrait of El-Hamalawy painted by Magda Aboul Fotouh, the blogger’s mother (3arabawy, El-Hamalawy has explained, “means bedouin, but it’s also a name of an old funny song I like. There is no significance whatsoever behind the name.”)
El-Hamalawy, who is thirty-three years old, has been in demand around the world lately as a speaker on the role of social media in politics. He participated in the conference “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?” held in June at the American University in Cairo, his alma mater. He shrugged off the accolades when he met up with the Cairo Review at a coffee shop in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. He insisted that “the revolution was never just Tahrir,” but is the result of more than a decade of activism.
His part in it dates back to 1998, when as an undergraduate he joined the Revolutionary Socialists, a clandestine movement that has supported Palestinian and Lebanese resistance against Israel. He said that despite the ouster of Mubarak on February 11, the revolution continues in the factories, in the universities, in many areas of Egyptian life. He has been mobilizing workers in hopes of establishing an independent federation of trade unions and starting a worker’s political party. “Trade unions are always the silver bullet for any dictatorship,” El-Hamalawy argued. “If you shut down factories and workplaces, game over.”
There’s no trace of complacency in El-Hamalawy’s outlook. His blogging remains a critical source of information about regime abuses—past and present. In April, he was one of a group of activists who stormed the offices of the state security police. Afterward, he posted photographs and other material raided from the offices in an online feature he calls Piggipedia to expose the identities and activities of security policemen who served in Mubarak’s regime. The journalistic gambit won El-Hamalawy further international attention, including a profile in the Washington Post, headlined “Egypt’s Activists Turn Tables on Tormenters.”
In May, El-Hamalawy was summoned for questioning after he spoke out during an appearance on a popular TV program, criticizing the military police for torturing activists and blaming the head of the military police. He has been held in detention three times for his activities, in 2000, 2002 and 2003. “My main concern is who’s administering this period,” El-Hamalawy explained to the Cairo Review. “Yes, change takes time, but who is running the show? Mubarak’s generals are. Whatever regime will come during this transition period will not be a regime that threatens the military’s power and privileges. You’ll have a civilian government in suits and T-shirts who will get elected, but at the same time they know their red lines. Our job at the moment is to push further. We cannot trust the military and trust [Prime Minister] Essam Sharaf with the transition.”
After Apartheid: Reinventing South Africa? Edited by Ian Shapiro and Kahreen Tebeau. University of Virginia Press, 2011. 368 pp.
The twentieth century brought a kind of independence to all the African colonies. South Africa was the particularly thorny last holdout, because the British Empire handed its authority over to white settlers. That created an intractable political stalemate and a living reminder of the iniquities that Europe had heaped over several hundred years upon the continent’s poor head.
After Apartheid: Reinventing South Africa?, a collection of twelve essays written mostly by South Africans, including academics at leading universities in the country, is a commendable effort to take the measure of South Africa seventeen years after the fall of apartheid. In a key essay entitled “Poverty and Inequality in South Africa, 1994–2007,” Jeremy Seekings is excoriating in his criticism. He lays much of the blame for these ills at the door of the ruling African National Congress. Four successive ANC governments have retained, according to Seekings, both the previous white regime’s emphasis on capital intensive economic growth and its neglect of education for the poor. Thus, he suggests, the ANC, the organization that led the country’s freedom struggle, has paradoxically become doubly complicit in the levels of unemployment and poverty.
Other essays chronicle further failures of the ANC and government. Nicoli Nattrass thoroughly explores—and is ultimately stumped by—former President Thabo Mbeki’s mystifying denial that AIDS is caused by infection with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. She partly blames the administrations of other former presidents, F. W. De Klerk and Nelson Mandela, for mistakes in their HIV/AIDS policies. But according to Nattrass, their errors were dwarfed by Mbeki’s failure to acknowledge that there were new and useful treatment and prevention strategies available—particularly antiretroviral drugs for treatment and slowing the spread, especially via mother-to-child transmission. Meanwhile, Lungisile Ntsebeza blames the ANC for cravenness in the face of “organized white commercial farmers and their capitalist allies” and hence the failure of government to redistribute even 5 percent of the land, much less the 30 percent targeted back in 1997.
The broadsides may strike some readers as overly harsh. Certainly, South Africa may not be the ‘rainbow miracle’ depicted by sentimentalists, but it is a stable and functioning constitutional democracy with a bill of rights that measures up to the best in the world. The country has successfully completed four ‘free and fair’ national elections. The national finances are in order and basic levels of services have been delivered to the poorest of the poor. The ANC spent eighty years fighting racial injustice and the apartheid system. To many, its leaders were the embodiment of wisdom and patience. So rebuking them for failing to eradicate poverty, inequality, and unemployment, as well as other faults catalogued here (including disease outbreaks, mediocre education, lack of democratic culture, and the retreat of indigenous African languages) seems a bit like blaming the victim.
One suspects that the tone is a deliberate corrective, and in that sense it should be welcomed. Blaming apartheid for current failures has become a too-familiar defense by ANC governments. When social critics accept this framework—that less should be expected of the ANC or of standards of governance in South Africa—they are reinforcing the offensive idea that Africans are helpless victims of their past and deserve to be measured by lower standards than apply to the rest of the world.
Yet all correctives carry the risk of overstatement. South Africa has indeed been profoundly shaped by the ongoing consequences of colonialism and apartheid. Anthony Butler, in “Black Economic Empowerment: Diverse Hopes and Differentially Fulfilled Aspirations,” describes the objective pressures that put an end to National Party rule and have dogged four successive ANC governments as well. In the process, he identifies the struggle for power and wealth that are defining politics in the new South Africa.
Butler shows how in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising the apartheid regime stepped up efforts to divert the aspirations of an emerging black business class. Apartheid was failing because it was an attempt to legislate against the collective desires and fears—and ultimately actions—of millions of people. The ‘homeland’ system was collapsing because in spite of coercion and tax breaks, people and businesses refused to migrate to those barren bantustans. They kept coming back, in the face of fines and brute force, to the cities, the bright lights, the markets, the chance of work, and the chance to do business.
Butler describes how the most powerful elements of business, mostly within subsidiaries of the Anglo–American Corporation, established a consultation process with the domestic arm of the liberation movement that emerged after 1976, particularly the United Democratic Front. This process, led by the Consultative Business Movement, in turn laid the groundwork for the post-liberation Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program. It established the first links between individuals and companies that would be involved in major business deals after the end of the apartheid era.
During the Mandela presidency from 1994–99, BEE focused on moving control of state institutions from the hands of white to black managers. In the private sector, BEE was primarily voluntary and initially focused on ‘employment equity’—ensuring the demographics of all levels of staff moved towards the country’s actual racial demographic profile. But Mandela’s tenure was always more about the symbols of reconciliation and asking those previously divided by apartheid to accept and embrace each other.
Mbeki’s government gave BEE teeth through legislation by making black empowerment a condition in the state tendering process and, to cite another example, by making black participation in ownership and control of mining companies a condition for receiving mineral rights granted by the state. Before long, the use of the state to redirect wealth into black hands assumed an irreversible momentum that sucked in the country’s emerging political class.
Mbeki fought to broaden the group of BEE beneficiaries and to learn from both the Afrikaner and the Malaysian experiences to create a ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’—through the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 and various regulations that accompanied it. But, as Butler demonstrates, those attempts to regulate the process were swamped as the ANC’s leaders and members were drawn into the temptations of crony capitalism. Its growth and spread set off a series of crises in the ANC, as some sought to control or stop the process and limit the corroding effects on the ruling party and young democracy.
A pivotal moment in the internal ANC struggle occurred in December 2007 at the ANC’s national conference held in Polokwane, the capital of the Limpopo Province. Jacob Zuma defeated Mbeki in a contest for the ANC leadership. Because of the clear ANC majority in parliament, Mbeki’s defeat in the ruling party led to his recall as head of state and his eventual replacement by Zuma.
Polokwane is best understood both as an attempt to curb the patronage networks controlled by Mbeki’s allies and to derive the benefits from them. It is useful to dwell on this because the alliance of forces that backed Zuma has already collapsed under the weight of the same imperatives that brought down Mbeki’s government. A crisis similar to the one that Mbeki faced is building against Zuma as the ANC prepares for its national conference and centenary to be held in the Free State municipality of Mangaung next year.
In the lead-up to Polokwane, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) declared that democracy was under threat from “the 1996 class project” (the SACP’s term for Mbeki’s neo-liberal macroeconomics based on an alliance between what the SACP called “monopoly capital and a comprador bourgeoisie”). In turning to Zuma, they also allied themselves with groups whose only real intent was to wrest patronage networks away from Mbeki’s cronies. This they effectively did.
Several of the other After Apartheid essays capture the contradictory result of Polokwane and hence the inherent flaws of the Zuma presidency. Theuns Eloff, in the essay “Business Community After Apartheid and Beyond,” describes how Polokwane left Zuma seemingly beholden to different political constituencies that he would “have to pay once he became president of the country.” Marianne Camerer, in “Anticorruption Reforms in Democratic South Africa,” correctly bemoans the fact that Polokwane led to the closing down of the Scorpions, South Africa’s most effective anticorruption police unit.
The broad alliance of Zuma supporters that came to power at Polokwane immediately began purging Mbeki backers throughout the party and state, and attempting to unpick business deals that the former president’s key allies had put together over the previous ten years. This promoted the formation of a pro-Mbeki breakaway party called COPE.
That conflict is beginning to pale into insignificance compared to the new rupture inside Zuma’s ruling alliance. South African politics is experiencing a replay of the forces that drove the changing of the guard at Polokwane. The SACP and COSATU, realizing that they might have made a deal with their worst nightmare have coined a new term for the leadership of the ANC Youth League and other previous allies in the fight against Mbeki: ‘tenderpreneurs,’ political and government leaders who get rich out of using influence to capture tenders from the state and private sector.
The SACP laid at the door of its previous allies the charge of “anti-worker, anti-left, anti-communist, pseudo-militant demagogy” that betrayed long-held ANC-alliance traditions of ‘internal organizational democracy.’ Further, the left-wing allies charged these forces with being responsible for the ANC losses in the May municipal elections by having portrayed the whole movement as “anti-constitutionalist and as narrow nationalist chauvinists.” Still bruised from the previous fight against Mbeki’s cronies, a new coalition of left-wing activists and democrats seems to be emerging to again fight this tendency and attempt to reestablish the boundary between the state and private wealth accumulation.
Might a Nelson Mandela or any of the other heroes of the South African liberation movement have traveled a different path? Only if we think that the policy failures are, ultimately, failures of leadership. The attempt to meet or mediate the aspirations of a black property-owning class overwhelmed the last apartheid regime as well as four successive ANC governments.
There is a large underclass trapped in poverty and unemployment and increasingly dissatisfied with government delivery. A raging flood of wealth and power, moving from the old order to the new, has blurred the boundaries between the private and the public and is threatening to overwhelm government and the democratic processes of the ruling party. This flood has also significantly taken government’s attention from the deeper problems of poverty and unemployment.
In the runup to Manguang, a contest of contradictory impulses is playing out within the ANC. It is possible that Zuma’s government, like Mbeki’s three years earlier, will not survive the battles over ideology and power.
In the longer term, there are two possible outcomes to the crisis. One is that establishing a large and establishing a large and stable black class of owners and managers will eventually allow the rules of acquisition and tendering to be reinstated—and the focus of government to return to the challenges of marginalization, unemployment, inequality, and poverty. The other is that failure to share wealth and control will create a wave of discontent in the emerging elite that pushes government down the path of forced nationalization of land, business, and property, and ultimately leads to the looting of the private and the public sectors.
Blaming the government for failure is a duty of social commentators that After Apartheid unflinchingly fulfills. Yet appreciating the conditions, constraints, and limitations the ANC faces—the tide of hundreds of years of history, really—is crucial if we are to understand South Africa’s present and future.
This Burning Land
This Burning Land: Lessons From the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. By Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, 2010. 320 pp.
Writing books about the Middle East is a risky enterprise. A wheezy joke has it that a week passes for long-term planning in a region notorious for rapid and unforeseen twists and turns. Greg Myre and his wife Jennifer Griffin have not, in all particulars, escaped being overtaken by events. There they are in good company. Unluckily for them, their book was published just before the Arab Spring and the violent events now accompanying the biggest challenge facing the long-frozen Middle East in living memory. To be sure, no one seriously predicted the upheaval, which arguably might just have prodded Israel and the Palestinians to strike a deal and settle their now century-old struggle. But as President Obama has learned to his chagrin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu’s steadfast reluctance to honor past promises—much less take advantage of the changing regional scene and make peace with a Palestinian state—perversely has meant the issue remains locked in its increasingly poisonous aspic.
This Burning Land is the chronicle by two reporters of this stalemate from 1999 to 2007 when they covered Israel and its occupation of what may just perhaps one day become a Palestinian state, a maddening slice of land about the size of New Jersey which generates more—and more repetitive—bad news than more populous countries many times larger.
Whatever its shortcomings, this book, with its subtitle Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, has got the big picture mostly right although some might question whether that conflict has indeed been transformed much at all.
Their steadfast shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel conquered in 1967, then gradually colonized, left few illusions intact for Myre, at the time a New York Times reporter, and Griffin, of Fox News.
The reasons why are all there. Consider just a partial list: dozens of trips to the fraught Gaza Strip and the Lebanese border, interviews with self-righteous Jewish settlers using Palestinian labor to build homes on illegally confiscated Palestinian land, put-upon Palestinians held up at interminable checkpoints by unfeeling Israeli soldiers, descriptions of Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombers and Palestinian victims of trigger-happy Israeli troopers, lush lalaland suburbia north of Tel Aviv, Palestinian houses destroyed as collective punishment for suicide bombings.
Not the least of the authors’ accomplishments, which include bringing up two young daughters—a major attraction for foreign correspondents, especially married ones, is that unlike the perpetual traveling of most of their colleagues, the Jerusalem assignment means you almost always get home in time for a hot dinner—is their wry appreciation for the stereotyped criticism that is the foreign correspondent’s lot in the Middle East, especially in Israel.
Myre, predictably, was taken to task for working for the New York Times, which many Israelis consider hopelessly pro-Palestinian, and, to her embarrassment, Griffin and her straight reporting were praised despite herself for the hawkish pro-Israeli editorial line often associated with Rupert Murdoch’s television mouthpiece.
Anyone concerned with the increasing dangers faced by foreign correspondents would do well to read the pages devoted to the harrowing detention of two Fox crew members by the particularly unpleasant Daghmush clan in Gaza in 2006. Such dangers in Gaza and many another clime have only increased since then.
To the couple’s credit, the book sparkles with details of the kind of foot-leather reporting increasingly sacrificed in the world of ego-enhancing blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other electronic instruments of instant and often self-indulgent citizens’ journalism and the sloppiness of the 24/7 news cycle.
On display is an old-school effort of talking to people who aren’t going to tell you even part of the truth on first or even fifth acquaintance, the need to win their confidence by going back time and again. That is, in essence, expensive ‘slow’ journalism increasingly considered expendable by head-office bean-counters who preside over the death of the craft they claim to be saving.
To single out an example of what such effort can produce, Myre’s sixteen-page account of Palestinian collaborators outed by their own people and forced by their Israeli handlers to live unhappily in Israel is reporting at its gritty best. John Le Carré and David Ignatius cannot hold a candle to the chapter entitled “The Invisible Hand.”
Perhaps inevitably for the authors, who lived in West Jerusalem among Israelis and not in the West Bank amid Palestinians, the color, quotes, and anecdotes tend to concern more Israelis than Palestinians. Despite real efforts to understand the plight of everyday Palestinians living under occupation, the book dishes out harsher criticism of the underdog Palestinian politicians, especially the late Yasser Arafat, than of the succession of Israeli leaders who are equally culpable, perhaps more so since Israel wields infinitely more power than do the Palestinians.
Their assigning of responsibility for the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 does pinpoint Ariel Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which rekindled his career by provoking the Palestinians. But very little attention is directed at deconstructing the failure of President Bill Clinton’s efforts at bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the final months and weeks of his presidency in 2000. Only the truest of true believers in Israel still accredit the initial official American and Israeli versions, recounted here, blaming Arafat alone for the breakdown of the negotiations.
And, curiously, only one paragraph of the book deals with paramount American responsibility over the years in allowing the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States to dictate the policy of what still remains the world’s only superpower. Yet America’s complaisant tolerance of muscular Israeli actions over the decades is no longer disputed even in the United States (outside the Congress, where recently senators and representatives jumped to their feet dozens of times to applaud Netanyahu as he shredded President Obama’s timid suggestions for Israeli concessions).
At times, the book seems fuzzily out of focus. Long gone are the days when George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice infelicitously celebrated the Israelis’ ill-advised, poorly executed, and ultimately embarrassingly unsuccessful second war in Lebanon in 2006 as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Five years later a new, still inchoate Middle East indeed is coming alive, whether Israel, the United States or the Palestinians like it or not. Alert to the promise of the Arab Spring and conscious of each other’s internal weaknesses, a diminished Hamas and the remnants of the Palestinian Authority at least feel compelled to say they want to stop their violent rivalry and cooperate despite major wrangling over key details. Clearly, the chronicle of this intractable conflict is not complete.
The People Reloaded
The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel. Melville House, 2010. 462 pp.
Two questions have lingered about Iran since its pro-democracy uprising in 2009. Did the protestors intend to overthrow the Islamic Republic regime and stage a revolution? And is it true that the educated upper-middle class sided with the opposition while the rural lower class supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
The answer to both questions is: not true. Editors Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi highlight those misunderstandings in a compelling analysis of the demonstrations. A collection of essays by more than fifty authors, the book studies the historical and political roots of an event that an Iranian scholar, Hamid Dabashi, identifies as “a civil rights movement.” Dabashi believes that “the collapse of the Islamic Republic is irrelevant to this movement,” even though Iran’s activists are determined to pursue its civil liberties. The fall of the regime, Dabashi convincingly argues, will be more a result of its own internal fissures and malfunctioning.
Postel and Hashemi state in their introduction that the notion that Ahmadinejad was a hero of the masses while the Green Movement attracted the privileged elite is “a lazy distortion” accepted by many Western analysts. They quote one of their authors, Nasrin Alavi, a journalist, as saying: “A simple glance at the background of Iran’s prominent student leaders tell us that, by and large, they are not the children of affluent citizens of north Tehran, but instead come from provincial working-class families or are the children of rural school teachers and clerks.”
The book is rich in analysis of events that led to the uprising, which spanned over six months and continues to haunt the regime. The government has gone to extraordinary lengths in the past two years to quell unrest. Although the articles were written before the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, the book could not be more timely in revealing some of the strengths and shortcomings of a movement that shook the region two years earlier. However, the articles fail to expand on one of the Iranian regime’s greatest strengths, which helps to explain why the Green Movement failed to realize the gains of Egypt’s protestors: windfall oil revenues that allow it to underwrite a loyal force for its protection. None of the pieces refers to the role of the Revolutionary Guards and the pro-government paramilitary Basij, the two powerful forces that have high stakes in maintaining the status quo.
The authors predict that the challenges facing in Iran will only continue to grow. Unemployment among the youth is on the rise; seventy percent between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine are jobless. Dissent among women is deep. Women make up sixty-three percent of university students yet represent only twelve percent of the work force, and face daily intimidation in public and private because of a legal system that discriminates against them. Forced Islamization, notes sociologist Asef Bayat, has provoked dissent from the very first days that the clerics founded the regime in 1979.
Postel and Hashemi have included voices from inside Iran that overwhelmingly echo a desire for peaceful reform. A letter from prison by a student leader, Abdullah Momeni, who was physically and psychologically tortured for months, is a testament showing that activists are still determined to pursue non-violent options. In the letter, Momeni refers to himself as a student activist who wishes to bring more political freedom and civil rights through “constructive criticism.”
Yet the authors do not dismiss the possibility of a full-scale revolution in the future, if the regime continues to rule with an iron fist. The demands of the protesters quickly evolved from merely the nullification of the votes to calls for greater civil liberties. As Bayat concludes, today most of the protesters clearly want reform, not a revolution; but the regime might yet turn reformers into revolutionaries.
Egypt, led by Egyptians, is today at a very special juncture. Egyptians have a remarkable opportunity to shape a new and better destiny for their country. And the rare combination of both willingness and ability comes wrapped in a new sense of purpose, energy and engagement on the direction of the country.
Owing to the tremendous sacrifices of its many heroes, Egypt is in the midst of a revolution–a truly transformational moment in a history that goes back over seven millennia. We thank all those that bravely took to the street, forming a movement that helped all Egyptians overcome decades of fear. In the process, they united Egyptians of all ages, social classes, and religions around a simple aspiration of a better tomorrow.
To quote from a song that has been played many times in our home and at presentations that I have made in the United States on the Egyptian revolution, Sout El-Horreya (Voice of Freedom), sung by Hany Adel and Amir Eid: “Our dreams were our weapon… all barriers have been shattered.”
But most revolutions are not discrete events; they are transformational processes. They are seldom easy; they can take many months and years. The first, most visible part of a successful revolution–that of overthrowing a regime–is often a necessary condition for a successful revolution. But this huge and courageous step alone is not sufficient. It improves the probability of achieving the objective of the revolution-that of a better society for all of Egypt–but it does not guarantee success.
In today’s Egypt, the required transformations involve challenges that cut across politics, economics and finance. They have important social and geopolitical dimensions. And they operate in fluid regional and global contexts. And they will not happen without continued steadfast commitment.
Each of these realities is extremely complex.
Think about the challenges inherent in altering the structure of an economy so that it can deliver in a decisive and lasting manner the combination of more inclusive economic growth, greater poverty alleviation, improved international competitiveness, and low inflation.
Think of the importance of reaching the most vulnerable segments of the population in a timely manner–providing better access to education, health, nutrition and other essential social services.
Think of the challenges of keeping the country’s finances in order at a time of reduced tourist receipts, lower remittances from workers in Libya and elsewhere, and high food and commodity prices in international markets.
Think of the challenges of constructing an open and transparent political process after many decades of repression, suppression, and too much control by too few.
And think of the importance of institutions. As Jean Monnet, the famous French father of European unity, observed: “Nothing is possible without men and women, but nothing is lasting without institutions.” Egypt today faces the complex challenges of quickly adapting and building institutions that are credible and efficient.
None of these are easy, and the significant degree of difficulty compounds quickly when the challenges interact, as is the case in Egypt today. It is tempting for a nation and for a society to feel overwhelmed by all this. Today’s Egypt should not. These are all surmountable challenges, especially if the country retains its unity, commonality of purpose, and purity of aspiration.
Nothing gives me greater joy than to hear all the stories of Egyptians volunteering to make a difference in a village, in a slum, in a school that has insufficient books, and in a hospital overwhelmed by patients. Just a few months into Egypt’s revolution, we see concrete changes on the ground. And it is not just about new political parties, broad-based national debates, and a more generalized sense of empowerment to influence the country’s outlook. It is also about multiple daily wins.
It is about young volunteers adopting villages and neighborhoods to help make a difference on the ground. It is about individual Egyptians, like Wael Ghonim, setting up NGOs to improve the future of other Egyptians families. And it is about true visionaries, such as Ahmed Zewail, who is inspiring and leading a national project to help Egyptian society attain the scientific and technological advancements that are so essential to sustain growth, poverty alleviation and employment creation in today’s rapidly changing global economy.
A lot is already being done. And a lot, lot more will need to be done. Please continue to make sure that the beautiful voice of freedom continues to ring in every corner of Egypt.
Oriental Hall, etc.
A powerful—and poignant—new media installation featuring the work of the late Ahmed Bassiouny represents Egypt at this year’s Venice Biennale. Part of the installation is Bassiouny’s 30 Days of Running in Place. The film shows the artist wearing a plastic sweatsuit and jogging inside a glass cage as sensors measure his energy expenditure. Initially exhibited in Cairo in early 2010, 30 Days is viewed as an allegory of wasted life under dictatorship. The film is juxtaposed with video images Bassiouny took of the protests in Tahrir Square during the first days of the uprising that ousted the Mubarak regime. Bassiouny, thirty-two, was shot and killed during the protests on January 28, apparently by a police sniper. Challenging doubts that Bassiouny’s Tahrir footage constitutes art, criticRachel Spence, writing in the Financial Times, said: “Watching those impassioned yet peaceful faces brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s declaration that he worked ‘in the gap between art and life’.” The Venice installation was organized by Shady El-Noshokaty, an assistant professor in the Performing and Visual Arts department at the American University in Cairo. He described Bassiouny, who was also a musician, as one of Egypt’s most important young contemporary artists, whose “talent developed relentlessly, in all directions.”
Another AUC professor carrying messages from Tahrir is Rasha Abdulla, of the Journalism and Mass Communication department, who has pioneered the study of social media in the Middle East. At the Personal Democracy Forum conference held in New York in June, she elaborated on her analysis of how Egypt’s uprising was fueled by a new culture of communication: “It was a people’s revolution accelerated by the Internet as a tool. In Egypt, there was no other space, no other venue, for people to say what they wanted. The regime talked at you vertically. The Internet provided a very necessary space for people to express themselves. For a good chunk of the people who came out to Tahrir, that was something they subconsciously learned by communicating on Facebook, a pattern of horizontal communication that didn’t exist before.” Earlier, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Abdulla lobbied for an end to Egyptian military trials for Internet activists, and for a law to criminalize shutting down a nation’s Internet service, as the Mubarak regime did amid the protests.
Marc Lynch, a leading authority on Arab media and an associate professor at George Washington University, remembers being struck on a visit to Egypt by how “everyone here had a better cell phone that I did––sometimes two or three better phones—and they were doing things with them that I just could not do.” These “digital natives,” Lynch believes, have contributed to a profound transformation in the Arab world regardless of whether or not the uprisings succeed immediately. “The general empowerment of Arab publics, and the unbelievable way information is produced, disseminated, and consumed in the Arab world, is the most important transformation in the region,” Lynch told the AUC conference “From Tahrir: Revolution or Democratic Transition?” in June. “It means that even those governments that do not become democratic in the coming days will have to behave differently towards their publics if they hope to survive or prosper.”
Arab Spring Seen from Tehran
The Middle East is undergoing its most dynamic transformation since World War I, when Mark Sykes and Georges Picot divided the region into colonized spheres of influence amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Nearly a century later, with the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and the ongoing struggles in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain, all states in the region—or involved in the region—have been forced to reassess their policies and alliances.
These developments have also permanently shattered the frames through which the Middle East was understood, or presented, by various governments. The defining struggle is not between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals,’ at least not if the definition of ‘moderate’ is an Arab state allied with the United States and at virtual peace with Israel.The deposed autocrats in Cairo and Tunis both fit this false definition of ‘moderate.’ Nor is the struggle between Islamic and secular forces. The rallying call of protesters across the region has been democracy and dignity, not Islam and sharia. And to the extent that protests in Bahrain have taken on a sectarian tone, it is arguably due to the efforts of the Al-Khalifa royal family and its Saudi Arabian protector—both considered ‘moderates’ in the old frame.
More than religion or ideology, it is geopolitics and hegemony that have come to the fore as the central factors shaping how governments are responding to unprecedented regional unrest. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Iran. To the Islamic Republic, recent developments have shaken up not only existing political systems (including its own), but also its rivalry for regional influence with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. on one side, and Turkey as the third vertex in what can be seen as an emerging triangle of competition. Iranian decision-makers see this shock as changing the context of the rivalry rather than ending it, and creating challenges and opportunities for all sides.
Overall, Iran’s geopolitical strategy aims to consolidate the Islamic Republic as a regional power. The cornerstones of its strategy are: 1) Improving, or at the very least managing, ties with immediate neighbors and key Islamic countries. Relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia are key factors in Iran’s regional positioning for influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. 2) Consolidating Iranian regional preeminence with indigenous technical capabilities. The country’s nuclear program, missile tests, and satellite launch are all facets of this strategic track. 3) Standing up to the West. In the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran intends “not to give in” to Western pressure.3 Iran’s approach in the nuclear standoff is a good example of this conviction.
Historical precedent has shown Iran that Western powers tend to accept the status of a regional power when that power becomes formidable; China, India, and Brazil are often cited as examples. The Islamic Republic is counting on such an eventual acceptance. The key virtue from Iran’s perspective has been patience. Decision-makers in Tehran know that the cost of this strategy is high—sanctions, isolation, and conflict are not negligible––but they believe that Iran must assume the role of an accepted regional power. If the West insists on making Iran yield on issues of contention through pressure, in particular its nuclear program, support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and human rights violations, Iranian strategy will continue to be predicated on patience and a conviction that it can eventually succeed by playing the long game. If nothing else, this serves as a sober reminder to its rivals that Tehran will not back down from the current standoff, as Iranian decision-makers believe that if the Islamic Republic does not “give up,” the other side will do so in due course.
As this rivalry unfolds, the changing Arab political scene has demonstrated both the relevance of the Arab street and its ability to play a decisive role in the region’s future, something Tehran has long trumpeted in opposing the regional status quo. Thus, Iran sees a continuation of the Arab democracy wave as a challenge not only to the status quo powers investing in an order that suppresses the streets, but also to the powers that claim to champion them.
Tehran has identified this as the likely new fault line in the region, and one that will be under increasing strain as each side in this triangle of competition positions itself to address the vacuum left by a declining U.S.–Israeli–Saudi status quo. In the past, this rivalry has played out in both hard and soft power arenas, but as Arab political upheaval persists, non-diplomatic hard-power options in the region become untenable without dangerously exacerbating instability. Knowing this, it is soft power—the battle for hearts and minds—that is becoming increasingly important to decision-makers in Tehran.
To that end, Iran faces a question, as by extension do its rivals: If Iran’s main instrument for achieving regional leadership has been its soft power among the region’s populations—rooted in a rejection of the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi status quo combined with financial and political investment in political factions across the region—will the regional shifts enable the Islamic Republic to exploit popular Arab victories? Or will the emergence of a more empowered Arab street undermine the foundation of Iran’s soft power, thereby allowing its rivals to exert greater influence? Six months into the Arab Spring, Tehran’s strategy—cautious and reactive due to internal problems and elite paralysis, and predicated on the perceived limitations of its rivals—has come into sharper focus.
The Status Quo
A crucial question is how Iran regards the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex as it struggles to adjust to a region in flux. Tehran has long viewed the ‘alliance’ as a declining force in the region, and the changing Arab political scene has only confirmed its perception. The Iranian government’s reluctance to negotiate with the U.S. is not necessarily rooted in an ideological opposition to the idea of talking or improving relations with Washington. Instead, hard-liners in Tehran fear that any relationship with the U.S. would require Iranian acquiescence to status quo regional policies, thereby stripping Tehran of its independence and forcing it to follow America’s investment in Arab dictatorships rather than the Arab street. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has calculated that the Arab street would ultimately overthrow pro-American dictatorships and the balance of forces that favored Israel. Iran’s long-term regional security calculation has thus been predicated on championing the Arab street and rejecting any engagement with Washington designed to rehabilitate Iran as a compliant U.S. ally. Iranian decision-makers see no example in the Middle East—past or present—of relations with the U.S. that are based on equal footing. Patron-client relations are an unpopular and inconvenient regional truth.
Decision-makers in Tehran now think that Israel and Saudi Arabia are also faced with severe strategic challenges, which in turn limit U.S. flexibility to address regional upheaval.
Over the past year, Israel has seen the interests of two of its foremost regional allies diverge from its own, perhaps irreparably. Turkish–Israeli ties reached an all-time low after Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2008 and its attack on the Flotilla of Freedom in 2010; in the view of many analysts, they cannot be resurrected. Israel has also lost its most senior and strategically important Arab partner, the Mubarak government in Egypt, with no subsequent clarity on how future governments in Cairo will frame ties. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks revealed the extent of collaboration between Israel and Mubarak’s Egypt against Iran.
The challenge for Saudi Arabia was crystallized when the House of Saud drew a line in the sand as protests swept through neighboring Bahrain. Its objection to U.S. support for revolts in Tunisia and Egypt unheeded, Riyadh feared that American ‘betrayal’ could inevitably reach the Persian Gulf. The prospect of a Sunni monarchy on its border being overthrown, or even entering a power-sharing arrangement, and Shiite communities being empowered as a result hit too close to home for Saudi decision-makers, who flatly rejected American efforts to negotiate peaceful reform in Bahrain. Instead, Saudi Arabia ignored U.S. pleas for calm and invaded the Sunni minority-led nation with the Bahraini ruling family’s consent, using force to crush a popular uprising.
Iran thus sees an unusual period of tensions between Washington and its allies compounding the challenges facing the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex. While the U.S. has recognized that the regional status quo is untenable and is struggling to balance its values (democratization) and its strategic interests (support for Israel, secure access to energy), Israel and Saudi Arabia view regional developments quite differently.
Martin Kramer of Israel’s conservative Shalem Center put his finger on the central point of contention during the February 2011 Herzliya Conference. Questioning America’s conclusion that the regional status quo is unsustainable, Kramer was unabashed: “In Israel, we are for the status quo. Not only do we believe the status quo is sustainable, we think it’s the job of the U.S. to sustain it.”
Concern and defiance in Riyadh are no less palpable. The New York Times has reported that according to an Arab official who was briefed on talks between President Barack Obama and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Saudi monarch was unwavering: “King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain––never.”
Iran’s perception of the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex as a declining regional power, incapable of shifting its policies in accordance with a new power distribution, seems to have locked. Although the proverbial screws have been tightened through sanctions to increase Iran’s political and economic international isolation, the Islamic Republic actually sees itself as less isolated regionally. Its confidence is reinforced by the fall of pro-American autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia; volatility across the region that has destabilized many others; empowered pro-Iranian political factions in Iraq and Lebanon; and a belief in Iran’s indispensable role in any long-term solution to stabilize U.S. national security interests in nonproliferation, terrorism, energy security, Afghanistan, Iraq, and even the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
From the outset of the Obama administration, decision-makers in Tehran have reiterated that tactical changes in America’s posture were insufficient to realign relations between the two countries. For the Iranian government, only a strategic shift by Washington—unlikely in Iran’s view, given concerted push-back by Israel, the U.S. Congress, and the Saudis–could break the U.S.-Iran stalemate.8 Thus, going forward, Iran sees more short to medium term value in shelving the notion of rapprochement with America that Iranian reformists had entertained and instead pursuing the strategic objective of hastening Washington’s military exit from the region.
Barring an unforeseen increase in U.S. strategic flexibility, Iranian hard-liners seek a ‘codified rivalry’—one that will enable Iran to continue building soft power on the Arab street by maintaining its role as the region’s leading critic of America and Israel, while ensuring that the rivalry does not spill over into open military confrontation. Within the context of a codified rivalry, Tehran’s interest in tactical collaboration with Washington may actually increase as its certainty in the decline of the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex grows.
Sanctions—both United Nations Security Council measures and American-led ‘coordinated national measures’—have hurt Iran’s economic health writ large, yet decision-makers in Tehran maintain their refusal to yield through pressure. After both sets of sanctions failed to change Iran’s strategic calculus, the Islamic Republic viewed its position vis-à-vis the U.S. as having been strengthened. Iran’s hardened stance has put the ball back in America’s court, effectively asking, “Now what are you going to do?”
Iran correctly estimated that Russia and China would not support additional UN Security Council sanctions in the short to medium term. Consequently, the U.S. and European Union strategy will focus on expanding ‘coordinated national measures,’ or sanctions by a ‘coalition of the willing’ in an effort to show Iran the cost of its policies. However, convincing an already hesitant set of allies with long-standing economic ties to Iran––including Japan, South Korea, India, and South Africa––to sign on to another round of unilateral sanctions will inevitably require the U.S. to strike diplomatic quid pro quos and reinvigorate direct diplomacy with Iran. This is no small task, given the domestic political constraints that a hostile Congress presents.
Against this backdrop, decision-makers in Tehran are pushing a public narrative that frames recent popular protests in the Middle East as Islam/Iran-inspired. Privately, they acknowledge that the regional dynamic is far more fluid than their public narrative suggests. They believe that it nonetheless works against a status quo that has long favored U.S. interests. The Iranian government sees increased instability throughout the region as a way to deflect pressure and exploit fissures within the international community. Iran’s hardened stance toward the U.S. reflects how a group of decision-makers in Tehran feels cautiously stronger on the international scene than the U.S.-led narrative of sanctions, Stuxnet computer virus, and secret assassinations suggests.
While decision-makers in Tehran see regional unrest (with the exception of Syria) strengthening their hand in the short run, they remain cautious of their ability to draw long-lasting profit from the fall of pro-American dictatorships. In Iran’s view, the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex is in a decline set in motion by the invasion of Iraq and increasingly evident through region-wide protests, creating a power and leadership vacuum that the Islamic Republic seeks to fill. Although Iran has long anticipated this moment, it knows that there are additional contenders for power. It also understands how its ambitions could be thwarted both by the nature of the vacuum and by its own position in the region.
As the only majority Shiite, Persian state in a region dominated by Sunnis and/or Arabs, Iran has historically suffered from an acute sense of strategic loneliness: it considers none of its regional allies to be ‘natural,’ and its experience with extra-regional superpowers has left its decision-makers convinced that their security depends on self-sufficiency. The notion that Iran is destined to be primus inter pares (first among equals) in regional decision-making is deeply ingrained in its identity, regardless of the system of governance or political leadership of the day. Iran sees itself as the odd man out in a region that it nevertheless seeks to lead.
Modern history has taught Iran that hard power alone will not facilitate regional leadership. Even though Tehran’s Arab neighbors recognized Iranian military superiority in the 1970s, the late shah understood that he could neither obtain nor maintain a preeminent position in the Persian Gulf through arms and oil alone; Iran needed to be seen as a legitimate power in the eyes of the Arab street as well. The shah also realized that Iran could not forever treat the Arabs as enemies and counterbalance them through Iranian military dominance. Not only was a more conciliatory policy necessary to gain legitimacy for Iranian domination; befriending the Arabs was the most efficient way to guarantee Iran’s long-term security. By the mid-1970s, Iran was at its peak. It had befriended Egypt, neutralized Iraq, quadrupled its oil income, and established its regional preeminence. Yet, the shah never managed to bridge the Sunni–Shiite and Persian–Arab divides. To achieve that, soft power was needed, of which the shah’s Iran was in short supply.
The Iranian revolutionaries who took power in 1979 recognized this and sought to bridge the divide between Persians and Arabs through the ideology of political Islam. Although this strategy has been abysmally unsuccessful with ruling Arab elites, who feared the ideological force of the clerics more than the military force of the shah, Iran’s promotion of political Islam and its anti-imperialist posture have won it respect on the Arab street. As such, Iran’s self-perception of regional leadership is not based on military superiority, but rather on its political and financial investment in various regional movements and its ability to exploit popular frustration over domestic political issues and injustices in the region such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
The greatest challenge that Iran sees going forward is the emergence in the region of a foreign policy realignment by states that have traditionally followed America’s lead. The impact of Turkey’s shift is evident to Tehran: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of only two world leaders to poll higher among Arabs than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Despite growing economic and political cooperation, decision-makers in Tehran know that competition over regional clout will test Turkish–Iranian ties in the long run. Thus, as the situation on the Arab street remains fluid, Iran is preparing itself for the possibility that the balance of its competition and collaboration vis-à-vis Turkey may tilt toward the former.
Ankara and Tehran both seek to become the preeminent arbiter in the region, and stylistic differences in their respective soft-power strategies are clear to each side. In contrast to Iran’s approach of exploiting popular frustration over regional injustices and engaging political proxies, Turkey employs trade, investment, and a consistent emphasis on diplomacy and international integration. Privately, Iranian officials acknowledge that Ankara’s soft-power strategy is more appealing in the long term: it serves Turkish national interests by securing new markets for the country’s growing economy without compromising the Islamic sentiment of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s political base; and it provides Turkish decision-makers with greater flexibility to use backroom or megaphone diplomacy, depending on the circumstance, in support of the current push for peaceful democratic transition.
Post-war Iraq provides a compelling example of the growing competition between Iran and Turkey for regional influence. Policymakers and pundits in the West regularly refer to Iran as the big winner of the Iraq war. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein has removed a historical barrier to Iran’s regional ambitions and all but guaranteed a Shiite-dominated and Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. It has also given Tehran a freer hand in the region and created a lucrative market for Iranian goods. Less noticed are the near-identical geopolitical benefits that Turkey has gained since the American invasion. Turkey’s significant political, economic, and cultural influence have steadily increased in Iraq, as it rebalanced its strategic approach and maneuvered to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. Unlike Iran, however, Turkey has been able to increase its influence in Iraq—and by extension work against the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi status quo—without the burden of historical mistrust (the Iran–Iraq War), international hostility (sanctions, the nuclear impasse), or democracy deficits (Turkey’s democratic model versus Iran’s model of militaristic theocracy).
Unsurprisingly, Iranian decision-makers have been somewhat irritated by Ankara’s ability to ‘hijack’ the anti-status quo mantle of change. In addition to Turkey’s more balanced projection of soft power, Erdoğan’s public criticisms of Israel—and concrete Turkish efforts to put Israel on the defensive—have won the Turks strong admiration on the Arab street. One observer in Tehran quipped to one of the authors that Iran had done all the groundwork “in the resistance against Israel,” and at the last minute the Turks stole the show. Turkey’s comprehensive soft power in the region, including cultural affinity, economic ties, and a balanced approach toward Israel, may present Iran with a major challenge in any future competition for leadership in the region. Insofar as Turkey’s new assertive foreign policy continues to challenge the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex in the long run, Iran will feel the uniqueness of its regional position—and its source of soft power—to be increasingly at risk.
Nevertheless, although Turkey’s brand of Islamic democracy and its ‘zero problems’ regional policies provide an appealing model for many Arabs, Tehran is not entirely convinced that Ankara’s soft-power strategy is transferable beyond the short to medium term. Turkey may be limited to solutions that play to its strengths (diplomacy, business) rather than competing in the spheres of its rivals in the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia (military superiority, maintaining the status quo) or Iran (political proxies, championing the disenfranchised). It is also open to accusations of hypocrisy. Turkey was one of the first countries to call for Mubarak’s resignation, but it urged dialogue and restraint in dealing with a recalcitrant Muammar Gadhafi. It remains to be seen how perceived Turkish double standards will play on the Arab street. But Iran sees a Turkish rival that will face the increasingly difficult challenge of balancing its interests with its values—a challenge not entirely different from the paradigm that has seemingly trapped the Islamic Republic’s U.S.–Israeli–Saudi rival.
Arab Beacon, Arab Wild Card
As Iran jockeys for regional preeminence, Egypt will become a new geopolitical battlefield for its soft-power projection. Widely regarded as the beacon of the Arab world, Egypt is also the wild card that can potentially tip the scales in favor of any one of these three aspiring regional hegemons. It is already being pulled in three very different directions. Egyptians took an important step toward democracy with the toppling of Mubarak, but many daunting challenges remain—not least of which is the fact that each of the key Egyptian leaders serving in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was a high-level member of the Mubarak regime. A transition to democracy through free and fair elections has been promised, but concerns linger regarding the timing of elections and the demonstrably non-democratic behavior exhibited by the council on issues including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Precisely because Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished, and domestic stability in the short to medium term is unlikely, Iranian decision-makers see an opportunity to exert regional influence while capitalizing on Egypt’s inward orientation.
Following Mubarak’s downfall, the Egyptian government went from ‘bulwark of the regional status quo’ to ‘foreign policy unknown’ almost overnight. That alone has created new challenges for the U.S.–Israel–Saudi vertex, each of which Tehran readily appreciates. Once the trio’s most staunch regional partner, Egypt is now transitioning in such a way that its inward focus does not allow for the diplomatic bandwidthto comprehensively address the myriad issues it faces; and the shifting trajectory of post-revolution Egypt does not track entirely with Egypt’s Mubarak-era foreign policy preferences. In an effort to keep any future Egyptian government as a close ally, the U.S. has pledged more than $2 billion in debt relief and investment assistance in addition to the mammoth yearly aid package of approximately $1.5 billion. The Saudi government had also provided the Mubarak regime with a steady flow of aid. After Mubarak’s overthrow, the House of Saud announced a $4 billion aid package for Egypt—a not-so-subtle reminder to the Mubarak-era officials still in power that patronage is readily available, and that it can be withdrawn just as easily as it is offered if future Egyptian policies stray too far from the status quo. For its part, the Supreme Council has pledged to honor all regional and international obligations and treaties (read: Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed this announcement. Thus, it may seem that Egypt has changed leaders rather than policies.
Nonetheless, Iran views various decisions made by the post-Mubarak government as unprecedented and in its favor. Opening the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip, allowing Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, and gradual progress toward upgrading Iran–Egypt relations to the ambassadorial level are three notable policy shifts in less than a year that, if nothing else, demonstrate a strengthening of Iran’s position. The Islamic Republic benefits from any degree of independence in Egyptian foreign policy: after three decades of friction, Iranian–Egyptian relations can only improve and the actual degree to which they improve is less important; moreover, despite Egypt’s status as the beacon of the Arab world, its current instability prevents it from exercising its full influence in the region. As Egypt recalibrates, Iran revels in the fact that yet another country in the region is unlikely to conform to U.S.–Israel–Saudi efforts to contain it.
Taking a page from its rivals’ playbooks, Turkey is trying to split the difference between monetary and political support for post-Mubarak Egypt. Iran believes that Turkish policymakers are both worried about the economic repercussions that widespread regional unrest can cause and confident about the opportunity to enhance their regional influence. While Turkey’s peaceful approach to resolving regional unrest is genuine, decision-makers in Tehran also see Ankara’s strategy as politically and economically expedient. For Turkey’s impressive economic growth to persist—and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party to remain popular at home—regional unrest and conflict must abate to maintain an environment conducive to low political and economic risk. If instability intensifies and oil prices rise above $100 a barrel, Turkey’s economy might suffer as foreign and domestic investors move their money to safer locations. To that end, Iranian decision-makers see their Turkish counterparts trying to balance interests and values as part of a longer-term strategy. The Iranians themselves are not overly concerned with Ankara’s efforts in the near term, given Tehran’s cautious and reactive approach and its dependence on the limitations of others.
The Devil You Know
Where Iran’s soft-power strategy runs into trouble is in Syria, as the mass protests there are shaking the stability of Iran’s closest regional ally. The theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran maintains an alliance with secular, socialist, Baathist Syria that has lasted decades. There is perhaps no better demonstration of Iranian readiness to sacrifice ideology in favor of more practical strategic interests. Iran sees its relations with Syria as a marriage of convenience with a fellow authoritarian country that is willing to assume steep political and economic costs to maintain domestic control and independence from foreign powers. To that end, as the Syrian government faces an unprecedented uprising, it has used brute force in an effort to scare protesters into submission, not unlike the Iranian government’s strategy in suppressing protests that followed Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election. In the context of Tehran’s geopolitical rivalry, the case of Syria reveals a strong measure of Iranian hypocrisy—and realpolitik.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Tehran watched as the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex forged a cold peace with Damascus over the five years following Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. There were significant changes after Obama took office: America slowly engaged the Syrian government and reinstated its ambassador in Damascus; Israel participated in Turkish-mediated peace talks with Syria, only to have Syria withdraw to protest Israel’s 2008–2009 bombardment of Gaza; and Saudi Arabia repaired its strained relationship with Syria, in an effort to ensure that differences over Iran and Lebanon did not impede cooperation in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region.
In the wake of regional unrest, however, Tehran is now seeing notable shifts in each actor’s strategy. Washington has all but abandoned its efforts to engage the Syrian government, with Obama saying in no uncertain terms: “President [Bashar] Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way.” Accusations of hypocrisy have been heard at home and abroad due to America’s comparative silence toward Saudi-supported repression in Bahrain—with Tehran leading the charge. Iran sees Israeli and Saudi decision-makers, however, working against a democratic transition in Syria. They would prefer the Al-Assad government to remain in power for separate reasons predicated on realpolitik and have reportedly used their leverage behind the scenes to prevent more forceful U.S. intervention.
The Islamic Republic believes that Israel and Saudi Arabia prefer the devil they know and can control: a Syrian government that understands the Israeli rules of the game when it comes to the Golan Heights and cold peace, and the Saudi rules pertaining to the kingdom’s interests in Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. The Iranian view is that Israel and Saudi Arabia prefer to maintain the current regional order because regime change in Syria is too risky and would likely fuel international pressure for America to intervene elsewhere in the Arab world. Both have made it clear that they oppose the Arab Spring and prefer efforts to crush it rather than pushing the U.S. into a policy it has sought to avoid from the outset.
Iran’s own hypocrisy when it comes to Syria has rendered it difficult for the Islamic Republic to fully capitalize on American, Israeli, and Saudi policies toward the Arab Spring. The U.S. has been at the forefront crying foul, even accusing Iran of aiding Syrian government repression. On this point, Obama did not mince his words: “And this speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stands for the rights of protesters abroad, yet represses its own people at home. Let’s remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran.” The post-election protests in Iran served as an unexpected precursor to the Arab Spring, because they highlighted the indifference of regimes throughout the region to the long-standing political, economic, and social aspirations of the people. Just as realpolitik has determined Iran’s response to uprisings across the region, political realism limits Iran’s ability to win hearts and minds on an Arab Street that seeks an end to the authoritarian governments that the Iranian regime itself resembles in many respects.
At best, Iran sees an opportunity to maintain a semblance of the status quo in its alliance with Syria: together they stand a better chance to survive and achieve their long-term goals. Syria wants to regain the Golan Heights from Israel and maintain its influence in Lebanese politics, both goals that are aided by Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, who maintain instability on Israel’s flanks and increase the costs of Israel’s occupation. In return, Syria aids the Islamic Republic’s quest to assume preeminence in the Persian Gulf by helping to neutralize Israeli capabilities and American encroachment. Any change in Syria’s government increases the likelihood that Damascus will adopt regional policies more in line with its Arab brethren, such as support for Sunni political forces in Iraq. It could also lead to Syria becoming a full-fledged Saudi client. That could strip Iran of its strongest Arab ally, and a notable element of leverage it holds over regional rivals. The Islamic Republic would prefer to see a weakened Al-Assad regime remain in power; such a scenario hedges against Damascus swinging toward the U.S. and increases Syrian dependence on Iranian support.
For decision-makers in Tehran, there is perhaps no greater threat to the stability of their Syrian alliance than Turkey. While the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex is limited in its capacity to influence events on the ground in Syria, Iran sees neighboring Turkey as uniquely able to leverage the Al-Assad regime’s strategic calculus—and being increasingly willing to do so. Prior to the Arab Spring, Syria epitomized Turkey’s ‘zero problems’ foreign policy in the region. Political cooperation between the neighboring countries facilitated substantial trade relations, including the construction of infrastructure to cement long-term connectivity. Nevertheless, after months of shuttle diplomacy, Ankara’s efforts to utilize its soft power in Syria (and Libya) have been unable to foster a non-violent compromise solution. Now, Tehran sees a heavy expenditure of political capital—and inevitable accusations of hypocrisy—taking a toll on Turkish decision-makers, and causing them to shift from soft to hard power strategies. Just as Turkey eventually came to support NATO intervention in Libya, the Erdoğan government has recalibrated the balance of its interests and values in a shift away from the Al-Assad regime. To that end, Ankara has publicly pronounced its willingness to take in Syrian government defectors, deliver relief aid to protesters inside Syria, and consider a military-enforced humanitarian buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border. Herein lie the limitations of Tehran’s strategy: as Turkey prepares to take the aforementioned steps to shift the region’s balance of power, Iran’s cautious and reactive approach and its increasing economic dependence on Ankara restrict it from taking countermeasures.
Raising the Stakes
While Iran has longed for the post-American era in the Middle East, this moment has paradoxically presented a more arduous challenge than Tehran anticipated. Despite showing significant ideological flexibility in the past, Iran’s knows that its ability to adjust to new realities over the long term is limited. A more democratic Middle East would highlight Iran’s own political, economic, and social shortcomings; a more autocratic region would continue using Shiite Iran as a pretext for its own domestic crackdowns.
In the short to medium term, however, regional unrest puts Iran’s adversaries on the defensive and plays to one of Iran’s demonstrated strengths: the ability to exploit instability and division. After revolution, eight years of war with Iraq and international isolation, the Iranian government has an inclination for managed disorder that tends to hamstring its rivals. Complications in Syria notwithstanding, Iran is seeking to leverage new working relationships with the Arab street that capitalize on both the declining U.S.–Israeli–Saudi status quo and Turkey’s newfound balancing act.
Iran’s geopolitical strategy––to consolidate the Islamic Republic as a regional power undaunted by Western objections—has received a boost from the challenges facing its rivals. It has improved ties with Egypt and managed its working relationships with most others in the Muslim world, even if Saudi Arabia and Bahrain remain fearful of Shiite power. Iran’s nuclear program continues to make slow but steady progress, and its recent satellite launch demonsrated its missile capabilities. Iran shows no sign of yielding to the West’s pressure-based approach to relations. It has no incentive to yield. Instead, decision-makers in Tehran are leveraging the Arab Spring to reduce pressure. For example, by introducing two preconditions to its nuclear talks with the West—lifting sanctions and acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich uranium—Iran has raised the stakes. The West is now faced with confrontation at a level that it does not have the ability to address easily, particularly at a time of widespread regional unrest. To that end, the Islamic Republic has increased flexibility in its quest for regional influence.
For Iran, winning the Arab street—and by extension, regional dominance—will require a projection of soft power that advances aspirations for political, economic, and social freedoms. Real-time developments in Egypt and Syria provide compelling opportunities that Iran would do well to seize. Decision-makers in Tehran think that the U.S.–Israeli–Saudi vertex still lacks the ability to adapt to fast-paced transition but maintains enough military and economic clout to decelerate changes that many nevertheless consider inevitable. Iran acknowledges that Turkey possesses a more compelling political and economic model for the Arab street, but it is betting (precariously) on Ankara’s status as an emerging power to force it to balance—and in more complex scenarios choose between—interests and values. The Islamic Republic’s strategy is reactive in nature and predicated on patience, largely because its ability to be proactive is limited. Because the primary concern for decision-makers in Tehran is regime survival, they fear the unpredictable consequences of proactive decision-making at home and abroad. Iran’s own internal problems and paralysis among domestic political elites reinforce its reactive posture. It displays less foresight than cognizance. Nevertheless, Iran knows that success for its regional strategy does not require the same level of certitude or stability as it does for its rivals, and it therefore stands to benefit most from continued popular unrest. In the foreseeable future, this is arguably the most likely scenario.
Reza Marashiis the research director for the National Iranian American Council. Previously, he served in the U.S. State Department in the Office of Iranian Affairs, and was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.
Trita Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He is the author ofTreacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States, which earned a 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.
Governing a World with HIV and Aids
In a debate on why Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic had not (yet) led to political crisis, Peter Baldwin (University of California, Los Angeles,) pointedly asked, “Why would one expect it to do so in the first place?” His specific point was that illness “has never been the source of political action.” His wider point was that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is being successfully managed, so it does not pose a political threat. It was a rebuttal to alarming predictions that the HIV/AIDS pandemic spelled political crisis for weak states. A seminal report in 2000 by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) concluded that “the persistent infectious disease burden is likely to aggravate and in some cases, may even provoke economic decay, social fragmentation and political destabilization of the hardest hit countries in the developing world.”
The history of the last decade has resolved the debate between those who predicted the collapse of armies, state crises, and a vicious interaction between HIV/AIDS and violent conflict, especially in Africa. These calamities did not come to pass. In retrospect, the predictions appear to be an example of a misplaced apocalyptic prediction that projected existing trends in Africa into the future in an uncritical manner, and underestimated the resilience of African societies and states. However, this conclusion obscures the ways in which militaries, conflicts, and governance have actually influenced the course of HIV/AIDS epidemics, and vice versa.
Epidemic disease has rarely been the cause of endogenous political crisis. Indeed if we examine the political histories of Europe in the fourteenth century, the demographic cataclysm of the Black Death warrants only passing mention. We can trace the indirect consequences of syphilis and cholera on European armies and trade, but neither led directly to revolution or the collapse of regimes. The great influenza pandemic of 1919 passed off with minimal political impact.
On the other hand, disease and hunger have been handmaidens to state collapse in the face of an aggressor. When the European conquistadores introduced new infections to immunologically naïve Native American populations, the epidemics that followed left the great pre-Columbian empires weak and vulnerable. The sequence of famines, epizootics, and epidemics that devastated much of China, India, and northeastern Africa in the 1880s was also a prelude to imperial conquest. Disease has also been a challenge to sustaining and deploying armed forces, with armies historically losing several men to infection for every one killed or wounded in combat. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s stomach ailment that kept him away from personally commanding the French army at the Battle of Waterloo may have determined the result. Insofar as illness has altered the course of military history, it has also determined the fate of nations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a flurry of interest in the links between health crisis and state crisis. In the late 1970s, the rising infant mortality rate in the USSR sparked debate in America over whether this was real or an artifact of poor statistics. Some scholars argued that the rise was not only real but was an important signal marking the bankruptcy of the Soviet system. In contrast to silence from the Central Intelligence Agency, demographers and public health specialists saw a crisis coming. Policy interest in health and life expectancy indicators was reinforced when the U.S. State Failure Task Force (SFTF) found that the best model for predicting state failure used three variables: openness to trade (lack of), democracy (lack of), and infant mortality. The infant mortality factor was taken as a “broad measure of living standards and quality of life,” but it is nonetheless striking that among seventy-five potential proxies for well-being that were tested, this was one of the three that stood out.
The SFTF sprang from the mainstream of American political science in its quantitative methods and liberal-democratic values. The four kinds of state failure of concern to the SFTF were revolutionary wars, ethnic wars, mass killings (genocides or politicides), and adverse or disruptive regime changes (involving extended periods of disorder and excluding ‘routine’ coups d’etat or orderly government changes). A different political science tradition would have resisted placing episodes of revolutionary transformation in the same category with genocide, ethnic war, and anarchy. Moreover, the indicators used for defining state collapse, and subsequently state fragility, are all at a high level of aggregation, measuring only limited dimensions of state crisis.
More significant than the incipient collapse of weak states, was the impact of the prediction itself on the policies of major powers, and especially the U.S. The HIV/AIDS pandemic had already badly shaken the confidence of Western governments and health establishments, which assumed that epidemics of fatal infectious diseases had been consigned to history. Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague (1994) popularized these fears. This built upon a deepening disorientation in Washington, D.C., about what new security threats might be looming. In February 1994, Robert Kaplan’s article “The Coming Anarchy,” subtitled “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet,” reportedly so disturbed President Bill Clinton that he ordered it to be faxed to every American embassy around the world.
Two years later, as part of a broadening in the focus of national intelligence to cover topics such as humanitarian emergencies and the environmental crises as well as assessments of missile threats and the military capabilities of China, Clinton requested that the NIC focus on the threats posed by emerging and resurgent infectious diseases. In January 2000, the NIC reported on the subject and, in the same month, the historic UN Security Council debate on HIV/AIDS was held at the initiative of the United States.
The NIC report contributed to a minor avalanche of publications on how disease in general and HIV/AIDS in particular might undermine militaries, states, democracies, and international peace and security. These publications shared two main features. First, little empirical evidence was presented, but rather deductions were made from anecdote and selective historical comparison. Second, they tended to make worst-case assumptions, arguing from ‘may happen’ to ‘will happen,’ and rarely examined how factors might act in the opposite direction. The unfolding of the food crisis in southern Africa in 2002–03, unexpected during peacetime, also led to the fear that HIV/AIDS would contribute to ‘new variant famine.’ The NIC itself then upped its predictions of disaster, forecasting a ‘second wave’ of HIV/AIDS in Russia, India, and China, which would surpass in numbers (though not prevalence rates) the generalized epidemics in Africa.
Very little social science literature was concerned with resilience or lack of impact. A rare example is the demographer John C. Caldwell who in 1997 noted that in hard-hit countries, “Life goes on in a surprisingly normal way. There has not even been any very marked change in sexual behaviour, and society is not dominated by government demands that there should be. There is no paranoia and little in the way of new religious or death cults. In some ways it is very impressive.” A more influential contrary view came from some economic analyses that indicated modest impacts or even an increase in per capita GDP as the epidemic reduced unemployment.
As this debate gathered momentum, the center of gravity of U.S. foreign policy abruptly switched to the ‘Global War on Terror.’ Concern with HIV/AIDS and state crisis was folded into this. Three weeks after the September 11 attack Tony Blair, the British prime minister, spoke at the Labour Party conference, linking social crisis to state failure to terrorism: “We are realizing how fragile are our frontiers in the face of the world’s new challenges.” One principle of the war on terror was that no territory should be left ungoverned and hence prey to terrorist takeover or hideout, while the ‘one percent doctrine’ required the U.S. to deal with even the smallest contributory factors to the risks of terrorism. The logic was that U.S. security entailed confronting HIV/AIDS.
The responses of the countries considered at risk of HIV/AIDS-related crisis were diverse. Africans tended to see the epidemic as one misfortune and stress among many, not as a grave political threat. This is illustrated by the relatively low priority given to HIV/AIDS in public responses to opinion surveys. Some governments simply denied the problem for as long as they could. Others’ efforts were focused principally on designing programs that could attract international funding and policies that would win them international credit. President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, following his early domestically-initiated HIV/AIDS efforts, became adept at using HIV/AIDS to polish his image abroad. A number of militaries, including South Africa’s, took prompt and vigorous steps. Botswana’s President Festus Mogae was the most alarmist, repeatedly saying that his country’s very existence was at stake.
Fears over the implications of the epidemic impelled the UN Economic Commission for Africa to set up the Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa (CHGA) in 2003. Over the course of its work, it stepped back toward a measured assessment of the impacts and risks, concluding “that African governments and societies could surmount the challenges of governance and development posed by HIV and AIDS.” This writer also concluded that HIV/AIDS was not causing political crisis in Africa, and critiqued (among others) his own earlier writings as having been unduly pessimistic.
Two of the biggest countries of concern in the ‘second wave’ of HIV/AIDS were Russia and China. In due course, each came to see the epidemic as a threat, in its own distinct way. The Russian government is concerned about the declining health of its adult male population, including both the population from which it recruits its soldiers and those soldiers themselves. On this basis, President Vladimir Putin announced in April 2006 that HIV/AIDS was a national security issue, and he would increase HIV/AIDS spending twentyfold.
China, concerned with its standing in the world, sees HIV/AIDS as prominent among infectious diseases that pose a threat to its national image, and consequently a national security issue. China’s belated response to the 2003 SARS epidemic was heavily criticized at home and abroad, while quarantine measures hit the country’s exports. Less tangible but perhaps more serious was the Chinese leadership’s fear that their country would be seen as a global source of disease. Taking a long view, the leadership resolved that secrecy was not an option, and that the effective management of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including measures such as harm reduction for injecting drug users, was in its national interest. China has acted accordingly.
In 2008, the U.S. NIC revised its assessment of the security implications of infectious diseases. Gone were the predictions of social crisis and state collapse in Africa and the predictions that hyperendemic HIV would become common in Asian populations. Rather, the focus shifted to a wider spectrum of diseases, including chronic diseases and accidents, and their economic impacts. For example, the report notes that poor health is costing Russia an estimated 1 percent of GDP annually—and this may rise to as much as 5 percent by 2020—and conversely notes that reduction in disease burden contributes to economic growth. The governance impacts of health, it suggests, are “less pervasive,” and it cites examples of how mishandling of health issues can undermine a government’s credibility, such as Thabo Mbeki’s stand on AIDS and China’s dithering over SARS. It also refers to contrary cases, in which organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine have provided basic health care, enabling them to building a political base. In terms of military readiness, the report points to the poor health status of army conscripts in Russia and North Korea, but also revisits the NIC’s earlier fears about how HIV/AIDS would undermine military capabilities in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting both that the risks had been overstated and the responses effective.
Perhaps most significantly, the 2008 NIC report concludes with a section entitled “Health as Opportunity: A new look at a successful paradigm.” Global health, it suggests, is a fruitful field for diplomacy, including effective engagement with rising powers, reconstruction and stabilization, smoothing relations with adversaries, easing north–south tensions, and advancing economic development. The earlier pessimism had given way to optimism that efforts such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) could become one of the U.S.’s major sources of global influence.
Even though the HIV/AIDS pandemic, including its broader impacts, may not have materialized as feared, HIV/AIDS has had global social and governance consequences. Among them is PEPFAR itself, which surely would not have been established and placed under the authority of the Department of State, were it not for the fears outlined above.
The essential background to this reassessment is the downward revision of estimates for the global numbers of people living with HIV. New HIV infections, having accelerated at a faster rate than anyone expected in the 1980s and 1990s, had crested and begun to fall (slightly) earlier than had been anticipated. Models for global HIV incidence indicate a peak in new infections in the early 2000s. This downward revision had several components. The most important was that the concentrated epidemics in Asia and eastern Europe were not developing into generalized epidemics, so that even the lower-end estimates made by the NIC in 2002 were proving overstated. In Africa, only South Africa and some of its immediate neighbors were sustaining hyperendemic HIV, and most countries were registering declining HIV rates.
Armies, Law Enforcement, and HIV/AIDS
The issue of HIV prevalence in armies has been the subject of a number of ‘factoids’—claims that are so regularly cited that their original provenance becomes obscure and their slender empirical basis becomes overlooked. Prominent among these is the claim that HIV rates among soldiers are typically two to five times higher than among civilians, and that this ratio can be many times higher still during conflict, a claim repeated in at least ten publications.
In fact, data indicate that this is rarely the case. One reason for this is that infantry armies commonly recruit from a population category with low HIV, namely young rural men. The biggest study of HIV prevalence among recruits was conducted using HIV screening data from the Ethiopian army, which showed low HIV levels. Comparable data were collected in Swaziland. However, HIV prevalence among soldiers increases with time in service and appears to do so more rapidly than among civilian peers .
Sub-Saharan armies moved promptly to respond to the threat posed by higher than normal rates of incapacity and death. Armies are designed with an element of redundancy built in, especially at lower ranks, so they can withstand attrition during war. They are also ready to implement command measures that violate individual human rights, in this case mandatory testing and exclusion of those found to be HIV positive from enlistment, promotion, specialist training, or deployment—all measures that reduce HIV prevalence among the ranks, albeit by displacing the problem elsewhere. Because they are incompatible with human rights standards and contradict national (civilian) HIV policies, many militaries have kept quiet about these practices. Court cases in Namibia and South Africa, both of which found military discrimination on the basis of HIV status to be unlawful, have exposed this gap. It presents military commanders with a dilemma, as their own medical analysis and interpretation of command responsibility often determines that they practice such discriminatory policies.
This poses a particular dilemma for UN peacekeeping operations, which are highly visible and expected to conform to international norms, but are also wholly dependent on the readiness of troop-contributing countries to provide the forces, often in short order. The UN’s HIV testing policy for uniformed peacekeepers is that the sole medical criterion for deployment and retention is ‘fitness for duty,’ based on clinical criteria rather than HIV sero-status. While holding up the standard of exclusively voluntary confidential counseling and testing, the UN also recognizes that many countries, including most of its major troop-contributors, have a mandatory HIV testing policy and do not deploy HIV-positive personnel; and the UN respects these national policies.
The story for police services is similar. Senior police officers also felt stigmatized by casual allegations of high levels of HIV in their ranks, an especially problematic claim because of the day-to-day interaction between police officers and the general public. This led to even greater opacity than among armies, and more obstacles to researchers. As a result, even limited data are not available, and the issue of HIV/AIDS within law enforcement services remains neglected.
An emerging agenda concerns how law enforcement influences the trajectory of the epidemic itself. This is the most compelling, if little studied, example of how governance can determine HIV/AIDS. In many countries in the world, HIV transmission is concentrated among groups which are criminalized or stigmatized, or is associated with practices that infringe the law. Examples include injecting drug users (IDUs), sex workers and their clients, gay men and individuals with variant sexual identities, and illegal immigrants. Those most vulnerable to HIV may be offenders, victims, or the socially excluded. Examples include survivors of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation, trafficked women, and street children. In one way or another, the principal point of contact with the authorities for most of these people is the police officer. It follows that law enforcement and policing practices can be a major influence on the course of the epidemic, either for good or ill.
Challenges for the police occur in situations in which the law and widely held social norms come into conflict with public health principles and human rights. The most acute examples concern harm reduction technologies and methods such as methadone substitution and needle exchange for IDUs. These are prohibited in many countries yet are an HIV prevention intervention of proven efficacy. In the best cases the individual police officer has much discretion. In some countries, police officers turn a blind eye to their obligations under the law, knowing that it would be counterproductive and wasteful to try to enforce prohibitions. They prefer their discreet tolerance of harm reduction to go unnoticed in the public realm, because they fear that populist politicians would demand zero tolerance of prohibited activities. In other instances, such as China, the authorities recognized the efficacy of harm reduction measures and implemented them rapidly at scale, with measurable success. Increasingly, international HIV/AIDS policymakers are taking seriously the challenge that HIV transmission through IDUs can be prevented entirely, and that this requires the universal adoption of harm reduction technologies and practices, which in turn demands the worldwide decriminalization of drug use.
Policing practices concerning sex workers provide another example. In some countries, possession of a condom is taken as evidence of participation in illegal sex work, complicating HIV prevention efforts. In other countries, the police themselves regulate commercial sex work, including the sexual exploitation of underage girls and trafficked women, operating simultaneously on both sides of the law. This poses acute dilemmas for HIV/AIDS advocates and policymakers, who want instinctively to respond both to the abuse of women and girls and to the threat of HIV—priorities that might not always be fully aligned.
HIV/AIDS During Traumatic Social Transitions
The assertion that armed conflict contributes to inflating HIV levels was a standard assumption at the turn of the millennium. This derived in part from circumstantial evidence suggesting that the movement of Tanzanian military brigades through Uganda in 1979 had contributed to the first unfolding of the epidemic in east Africa, and military bases in Namibia and South Africa had been local epicenters for HIV. A meeting of experts convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 2001 reached a consensus that “Although some might question the significance of AIDS as a contributor to conflict, no one denies the role of conflict in the spread of the virus.”
This claim has since been convincingly challenged, using data that show that refugees do not have elevated HIV rates in comparison to host communities, and that conflict is often accompanied by a suppression of HIV rates. The common ground among the various studies is that the implications of conflict and displacement for the epidemiology of HIV vary greatly according to circumstances, and the effects are not as dramatic as was earlier anticipated. Increasingly, scholarly and policy attention focuses on the post-conflict period, as one in which HIV risks may increase because of population mobility and mixing, while HIV/AIDS services may be neglected in favor of other priorities.
The shift in focus from war as such, to the specific forms of social disruption and change associated with war, or with the transition from war to peace, provides a more productive line of inquiry. At a macro level, Nathan Paxton of Harvard University has examined the impacts of transition on HIV. He used a dataset that included 162 countries over the period 1990–2006. He found that rapid economic growth had no significant impact on HIV prevalence, but that major political transitions from authoritarianism to democracy were associated with an increase of about 0.9 percent. Paxton found that interstate war had no statistically significant effect on HIV prevalence, but that internal war was associated with a suppression of HIV prevalence by about 1.7 percent. (Note that this does not mean that war pushes HIV prevalence down but rather that rates would have been higher were the country not at war).
The social implications of conflict do not end with a peace agreement. The processes of disarmament and demobilization of former combatants, the return of refugees and displaced people, the opening up of areas that were isolated during conflict, and the winding down of humanitarian assistance are all disruptions in their own ways. There are numerous historical examples in which demobilizing soldiers contribute to different forms of violence. Post-conflict periods can witness dispossession of villagers’ land as well-connected entrepreneurs move in, and the sudden creation of boom towns associated with new economic opportunities, government centers, and aid efforts. In addition, the psychological effects of conflict and trauma, among combatants and civilians alike, can endure long into the post-conflict period. All these can reconfigure vulnerabilities to HIV.
One conclusion from these studies is that researchers and policymakers have been asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong place. Casting the analysis at the level of ‘conflict’ as such misses the significance of the different kinds of conflict, the groups involved, and the varied forms of interaction among them. Aggregation to the level of an entire conflict-affected population is less useful than looking at specific groups, times, and places. The concept of a ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ may be useful for marshaling an immediate humanitarian response, but it does not help shape an appropriate analysis for HIV/AIDS or a response to the epidemic.
HIV/AIDS and State Crisis
One of the most compelling claims in the January 2000 NIC report was that the HIV/AIDS epidemic threatened state crisis and collapse. It has not happened. Moreover, Tony Barnett of the London School of Economics and Political Science argues that, based on analysis across large datasets, the lack of any relationship between HIV/AIDS and state failure is sufficiently robust to allow for a strong conclusion to be drawn—that it is not going to happen.
There is a limiting case: Swaziland, a very small country, economically dependent with weak governance, which is facing hyperendemic HIV. Swaziland has been described as a long-wave social crisis, in which daily mortality rates now exceed the levels conventionally used by humanitarian agencies as their thresholds for identifying an emergency. Swazi citizens face a chronic reduction in living standards. Barnett points out, however, that a very small nation such as this cannot be taken as a model for larger states. His review includes studies of Manipur and Nagaland, northeast India and the Papua region of Indonesia, both of which have the highest HIV rates in their countries, and a comparative study of the South Pacific. There is no possibility that localized HIV/AIDS crises in parts of India or Indonesia could destabilize the states in question or threaten their overall prosperity, and despite a debate in Australia about possible ‘Africanization’ of the South Pacific epidemic, any similarities are superficial, and the prospects for these countries of resembling Swaziland are remote.
Barnett also modifies his conclusion with respect to local government. Until very recently, the political impacts of HIV/AIDS had been studied only at national level, and there was very little interest in what it might mean for local institutions and their performance and accountability. The largest study of this type to date is a study of twelve municipalities in South Africa. It finds measurable adverse impacts of the epidemic on various aspects of local government. It found a consistent pattern of elevated death rates among councilors aged between twenty-nine and forty-two, raising the prospect of some communities lacking any elected councilors and therefore being unrepresented. Strains are intensified by increased AIDS-related absenteeism and lower productivity among staff. Researchers Kondwani Chirambo and Justin Steyn noted high level of stigma around AIDS among councilors and found only one councilor openly living with HIV, from among a sample of 3,895.
It is notable that HIV/AIDS has not become a major political issue that determines the outcome of elections, even in South Africa which has had the combination of hyperendemic HIV, a president who denies the link between HIV and AIDS, and a powerful activist movement. Public opinion surveys indicate that HIV/AIDS is rarely a priority for electorates. In line with the observations by the late sociologist Carolyn Baylies and by Peter Baldwin, it appears that AIDS is regarded as a personal misfortune rather than being the occasion for political outcry. There is a striking contrast with the way in which food crisis is commonly the focus of political mobilization, and the relative political apathy over HIV/AIDS.
Although HIV/AIDS has not become an issue in adversarial politics, it has become an important element of governance in many sub-Saharan countries, especially with a proliferation of civil society organizations. This is primarily because of the innovation of the international HIV/AIDS leadership in promoting a human-rights based approach. This approach has its origins in the early leadership of the AIDS movement among gay men in America, many of them gay rights activists, and the human rights framework for health pioneered by the late Jonathan Mann at the World Health Organization. Not only has this led to an emphasis on the individual’s right to privacy and the strictly voluntary nature of HIV testing, but it has also contributed to the high-level participation of civil society organizations and representatives of people living with HIV and AIDS in international organizations including UNAIDS and the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has marked a new era for the governance of international public health, characterized by epidemiological individualism and pressures on African governments to conform to a liberal civil society-based framework for disease management.
In modern history, the measures implemented to control infectious diseases have often had a greater governance impact than those diseases themselves. To give just one example, European colonial powers’ efforts to prevent the spread of cholera and other communicable diseases along trade routes, including the sanitary management of the Muslim Hajj, were instrumental in imperial penetration of the Middle East. We can see a similar pattern in the case of HIV/AIDS, from the health diplomacy of the U.S. to the ways in which national governments, from Africa to China, have adjusted their governance strategies in response to the unique place occupied by the pandemic in global perception and aid institutions.
Peter Piot, former Executive Director of UNAIDS, arguing in support of an ‘exceptional’ strategy for HIV/AIDS policy and programming, has noted that the international response has been an important factor preventing stigma and discrimination. It has also contributed to the consolidation of liberal governance in aid-dependent countries in Africa. The 2008 NIC report, with its stress on the strategic benefits of ‘medical diplomacy’ for the U.S., sees this as one of the major, if unanticipated, outcomes of the pandemic. In looking at possible frameworks for its institutional response to the challenge of managing climate change, the UN has debated the merits of the ‘UNAIDS model’ as a model for how to engage a wide range of non-governmental stakeholders, in such a way that the technical policy demands of a response are made compatible with democratic values and human rights. The rise of public health diplomacy and participatory governance for global public goods may be one of the most significant impacts of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The public health arguments in favor of promoting harm reduction technologies are now beyond dispute, and it is possible that the next historic contribution of HIV/AIDS to global governance will be in the field of decriminalizing drug use.
The Long Wave of HIV/AIDS
The analysis above gives far less cause for pessimism than many imagined would be possible even half a decade ago. This is far short of claiming that the pandemic is out of the danger zone or that the instruments are at hand for overcoming it. At the Toronto conference of the International AIDS Society in 2006, Piot insisted that “tragically, the end of AIDS is nowhere in sight.” He felt obliged to make this statement because of the optimism implicit in some of the conference speeches, to the effect that the combination of pharmaceutical technology and huge increases in funds meant that twenty-five years after the human immunodeficiency virus was first isolated, the world had turned the corner on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Shortly afterward, Piot initiated the aids2031 project, intended to look ahead another quarter century to anticipate how the pandemic might unfold over this period, and what might be done to ensure that international commitment to tackling HIV/AIDS remained undiminished.
The combination of the scaling back of UNAIDS’s estimates for global HIV infections, evidence for prevalence plateauing or declining in Africa, and the huge increases in resources available for HIV/AIDS since 2002, might make it appear that optimism should be the order of the day. However, Piot’s caution is precisely in order. The demographer Roy Anderson has modeled it as an event lasting 130 years. Some of the most prominent scholars of HIV/AIDS insist the pandemic is a ‘long wave event.’ While HIV/AIDS may not be leading to dramatic crises, long-wave suppression of life chances and development prospects is probable in hyperendemic countries.
The setbacks in the search for a vaccine are a salutary reminder that there may not be a ‘cure’ for AIDS in the foreseeable future. While the ‘second wave’ fears have not materialized, dangers such as extremely drug-resistant strains of HIV, or secondary epidemics associated with the TB pandemic or the worldwide increase in injecting drug use, mean that constant epidemiological and virological vigilance will be required for the indefinite future.
In conclusion, the HIV/AIDS pandemic can no longer be considered an extraneous factor in social functioning or governance. The impacts of the epidemic have been absorbed into social and political systems, while the national and international institutions and initiatives set up in response to the disease have themselves become an integral part of governance. However, vital issues remain unresolved—for example, whether militaries can legitimately practice mandatory testing and selective exclusion of the HIV positive, and whether it will be possible to make harm reduction the guiding principle for law enforcement services toward injecting drug use. While the feared relationships between HIV/AIDS and conflict and state fragility have not transpired, in both cases the epidemic compels reconsideration, not only of specific policies, but of the basic frameworks on which policy is made.
This essay was originally published in The Socioeconomic Dimensions of HIV/AIDS in Africa, edited by David E. Sahn and published by Cornell University Press. The Cairo Review expresses gratitude to Mr. de Waal, Mr. Sahn and the Cornell University Press for allowing the essay to be included in the Cairo Review.
Anderson, Roy. 2003. Keynote Address. Report of the Scientific Meeting on the Empirical Evidence for the Demographic and Socio-Economic Impact of AIDS, Durban, 26–28 March.
Baldwin, Peter. 2007. Comment on AIDS and Power. http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/books/2006/11/09/aids-and-power/#comments>
Barnett, Tony. 2009. Synthesis Paper: HIV/AIDS and State Fragility. ASCI, Synthesis Paper. http://asci.researchhub.ssrc.org/…papers/ASCI%20Synthesis%20Paper%20State%20Fragility
Baylies, Carolyn. 2002. The Impact of AIDS on Rural Households in Africa: A Shock Like Any Other? Development and Change 33: 611–32.
Caldwell, John C. 1997. The Impact of the African AIDS Epidemic. Health Transition Review 7 Suppl. 2: 169–8.
Chirambo, Kondwani, and Justin Steyn. 2008. AIDS and State Fragility: The Challenge of Increased Deaths among Local Councillors in South Africa. ASCI Working Paper no. 25.
de Waal, Alex. AIDS and Power: Why There is No Political Crisis—Yet, London, Zed Books, 2006.
AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative, AIDS, Security and Conflict: New Realities, New Responses, New York, SSRC, September 2009. http://www.ssrc.org/workspace/images/crm/new_publication_3/%7Be2090d2b-72a8-de11-9d32-001cc477ec70%7D.pdf
Garrett, Laurie. 1994. The Coming Plague: Newly-Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kaplan, Robert. 1994. The Coming Anarchy. Atlantic Monthly 273(2): 44–77.
Paxton, Nathan. 2009. Rapid Politico-Economic Transitions and HIV/AIDS: An exploratory analysis. New York: aids2031, New York.
Piot, Peter. 2008. AIDS Exceptionalism Revisited. Lecture at the London School of Economics, 15 May.
Alex de Waal is a program director of the Social Science Research Council, an advisor to the African Union Peace and Security Department, a senior fellow of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and a director of Justice Africa in London. His academic research has focused on issues of famine, conflict, and human rights in Africa. He has served as adviser to the African Union mediation team for the Darfur peace talks (2005–06) and the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur (2009) and Sudan (2009–2010). He was awarded an OBE in the British New Year’s Honours List of 2009, was on the Prospect/Foreign Policy list of one hundred public intellectuals in 2008, and the Atlantic Monthly list of twenty-seven ‘brave thinkers’ in 2009.
Brazil and the Middle East
After President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s eight years in office, Brazil has reached a new status in international relations, a fact recognized by defenders and critics alike. In an article about Turkey, the British magazine the Economist (which was often critical of Brazil’s positions and initiatives in subjects ranging from the Free Trade Area of the Americas to the Iranian nuclear program) referred to Brazil as a “diplomatic giant.”
This is just one example. Brazil has made her presence felt in most international negotiations, from finance to trade, from climate to disarmament. Brazil is a member of several groups that have a crucial role in world governance, such as the G-20, BRICS and BASIC. Brazil’s role in trade negotiations has been amply recognized, even by those who might regret it.
Much of this results from profound changes Brazil has undergone—such as the consolidation of the democratic process, sound economic performance, and the promotion of social justice—as much as from President Lula’s charismatic personality. But part of this success can be credited to a ‘bold and activist’ foreign policy, as befits the country’s dimensions and potential. From South America to Africa, from ‘global dialogue’ with the U.S. to a ‘strategic partnership’ with the European Union, Brazil’s diplomatic activity in the last part of the first decade of the twenty-first century has been intense and, as a French scholar interviewed by Le Monde put it recently, “imaginative.”
Fostering relations with the developing world was one of the cornerstones of President Lula’s foreign policy. Renewed dialogue and cooperation with countries of the Middle East was part of this larger effort to strengthen South–South cooperation. Without any hesitation, I can testify that the Middle East was brought, perhaps for the first time, to the center of our diplomatic radar. This might seem strange for a country that participated in two world wars and even sent troops to Suez, under the UN flag; but throughout most of her history, Brazil has maintained good and cordial though somewhat distant relations with the countries of the Middle East.
During President Lula’s two mandates, Brazilian foreign policy made a genuine effort to engage countries of the Middle East on the bilateral and bi-regional (involving South America as a whole) levels. Brazil’s interests in coming closer to the Middle East are quite distinct from those of the traditional Western powers. We do not depend on the Middle East for oil. Although we fully grasp the centrality of the region for world peace, Brazil has no major direct national security concern at stake there. We are not a large arms exporter to the region. And of course, unlike other countries, we do not carry any colonial or Cold War baggage in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter).
Brazil and the countries of the Arab world share strong human bonds. Notable Arab influence can be found in Brazilian culture and society. This may be seen in literature, cuisine, and in the names of some of our most prominent politicians and businessmen. There are around ten to twelve million Brazilians of Arab descent. The largest populations of Lebanese and Syrian origin outside those countries reside in Brazil. Last year, we celebrated the 130th anniversary of Arab immigration. Brazil is also the home to a very dynamic Jewish community. Arab and Jewish communities are fully integrated into our society—and they live harmoniously side by side.
Tolerance, acceptance of differences, and respect for the other, over and above distinctions of race or creed, are fundamental values that Brazil holds both domestically and internationally. By pursuing closer relations with the Middle Eastern countries, Brazil is rediscovering her own identity.
The deepening of relations between Brazil and countries of the Middle East was long overdue. It is surprising—if not alarming—that President Lula was the first Brazilian head of state ever to visit the Middle East officially. (Before him, Emperor Dom Pedro II made a trip to parts of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, but his was a cultural and religious expedition for personal enlightenment.) During his eight years in office, President Lula went to Syria, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, Qatar (two times, one of which was to attend the second Arab–South American Summit), Libya (also twice, including once as a special guest of the African Union summit), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, and Iran. He also made a state visit to Israel.
Brazil was the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to be granted observer status by the Arab League. President Lula’s first address to the Arab League was a groundbreaking event. I myself went to Cairo and Algiers to attend a summit and a ministerial meeting of the Arab League. In my capacity as foreign minister I paid dozens of visits to Middle Eastern countries. In one of those trips, in preparation for a summit between South American and Arab countries, I visited ten countries in ten days, which made me feel like a modern version of the great fourteenth-century traveler and writer from Tangiers, Ibn Battuta.
This renewed interest was reciprocated: countries of the Middle East have also given clear indications that they seek better ties with Brazil. The then Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa visited Brasília three times during the Lula presidency. In the past eight years, Brazil hosted fourteen heads of state and government from countries in the Middle East. In November 2009 alone, the presidents of Israel, Palestine, and Iran visited Brazil within a period of ten days. Playing host to the leaders of these three countries within a fortnight is a testament to the credibility Brasília has acquired over the last few years with a great variety of interlocutors.
Diplomacy and Trade
Closer relations have been translated into concrete diplomatic overtures. Brazilian diplomatic missions were opened in the Middle East: embassies in Muscat and Doha; an office in Ramallah (soon to become an embassy); and a consulate-general in Beirut. The Brazilian embassy in Baghdad will reopen soon (it has been functioning in Amman, Jordan, since the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq). A post of ambassador at large for the Middle East was also created, following a suggestion that the then foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Nabil Shaath, made directly to President Lula and myself during our visit to Cairo in December 2003. On that occasion, for the sole purpose of meeting President Lula, Nabil Shaath had to travel for more than eight hours from Ramallah to Cairo, crossing innumerable barriers on his way.
The most important initiative on the diplomatic level was the establishment of the South American–Arab Countries Summit (ASPA, as we call it, following the Brazilian and Spanish acronyms), a mechanism meant to strengthen the ties between the two regions. The idea of the summit was born early in President Lula’s first term. I explored it in my first visits to the region, following a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Sharm El-Sheik and a World Economic Forum regional meeting at the Dead Sea, as early as May 2003. In June I sent my chief of staff as a special envoy to the region. He took with him letters from President Lula to several Arab leaders, including President Yasser Arafat, then under virtual siege in the Mokata, the presidential compound in Ramallah. After laborious, but in the end gratifying efforts, which included some ministerial meetings and numerous encounters with high officials, Brazil was able to host, in May 2005, the first South America–Arab Countries Summit. A second ASPA summit was organized in Doha, Qatar, in 2009. The third summit should have taken place in Lima, Peru, in the early part of 2011, but events in the Middle East forced its postponement.
One anecdote well illustrates the change in the traditional mindset that such an initiative concerning a bi-regional meeting of leaders implied. In one of my early travels to the region, one journalist, who was actually sympathetic to our efforts, did not hide her (or her bosses’) skepticism. She confronted me with the question why Brazil had made that move, which seemed at a first glance so alien to ‘business as usual.’ I tried to answer that question as best as I could, pointing out the historical bonds and the potential for economic cooperation, the cultural and political benefits, etc. The reporter did not seem fully convinced, but duly recorded my explanation in her piece for an important Arab newspaper. A couple of years later, in the course of a preparatory meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, the same journalist asked me: “Why didn’t this summit take place before?”
With the advent of ASPA, these two parts of the developing world were brought together for the first time to discuss political issues of mutual interest and further enhance trade, investment, tourism, as well as technical, scientific, and cultural cooperation. At the margins of the ASPA summits, meetings of business people were held. Commerce between South America and Arab countries increased sharply. This would surprise many of our media analysts and self-anointed pundits, who saw the initiative in a purely ideological light and affirmed that it would not bring any concrete (i.e. economic) results.
Several countries from South America and the Arab world, which had scarce contacts before ASPA, have now engaged in full diplomatic relations. Visits have multiplied. And this has happened not only in relation to big countries like Brazil and Argentina, but also to smaller ones like Uruguay and Paraguay. Above all, this new mechanism facilitated dialogue between regions until then distant from each other. A better first-hand understanding by South American countries of the questions that confront the Middle East was made possible. Thus, when toward the end of Lula’s groundbreaking presidency, Brazil decided to recognize the state of Palestine, this gesture—made in view of the stalled peace process and the Israeli government’s refusal to renew the freezing of settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories—was quickly followed by similar actions on the part of our neighbors.
As stated earlier, the positive effects of ASPA were also to be seen in the fields of trade and investment. Businessmen are very attentive to the signals conveyed by governments. Often leaders wave the flag and businessmen follow suit. Apart from the business meetings, held in parallel to both summits, several trade missions took place, as part of state visits or independently from them. New flights have been established (between São Paulo and Dubai, Tel Aviv, and Doha). Trade between South American and Arab countries has increased from $10 billion in 2004 (the year before the first summit) to around $30 billion recently. Trade between Brazil and the Arab countries has also significantly increased since 2003: from $5.5 billion in the first year of President Lula’s tenure, our trade flows reached $20.3 billion in 2008, soaring fourfold in such a short time. After falling in 2009 due to the effects of the international economic crisis, in 2010 exchanges almost matched the historical peak of 2008. Just before the recent political turmoil, Arab countries, taken as a single region, were responsible for Brazil’s largest trade surplus in the world.
A free trade agreement (FTA) was signed some months ago between Egypt and Mercosul (the customs union that brings together Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, hopefully to be joined in the very near future by Venezuela). Framework agreements with Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, and the Gulf Cooperation Council are already in place. Negotiations are at an advanced stage for new FTAs with the GCC and Jordan. It is worth noting that an FTA had already been signed with Israel, a signal of our region’s pluralistic standing. In the implementation of the agreement with Israel due care is being taken not to allow products originating in the occupied territories to benefit from the liberalization envisaged in the accord.
Palestine, Syria and Lebanon
The increased contacts between Brazil and the countries of the Middle East have helped forge a partnership based on mutual confidence and respect. Brazil’s views on Middle East matters are increasingly sought after; our ability to talk to all sides and exert constructive influence is very much appreciated. This is not only my personal evaluation. It is an opinion expressed both privately and publicly by leading figures of several countries in the region. Our firm yet balanced attitudes in the United Nations Security Council regarding issues like Iraq, Lebanon, and more recently Iran and Libya, contribute to make it clear that Brazil acts independently, in accordance with her own judgment, and is not influenced by preconceived ideas. Nor does she easily bend to pressures from big powers, including the biggest of them all.
This helps explain why Brazil was one of the few non-Islamic developing countries from outside the Middle East to be invited to the Annapolis Conference in 2007 and to the Conference in Support of the Palestinian Economy for the Reconstruction of Gaza, in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2009. In the case of Annapolis, it is also worth noting that the other two countries in a similar category were India and South Africa, which, together with Brazil, form the IBSA Forum, another initiative taken under President Lula. IBSA became so relevant in the discussion of Middle Eastern affairs that the Palestinian foreign minister, Riad Malki, traveled halfway across the globe to participate in a breakfast with his counterparts from the three countries, in the margins of a BRICS/IBSA Summit in Brasília, in April 2010 (by the way, a historic day for the shaping of a multipolar world order). Some months later, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia called for a meeting with the IBSA countries plus Palestine in the context of the UN General Assembly.
I have traveled five times to Israel and Palestine since 2005. My first trip to Ramallah was part of the preparations for the ASPA process. But my contacts with President Mahmoud Abbas, with the then Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and with my official counterpart allowed me to have a deeper view of the grim situation the Palestinian people were going through, as did also my car journey from the Jordan–Palestine crossing point at the Allenby Bridge and back. It is hard to describe the strong impression caused by the numerous road blocks and detours to which Palestinian nationals are subject, in contrast with the highly protected Israeli motorway running over their territory, which they are barred from using. President Abbas, together with Amr Moussa at the Arab League, was one of the strongest supporters of the process we had launched.
In my travels in the region, I did not skip Israel either. Soon after ASPA, I visited Jerusalem for conversations with the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, then deputy prime minister, as well as with my official counterpart, Sylvan Shalom. Keeping this balance was important so that Brazil would not disqualify as an interlocutor for both sides, while not renouncing any of her principled positions. I returned several times to the West Bank and to Israel, including, most notably, during the Gaza conflict in January 2009. On that occasion, I delivered, through Jordan, a donation of food and medical supplies from Brazil to the people of Gaza. Talking quite frankly and in a friendly way with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister at the time, I joined Brazil’s voice to the many around the world, who were condemning the invasion of Gaza and appealing for a prompt cessation of hostilities. President Lula himself visited the region in March 2010, conveying our message of peace and conciliation, as well as our firm support for the just cause of the Palestinian people.
In contacts with the Israeli government as well as with the Palestinian Authority, Brazil has systematically stressed her support for an economically viable Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, having Jerusalem as its capital. Brazil also supports the right of Israel to live securely and in peace with her neighbors. In all our statements, we have stressed the central importance of stopping all settlement activity by Israel in the Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem. Brazil has also advocated the end of the blockade of Gaza. And of course we have condemned the resort to any kind of violence, including all forms of terrorism, which we consider a blind alley. In constant conversations, during President Lula’s term, with Palestinian officials as well as leaders in the Arab world, Brazil has pleaded for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as a necessary condition for achieving peace with Israel. I am glad to see that in April an understanding was reached by the leaders of these two main political factions. I sincerely hope that all those concerned understand that a durable peace can only be obtained with the concurrence of both parties. It is also my hope that, in this process, Hamas will come to terms with the historical fact of the existence of Israel and therefore accept the two-state solution.
In the last few years, Brazil has been defending the inclusion of new actors in the peace negotiations. We are glad to see that this view has been embraced by more and more people in the region. The Annapolis process was a good start in that direction. Unfortunately it was short lived. We are convinced that enlarging the conversations to a broader group will allow the appearance of fresh ideas. In one way, the peace process so far has suffered from a kind of claustrophobia, without room for new solutions. Of course it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. The main elements of a peace accord have long been on the table. But new actors can surely contribute some lateral thinking on ways of implementing them. So far, apart from the countries directly involved in the conflict, the Middle East issue has been dealt with exclusively by the United States and, on a very secondary level, by the members of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the UN). A breath of fresh air would certainly do no harm.
Gathering interested countries with a conciliatory profile, international credibility, and good relations with all parties can provide the basis for a small support group for the Quartet, which could help advance individual dossiers in the negotiation between Israel and Palestine. It is my contention that the IBSA countries, Brazil first and foremost, could give a helping hand in creating an atmosphere conducive to a workable understanding, and even come up with one or two ideas of their own. The idea of a support group acting together with a core group is not new in facilitating peace agreements: it was put in practice, for instance, in the Central American conflicts of the 1980s.
No single actor can do more to strengthen moderate positions on the part of the Palestinian leadership than Israel. Should there be no clear prospect of a viable Palestinian state, radical groups will impose themselves. Even more dangerous, their ideas will become the prevailing ones. As I said at the Annapolis conference, there will be no peace without painful concessions on both sides.
In parallel to political efforts to promote a just and lasting peace, Brazil has been supporting Palestinian development. In 2007 Brazil made a donation worth $10 million, which is being invested in education, public health, and urban infrastructure in the West Bank. Brazil pledged another $15 million at the Sharm El-Sheikh conference on Gaza reconstruction. Together with India and South Africa, our partners in the IBSA Forum, we funded the construction of a sporting facility in Ramallah. The same three countries are also funding the reconstruction of a hospital in Gaza, the initiation of which was stopped by the blockade imposed on that territory by the Israeli authorities. In my last visit as foreign minister to Israel I raised the subject with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not seem totally closed to the possibility of reexamining the situation, although, as far as I know, nothing concrete has happened since then.
The recent Brazilian recognition of the Palestinian state was a natural step, given our willingness to contribute to a just and lasting solution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In the letter he sent to President Abbas to formalize such recognition, President Lula underlined that the Brazilian decision did not imply abandoning our strong conviction that negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are indispensable to achieve the concessions needed from both sides. Following Brazil’s decision, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile also announced their formal recognition of Palestine. Some European countries said they were reexamining the case.
When he came to attend President Dilma Rousseff’s inauguration in January, President Abbas symbolically launched the construction of the Palestinian embassy in Brasília. The recognition of Palestine reinforces our historical commitment to the creation of an economically viable and geographically cohesive Palestinian state, coexisting peacefully and securely with the state of Israel. We see it as a stimulus—and not a substitute—to the negotiations.
It is of course too early to tell whether the unfolding events in several Arab countries, which have mesmerized the world, will create the conditions for the resumption of the Palestinian–Israeli peace process. Needless to say, much will depend on the reactions of Israel and the United States. So far these have not been encouraging. But we should not despair. It takes time and patient persuasion to adapt one’s long-held views to new realities.
It has also been our conviction that the Syrian government—quite apart from the dramatic events that are taking place in that country, which, one hopes, will soon give way to an authentically democratic process—must be increasingly involved in peace initiatives across the region. Syria has a strong stake in peace. In my conversations with President Bashar Al-Assad—and I am sure this will hold true of any government that emerges from the current troubles—I got the impression that Syria was willing to play her part, provided her own perspectives and interests are taken into due consideration. Once present developments unfold themselves, Syria will once again become a fundamental player in the efforts toward peaceful solutions in Lebanon, Palestine, and, to some degree, Iraq. The importance of Syria may seem less obvious and even a bit far-fetched now, but will become clear as the situation normalizes, hopefully sooner rather than later. In my talks with U.S., Israeli, and European colleagues, I always urged them to bring Syria back to the table.
Mindful of Syria’s role in the region, President Lula visited Damascus in his first year in office. President Al-Assad reciprocated the visit in July 2010, in his first-ever transatlantic trip. I visited Damascus on six different occasions, almost all of them immediately before or after visiting Israel. This strong dialogue with Syrian and Israeli governments gave Brazil the credentials to play a confidence-building role with regard to negotiations in sensitive issues such as the Golan Heights. The electoral process in Brazil and subsequent events in the area, especially in Syria itself, did not allow this facilitation to realize its potential.
On a previous occasion, I had already brought a message from the president of Syria to the prime minister of Israel, at the time Ehud Olmert. That was just after Annapolis, and somehow preceded the ‘proximity talks’ mediated by Turkey. The Syrian president once told me that Damascus was ready to initiate such talks, provided they did not go back to square one, meaning that they should take into consideration progress achieved in previous rounds. The feedback I had from the Israeli prime minister was positive. And indeed a couple of months later the ‘proximity talks’ started. Of course, I do not claim that this happened by virtue of our action. I am sure many other interlocutors were involved in that démarche. Unfortunately, the talks were interrupted by the Israeli military action in Gaza and rendered more difficult by the 2010 Flotilla of Freedom affair, in which activists, who were trying to break the Gaza siege, were killed by Israeli forces. More recently, following President Lula’s visit to the region (which did not include Syria this time), Brazil’s good offices were again requested in order to help jump-start dialogue between Israel and Syria.
Brazilians are also very attached to the Lebanese. That has a lot to do with the people-to-people dimension of our relations. One of President Lula’s early visits was to Beirut, also in 2003. Lebanese political stability affects Brazil directly, not only because of the large Lebanese community in Brazil, but also due to the increasing number of Brazilian nationals living in Lebanon. During the 2006 war, for example, the Brazilian government organized the evacuation of three thousand of her citizens—and some citizens of other countries as well. That was the largest operation of its kind ever carried out by Brazil. While the rescue operation was taking place, I twice visited the city of Adana, in southern Turkey, where most of the Brazilians who fled the Israeli bombings sought refuge before being evacuated to Brazil (though, to be sure, quite a sizable number went to Damascus, which was closer for those living in the Bekaa Valley).
During one such visit, a lady, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, came to thank me with great emotion: “This is the third time I have had to flee a war, but it is the first time the Brazilian government has come to my assistance.” This only confirmed the truth of a thought that occurred to me long before, which I often repeated to my students at Instituto Rio Branco, the Brazilian diplomatic academy: “You (meaning actually anyone) may not take an interest in international politics, but sooner or later international politics—as indeed any politics—will take an interest in you. And you had better prepare yourself for that moment.”
I visited Beirut the day following the ceasefire. Apart from the shocking scenes of smouldering buildings and vast destruction (a great deal of which was caused by bombings after the ceasefire was declared), I was particularly moved by the sight, amid the rubble, of a Brazilian national team jersey—a visual reminder of how close Brazilian people were to those who were suffering from the devastation.
As a result of that tragedy, we became even closer to Lebanon. Although I am no longer in government, I am deeply convinced that Brazil will continue to be engaged, promoting peace and dialogue, supporting every initiative that brings stability and progress to the Lebanese people—and, as a consequence, to neighboring countries. After the 2006 war, Brazil donated funds for reconstruction and assisted the Lebanese government through cooperation projects. The visit to Brazil of President Michel Suleiman, in April 2010, reinforced this partnership. Following requests and suggestions by several of our partners in the region, including the Lebanese themselves, Brazil has recently taken on the leadership of the naval component of UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. This again amounts to some sort of recognition by those more directly involved that Brazil can play a constructive role in promoting peace in the region.
From Brasília to Tehran
One of our initiatives in the wider Middle East involved the efforts to promote a diplomatic solution to a seemingly intractable issue: the Iranian nuclear program. The Tehran Declaration of May 17, 2010 has a lot to do not only with Brazilian foreign policy toward the Middle East, but also with the promotion of international peace and security. Along with Turkey, Brazil engaged Iran in negotiations related to the vexed question of that country’s nuclear program. Why did Brazil do so?
Brazil got interested in this question for a number of reasons, which are worth explaining. First, as one of the countries that—together with Japan—has been most often in the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, Brazil has been confronted with the need to give her opinion (and indeed her vote) on critical issues for international peace and security. More than once, Brazil has contributed her skills and imagination—apart from her strong belief in the power of dialogue in attempts to find solutions to difficult questions.
When Brazil served on the Security Council between 1998 and 1999, I was personally involved in the effort to prevent the Iraq situation from deteriorating to the point it actually did later on, in a different context (somehow linked, in fact or fiction, to the ‘war on terror’). The three panels Brazil chaired on different aspects of the Iraq question (disarmament, the humanitarian situation, and Kuwaiti prisoners of war and stolen property) presented conclusions that helped avoid or at least postpone the aggravation of the situation. Many of the recommendations of the disarmament panel—certainly the most difficult of the three—were incorporated in the resolution that extinguished UNSCOM and created UNMOVIC, with a somewhat modified mandate. This replacement of a commission whose activities had been marked by controversy with a new body and a new chairman might, in different circumstances, have led to a more positive outcome.
Moreover, Brazil has been an active participant in the Conference on Disarmament—which I had the honor to chair twice, in 1993 and 1999—and a founding member of the New Agenda Coalition, a group of countries united by the common goal of total elimination of nuclear weapons. Disarmament and nonproliferation issues were not off our radar screen. For decades, Brazil played an important role in the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), mainly as a strong supporter of the right of nations to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. As is well known, Brazil has her own program of uranium enrichment for the production of electricity, as well as a means of naval propulsion. All these facts contributed to the existence of personal and professional links with some of the people who were more directly involved in the discussions on the Iranian question. Besides, having always kept normal diplomatic relations with Tehran, Brazil was also able to listen to the Iranian side of the story. In this connection, not only in Vienna, but also in the two capitals, a dialogue of some sort predated the more recent efforts and initiatives.
Brazil was also interested in developing her economic and commercial ties with a country roughly the same size as Turkey and Egypt, and bigger than any other country in our own region, with the exception of Mexico and Brazil herself. Iran is a very attractive market for our exports and a potential recipient of Brazilian investments in the fields of energy, mining, and transportation material.
In our very diverse conversations with several Middle East countries, it became clear that any attempt to build a long-lasting peace in the region would involve, sooner or later, some form of dialogue with Iran. The prospect of coming back to the Security Council for the biennium 2010–2011 helped sharpen our focus. The Iranian nuclear program had been the subject of talks I held in past years with some of my colleagues as well as with high-placed international officials.
In these conversations, I had always felt that there was a missing element in the proposals made to Iran, either directly by Western powers, or by the intermediary of the IAEA. This missing link, which to my mind was essential to convince Iran to cooperate more fully with the IAEA, was the recognition—in practice, rather than in theory—of Iran’s right to develop her own peaceful nuclear program, including her capacity to enrich uranium. Of course, I took due note of the fact that Iran had not complied fully with her international obligations in regard to declaring her nuclear activities, and possibly other aspects as well—and that the country was, therefore, in debt to the international community. But in the same way as someone who has defaulted on payments to a credit agency may have his or her card suspended, but eventually have it restored after some conditions are met and some time has elapsed, Iran should not be stripped forever (or rather, for the foreseeable future, which in politics amounts to the same thing) of the rights ensured to all members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In other words, just as one should not be deprived of access to credit because of religion or race—or even because one lives in a ‘bad neighborhood’ (the analogy holds)—a country cannot be deprived of access to a technology because it is Muslim or is situated in a dangerous region, especially if one of its neighbors is known to possess not only the same technology, but the actual weapons.
The proposal presented in October 2009 to Iran by the U.S., France, and Russia, and supported by the IAEA, involved a swap of Iranian low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). It had incentives for both sides—Iran would send abroad 1,200 kilograms of her low-enriched uranium, a move that interested those who feared Iran’s intentions in enriching uranium. On the other hand, the proposed swap agreement did not question the Iranian right to enrichment, a topic that made all previous proposals non-starters for the Iranians. In other words, the agreement was specifically built and advertised by its proponents as a confidence-building measure.
The negotiations with Iran were led by the P-5+1—the permanent members of the Security Council (U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany. Brazil decided to take an active role in this particular initiative because we are committed to international peace, because Brazil is one of the few countries with the credibility to sustain an open dialogue with all the parties involved and therefore has an obligation to help, and finally because we had been urged by several leaders to talk to the Iranian regime and try to convince it to accept the proposal and to adopt a more flexible approach in regard to its nuclear program. In engaging Iran in negotiations on the fuel swap, Brazil and Turkey were simply putting forward ideas that were promoted by other countries who had been sitting at the table.
Those interested in the deal were the first to underline the potential attraction it had for Iran, since it was based on the de facto—if not de jure—recognition of her capacity to enrich uranium. At least once, one of my interlocutors (in this case not a minister, but a highly placed official) even suggested that, if the deal went through, the relevant Security Council resolutions might have to be adjusted to the new reality.
Based on such considerations and with explicit encouragement from some of the leaders of the P-5+1—who might have bet that, in a later stage, we would eventually fail—Brazil joined forces with Turkey (a NATO member and a country close enough to Iran to be concerned with the possible military implications of the Iranian nuclear program) to seek ways and means to make such a deal possible. Faced with initial Iranian resistance to accepting specific conditions, some variations around the original proposals were explored; but in the end, both Brazil and Turkey insisted that Iran should accept the three essential elements of the proposal, which related to the quantity of low-enriched uranium to be transferred, the timing of such a transfer, and the place where the exchange should take place. On all three of these totally verifiable elements (how much, when, and where), Iran ended up conceding.
Thus, in the course of negotiations, which extended for eighteen hours on May 16 and followed months of intense consultations, Iran made voluntary concessions regarding three central points that she had been resisting before Brazil and Turkey joined the talks. It is fair to ask why Brazil and Turkey succeeded where the major powers had consistently failed. Probably the main reason consists in the fact that Brazil and Turkey have good relations with Iran. We talk to her government with respect and understanding. Second, Brazil and Turkey are non-nuclear states, thus enjoying far greater legitimacy in negotiating issues related to Iran’s nuclear file. Third, the two countries did not prejudge that the Iranian nuclear program was necessarily for non-peaceful ends. Giving the benefit of the doubt is both a powerful encouragement and a valuable bargaining chip in a negotiation. Finally, Brazil and Turkey have always recognized Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program, to which every member of the NPT is entitled, so long as the clauses of the treaty and the regulations of the IAEA are respected.
We were aware that the swap agreement was a gateway for a broader negotiation regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Brazil and Turkey were always clear that the Tehran Declaration did not solve all questions regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Important issues, such as Iran’s advance to 20 percent enrichment and the quantity of uranium in Iran’s possession, would certainly be part of future discussions, once confidence was created.
Much to our surprise, on the day following the Tehran Declaration, the powers that had seemed more interested in a deal rushed to announce that a new round of sanctions by the Security Council would still be pursued, irrespective of the results achieved by President Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Eventually, new sanctions were imposed against Iran by the Security Council on the very day the so-called Vienna Group submitted its comments on the Tehran Declaration to the IAEA, allowing no time for Iran to reply. In other words, even if Iran complied with all the P-5+1 demands, Iran would still be subject to a new round of sanctions.
The reaction of the original proponents, for reasons that may be the object of speculation but do not stand the test of objective argument, was nonetheless to pursue the adoption of sanctions against Iran. It must be said, in regard to sanctions, that Brazil for one (but most likely Turkey also) always pointed out to the Iranian authorities—I did that to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself—that although we much preferred the route of dialogue to that of sanctions, if those came to be adopted by the Security Council, Brazil would duly abide by them. This of course would run counter to Tehran’s expectations of greater cooperation with Brazil and contribute to her further isolation. To what extent this message (of which, as I made abundantly clear, I was only the bearer) may have influenced the Iranian decision to accept the essential elements of this confidence-building agreement is difficult to ascertain. But the Iranian authorities were left in no doubt in this respect.
The Turkish–Brazilian diplomatic efforts did not produce the effects we desired, mainly due to a change of heart on the part of Washington. As former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview to a Brazilian newspaper: if the original proponents of the swap agreement did not take the Tehran Declaration as a basis to continue negotiations, such an attitude surely meant that “they could not take yes for an answer.”
It seems that in matters concerning peace and security, global governance is still the reserved territory of the five permanent members. The moment two developing countries, both non-permanent members of the Security Council, reached a major breakthrough that could have paved the way for renewed dialogue on the Iranian nuclear program, the traditional powers showed all their diligence in maintaining their ‘market reserve’ on issues they considered beyond the reach of those they saw as newcomers.
But to myself as well as to many people around the world with whom I had the opportunity to talk about the subject, usually at their initiative, the Turkish–Brazilian endeavors proved the value of having new actors, with fresh approaches as well as a greater capacity to dialogue, participating in the search of solutions to difficult subjects.
The passing of time makes an agreement based on the same premises more difficult to achieve. The mere mathematics on which the original proposal was made does not hold any more. The gap between the quantity of fuel Iran needs for the TRR and the amount considered necessary to offer enough guarantee that Iran would not be able to have a nuclear weapon (supposing it is really pursuing this path) tends to widen as Iran, in spite of its acknowledged difficulties, continues to produce low enriched uranium. Personally, I still believe diplomacy can prevail. And the TRR fuel swap will be a necessary reference, even if, for political and technical reasons, adjustments have to be made. The importance of the Tehran Declaration will be recognized sooner or later. In any future attempt to go back to the diplomatic path, due attention should also be given to the approach adopted by Brazil and Turkey—mutual respect, cooperation, and bona-fide reciprocal flexibility. It is hard to imagine that real progress can be achieved while those parameters remain outside the negotiating room.
The Way Ahead
In my multiple encounters with my Egyptian counterparts, in the past few years, I have always perceived a sense of pride, based on Egypt’s long history dating back to the dawn of civilization. References were often made to Cairo as the ‘lighthouse of the Middle East.’ For anyone who had the privilege of visiting this country and could see the marvels of antiquity, from the pharaohs to early Christianity, as well as the powerful monuments that testify to the Muslim contribution to humanity, this seems a very suitable metaphor. And yet it always struck me that Egyptian influence was not as strong as it could be, partly because of regional rivalries but partly on account of her rather closed political system.
Although Egypt enjoyed the benefit of a surprisingly free exchange of ideas and even a relatively free press (my knowledge comes only from texts in foreign languages, but an article recently published by the president of the American University in Cairo, Lisa Anderson, in the journal Foreign Affairs, also highlights this somewhat astonishing feature of the Egyptian system), the country’s natural force of attraction seemed diminished by the divorce between the government elites and the people in the streets. On one occasion, while discussing a very sensitive issue with a highly placed official (not belonging to the foreign ministry, I must add), I was struck by the casual way he referred to the possibility of an armed conflict involving another Muslim country. I could not hide my bewilderment provoked by his cold, almost detached analysis of the alternatives involved, the degree of damage that might be inflicted, the capacity for reaction on the part of the country concerned, etc. I asked whether the hypothesis we were discussing would not provoke a strong, maybe violent reaction on the part of the people in the Muslim and Arab countries (the ‘Arab street,’ an expression that has acquired a totally new significance with recent events). My interlocutor simply replied, rather nonchalantly, as if that detail had not occurred to him before: “Oh yes, that might be true.” Well, as it happened, that catastrophic hypothesis did not need to materialize for the voice of the Arab street to start changing the course of events in Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere.
Although in some cases it was punctuated by tragedy, in others, including Egypt, the path to democracy seems to be firmly established. But the road to democracy—just like the “road of love” in the well-known American song—is a bumpy one. Having gone along that road in the last quarter of a century—with some success, one may claim—Brazil as well as other countries of South America may have some experiences to share with our Arab friends. Once all the dust has settled (and eventually it will settle, in some places faster than others) the South America–Arab Countries Summit may reveal itself to be an even more useful forum than we ourselves have envisaged, adding a totally new political dimension to its discussions, on the basis of a mutually respectful dialogue among equals, without impositions or moral lessons of any sort.
There is much to be gained if countries like Brazil and Egypt could start exchanging experiences in this field. One may be surprised to learn that, in spite of the obvious differences, many problems on that bumpy road are common to any process of democratization, like combating corruption, dealing with social inequality, and establishing a credible electoral system. Of course, the ‘lighthouse of the Middle East’ will continue to shine—and ever more brightly—with the light it generates. But no harm will be done if, in addition, it reflects the glimmers coming from other countries’ experiences.
Celso Amorim was the foreign minister of Brazil between 1993–1994 and 2003–2010. He has also been his country’s ambassador to the United Nations and to the United Kingdom.
The Climate Change Challenge
The remarkable film An Inconvenient Truth greatly increased international public awareness of the threat posed by global warming. Presented by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and directed by Davis Guggenheim, the film recorded dramatic scenes of ice melting at the North Pole, and strong storms and floods sweeping across our planet. Certainly, the critical issue of climate change is now firmly fixed on the agendas of international policy makers. Unfortunately, actual progress in addressing the challenge is too slow.
The outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, last December proved once again that governments are not serious enough about the issue. Non-stop consultations between developed and developing countries must now take place and they should achieve tangible and effective compromises before the next climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, in November. We need to develop more scientific evidence, it is true. But we certainly know enough.
In 2006, as Gore’s film was released, another important contribution to tackling the problem came in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Established by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and headed by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, the group embarked on discussions with experts from all over the world. The review made three telling findings.
It said that actions taken today to mitigate climate change cost 1 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), but dealing with its impact later will cost 5 percent of global GDP. The review found that spending in the next twenty years on actions to mitigate climate change will have a positive effect only after 2050 because of the life spans of greenhouse gases (GHGs). And the group said that the average global temperature will continue to increase for the next twenty years even if emissions are stopped today, again because of the lifespans of GHGs. The Stern Review had a great impact. Blair sent his foreign minister to present the issue to the United Nations Security Council for the first time in history not as global environmental problem but as a global security problem.
Further valuable recognition of the issue came when Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In its fourth assessment report, issued in November of that year, the IPCC departed from the usual cautious language of scientists in making a categorical statement about the threat. The report said: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.” The IPCC report added that most of the observed increases in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century are very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.
The IPCC report contained disturbing news for Africa. It said that by 2020, between seventy-five and two hundred and fifty million people in Africa may be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. It estimated that in some African countries, including those in North Africa, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent. Thus, agricultural production may be severely compromised, further exacerbating malnutrition. The IPCC said that the area of arid and semi-arid land in Africa could increase 5–8 percent.
The IPCC based its emphatic conclusions on a number of facts, which it presented in its 2007 report: CO2 atmospheric concentration increased from 280 PPM (parts per million) in 1950 to 379 PPM in 2005. The average concentration for the last three hundred and sixty-five thousand years was 300 PPM. Eleven out of the previous twelve years (1994–2005) were the hottest years on record. The number of cold days and nights, hot days and nights, as well as heat waves, increased in the last fifty years. The average sea level rise was 3.1 mm/year between 1993 and 2003, compared to an average of 1.8 mm/year during the period 1961–2003. There is up to 97 percent confidence within the IPCC that the average global temperature will increase by two degrees Celsius by 2050—though this could happen as early as the year 2035. The IPCC had more than 50 percent confidence that the average global temperature would increase in the twenty-first century by five to six degrees Celsius–a development never before faced by human beings.
These disturbing facts were further stressed and accentuated by the UN Environmental Programme’s 2007 State of the Environment Report (SOE) and the UN
Development Programme’s 2007 Human Development Report, both devoted entirely to the issue of climate change. Additional reports by the World Bank, the European Union (EU), the Organization for Economic Cooperation for Development (OECD), the U.S. National Science Foundation, and others, were published in 2008 and 2009 stressing the negative global impacts of climate change.
At a meeting in Indonesia in 2007, there was new hope for positive movement. The Bali Action Plan, launching a process for long-term action, was adopted by a meeting of the conference of the parties to the Climate Change Framework Convention (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. The Bali Action Plan called for a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action, now, up to and beyond 2012, in order to reach an agreed outcome and adopt a decision at its fifteenth session in Copenhagen, by addressing, inter alia:
(a) A shared vision for long-term cooperative action, including a long-term global goal for emission reductions.
(b) Enhanced national/international action on mitigation of climate change, including, inter alia, consideration of:
(i) measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives, by all developed country parties.
(ii) Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country parties in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner.
(c) Enhanced action on adaptation, including, inter alia, consideration of international cooperation to support urgent implementation of adaptation actions.
(d) Enhanced action on technology development and transfer to support action on mitigation and adaptation, including, inter alia, consideration of:
(i) effective mechanisms and enhanced means for the removal of obstacles to, and provision of financial and other incentives for, scaling up of the development and transfer of technology to developing country parties in order to promote access to affordable environmentally sound technologies.
(ii) ways to accelerate deployment, diffusion and transfer of affordable environmentally sound technologies.
(e) Enhanced action on the provision of financial resources and investment to support action on mitigation and adaptation and technology cooperation.
Implementation of the Bali Action Plan has been disappointing, to say the least. The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 was attended by over one hundred heads of state and government. Despite the growing body of disturbing facts, and high expectations that the assembled leaders would take action, the Copenhagen conference concluded with a modest accord including very few concrete commitments.
The first three paragraphs of the Copenhagen Accord adopted by heads of state and governments, ministers, and other heads of delegations attending the conference, stated:
1. We underline that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We emphasize our strong political will to urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
2. We should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries and bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.
3. We agree that developed countries shall provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacity-building to support the implementation of adaptation action in developing countries.
Such general statements had been adopted in dozens of previous conferences, starting with the first international conference on climate change in 1979, in Geneva by the World Meteorological Organization and UNEP in co-operation with UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Only three paragraphs came close to commitments, but none went beyond mere intentions or contained specific details on how they would be implemented:
1. The collective commitment by developed countries is to provide new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, approaching $30 billion for the period 2010–2012 with balanced allocation between adaptation and mitigation… In the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, developed countries commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.
2. We decide that the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund shall be established as an operating entity of the financial mechanism of the Convention to support projects, programmes, policies and other activities in developing countries related to mitigation including REDD-plus, adaptation, capacity-building, technology development and transfer.
3. In order to enhance action on development and transfer of technology we decide to establish a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology development and transfer in support of action on adaptation and mitigation that will be guided by a country-driven approach and be based on national circumstances and priorities.”
So the Cancun conference, albeit with reduced expectations after Copenhagen’s disappointing results, became a litmus test of whether we were serious or not. Unfortunately, Cancun ended with another modest accord, indicating that we are not so serious. The Cancun agreements, though not legally binding, perhaps did give a boost to the process of negotiations. They give the more than one hundred and ninety countries participating in the conference another year to decide whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol. This at least allows the process to result in a more robust accord at the next conference in Durban. The agreements set up a new fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, create new mechanisms for the transfer of clean energy technology, provide compensation for the preservation of tropical forests, and strengthen the emissions reduction pledges that came out of the Copenhagen conference.
A vital point that had been stressed by the Copenhagen conference declaration remains a source of major differences between developed and developing countries: the principle of “common but differentiated” responsibilities. Developing countries insist that developed ones have a historical responsibility and should cut emissions and provide developing countries with finance and technology to do their part. Developed countries, on the other hand, ask about the growing contribution of developing nations to global warming.
If we are to save our planet there must be a real willingness to cooperate, with developing countries accepting part of the responsibility for current and future emissions, and developed countries taking full responsibility for past emissions. This cannot be achieved without frank and open discussions between the two sides, talking to, rather than past, one another. Developing countries must realize that the total CO2 emissions by China in 2009 surpassed those of the United States, the biggest emitter; and that emissions by India are similar to those of Japan or Russia. We must immediately begin a series of non-stop informal consultations between the leading countries in both camps with a view to achieving compromises before Durban. The UN must play the role of a global body concerned about serious global problems. It should offer a neutral forum, but work to produce meaningful compromise formulations that bring together opposing views. Too much is at stake to allow such useless negotiations to continue forever.
Governments have no option but to halt the dialogue of the deaf and agree on four basic points if Durban is to be a success. These are: agreement on the verification of emission reductions; agreement between developed and developing countries on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; specific targets for the GHG emissions in developed and developing countries; and finally, developing countries need to be offered a grace period before applying the reductions required by a new treaty. Advanced developing countries (China, India, Brazil, South Korea, Malaysia, etc.) may have a shorter grace period than other developing countries—certainly shorter than those for least developed countries and small island states. As per the Copenhagen agreements, parties need to define specific figures for financing a climate change adaptation fund, and to establish the details of the technology transfer mechanism. The most affected countries should be supported urgently.
Mostafa K. Tolba is President of the International Center for Environment and Development and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
Great Games, Local Rules
How ‘central’ is Central Asia in contemporary world politics and what is the region’s exact strategic importance? Over the last years countless media stories and commentators have resurrected the metaphor of the new ‘Great Game,’ invoking analogies with the high-stakes competition between Russia and Great Britain in the nineteenth century for regional influence and control. In this iteration, the players are different: rather than from London and St. Petersburg, the capital of imperial Russia, the protagonists take orders from Moscow, Washington and, most recently, Beijing. In this framework, Russia, the United States, and China are in a winner-takes-all battle to secure vital strategic interests such as energy resources and access to critical military bases. Moreover, the pendulum in this new Great Game seems to regularly swing back and forth. After the ouster of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, Moscow was viewed as ascendant in the region, just as the United States was widely credited with orchestrating the so-called Colored Revolutions of the mid-2000s.
In the last decade, Central Asia has received intense engagement from the United States, Russia, and China. However, the strategic goals of these three powers have varied considerably. In the cases of the United States and China, their strategic interests lie not within the post-Soviet Central Asian states themselves, but rather in stabilizing adjacent regions: Afghanistan in the case of the United States, and the western province of Xinjiang in the case of China. Russia’s interests combine a mix of material and more intangible factors, though Russia’s search to retain control and regional hegemonic status is not dissimilar to the experiences of other historical postcolonial powers. In the service of these interests, each external power has wielded different mechanisms of influence, ranging from commercial military arrangements in the case of the United States, to the establishment and promotion of a new international organization in the case of China.
But to focus exclusively on the competing agendas of these external powers neglects the considerable political agency shown by the Central Asian states themselves over the last decade. The real story of the ‘New Great Game’ is that as Moscow, Washington, and Beijing have intensified their competition for influence, Central Asian governments have learned to more actively play one external suitor off against the other for their own narrow domestic political interests. In the cases of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which are rich in oil and gas, this competition has allowed governments to renegotiate unfavorable old contracts confidently and secure new sources of investments from competing oil companies. It has also entrenched the patronage networks of existing regimes and allowed them to resist external calls to democratize. In the cases of the poorer and weaker states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, elites have leveraged this competition to secure economic assistance that has fed endemic corruption, precipitating the near collapse of these already weak states.
All three external powers, then, have had to accommodate or adjust to playing by these ‘local rules,’ though they have done so with varying degrees of success. As the case of Kyrgyzstan shows, President Bakiyev exploited the geopolitical push and pull over the presence of the U.S. military base at Manas to enrich himself and his family. Ultimately, the collapse of his government, after mass street protests against him in April 2010, revealed that the Kyrgyz ruler was more concerned with maximizing personal benefits from these competing external powers than with building the institutions necessary to stabilize and develop the small and impoverished Central Asian state.
On the Road to Afghanistan
During the 1990s the United States had a minimal interest in Central Asia. Aside from promoting the activities of some U.S. oil companies in Kazakhstan, the U.S. viewed Central Asia as a relatively remote area of low significance to U.S. strategic interests. The September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S. instantly upgraded the region’s importance. In the lead-up to military action in Afghanistan to target Al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the United States concluded an agreement with Uzbekistan to let U.S. forces use an air base near the southern city of Khanabad (the Karshi–Khanabad base, later known as K2) and in December 2001 the U.S. solidified its foothold by establishing an additional airbase at Manas, a civilian airport near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. In addition, U.S. officials concluded agreements for overflight rights with the other Central Asian states and secured permission to conduct refueling stops in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. From a previous position of low strategic interest, the Central Asian states were now providing critical support for the United States and military operations in Afghanistan.
Less widely known at the time were the quid pro quos that U.S. officials offered to Uzbek and Kyrgyz elites in exchange for these basing rights. In Uzbekistan, the United States agreed to target the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as part of its operations and gave hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance and hardware to Uzbek security services. In Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials offered economic incentives including paying standard civil aviation take-off and landing fees for large military transport planes and funneling lucrative fuel contracts to suppliers that were controlled by President Askar Akayev and his family.
At the time of this initial engagement, U.S. officials hoped that military cooperation with the United States would help improve the human rights situation and democratic conditions in these countries. In fact, the opposite happened: Uzbek President Islam Karimov used the U.S. War on Terror and the elevated concern with Islamic militancy to justify harsh crackdowns on political opponents and suppress media freedom. As the United States promoted a selective program of democratization and regime change—part of President George W. Bush’s ‘forward strategy for freedom’—Washington’s main security partner in Central Asia was now increasingly employing repressive tactics to preserve the security of the regime.
The tensions in this U.S. policy of preserving basing rights and promoting democratization would come to a head in 2005, in the wake of the so-called Colored Revolutions. In Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and then Kyrgyzstan (2005), longstanding presidents were overthrown after popular protests against falsified election results. The so-called Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, which ousted President Akayev, was of particular concern as Karimov became convinced that the United States was plotting to overthrow his regime. The issue came to a boil in May 2005 when, following a prison break by a group of local Islamic businessmen, a crowd of thousands gathered in Babur Square in the center of the eastern city of Andijon to protest government policies. Soon after, Uzbek security forces opened fire on the crowd, prompting a mass panic and the massacre of hundreds of demonstrators. Uzbek authorities contend that onehundred and eighty people were killed, most of them militants or terrorists, while international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International place the number of dead at several hundred, insisting that the vast majority were innocent civilians.
Most of the West, including eventually the U.S. State Department, condemned Uzbek actions and demanded an international investigation into these events. By contrast, Moscow and Beijing publicly supported Karimov for his decisive crackdown. On July 30, 2005, just after the United States announced its support for a UN plan to relocate to Europe Uzbek refugees who had fled into southern Kyrgyzstan, rather than turn them over to Uzbek authorities, the Uzbek government notified the United States embassy that it would have to vacate K2 within six months. The Uzbek government also clamped down and expelled almost all Western NGOs that were working on democracy and human rights-related issues in the country. To underscore its new geopolitical orientation, Uzbekistan signed a new military cooperation agreement with Russia soon after, and joined the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The United States relocated many of its activities to the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, while relations with Uzbekistan continued to deteriorate into 2007.
Following the K2 episode, U.S. military re-engagement with Uzbekistan was prompted improbably by events in distant Pakistan. After attacks on U.S. logistical supply lines to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, U.S. defense and logistics planners sought to open a northern option, the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), that would transport materials, fuel, and hardware (originating either in the Baltic states or Georgia’s Black Sea coast) overland to the Afghan theater via the Central Asian states, with Uzbekistan playing a key role. Over the course of 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) concluded a number of commercial contracts with regional companies to transport thousands of containers, now approaching 30 percent of logistical shipments to Afghanistan, through this new network of rail, truck, and air hubs. Under instruction from then CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, U.S. logistics planners were encouraged to procure supplies locally where possible and find ‘creative’ ways to involve local companies in NDN and Afghanistan supply chains.
For supporters, NDN has so far proven to be a successful alternative to the troubled Pakistan routes and has ensured renewed Central Asian cooperation for the recent U.S. escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Some proponents of the NDN even suggest that developing these new supply routes to Afghanistan will once again stimulate broader trade throughout the Central Asian region, resurrecting the old Silk Road as a hub for both East–West and North–South commerce. Critics, however, claim that the commercial contracts on which NDN operates actually have enriched logistical companies that are effectively controlled by the region’s ruling families and that the high level of corruption and customs delays at Central Asian borders will not be overcome by business interests that lack these official connections.
NDN expansion has also created some inescapable paradoxes about U.S. policy in Central Asia when compared to neighbouring Afghanistan. On the one hand, most military and civilian planners acknowledge that the greatest obstacle to building an effective and legitimate state in Afghanistan is the problem of corruption, which has eroded the legitimacy of the Karzai government and its political allies. At the same time, the deals established by the NDN seem to be doling out private economic benefits and rewarding the Central Asian regimes with lucrative contracts. As with the fallout from the Colored Revolutions, the United States must seemingly manage an uneasy tension between promoting a values agenda of ‘good governance,’ while supporting the practices of the Central Asian regimes that are necessary to maintain their cooperation for the all-consuming military campaign in Afghanistan.
Imperial Resurgence or Last Throes?
Following the events of 9/11, the then Russian President Vladimir Putin initially supported U.S. efforts to establish temporary bases for the Afghanistan effort. However, as Russian economic power increased and concerns about Western influence grew, Russian officials became much more ambivalent and, in certain quarters, openly hostile to the continued Western military presence in Central Asia.
Some Western commentators have interpreted President Dmitri Medvedev’s reference to Russia’s right to a “zone of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space as proof that Moscow wishes to re-establish imperial rule in Central Asia. But the ‘Russia as a resurgent empire’ view is overly simplistic. After all, historically speaking, many former colonial powers have sought to preserve or re-establish some ties with former colonies after decolonization. For Moscow, some of its interests in Central Asia are self-evident and concrete: Russia aims to preserve political stability, counter the spread of militant Islam and other transnational threats, combat the narcotics trade from Afghanistan, which is growing into a critical human security issue, and protect the rights of Russian citizens still living abroad in these now independent states. At the same time, the West’s perceived encroachment in the region since 2001 has prompted Russia to counter Western influence more aggressively on all fronts.
Of all the external powers, Moscow still wields the most levers of influence over the Central Asian states. Russian security services and intelligence services cooperate closely with Central Asian counterparts, while Russian officers and advisors played a prominent role in the transition from the Soviet military to the construction of national militaries. Economically, Russian firms invest throughout the region, Russia remains the region’s most important trading partner and market (though China is rapidly gaining), and until 2009, Russia still held a near monopoly on the regional pipelines for the export of Central Asia’s gas and oil, thereby tying the fate of Central Asia’s hydrocarbon producers to Russia’s energy companies and state energy strategy.
Further, Russia’s ‘soft power’ over the region remains considerable, as the Russian language is still the region’s lingua franca, especially among educated elites, and Russian media function as a leading outlet for news and entertainment across the Central Asian states. Lastly, Russia continues to host millions of Central Asian migrant workers. Drawn predominantly from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, many of them work in sectors such as construction, or as domestic caregivers. International financial institutions estimate that these workers’ remittances constitute about 25 to 35 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and 40 to 50 percent of Tajikistan’s.
Russia is less successful when it uses these levers to lock the Central Asian states into regional security or economic architectures that privilege Russia as the dominant player. For example, all of the Central Asian states with the exception of ‘neutral’ Turkmenistan are members of the Russian-dominated CSTO, but a number have expressed reservations about deepening security cooperation and establishing a CSTO ‘rapid-reaction’ or peacekeeping force that could interfere in the internal affairs of member states. Similarly, while Russian-controlled oil and gas pipelines offered Central Asian producers a means to bring their hydrocarbons to market, both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have vigorously pursued a ‘multivector’ policy of partnering with different countries and planning alternative export routes so as to reduce their dependence on Russia and increase their bargaining leverage. To quote a popular slogan and bumper sticker in Kazakhstan over the last decade, ‘Happiness is multiple pipelines.’
Beyond these instruments of influence, the greatest political opening given to Moscow to reclaim some of its Soviet-era authority occurred in the wake of the Colored Revolutions. After the fall of regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia regarded the whole Western-backed process of democracy promotion as a direct assault on Russia’s hegemonic position in Eurasia. Beginning in 2005, Russia, under the banner of supporting its ‘sovereign democracy,’ took a number of steps to counter Western-sponsored democratization influences. New Russian laws restricting media, particularly the internet, as well as stricter controls over foreign NGOs and their activities were soon emulated by all of the Central Asian countries.
Moscow also launched a diplomatic assault against the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The ODIHR’s election monitoring division was perceived as particularly threatening, as its public criticisms of elections in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan had provided the political cover for opposition groups to mobilize anti-government protests. Russia and the Central Asian states pressed for a dramatic declawing of the organization, restricting the number of election observers, and proposing that the organization make judgments on the quality of elections only in collaboration with the host government. By appealing to the Central Asian governments’ overriding concern with their own survival, Russia seemed to have successfully reasserted its influence in the region in the wake of the Colored Revolutions.
But just as it seemed that Moscow’s momentum toward regaining its authority over the Central Asian states was unstoppable, two events in the summer of 2008 soon brought Russia’s new political offensive to a halt.
First, the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 was a landmark political event for the region. Having used the Georgian military’s clumsy attempt to retake control over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia as a pretext to launch an all-out assault on U.S.-equipped Georgian forces, Russian troops for a number of days invaded undisputed Georgian territory. A few days later, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But although most Western commentators at the time viewed the war as evidence of Russia’s regional resurgence, the medium and long-term fallout from the conflict and from Russia’s recognition of the separatist territories was far less favorable to Moscow.
Moscow assumed that its close relations with countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would result in at least a few Central Asian states following suit and recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although critical of the provocations of the vocally pro-Western Saakashvili regime, all of the Central Asian states subsequently reaffirmed Georgia’s territorial integrity and refused to sanction the redrawing of post-Soviet national boundaries. At both the 2008 summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the CSTO, Central Asian states, despite enormous pressure from Moscow, refused to budge. Moreover, Moscow’s military intervention on the pretext that it was defending the rights of Russian citizens in the breakaway territories also concerned the Central Asian governments and reminded them of the need to pursue more multivectoral foreign policies to guard against a resurgent Russia.
Second, the international financial crisis of 2008 devastated Russia and eroded its economic power. The Russian stock market fell by over 70 percent and many of the projects that Moscow had planned in Central Asia were either scaled back or placed on hold. Countries including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan complained that Russia did not follow through on long-promised investments to improve energy infrastructure.
In Turkmenistan, tensions with Moscow escalated even further in the wake of the economic crisis. As a result of depressed energy demand in Europe, Russia and its state-controlled gas giant Gazprom were forced to cut back on natural gas deliveries to the region. Turkmen gas was one of the main suppliers to Gazprom and the company had just concluded a new long-term supply deal with the Central Asian supplier. But in April 2009, without warning, Gazprom shut down the Turkmen pipeline, thereby triggering a pressurized explosion, and declared that it was unwilling to pay such a premium price for gas that was no longer needed. The Turkmen government was furious at Moscow’s breach of contract and coercive act and redoubled its efforts to find alternative markets and partners for its gas development. It soon concluded new deals with China and Iran.
The Turkmen pipeline–Gazprom episode also highlights the fact that resistance to Russian influence in Central Asia comes not as a reaction to Moscow’s soft power or to claims of a privileged historical relationship, but rather to Russian attempts to monopolize the economic and security policies of the Central Asian states. Simply put, while Central Asian states value Russia as a major partner, in the energy field and elsewhere, they do not want to be coerced by Moscow or boxed into exclusive arrangements.
New Eastern Influence
In recent years the Central Asian states have found a new partner to counter Moscow’s attempts to monopolize regional relations. That partner is not the West or the United States, as was once feared by Moscow, but rather China with its growing economic and political clout.
China’s preferred vehicle for dealing with the Central Asian states is the SCO, a regional organization (except for Turkmenistan) founded in 2001, with its headquarters located in Beijing. The organization’s predecessor, the Shanghai Five, provided a successful forum for concluding Sino–Central Asian border negotiations in the late 1990s. Since 2001, the renamed SCO, which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, has expanded its purview into other security matters.
In its mission statement, the SCO claims to oppose the ‘three evils’ in the area—terrorism, extremism, and separatism. The organization has fostered cooperation among internal security services and hosts biannual joint Sino–Russian military exercises. In 2004, it established the Regional Anti Terrorism Structure (RATS) center in Tashkent, which is dedicated to combating a common list of regional transnational movements (which has not been made public) and coordinating cybersecurity efforts. For China, the SCO has provided an invaluable mechanism through which Chinese security services can cooperate with Central Asian counterparts to target Uighur movements that operate in Xinjiang, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Western critics have charged the organization with also targeting political dissidents as part of its overly broad security mandate.
The SCO presents itself as a new-style international organization that opposes hegemony in world politics, fosters mutual respect, and represents the democratization of international relations. The organization also claims to respect the sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its member states, drawing thinly-veiled contrasts to Western political and economic bodies such as the OSCE or the IMF, which impose liberalizing conditions on member states. As such, the Central Asian states have found the SCO a useful counter to Western pressures for reform.
Concerns about the anti-Western orientation of the SCO peaked in July 2005, just days before the K2 eviction, when the organization at its summit in Astana announced that U.S. military bases in Central Asia had served their purpose and should be placed on a timetable for withdrawal. In the wake of the Colored Revolutions, the statement seemed to signal the emergence of a new Sino–Russian axis against the Western and NATO military presence in Central Asia.
However, we now see that although both Russia and China vehemently opposed the Colored Revolutions, they did so for different reasons: Russia feared that these new regimes would be Westernizers that opposed Moscow’s regional influence, whereas China was concerned that revolution and ‘democratic regime change’ in Kyrgyzstan would set a dangerous precedent for autonomy-seekers in neighboring Xinjiang.
But the aftermath of the Georgia war exposed the tensions and differences in Beijing’s and Moscow’s regional security agendas. Contrast the SCO’s refusal to support Russia’s recognitions of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 with the organization’s vigorous response to the rioting and violence that erupted in July 2009 between ethnic Uighurs and Han in the city of Urumqi, Xinjiang. After the rioting broke out, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a draft statement supporting Chinese actions to restore order and declaring that the matter was China’s internal affair. The statement was adopted by the SCO within a day. Moreover, the SCO secretariat’s strong statement last year criticizing the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese jailed dissident Liu Xiabo also suggests that Beijing’s security priorities and political interests are the principal driver behind SCO official policy.
Beyond differences in the security dimension, China and Russia are fundamentally at odds over the extent to which the SCO’s economic activities and non-security dimensions should be developed. Chinese leaders have regularly stated that they would like to see the SCO develop into a regional economic organization that fosters free trade and promotes finance for regional development. Russia, however, has increasingly become alarmed by China’s rapid economic development and growing investments in the region and has stalled on agreeing to deepen SCO-led integration. Any free economic zone fostered by the SCO would, in Russian eyes, lead to the rapid economic absorption of Central Asia by China. Already, by some accounts, total Chinese trade in Central Asia has surpassed Russia’s, while China is outpacing Russia in regional investments, particularly in upgrading regional infrastructure and establishing better connections to western China.
While the SCO has provided the multilateral regional front through which Beijing publicly presents its regional engagement, China has also been ramping up its bilateral investments in Central Asia’s energy resources. In April 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, China announced a $10 billion economic package to Kazakhstan, including a $5 billion loan from China Exim Bank to the Development Bank of Kazakhstan, and a $5 billion investment by the China National Petroleum Corporation in the state company KazMunaiGas. Overall, Chinese companies are now estimated to control over 25 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production, despite their exclusion from the large international consortia in Tengiz and Kashagan.
Just a few months later, in December 2009, the China–Central Asia gas pipeline was inaugurated. Originating in Turkmenistan and traversing Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into China, the pipeline brings Turkmen gas to western China and then on to a pipeline network destined for eastern coastal cities. Overall, the capacity of the pipeline is expected to reach forty billion cubic meters a year, a level which would rival the volume of Turkmen gas supplied to Russia’s network and account for about half of China’s current demand for natural gas. The pipeline is remarkable not only for its rapid construction (about three years total), but also in that it represents the first major new gas pipeline that will altogether bypass Russian territory to bring Central Asian gas to market.
As when talking about other parts of the developing world, such as Africa or Southeast Asia, Chinese officials go to great lengths to downplay the perception that they have a geopolitical interest in the region and to calm fears about growing Chinese power and regional influence. Policymakers frequently qualify discussions of Central Asia by acknowledging Russia’s ‘special interest’ in the region and speaking of the need to foster harmonious relations and ‘win–win’ solutions with the Central Asian states. However, throughout Central Asia there is also a popular unease about China’s future role, one founded both in Soviet-era cultural Sinophobia and genuine uncertainty about how China will exercise its economic power in the future.
The recent U.S.–Russia competition over U.S. military basing in Kyrgyzstan illustrates the clash of great power interests in the region, as well as how Central Asian rulers have managed to harness this competition for their own private benefit.
Each month, about fifty-five thousand U.S. personnel entering and exiting Afghanistan are staged via the Manas base, located just outside the capital Bishkek. The base also serves as a refueling hub for Afghanistan operations, which requires the daily use of approximately five Olympic-sized swimming pools of jet fuel. As a staging post and logistical hub, Manas is deemed to be a critical facility for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
After he replaced the ousted President Akayev in 2005, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev assumed a much tougher negotiating stance on the legal terms of the basing agreement. Throughout 2005 and 2006, Bakiyev demanded a renegotiation of the amount of rent that the U.S. paid to the Kyrgyz government—from $2 million to $200 million a year—claiming that the presence of the base, including the lucrative fuel contracts, had damaged Kyrgyz sovereignty and had enriched the Akayev family, not the country as a whole. Throughout these talks, Kyrgyz officials would regularly play up the ‘threat of Russia’ card, claiming that Moscow was unhappy with the U.S. military presence and regularly pressured the Kyrgyz government to close the base. A new agreement was signed in July 2006 that committed the United States to providing Kyrgyzstan with a total package of $150 million a year, including base rent and economic assistance, though the actual rent agreed was $17 million.
The financial crisis of 2008 put renewed strains on the Kyrgyz state and its finances. Already, the Kyrgyz government had been pilfered by Bakiyev and his son Maxim, who had acquired a controlling interest in nearly every major moneymaking Kyrgyz business and asset. Facing a budget shortfall of $125 million and out of external borrowing options, Bakiyev pulled what can only be described as one of the most brazen stunts attempted by a small state in recent international relations.
In February 2009, just at the beginning of the new Obama administration, Presidents Medvedev and Bakiyev announced at a joint press conference in Moscow that Kyrgyzstan had decided it would close down the Manas base and that Russia would offer an emergency economic package worth over $2 billion, comprised of $300 million in short-term assistance and a promise to invest $1.7 billion in the Kambarata hydroelectric power plant. Although the leaders denied that the Russian package was a direct quid pro quo for closing the base, the link between the two was widely acknowledged in both Russia and the United States.
After securing the receipt of the $300 million payment from Russia, which was deposited in a bank account controlled by members of the Bakiyev family and is still unaccounted for, the Kyrgyz leader then turned to the Americans and concluded a new agreement to keep the base open. Under the new terms announced in June 2009, the U.S. would now pay $60 million annually in cash to the Kyrgyz government and the base would be renamed the ‘Manas Transit Center’ so as to provide some political cover for the Kyrgyz government. According to a December 2010 report released by a U.S. Congressional investigation, a representative of Mina Corp, a mysterious company supplying the base with jet fuel, played a key role in the renegotiation by facilitating back-channel discussions between the Bakiyevs and the U.S. Department of Defense. Though Washington considered the 2009 renewal as a triumph over Russian meddling, Bakiyev’s double-cross infuriated the Kremlin and Russian–Kyrgyz relations deteriorated to a new low.
In 2010, Moscow intensified its exercise its soft power against the Bakiyev regime. Throughout February and March, it broadcast a series of stories that emphasized the regime’s corruption, nepotism, and repression. U.S. officials, by contrast, stayed largely silent about increasing human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan out of fear that they might jeopardize the status of the base, creating the rather unusual situation in which Russia was more outspoken on Kyrgyzstan’s human rights abuses than the United States. Then, in April 2010, the Kremlin intervened to stop the shipments of jet fuel from Russian distributors to fuel contractors at Manas, while it also imposed a new duty on Russian fuel exports to the country as a whole. The new excise tax threatened massive price increases in almost all areas of economic life, leading to anti-Bakiyev protests in northern Kyrgyz cities. On April 8, the regime quickly collapsed as protestors stormed the Presidential White House in Bishkek and Bakiyev fled to his stronghold southern city of Osh, before leaving for exile in Belarus as a guest of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Though Kyrgyzstan was rid of the Bakiyev kleptocracy, his rule had decimated Kyrgyz state institutions and bankrupted the country. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, in her attempt to purge the country of the Bakiyev era, dissolved the pro-Bakiyev parliament a few days after assuming power in April 2010. However, this move, coupled with the interim government’s continuing inability to restore local security, soon prompted increasing defiance from southern politicians towards the new Bishkek government. In June, violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities. The ethnic Uzbeks suffered most, with hundreds of them killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a major humanitarian crisis. After a new parliamentary election in October 2010, a new coalition government, now under a pioneering parliamentary system, was formed in Kyrgyzstan, but the country’s institutions remained fragile and the government’s grip on power and political order tenuous at best.
Though we cannot definitely make the argument that U.S.–Russian geopolitical competition ‘caused’ the ethnic violence and near failure of the Kyrgyz state, the aggressive rent-seeking and corruption that was promoted by competing payments to the Bakiyev regime in connection with the U.S. base certainly contributed to the regime’s illegitimacy and its flagrantly self-serving actions.
Falling Apart at the Seams?
In the wake of last summer’s events in Kyrgyzstan, Presidents Obama and Medvedev have adopted a markedly more conciliatory tone regarding Manas and have emphasized the need for cooperation and joint consultation. Bakiyev’s fall was widely interpreted as a victory for Moscow, but the disintegration of political order in Kyrgyzstan, followed by increasing violence and recent signs of state failure in neighboring Tajikistan, also suggests that years of external engagement and geopolitical competition have not helped with state-building, let alone democratic consolidation, in the Central Asian states.
To take the comparative example of Africa’s postcolonial trajectory one step farther, all of the Central Asian states are showing signs of developing predatory institutions, where state power and government access is used almost exclusively for private benefit, not for the good of the country. External competition, particularly that emanating from the U.S.–Russia–China strategic triangle, has fueled these dynamics of rent-seeking and political self-preservation by Central Asia’s ruling elites. Yet the region now faces serious and immediate challenges, including reviving economic growth after a devastating financial crisis, managing the potentially explosive issue of political succession, coping with increasing social and demographic pressures, and building responsible institutions that are not simply vehicles for elite-driven patronage politics.
U.S.–Russia–China engagement with Central Asia is only likely to increase in the near future. However, without better coordination, external engagement may once again devolve into competition, and it carries the risk of further regional destabilization. Such an outcome would be against the interests of all the great powers. The prospect of state failure in Central Asia, coupled with growing tumult in Afghanistan, should give pause to those remaining ‘Great Gamers’ in all three countries who have continued to privilege scoring narrow geopolitical victories over promoting the long-term needs of the Central Asian region itself.
This article is based on a presentation to the joint Harvard–Columbia conference “How Central Is Central Asia?” held in New York, October 19, 2010. Research was conducted with the support of a Global Fellowship awarded by the Open Society Foundations.
Alexander Cooley is the Tow Professor for Distinguished Scholars and Practitioners, Department of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas; Contracting States: Sovereign Transfers in International Relations; and Logics of Hierarchy: The Organization of Empires, States, and Military Occupations. He has held fellowships with the Open Society Institute, the German Marshall Fund, and the Smith Richardson Foundation, among others.
Nelson Mandela’s Legacy
Ever since Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa after winning his country’s first democratic elections in April 1994, the national anthem has consisted of two songs spliced—not particularly mellifluously—together. One is “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “God Bless Africa,” sung at black protest rallies during the forty-six years between the rise and fall of apartheid. The other is “Die Stem,” (“The Call”), the old white anthem, a celebration of the European settlers’ conquest of Africa’s southern tip. It was Mandela’s idea to juxtapose the two, his purpose being to forge from the rival tunes’ discordant notes a powerfully symbolic message of national harmony.
Not everyone in Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, was convinced when he first proposed the plan. In fact, the entirety of the ANC’s national executive committee initially pushed to scrap “Die Stem” and replace it with “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.” Mandela won the argument by doing what defined his leadership: reconciling generosity with pragmatism, finding common ground between humanity’s higher values and the politician’s aspiration to power.
The chief task the ANC would have upon taking over government, Mandela reminded his colleagues at the meeting, would be to cement the foundations of the hard-won new democracy. The main threat to peace and stability came from right-wing terrorism. The way to deprive the extremists of popular support, and therefore to disarm them, was by convincing the white population as a whole that they belonged fully in ‘the new South Africa,’ that a black-led government would not treat them the way previous white rulers had treated blacks. In a political context so delicate, Mandela pointed out, you had to be very careful with the messages you put out. Strike a false note and you risked undermining the nation’s stability; make the right gesture and national unity would be reinforced. The matter of the anthem offered a case in point, Mandela said: the short term satisfaction of banning the despised old song might come at a dangerously high price, whereas the magnanimous act of retaining it could yield mightily valuable returns.
And so it proved. Mandela’s wisdom in reaching out to the old enemy, repressing any vengeful impulses he might have accumulated during his twenty-seven years in prison, is the principal reason why South Africa has consolidated its transition from tyranny to democracy, and done so not, in the time-honored style of revolutions, through repression, but by persuasion. The triumphant expression of Mandela’s life’s work is seen in a political system that, seventeen years after he took power, remains as stable as it is authentically democratic. The rule of law, freedom of speech, free and fair elections: these are the gifts Mandela has bequeathed his nation.
Flaws, nevertheless, abound today, stemming from corruption in all its creeping manifestations. These could in time destroy the edifice Mandela built. But they will not undermine Mandela’s place in history, which is more durable than any political construct. As with Abraham Lincoln, his deeper legacy lies in the example he has left for succeeding generations.
Mandela is Africa’s Lincoln. You don’t do Lincoln too many favors if you scrutinize the detail of what came after him: he fought against slavery, yet black Americans would remain second-class citizens for more than one hundred more years; he appealed to “the better angels of our nature,” yet genocidal massacres of American Indians continued for some time after his death. It would be as unfair to tarnish Lincoln’s memory with the shortcomings of those that followed him as it would be to question Mandela’s lasting value by pointing to the mediocrity or venality of his successors.
The big truth is that Mandela, like Lincoln, achieved the historically rare feat of uniting a fiercely divided country. The feat is rare because what ordinary politicians have always done is seek power by highlighting difference and fueling antagonism. Mandela sought it by appealing to people’s common humanity.
It was behind bars that he learnt his most valuable lessons in leadership. As he himself has acknowleged, prison shaped him. He went in angry, convinced that the only way of achieving his people’s freedom was by force of arms. This was neither an original nor a morally opprobrious approach back then, in 1962, given every attempt to negotiate with successive white governments over the previous half century had been contemptuously rebutted; and given, too, the enormity of the injustice to which the eighty-five percent of the population who were not white had been subjected since the arrival of the first European mariners in 1652.
What the experience of prison did was elevate Mandela to a higher political plain, setting him apart from the great mass of ordinarily brave, ordinarily principled freedom fighters within his country and beyond. He learnt that succumbing to the vengeful passions brought fleeting joys at the cost of lasting benefits; he learnt, through studying his jailers closely, that black and white people had far more in common, at bottom, than they had points of difference; he learnt that forgiveness and generosity and, above all, respect were weapons of political persuasion as powerful as any gun.
When his time came, he deployed these lessons to devastating political effect—through countless small gestures in the same spirit of the big one he made on the national anthem, and, equally important, in the critical encounters he held, one on one, with figures from the white establishment whose influence on South Africa’s political destiny was almost as great as his own. During Mandela’s last four years in prison, he held secret talks about talks with the minister of justice of South Africa and the country’s top spy, and—once—with the president himself, the iron-fisted and (by reputation) ogreish P. W. Botha. The outcome of these meetings was that he was released from prison and the process of negotiations began that led to his people’s freedom and his rise to the highest political office in the land.
How did he convince his enemies to succumb to his will? First, by treating them individually with respect, by showing them trust, and by making it clear that he had a core set of values from which he would never be persuaded to depart. The human foundations having been laid, his sincerity having been established, he set about rationally persuading them that violent confrontation would only lead to the peace of the cemeteries, to everybody losing out, and that the only hope for all parties lay in negotiation.
I have talked at length to two of those three men with whom Mandela met secretly when he was still in prison, the minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee, and the intelligence chief, Niel Barnard. Coetsee wept while describing Mandela to me as “the incarnation of the great Roman virtues, gravitas, honestas, dignitas.” Barnard referred to him continually as “the old man,” as if he were talking about his own father.
Mandela had the same effect on practically everyone he met. Take the case of General Constand Viljoen, who in 1993, with the path set for multiracial elections a year later, was anointed leader of South Africa’s far right, charged with heading “the white freedom struggle.” Viljoen, who had been head of the South African Defence Force between 1980 and 1985, travelled the country organising what he called armed resistance units, others called terrorist cells. Mandela reached out to him through intermediaries and the two men met in secret at his home. Viljoen, with whom I have talked about this encounter, was almost instantly disarmed. Expecting a monster, having conditioned himself to regard Mandela as a fearsome Communist with little regard for human life, Viljoen was dumbstruck by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentivenes to detail (“Do you take sugar in your tea, General?”), by his keen knowledge of the history of white South Africa and his sensitivity to the apprehensions and fears white South Africans were feeling at that time. When the two men began discussing matters of substance, Mandela put it to him that, yes, he could go to war and, yes, his people were more skilled in the military arts than black South Africans; but against that, if it came to race war, black South Africa had the numbers, as well as the guaranteed support of practically the entire international community. There could be no winners, Mandela said. The general did not disagree.
That first meeting led to another, then another. Viljoen succumbed to Mandela’s lethally effective political cocktail of charm, respect, integrity, pragmatism and hard-nosed sense. He called off the planned “armed struggle” and, to the amazement of the South African political world, he agreed to take part in the all-race elections of April 1994, thereby giving his blessing to the political transformation Mandela had engineered, agreeing to the peaceful hand over of power from the white minority to the totality of the population. Viljoen won a parliamentary seat in representation of his freshly formed rightwing Freedom Front and I remember watching him on the day the new, all race parliament was inaugurated. Mandela was the last to enter the chamber and, as he walked in, Viljoen’s eyes settled on his new black president. His face wore an expression that could only be described, I thought at the time, as adoration. I asked him when we talked some years later whether I had been right in that description and he said I had been. The retired general also reminded me that before taking his seat on that inaugural parliamentary occasion Mandela had broken protocol by crossing the floor to shake hands with him. What had Mandela said to him? “He said, ‘I am very happy to see you here, general’.” And what did the general reply? “I said nothing. I am a military man and he was my president. I shook his hand and I stood to attention.”
Viljoen, who has had many encounters with Mandela since then, told me that one left his company feeling as if one were a better, more virtuous person. Viljoen was not alone. Mandela did appeal, and with uncanny success, to the better angels of people’s natures. But he did so—and this is very important—not primarily out of a desire to win a place in heaven, or to be well-liked. Mandela was the quintessential political animal: he did everything he did with a clear political purpose. Not to understand this—to insist only on his admirable ‘lack of bitterness’ and his spirit of forgiveness—is to miss the bigger point that Mandela’s widely applauded saintliness was the instrument he judged to be most effective in the achievement of his political goals. Had he calculated, as he once did, that violence was the way to liberate his people, he would not have hesitated to pursue that route. Luckily for South Africa, he reached the conclusion that there could be no democracy without reconciliation, no justice without peace.
He acted wholeheartedly on this understanding, investing every last drop of his boundless charm, his political cunning, and his farsightedness in achieving his life’s goal by following the only strategy he knew could realistically work. Mandela’s legacy, the imperishable lesson he holds for the ages, and the reason why he stands head and shoulders above every leader of his generation, or practically every leader there has ever been, is that he showed it is possible to be a great human being and a great politician at the same time; that showing respect to friends and enemies alike can get you a long, long way; and that nothing beats the combination—in Mandela’s case, the seamless convergence—of magnanimity and power.
John Carlin is a senior international writer for El Pais, the world’s leading Spanish language newspaper, and a former correspondent in South Africa for the London Independent. He has written for the Times of London, the Observer, the BBC, the New York Times and TIME, among other media outlets. He is the author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, the basis for the film Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
South Africa Clout
Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the official residence of South Africa’s head of state in Pretoria, is on a secluded hillside covered with Jacaranda trees. There was little tranquility, however, in Jacob Zuma’s path to the presidency. In the long struggle against apartheid, he was an underground member of the military wing of the African National Congress and spent ten years in prison on Robben Island. Before arriving at Mahlamba Ndlopfu in 2009, Zuma, sixty-nine, known as a populist who can get a crowd going, won a divisive internal battle with then President Thabo Mbeki and also fended off corruption charges.
With Zuma at the helm, South Africa has played a growing role in global affairs even as it continues to struggle with poverty and inequality after the white-rule era. The country hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup with great success. South Africa has a prominent voice as a non-permanent member of the United National Security Council. Zuma has sought to play a more influential part in African affairs, as illustrated by his mediation in the Libyan crisis; he has been sharply critical of NATO’s military intervention and the indictment of Muammar Gadhafi by the International Criminal Court. But perhaps the most notable development is South Africa’s admission into BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa; Zuma sees the grouping of nations as the sharp end of the spear defending the interests of the developing world. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Zuma at Mahlamba Ndlopfu on May 26, 2011.
CAIRO REVIEW: South Africa has come a long way. How does it feel to be president today?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: It feels a great responsibility. That is what is always a bigger challenge. Being a president of this county at this time, it imposes a very huge responsibility to ensure that South Africa moves forward, that if we are given this honor to be president at one time, you must help South Africa to move forward, to leave it better than what it was. That is quite a huge responsibility.
CAIRO REVIEW: How did South Africa’s involvement in BRICS come about?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: It came about partly because of the changing landscape of the globe. As you know, the emerging economies, the developing countries, have become quite powerful and have tried also to organize themselves. South Africa—besides BRICS, we are also in IBSA [the India–Brazil–South Africa Dialogue Forum], we are also playing our role in the continent, as well as in the United Nations. You know that we have also been part of the group of countries that began to attend the G-8 [Group of Eight] for a number of years before the coming into being of the G-20 [Group of Twenty], of which we are now a member. The changing world. The feeling of more interaction with South–South kind of countries. There is a Group of 77. [Among] the countries that are sort of emerging economies, you could begin to look to those as kind of leading, if you take China, India, Brazil, Russia also has emerged, and South Africa, and the continent of Africa. A discussion began to say, look, if there is BRIC, why can’t South Africa be there? Therefore the discussion began between South Africa and members of BRIC. But what was also important from our point of view was, with the changing world, if we have a grouping like BRIC without Africa, it is not fully represented, and therefore there is a need for South Africa to become a member in a sense that would also make Africa be represented and complete the jigsaw puzzle. After some discussions, everybody realized the need. If today in the world you are part of the globe, you cannot be disconnected from the African continent, which is currently one of the regions of the world which is fast growing. Of course if you are in Africa, you then look at the most economically developed country, and South Africa in a sense fits very well into that. It was after discussions, and of course there was an agreement and finally South Africa was accepted as a member of BRICS, which I think adds value to BRICS itself. South Africa becomes an important entry point to the continent of Africa.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the purpose of BRICS, and what is South Africa’s national interest in being a member?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Firstly, BRICS is important because as you know [in the] changing world there are issues that have been raised globally. For an example, the need to increase the representation of the developing countries in the leading institutions—financial institutions, for an example, whether you talk about World Bank or IMF [International Monetary Fund]. Of course, the UN has been there before. There is a lot of talk about the Security Council itself. That means the old world has a very organized collective voice which in the majority of cases is in defense of their own positions. They wouldn’t want to open up for a long time. And these emerging economies began to be the sharper point of the voice of the developing countries. And therefore BRICS becomes the really cutting edge of that voice. Once you are in BRICS, you are in fact seeing an alternative voice in terms of the global issues. Today, nobody could ignore the BRICS members in terms of the affairs of the world. For an example, almost all the BRICS members are part of the G-20. That tells you therefore the importance in terms of the global balance; [it is] very important that this particular grouping becomes very strong. Back to the interests of the nation: this is very important for South Africa because these are big economies which are growing. They are not shrinking like the old world, which today is not growing very fast. Therefore for South Africa to be part of BRICS means we have an opportunity to participate almost at the equal level with these big economies, which means our companies, our businesses—we have better kinds of agreements that take into account we belong to the same grouping. And therefore the opportunities are more open, and that will translate to developments within the national situation. South African companies will have access to the economies of these countries. That is an advantage we have at the national level.
CAIRO REVIEW: Should BRICS form a common vision and agenda?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: That would be one of the logical things. I think it is important that because we share common values, that’s the reason we are together. We also come from the developing countries with almost a similar kind of position in relation to the developed world. We share a lot of views together. I think even if it is not on every issue but on some of the major issues, we will certainly come together. It also gives us an opportunity to be able to exchange views among ourselves on the issues that affect the globe today. Bear in mind, BRICS represents almost half of the global population. Therefore you are talking about whether you are looking in terms of the population, in terms of the market, in terms of the economy itself; you are talking about a big kind of thing, which have similar kinds of similar relationships and similar backgrounds. I think therefore on a number of other issues we will certainly come together and have one voice and agree on certain issues that affect the developing countries, for an example. It doesn’t mean that on every other issue, because of course whilst we are a grouping, we are countries that are different. But I think we’ll certainly be gravitating to forming a common view on a number of global issues.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a conscious effort among BRICS nations to stay in touch on a ‘BRICS position’?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: We are meeting and discussing a number of issues—our relations, etc. We have not necessarily developed the fact that, let us caucus on every other issue. But there are issues that we talk about. For an example, in the last meeting, which by the way was [South Africa’s] first meeting, we talked about the problems in the Arab world, particularly in Libya. We talked about the UN resolutions which were taken by the Security Council, and we share the same common views about those kinds of issues. So I wouldn’t say we have established that as a kind of routine thing, but I am certain that with time, the issues will determine how we actually act on those kinds of issues.
CAIRO REVIEW: Will the issues tend to be more economic than political?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think all the issues. You cannot separate economics from politics.
CAIRO REVIEW: Critics ask how you reconcile shared economic interests with the contrast in other values, like human rights: South Africa is a champion of human rights, while China has a deficit.
PRESIDENT ZUMA: No, I don’t think that is a problem really. It can’t be. It can’t be a problem when South Africa is part of that space. It can’t be. You will agree with me that one [country], which has been described as a leading economy of the world, and a leading democracy, the United States of America, has very close relations economically with China. That issue has not arisen. I don’t think that issue really arises. China is today one of the biggest economies, and it links with a number of other countries. If anything, I think that as it happens in the world, we will always influence one another on values and human rights. We stand on our human rights. We have a good record on that and believe in it, very much so. But it has not become an obstacle. As I say, other big countries who believe as we do have a very close relationship with China.
CAIRO REVIEW: Have BRICS countries caucused on the election of a new IMF chief?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have not caucused yet. I am in the process of trying to talk to my colleagues about that issue because I think it is an important issue, given the change I talked about. I’m in the process of trying to talk to my colleagues.
CAIRO REVIEW: One of your ministers [Trevor Manuel, who is also a former finance minister] has been mentioned as a possible candidate for that position.
PRESIDENT ZUMA: That is something we’d certainly like to see. It is consistent with our view that we need transformation. We need the developing world to be at the decision-making levels. I think the time has come.
CAIRO REVIEW: In the need for global governance reform, how far should it go? What really needs to be done?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: The global system at the moment is lopsided. Global governing institutions were established back in the 1940s, when the world, in terms of countries, was totally different. Even the number of members of the United Nations was different. It was at the end of the World War, the world was entering the Cold War, which has been there for a long time. The Cold War has ended, many countries are there. There are issues that should be taken into account—that some of the rules and regulations that were then laid down, other counties were not there. Therefore, given the change that has taken place in the world, you need the representation to be different. You cannot have, for example, some other regions of the world who are not represented at the decision-making; it doesn’t make good sense. Decisions that are taken affect everybody else. If we take the United Nations, we see no reason why the Security Council should remain the preserve of the few in terms of the permanent membership. People say, “We all believe in democracy.” You can’t be the champion of democracy but at the same time be so conservative in practice. It doesn’t make good sense. You can’t say all others should be democratic, but we have some preserve that you must not touch. It doesn’t make good sense. We believe that the Security Council should be opened up. In other words, regions of the world should be represented in the same way. You have one region that dominates, the European region. Why that should be the case? It doesn’t make good sense. These are the kind of views we are putting across. As well as financial institutions. Many of the financial decisions that are taken affect the globe, and some regions are developing, and many of these decisions affect these regions. Why can’t they be part of the decision-making? That is most important.
CAIRO REVIEW: How hard will you push for that? What kind of resistance are you meeting from the Western countries?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have been pushing very hard, very hard. There was great resistance at the beginning. I think at the moment there is the beginning of appreciating our point. They are beginning to talk about some quotas—that yes, some opening should be made in some institutions. Even in the Security Council the debate is very strong. The very fact that today we have non-permanent members coming in is in itself an appreciation of what we are talking about. We say that we should really complete everything. So we will push hard because we think if we live in the globe, that everything should be fair, that there should be equality, that democracy should be the system, then that must be practiced. We couldn’t just talk about it and then not practice it where it must be practiced.
CAIRO REVIEW: Can you talk about South Africa’s relationship with China? How deep is that going to go?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: It will go very deep. We have established very good relations with China. We have signed an important comprehensive agreement with China which opens up the kind of economic relations between the two countries. And we have historical ties with them. We are working very, very hard to ensure that we take advantage of Chinese markets. They also take advantage of our market, which includes the continent. So we would want them to go even deeper. There is nothing strange about it. Because all countries who have had an opportunity to do so have done so. The economic relation between China and the United States of America is very deep and very huge. So there is nothing out of the ordinary in what we are doing.
CAIRO REVIEW: Are you concerned that China, as a very big country with a high demand for natural resources and scouring the world for markets, could overwhelm a member of BRICS that does not have such economic clout?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Not at all. We don’t have that problem. If anything, we think [in] the relationship with China we take advantage of this market to satisfy our own needs. It should also be looked at from that point of view: that our coming closer to China helps to address our own problems. It is not a one [way] street kind of relationship. We have had relations with big countries, as big as the United States. There was no complaint that they were swamping our economy. Not at all. I think it is a similar kind of thing. Relations are open between countries. Countries know their own limitations. But they also know their needs, as we do. As we go to this interaction, we have that in mind. And we of course have an experience that we have had relationships with other big countries in the past. It is not as if it is the first time we go to a relationship of this nature.
CAIRO REVIEW: As you say, another big country is the United States. How does South Africa see the U.S. role in the world today? Friend? Foe? Constructive? Or not? With respect to the developing world, Africa, South Africa?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I wouldn’t want to describe the United States like answering a question, “Is it an enemy or a friend?” We have had very friendly relations with the United States, and it has been a view in the continent here that the United States could have done even more than it has done up until now. But I think that relations have been growing positively, and I think we are very close with President Obama. I think Obama’s understanding of the challenges of the African continent is very positive. He has in fact increased the interaction between the United States and us. We are very happy with it, but there could even be more. And we are working for that, that we have got more very positive relations. So we regard the United States—the United States as you know it is one of the leading countries in the world, and we believe that its emphasis on good relationships and peace and stability in the world is an important role that the United States plays. And of course we believe that role should be played collectively by all counties. I think from our point of view, we have been with the United States on the G-8, G-20, and the interaction has been very useful. We are interacting on any other issues, including global issues like climate change, etc. We believe that time has come that no matter how big the country, the area of collective work, working together, is a thing that we should embrace, more than one dominating others. So at the moment, the United States is not standing wanting to dominate. It wants working together, and we think that is a positive thing.
CAIRO REVIEW: What more would you like to see?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Generally. In economic development, in investment, direct foreign investment, we think it could increase. They could do more business with South Africa than they are at the moment.
CAIRO REVIEW: Are you satisfied as an African leader that the U.S. plays a constructive role in places like the Middle East, relations with China, global governance?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Generally, I have no quarrel with what the United States is doing at the moment. I think they are playing their role positively. We participate together in these institutions and groupings. It is playing a very positive role. I have absolutely no quarrel. They are ready to participate and help. But I must indicate that it is not just the United States only. The manner in which I think at the moment we are handling the Libyan question, unfortunately, is beginning to introduce a feeling that the AU [African Union] is not regarded seriously by the developed counties. Here is a situation where the AU has the most advanced proposal on the table to bring about peace and stability, [but] there doesn’t seem to be a good connection, so the behavior so far is, people are beginning to see that kind of behavior as not taking the African Union seriously. That’s the only thing I can talk about at the moment. Given the fact that Libya is on the African continent and therefore the AU should really be playing a prominent role. But that does not affect only the United States. It affects all the forces that are combined in terms of how they are looking at the solution in Libya. I hope we are not going to have more of such kind of experiences.
CAIRO REVIEW: South Africa, and especially the ANC, have had a long relationship with the Gadhafi regime. How has it felt as an ally of Gadhafi in the past to view the revolution in Libya? On your upcoming mission to Libya, what do you see as a possible outcome? Could that include giving the leader of Libya political asylum in South Africa?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Firstly, the Libyan situation is not a situation that is isolated from what was happening in the Arab world. As you know, Tunisia had a problem, Egypt and other countries, which is borne out of how the governance has been. It came to Libya. So I don’t think we should look at Libya that it just emerged from Libya. There was no such thing. It was a trend. What became different in Libya was the manner in which the Libyan government responded to the issue, which then led to really serious violence—to almost a civil war. We believe as democrats that people have a right to call for a fair system of government. I think the problem that we had in Libya is that they have got a system that is not like any other kind of government system. And the people in Libya said, “No, we now need a kind of different government.” You can’t say the people are wrong. Once the issue is raised, it needed to be attended to, not confronted with violence. That was our difference there. As we have arrived, where people are saying we now need a government which is representative, and in Libya you would understand the situation. Because whatever system that had been introduced in Libya, people have reached a point that they are saying, “We don’t like it, we think we should have a normal kind of system.” You can’t say people are wrong. We never took sides. We always said if people are making a demand, any, any government must listen to its people. Once there was violence, then we had a problem. That’s why we are part of the United Nations resolutions: because we saw the killings that immediately emerged and said you cannot allow it. If people say they want change, listen to them and see what logic they are bringing. Are they asking for change when there is a proper system that satisfies everybody else? Particularly if they have got a very different kind of system that is not practiced anywhere else in the world. You must look at yourself and say there must be something wrong. That did not happen. So our view was that once there was a conflict, let the Libyan people have an opportunity to discuss the matter and solve their problems. We have said—and on this we are together with all AU members—we did not want any military intervention from outside, because it is not going to help us. We remain with that position. The AU taking that position then established the high-level committee to then go and help. That’s the committee that South Africa belongs to, which leads to your second question. I’m going to Libya partly because I belong to that committee, and partly because there has been a view that we need to do extraordinary things to help the situation in Libya. I am going to Libya—this will be for the second time since this [crisis]—we went as a collective, I am now going there as a country. As you know, we met with the rebels. We met both sides. Therefore, we have contact with both sides. We have felt that it is necessary to find different ways. So I am going to Libya to also pursue the discussion of saying what solution could be found.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you feel you have a way of persuading Colonel Gadhafi to accept an agreement?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Like anyone, once there is a problem you have to find a way to communicate. I know President Gadhafi very well. We have had a lot of discussion before about matters in the continent. I think it is quite possible that we could discuss and perhaps look at the situation differently, because I am keen to know how he is looking at the situation. We have a view that as the AU we shall be representing: that there must be a ceasefire. We presented this to him, and he accepted it. And that after the ceasefire, there must be a process of negotiations. So that to solve the problem, we stop the killings. It’s important, and we are putting exactly the same point on the rebels. That the fighting is not going to help; we need a solution. The AU must be part of that solution because this is a member of the AU. These are the matters we raise. I cannot foretell what’s going to happen, but knowing him I think we would be able to discuss something that could perhaps help move towards resolving the problem.
CAIRO REVIEW: Can you imagine a solution that leaves Gadhafi in power in Libya?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I wouldn’t want to imagine. I think it would not be right for me to imagine whether he should remain or not. That’s a decision of the Libyan people, which would include himself. He is a Libyan himself. I don’t think I’d want to prejudge the situation.
CAIRO REVIEW: Seen from Pretoria, can you be optimistic about the future of Africa? You have crises in Libya, Zimbabwe, Congo, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and illiteracy, HIV/AIDS. So many problems.
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I am very optimistic about Africa. I am very optimistic. I think we have moved from a more difficult situation. We are in a better situation today than what we have been probably fifteen or twenty years ago. We work together more than we did before. I think there are more democratic counties today than there were before. There are more elections in the continent than there were before. We have, for an example, a system that checks how things are going in the continent, a peer review mechanism that has been established, and more countries are joining to become part of it, more countries are being reviewed how they are doing their systems. That thing was not there before. We have dealt with a number of pockets of conflicts in the continent. Today you could count them with one hand and not even finish on one hand, and in the past there were conflicts all over. There is more agreement on the continent today to move forward, democratically and otherwise. We have for an example discouraged the question of coups in Africa. No general in the continent today can think he could wake up and conduct a coup and become a president. That does not work. Those that have made attempts have had to immediately call elections, because this is the stand that Africa has taken. All of that must tell you one must be optimistic about Africa.
CAIRO REVIEW: Have you been disappointed that South Africa has not had more influence in the crisis over President Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think to some degree we have never thought it would reach this point. We thought by this time we would have resolved the situation in Zimbabwe. But of course each country has its own dynamics. I think we have made progress in Zimbabwe, progress that has been as a result being a neighbor, of being part of SADC [Southern Africa Development Community], working together. We work with Zimbabweans on a number of issues and we have been making progress. Each time SADC meets, we give a report that marks the progress. It has been difficult, though, because the dynamics there did not allow our interventions in terms of helping facilitate things to move quicker. But yes, we are hopeful that we will resolve the matters in Zimbabwe.
CAIRO REVIEW: How does the Arab revolution look from South Africa?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think the relations will remain normal. I don’t think they will change. What has happened is actually a change in terms of how those people have been governed. I think the protests have been against what they call autocratic government. They want more openness, they want freedom, they want democracy. I think that should be respected. Because people who are governed are people. If they say we want to have a different system of government, they should. Therefore, whatever happened in the changes, South Africa will remain a country with good relations with the counties in the Arab world. I’m hopeful that these protests will really bring about more openness in terms of governance there, that it will help introduce democracy, so that it could have serious regular elections and with the participation of the people.
CAIRO REVIEW: What role can South Africa play in resolving the question of Iran’s nuclear program? You are presently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and your country was the first to dismantle all of its nuclear weapons.
PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have played a role. Firstly, from the point of view of being a member of the United Nations, we have been participating in those debates. But we have also played the role in terms of bilateral [relations], talking to Iran. I think to some degree, not a bigger role than anybody else, to some degree given our experience of nuclear things, as well as our relations, as well as our being a member of the United Nations and a non-permanent member of the Security Council, we think there is a role that we could play. We are not saying it is a decisive one, but there is a role that we can play, we believe.
CAIRO REVIEW: President Mandela, President Mbeki, and now President Zuma—how do you distinguish the different presidencies?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Without making any judgment, I think we have continued. Partly because in our system, the ruling party is very important. It’s not individuals who determine everything. Of course the individuals might have style, they might have their own character. But we are coming from the same party, implementing the same policies. And what is also important with the three names you have mentioned, we belong to the same leadership, to the same national executive committee, which in policies determines what happens. So in a sense we have the same people from the same party implementing the same policies. All what you could look at is, and I have said this before, it could be maybe the style, how people at the leadership operate. You have Madiba [a clan name of Nelson Mandela, used as gesture of respect] operating in a particular way as Madiba, implementing the same policies. As well as Mbeki, with a different kind of an approach in terms of style, but the same policies. We have got a Zuma. We have worked together. We have complemented one another all the time. I think there has been a flow since Madiba, there has been a flow in the manner in which we governed the country.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the most urgent problem you face as president? You have many—unemployment, education, health, housing, HIV/AIDS, crime, corruption, wealth disparity.
PRESIDENT ZUMA: They are all urgent. I think the issue of education in particular, which was used as an instrument in the past to deprive the less empowered majority, is one of the biggest kind of challenges we are faced with. That’s why in our five priorities, education is the apex of them all. Crucial. If we succeed in that, we would have succeeded almost more than half the distance to solve our problems. But of course other challenges have been there and we are dealing with them. You talk about crime. We have actually brought down crime, because we prioritized it. Health, we are also dealing with it very seriously, in terms of turning it around. HIV/AIDS, we are also dealing with it very seriously. So all of these serious challenges, we are dealing with them. One of them is unemployment. Unemployment is also related to the lack of skills and education, where there is a good percentage of the unemployed who could fit a description of unemployable. Those are challenges. The disparity between the rich and the poor, that is part of problem, part of the challenge, how to deal with this. All of them are urgent. There is no one of these that is less of importance than others.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is South Africa and you as president 100 percent committed to the free market economy?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Absolutely, that’s our policy. You are talking about a mixed economy, wherein there must be an intervention of the state as well. But at the same time we are in the free market system.
CAIRO REVIEW: Will you move more toward intervention to satisfy these huge problems of employment and poverty?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think it is natural. Because of the history and legacy, we have to make intervention in order to address the legacy of the past. You cannot emphasize more on the intervention. But the intervention does not stifle the free kind of market that we are in. In fact, there has been no problem so far. We are working very well, and I think we are making very good progress.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is your message for the millions of South Africans who do not have jobs and are giving up hope? How are their lives going to get better in their lifetimes?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have programs that we have put in place. We have priorities that we have, and job creation for example is our leading priority right now. We have got programs and we have given ourselves time frames in which to address the issues. To South Africans, they must be hopeful that we are doing everything that we can to ensure that we address the challenges that face our people.
CAIRO REVIEW: The ANC didn’t do as well in the recent municipal elections. There are complaints about ANC leadership, non-delivery of services by government, corruption. Are these problems embedded in the fabric of South African politics?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: I must correct your point about the elections to say the ANC did not do well in these elections. That is the view of the media in this country. You have been reading a lot of South African newspapers! We did very well. We did very well. In other provinces the ANC swept everything you can think of. We are 62 percent. And the opposition, they are not even close by. They are 20-something percent. The media is describing that one is not very well. I don’t agree. I totally don’t agree. We did very well. The issues of the challenges that face us as the result of the legacy that we talked about, service delivery, for example. The media emphasized that there has been no delivery. That’s how they feel. There has been a lot of delivery. And there are programs in the plan to actually change the quality of life in this country. We are not worried. We are not shaky. The ANC leadership is not shaky. Not at all. We are very strong, and the people in this country voted for the ANC with the overwhelming majority. Any party in the world would be very comfortable, absolutely. So this is not true. So the basis of the question is not correct. You could ask the question differently. Leadership of the ANC is very vibrant and absolutely doing things that were never done before. I’m just saying it is the influence of our media that makes people believe the ANC is doing very badly, the headlines [say] “ANC Is Left Shaken.” I don’t know what shaken means. I’m very comfortable. I’m very happy and making very good progress.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the contribution of President Mandela to your life, and the country?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: It is a lot of influence. Not Mandela only—all leaders of the ANC influenced all of us. Chief Luthuli had a lot of influence on me personally. Nelson Mandela did. Moses Mabhida. Mandela. They all have influenced many of us, individuals and collectively, in different ways.
CAIRO REVIEW: What did Mandela do for this country?
PRESIDENT ZUMA: Mandela did not influence me only after the struggle. He influenced me as a young man in the struggle. A very brave man. He was a volunteer in chief. When I joined the ANC and became a volunteer, I therefore served under him. But he was also a very dynamic leader, very clear, and he has a gift of seeing things and concentrating on the issues very well. He became the first commander in chief of the military wing of the ANC, to which I belonged. So he was my commander in many ways. But also he led the underground which we also participated in. And then he became one of the prisoners, and became almost prisoner number one when I was also in prison. There are a number of areas where his influence impacted very strongly on many of us. And of course, as always, he played a major role in influencing and leading up into the negotiations [that ended apartheid]. Of course when we negotiated he led our team as well. Also he has been part of the development of the ANC philosophy, ANC approach, ANC policies, going forward. But very strong when he has views to help implement ANC policies, for example reconciliation—critical for ANC. And he was given an opportunity to lead at the point where we have to emphasize those issues. So he has had enormous influence on some of us. So, even in this day, we quote him. We say what he has said in the past, just to remind ourselves that we must stay on course.
An Emerging New World Order
The Great Recession heralded the beginning of a new global era. On the one hand, it has exposed fault lines in the global economy, particularly in the advanced economies. On the other hand, the recovery from the recession is being propelled by the dynamism and extraordinary growth in the leading developing countries. Even the ‘forgotten’ continent of Africa is now both a new frontier of economic and other opportunities and host to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
The concept and the emerging reality of BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—as a geopolitical and economic grouping of nations introduces a new dynamic to global governance and economic relations. BRICS is now part of the vocabulary used to describe the shift in economic power southward and eastward. As the leaders of the BRICS nations stated in the Sanya Declaration, adopted at the April 2011 meeting in China which formally marked South Africa’s entry to the group: “We share the view that the world is undergoing far-reaching, complex and profound changes, marked by the strengthening of multi-polarity, economic globalization and increasing interdependence.”
The BRICS nations not only reflect the shifting trends of the new global economic order but are increasingly shaping it. In the Sanya Declaration, BRICS, under the banner, “Broad Vision, Shared Prosperity,” indicated its members’ common aspiration:
It is the overarching objective and strong shared desire for peace, security, development and cooperation that brought together BRICS countries with a total population of nearly 3 billion from different continents. BRICS aims at contributing significantly to the development of humanity and establishing a more equitable and fair world.
The 21st century should be marked by peace, harmony, cooperation and scientific development.
The reality is that the BRICS nations represent 42 percent of the world’s population and 18 percent of its GDP. China’s economy, after three decades of 10 percent expansion, massive foreign investment, and now domestic market-led growth has lifted some four hundred million people out of poverty and is creating a middle class at a phenomenal rate. It has seen urbanization approaching seventeen million people a year.
China’s economy has grown ninety times since Deng Xiaoping began the liberalization in 1978, paving the way for China’s integration into the global economy. China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, after the United States.
India, with its established democracy and massive rural poverty, has succeeded in creating an economic miracle led by technology and services that has laid the foundation for long-term sustainable growth and put India at the forefront of BRICS.
Brazil has come into its own as the leading Latin American economy. It is finding large-scale synergy with China in joint ventures based on an exchange of natural resources and oil for low-cost manufactured goods.
Russia likewise possesses a formidable economy, not least due to its role as a leading oil and gas producer. Its potential as a trade partner and expertise in science and technology make Russia a valuable ally for fellow BRICS members.
The shift in global trends is on such a scale that it is almost impossible to perceive the full impact of the changes as they happen. The present transition to a new global order has been developing for some time, but in the last two decades there have been some significant milestones:
The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in response to democracy uprisings in Eastern Europe speeded the end of the Soviet system and marked the beginning of a new order. At that time, it was by no means clear what would replace the Soviet system, or whether democracy would be sustainable.
There was a watershed moment in 1999 when a coalition of environmentalists, trade unionists, and students began a wave of antiglobalization protests at the annual World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
The following year similar protests took place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at the meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, at another World Bank meeting in Prague, and at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Montreal.
The year 2000 proved to be momentous, and not merely because it launched a new millennium. The United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, which sought to halve global poverty by 2015 by achieving clearly defined objectives. The Goals have particular relevance for Africa.
In 2001, the World Economic Forum for the first time invited trade unionists and major non-governmental organizations, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, to its annual meeting in Davos in a bid to accommodate some of those who had been protesting in Seattle and elsewhere.
By the time major antiglobalization protests erupted again at the 2001 G-8 summit in Genoa, it was clear that the group was in trouble. A year before, it had begun the process of bringing five developing nations to the G-8 summit in Okinawa as non-member participants in order to discuss antipoverty measures and climate change.
In 2008, the world’s financial system was shaken to the core with a global financial crisis. Soon followed the Great Recession, which saw the gap between so-called emerging and industrialized nations widening. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had marked the point at which developing markets began to grow faster than the industrialized G-8 countries.
By 2008, the Group of Twenty (G-20), a new, expanded grouping of leading economies, had its first meeting in Washington to discuss financial markets and the global economy; it rapidly developed into a body that could play a bigger role in addressing a broader set of issues.
China has experienced a phenomenal rise as an economic power. That this change has been more gradual than the other milestone events of the past quarter century in no way diminishes the profound impact it is having on the global order.
In 2011, the democracy uprisings in the Arab world, similar to the revolutions in Eastern Europe two decades earlier, represent another important geopolitical shift. The recent woes of the euro suggest there will be further upheavals in currency markets as well as fresh tremors in the global financial system.
These developments, among many others, signal that a global ‘tipping point’ has probably been reached, that the world is living through an exciting and uncertain transition to a new era. Historic shifts require that the mindsets and paradigms through which we analyze and understand this world, as well as plan and act within it, must be “reloaded” to adjust to new realities. I was most interested to find that, as one fellow panelist at the Economist’s Emerging Markets Summit in London last year said, clearly the future is East and South. Western business people and investors need to “reload the mindset,” as he put it. In other words, as you reformat the disk or memory stick of your computer, you have to reformat the investor mindset. In reformatting, you must begin to develop and embrace a different world view—one that is coming from a different space and different directions: the East and the South.
If we want to do business in the future, the panellist was saying, appreciating this change in world view will be crucial to enabling businesses and investors to understand the new world in which they are required to operate. Indeed, it is clear that business people have already started using their minds—and their feet—to move in that direction. I think we are talking about a shift from a decades-old tradition to a new way of doing things.
The same applies to the approach and perceptions of Africa. I visited the United Kingdom in March 2010 as part of the delegation of South African President Jacob Zuma on his state visit. Interactions with business leaders, analysts, and investors there suggested that the mood was still quite uncertain about Africa and South Africa. Six months later, I traveled to Britain with a delegation led by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. The mood had changed quite fundamentally. Part of it was surprise over how in 2010 South Africa had successfully hosted one of the largest sporting events, the FIFA World Cup, which resulted in a very different and positive experience and perception of the country.
The purpose and potential of BRICS
The Sanya Declaration reflects a distinct ethos and orientation by the BRICS nations in their approach to various issues, for instance:
“The overarching objective and strong shared desire for peace, security, development and cooperation.”
“Contributing to world peace, security and stability, boosting global economic growth, enhancing multilateralism and promoting greater democracy in international relations.”
“We are determined to continue strengthening the BRICS partnership for common development and advance BRICS cooperation in a gradual and pragmatic manner, reflecting the principles of openness, solidarity and mutual assistance. We reiterate that such cooperation is inclusive and non-confrontational.”
Equally, the wide-ranging initiatives and issues that BRICS is and will be addressing in the year ahead are also suggestive of the kind of influence that the member nations could have on global dynamics if these initiatives are backed by serious intent and consensus:
“In a spirit of mutual respect and collective decision making, global economic governance should be strengthened, democracy in international relations should be promoted, and the voice of emerging and developing countries in international affairs should be enhanced.”
“Our increased cooperation in economic, finance and trade matters, which will contribute to the long-term steady, sound and balanced growth of the world economy.”
“We support the Group of Twenty (G-20) in playing a bigger role in global economic governance as the premier forum for international economic cooperation.”
“Recognizing that the international financial crisis has exposed the inadequacies and deficiencies of the existing international monetary and financial system, we support the reform and improvement of the international monetary system, with a broad-based international reserve currency system providing stability and certainty.”
“We call for more attention to the risks of massive cross-border capital flows now faced by the emerging economies.”
“We call for further international financial regulatory oversight and reform, strengthening policy coordination and financial regulation and supervision cooperation, and promoting the sound development of global financial markets and banking systems.”
“Climate change is one of the global threats challenging the livelihood of communities and countries. China, Brazil, Russia and India appreciate and support South Africa’s hosting of [the upcoming climate change summit].”
“We support the development and use of renewable energy resources. We recognize the important role of renewable energy as a means to address climate change. We are convinced of the importance of cooperation and information exchange in the field of development of renewable energy resources.”
“We underscore our firm commitment to strengthen dialogue and cooperation in the fields of social protection, decent work, gender equality, youth, and public health, including the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
“We support infrastructure development in Africa and its industrialization within framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).”
“We have agreed to continue further expanding and deepening economic, trade and investment cooperation among our countries. We encourage all countries to refrain from resorting to protectionist measures.”
BRICS has taken important initiatives in the spirit of the Sanya Declaration. The member nations have decided in principle to establish mutual credit lines denominated in local currencies rather than U.S. dollars, a move that is seen to promote cooperation between countries over a wide range of projects and has proven able to facilitate trade and investment between these countries.
Such arrangements are already working to the mutual benefit of China and Brazil, deepening China’s relationship with Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Recently, China Development Bank Chairman Chen Yuan has said that the bank is prepared to lend up to $1.5 billion in local currency to fellow BRICS countries, particularly for oil and gas projects.
In May, after the resignation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, BRICS called on the IMF to appoint a new director on the basis of merit and transparency, not according to a particular region. The new approach to the selection process for such appointments must reflect the shift in global economic power. It is the first time that a group of developing nations has had the clout to put effective pressure on a leading international organization to select a chief executive who reflects the importance of emerging markets in the global economy.
The IMF is an important institution and I think there are also historical issues at stake, whether the institution continues to operate as it always has done, or whether the twenty-first century has indeed arrived for everyone concerned.
BRICS and Africa
The rising power of the BRICS lobby holds potentially far-reaching consequences for the relationship between China and Africa in general and is likely to have a profound impact on China’s rapidly growing trade and investment relationship with South Africa.
There are some similarities between the rise of Africa now as a priority investment destination and that of China three decades ago, when that country began opening its economy to global forces. Africa is set to achieve growth levels that will empower its nearly one billion citizens and enable the continent to elevate millions from poverty.
The key elements in China’s economic miracle have been an integrated market, special economic zones with incentives for foreign investors, and widespread reform of the agricultural system, which has freed up more labor for economic development. China’s lifting of four hundred million people out of poverty in the space of three decades is unprecedented.
This is the question facing Africa’s fifty-four countries: how can we rapidly realize the economic promise of the continent and do so in a way in which hundreds of millions of poor and marginalized people have jobs, move out of poverty, and fulfill their potential?
As African nations tackle these issues, the BRICS formation offers interesting trajectories for an alternative economic model that ensures job-creating growth and different forms of inclusivity and equity. But the African miracle will be distinct and will need to be based on home grown formulas tailored to the continent’s conditions, strengths, and specific needs. The key will lie in unlocking the huge entrepreneurial potential of the continent.
Africa’s greatest disadvantage among advanced economies is probably in the area of perceptions. The huge deficit between the reality of Africa and the mainstream media’s obsession with negative stereotypes of conflict, famine, and failed states undermines the continent’s potential. The mainstream media have dominated the narrative for the past four decades, and through selective—rather than inaccurate—reporting have reinforced Africa’s negative trends at the expense of its potential.
There are many reasons why Africa’s potential as an investment destination should be taken more seriously:
In the past few decades, Africa has made significant strides toward democratic governance, transparent economic systems, and elimination of some of the crippling bureaucratic barriers to trade and investment. Although Africa still falls far short of constituting an integrated market, the trends toward integration and greater transparency are undeniable.
The inclusion of South Africa as the fifth member of the BRICS group and its seat on the UN Security Council for 2011–12 ensure that Africa has a voice in all key global forums and will accelerate reform of the UN and global financial, developmental, and trade architecture.
The potential of Africa as an investment destination has long been recognized and supported, both in terms of investment and soft loans by China and with strategic investments from South Africa and other rising economies such as India and Turkey.
There is ample evidence of Africa’s potential to leap-frog constraints, such as with the revolution in mobile telephone technology. The next breakthrough will need to come in the field of electricity provision. Africa’s hydroelectric potential could play a key role.
In a world in which there is growing consensus that future wars will be fought over food and water resources—rather than territory or ideology—Africa enjoys the advantage of huge water reserves and vast tracts of arable land. It is also rich in largely unexploited mineral and natural resources.
Africa, with nearly one billion people, represents the world’s third-largest market after China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion).
South Africa played a key part in rescuing the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen. There was enough progress at Cancun in 2010 to ensure that the next critical session, in Durban in November, could broker the breakthrough that the world so badly needs.
South Africa’s Role
For President Zuma, South Africa’s participation in BRICS is not a question of boxing above its weight. It is basic logic that a continent central to sustainable global growth should be included in a grouping that includes the major developing markets in Asia and Latin America. As the last frontier of the global economy and its third-largest market, the continent must have its say in the renovation of the international economic and political architecture, the establishment of a more equitable and sustainable trade dispensation, and agreement on climate change to ensure the future of the planet for all its inhabitants.
All the BRICS nations are increasing trade with—and investment in—Sub-Saharan Africa as an indication of their interest in its growing consumer market and resources. President Zuma has already overseen a rapid deepening of South Africa’s relationship with China. He has also stressed that South Africa needs to balance its trade with China to reduce the heavy deficit in China’s favor. He foresaw cooperation between the two countries in reforming multilateral institutions.
South Africa’s economy is only slightly larger than that of Egypt or Nigeria, two other leading economic forces on the continent. However, South Africa has a more diversified economy, and highly developed financial institutions, infrastructure, and expertise that are more entrenched. South Africa’s position as the only G-20 member from Africa facilitated the continent’s entry into BRICS.
South Africa is both a benefactor of better access to BRICS markets and, at the same time, a competitor or joint venture partner in the development of Africa. Africa grew at 4.5–5 percent last year and is expected to reach 5.5–5.7 percent this year. South Africa is set for a more modest 4 percent.
Aware of the massive savings pool that China and other BRICS nations are sitting on, President Zuma is inviting investors from BRICS countries to take up the major infrastructure and manufacturing opportunities in South Africa and on the African continent. Both the private and public sectors of the country stand to be leading beneficiaries of this offer.
It is no coincidence that since the beginning of 2010, President Zuma has made his first state visits to India, Russia, and China. In July 2010, Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, paid a state visit to South Africa following a working visit by President Zuma earlier in the year. President Zuma lost no time in meeting the new Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, at the BRICS summit in China last April.
Two-way trade between China and South Africa reached R119.7 billion ($17.9 billion) in 2009, enabling China to surpass the U.S. as South Africa’s largest trading partner, according to South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry. Its statistics also show that South Africa’s exports to India reached R5 billion ($746 million) in 2010, while imports totalled R2 billion ($298 million), in favor of South Africa. The fundamental shift in South Africa’s trading patterns was also clear from statements made by President Zuma during and after his state visit to China last August. South Africa, he said, would look to China for investment in meeting its infrastructure projects, including transport systems, freight transport, renewable energy projects, and mining. The agricultural sector and car manufacturing were also potential recipients of Chinese investment.
The stage has been set for accelerated investment from both the BRICS and advanced economies. In 2007, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China bought a 20 percent stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank for R36 billion ($5.4 billion), making it China’s largest foreign investment to date. In 2009, China announced that the African headquarters of the China–Africa Development Fund would be in Johannesburg.
China has more recently invested in a South African platinum mine and a cement factory. One of the tangible agreements emerging from the state visit to China in August 2010 was the intention to build a high-speed rail link between Durban and Johannesburg.
The consistent message that President Zuma conveyed during his state visits to China and Russia was that South Africa wanted to learn from both countries how to ensure high levels of beneficiation of South African mineral wealth to help the country speed up development, create more jobs, and roll back poverty.
This approach is in line with South Africa’s recently adopted economic road map—known as the New Growth Path—which lays much emphasis on local input and joint ventures to create jobs and boost manufacturing and the beneficiation of minerals and natural resources.
The growing relationship with China is seen as a means of both boosting South Africa’s share of global trade and accelerating the development of the African continent. With its world-class financial sector, deep experience in African markets, and extensive corporate footprint on the African continent, South Africa is well placed to lead an African miracle.
As the pace of regional integration within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) quickens—a goal that President Zuma has made a top priority—the economic rewards for South Africa will come in the form of increased foreign direct investment and expanding trade relations. The evolving free trade agreement between the overlapping regional economic communities of the SADC, the Common Market of East and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the East African Community (EAC) is likely to give further impetus to this process.
South Africa is thinking BRICS. It is expanding flight connections and marketing tourism to the BRICS nations as well as tailoring investment opportunities and conditions to meet the requirements of its new strategic partners. It is also looking to the BRICS countries to assist in training South African diplomats. South Africa’s robust private sector also stands to benefit from these opportunities. Standard Bank was ahead of the game when they sold the 20 percent stake to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
BRICS, with Africa now represented in the grouping, will deepen South–South cooperation and have the potential to change the rules of international finance and trade and give a voice to developing countries on a whole range of issues ranging from climate change to development. But there is a danger that BRICS could lose faith in the WTO. Brazil, India, and China have criticized the WTO for failing to scrap the onerous subsidies of the developed nations in the agricultural industry. Russia is not a member of the WTO.
It will take some time for South Africa to achieve a more sustainable trade balance with China by getting the Chinese engaged in more joint ventures, manufacturing, and beneficiation in line with the New Growth Path that seeks more leverage from foreign investors. Despite China’s position as South Africa’s biggest two-way trade partner based on South African exports of mineral resources, the European Union remains South Africa’s most important export market and responsible for 40 percent of foreign investment. While the U.S. is set to remain by far the most powerful global economy in the next two decades, the changes now underway and symbolized by the BRICS group will prepare the ground for profound changes in the global order in the next twenty to twenty-five years.
Membership in BRICS has put South Africa in the league of the world’s fastest-growing and potentially most influential group of nations. And that puts South Africa and the African continent at the cutting edge of the global changes taking place. One of the urgent challenges is global warming. With South Africa serving its second term on the UN Security Council and President Zuma’s appointment as co-chair of the Durban climate change summit, the country is well placed to help forge a grand trade-off between the industrialized and developing worlds.
The Durban meeting, formally known as the 17th Convention of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 17-CMP 7, stands to make major progress by establishing either a reformed global market mechanism to regulate emissions or by extending the current one to include the U.S. and China.
China, because of necessity and its history of pragmatic adjustment, could become the world leader in developing cleaner and more sustainable technologies that will supplement and ultimately replace fossil fuels as the world’s primary source of energy. South Africa is well able to contribute to this global priority.
After hosting the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and more recently committing to the Clean Development Mechanism, South Africa has vowed to reach its targets on reducing emissions and carbon management. But in a country with high unemployment and underdevelopment, we must continually weigh the dictates of environmental management with those of developmental priorities.
In global governance, the ‘tipping point’ could well be with us. South Africa is privileged to be part of these historic trends. Like all previous eras, this one will have its own challenges. Balancing national self-interest with genuine global interest will be one of them. The BRICS nations will be key players in the forging of a more cooperative, interdependent, prosperous, sustainable, and equitable world.
Pravin Gordhanis South Africa’s minister of finance. He previously served as commissioner of the South African Revenue Service from 1999 to 2009 and was a member of the South African parliament from 1994 to 1998. Earlier, he served as the co-chair of multi-party negotiations to end apartheid and as co-chair of the Transitional Executive Council.
William B. Quandt on the Peace Process: “At a dead end”
Despite the intense focus on the uprisings across the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to command diplomatic attention. Next month, the United Nations General Assembly is slated to vote on Palestinian statehood. William B. Quandt, author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab–Israeli Conflict Since 1967, spoke to the Cairo Review on the outlook for progress.
CAIRO REVIEW: In the Spring 2011 issue of the Cairo Review, you assessed the mistakes in President Obama’s approach to the peace process and made some recommendations. Where are we now?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: At the beginning of the year, I thought President Obama had one shot at trying to put forward a fairly explicit and detailed outline of what the United States would support in terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. I thought if he did that, then maybe he could try to mobilize support in the international community. Of course, the Israelis would reject most of it, and Palestinians a part of it, but at least something would be out in the public domain for people to debate and he could begin to shape the discussion.
I think he also thought he could have one more shot, so he chose to give a speech in May. And it was a real disappointment — certainly to me. Instead of putting out a fairly detailed outline about what the U.S. thought was a reasonable basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, he spoke in generalities. With the exception of one point in which he repeated what most other presidents have said: the 1967 line should serve as the reference point for defining future borders between Israel and Palestine. And he used the formula of 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps. That’s not exactly new, but it was the phrase that got the most attention.
But we saw what happened. The Israelis rejected this very strongly and the president then backed down in his second speech. He said it doesn’t exactly mean they have to withdraw to 1967. So, I think we’ve run out of speed. The speech didn’t break any new ground, didn’t move anything forward. His special envoy George Mitchell has resigned – something I thought was overdue. He hadn’t achieved anything. And he hasn’t been replaced.
So I think we’re in a place where expectations are very low. The speech didn’t move us forward and everyone is saying, “Well, something will happen in September.” That’s the new focal point. I suppose something might happen in September. Palestinians want some kind of move in the UN to see if they can get support for the concept of statehood. And of course, the Israelis and Americans are saying no.
We’re at a dead end. Whatever slight hope there was that momentum might be reestablished with strong American leadership seems to be gone. We’re drifting into American re-election year which has already started and that has a paralytic effect on American politics on the Middle East. Obama will try to get through elections without doing anything controversial that will lose him support and I suppose we won’t get back to serious Arab-Israeli diplomacy until sometime in 2013. If then.
CAIRO REVIEW: A year ago or so, did you envision we’d be at a different place?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: I had some reason to believe at that point that the president would make a big speech on the Middle East and that he would use it to put forward something like a more detailed outline or maybe even a plan. I think what happened – as it often does – some people in the administration disagreed. Some people wanted a strong statement. Others thought the timing wasn’t right. So he compromised. And compromise, though it often sounds like a good thing, in foreign policy often means you end up in a weak spot. You have two strongly held views and the compromise between them leaves you with almost nothing.
We don’t have a credible posture. A UN resolution this Fall doesn’t leave me hopeful. UN resolutions are a dime a dozen. They come and go and leave no trace. So I think if people have invested a lot of hope in something coming along in the form of a UN-based initiative, that won’t happen.
Israelis are dug in. TThey have a right-wing government that doesn’t want to move. The Palestinians up until now have been enough divided that it’s an inhibiting factor in their approach. Things are bad now, but they could get worse. So I’m pretty pessimistic right now.
CAIRO REVIEW: What did you make of Prime Minister Netanyuhu’s speech to Congress?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: He was almost insulting toward the president. He wagged his finger in the president’s face and treated him like a school child who misspoke and had to be corrected. I thought it was actually an embarrassing moment for the president to sit there and nod, without saying “I know what you’re not prepared to do. What I never heard is what you are prepared to do.”
The content of Netanyahu’s speech [before Congress] was totally uninteresting in terms of breaking any new ground. He didn’t say one single thing that to a trained ear hinted at any flexibility or any new ideas. Yet he got 29 standing ovations, which tells you something about American politics today. Both parties are solidly in Israel’s corner. Both parties think you have to be seen as very visibly and uncritically supportive of Israel. They don’t buy the line that you can support Israel and still disagree with an Israeli government that doesn’t seem very interested in peace. The debate within Israel is much more open and dynamic than the debate over Israel-Palestinians issues in the U.S. Congress.
CAIRO REVIEW: How does the ‘Arab Spring’ affect, if at all, the dynamics at play regarding the conflict?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: We don’t know how these revolutions will play out, but if the general trend we see in Tunisia and Egypt continues — which is that of moving things in the direction of more popular governments — then it will be more responsive to views of the people. Egypt, I think, will be in a position in which it no longer plays the role of enforcer of American-Israeli preferences. It’ll have a more independent view, especially toward Gaza.
As Egypt gets its own house in order, it will play a larger role in the Arab world again. At the same time, we don’t know what’s happening in Syria. Syria looks like it’s in a deep and potentially prolonged crisis. So one of the countries that’s been supporting Hamas, for example, is probably going to be a less reliable support for them. So maybe this means Hamas will have to pay more attention to Egyptian preferences, which on the whole is consistent with the idea of promoting unity between Fatah and Hamas. I think this is a good thing.
Israel seems to be getting more and more dug into a mindset and set of policies where there is no negotiated solution that they can accept –that the only steps that can count for anything are the ones they unilaterally decide. And basically, it all comes down to just maintaining security presence and a relationship with the United States. They lost their relationship with Turkey. They’re losing it with Egypt. They have no partners left in the Middle East and no prospect of negotiating seriously any time soon.
On the American side, I think on some larger level, Americans are disenchanted with remaking the Middle East initiatives that cost a lot in lives and dollars. We’re in bad shape financially in the US. No big initiatives can be tackled in the future.
And as people look around the world, the Arab-Israeli arena and the Middle East might not be the most important strategic region for the United States. Long term it’ll be Asia, specifically China. Immediate term, it’s actually the Pakistan-Afghanistan-India mix that’s urgent. I think we’ll see a shift in emphasis. Arab-Israeli issues will go to the back-burner. There might be UN initiatives but I don’t think they’ll produce results. They’ll give illusion of movement, but not real results.
CAIRO REVIEW: So how would you advise Obama?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: If you’re going to convince the American public that it’s worth putting money and resources into solving this conflict, you need to explain what national interest is being served in doing so. Obama goes back and forth on this. He says yes it’s important, vital to our national security to get this issue solved. Then he says it’s their problem and we can’t want peace more than they do. These are two diametrically opposed visions and he holds them both simultaneously. Make up your mind. If it’s in the national interest, develop a strategy and get on with it. If you don’t think that it is a national interest — that we’re doing this to be nice to them — then you need to wait until they’re ready. And they won’t be ready.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you think it’s in America’s interest?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: I do. It’s not the only thing that matters, but if we had resolved the conflict in the 90s when it was doable, think: a lot of things might have been different. We might not have had the invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring might have come much earlier because Arab dictatorships might not have had this issue to play with. Who knows if 9/11 would have happened. In the early 1990s, Al-Qaeda was barely in existence.
The region would be better off, the region would be better off, if this problem could be solved. And we can’t stand aside and say nothing. It takes a toll on our credibility. People see us as locked in. Why is American popularity in the Middle East so low today? We’re dealing with historically unprecedented numbers. It’s low partly for our invading Iraq, but because of this problem. Time after time after time, if you ask which issue really annoys people the most in the Middle East, it’s this issue. This issue won’t go away.