Oriental Hall, etc.
“Success in life cannot be measured by how much money we make or what position we have achieved, but rather what we have done to improve lives of other people who needed help.” That was the message to 634 AUC undergraduates in a commencement speech on June 17 delivered by Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, CEO of Mashreq Group based in the United Arab Emirates. Noting his personal battles within corporate culture, he stressed the importance of challenging the status quo to achieve change. “I was cuffed by my peers and accused of damaging a healthy institution,” he said. “But I was not deterred by the criticism. Whatever career you choose, whatever job you do, do not be afraid of rocking the boat.”
AUC awarded Al Ghurair an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in recognition for his leadership and philanthropic contributions. Al Ghurair is also chairman of the board of trustees of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which partners with AUC to offer scholarships to high-achieving refugee youth. “We share the vision that philanthropic foundations, education institutions, and others can and must come together to open access to education to those who need it the most,” Al Ghurair said. “This is part of a new drive I am personally championing to ensure that no young person uprooted by conflict in our region should ever have to go without an education.”
Meet the Neighbors
For nearly a century after the American University in Cairo’s establishment in 1919, its main campus enjoyed an enviable place in the geography of the Egyptian capital. Its palatial structures and palm-lined gardens adjoined Tahrir Square, putting students and faculty in the heart of the Arab World’s most politically powerful and culturally rich metropolis. In 2008, AUC’s main campus moved to New Cairo, a characterless zone of glitzy malls and gated housing for the rich fashioned out of the desert thirty miles away.
The transition prompted then-President Lisa Anderson to launch the Neighborhood Initiative to further AUC’s commitment to community service and engagement. While the initiative includes the Tahrir campus, where AUC has retained a few historic buildings housing an auditorium, an art gallery, and a bookstore, it is the neighborhood around the New Cairo campus that presents AUC with its greatest civic challenges. “You have a community in continuous change,” explained Khaled Tarabieh, an assistant professor of architecture and one of the initiative’s lead researchers. “Here the community gathers around traffic, consumption, and commercialism.”
Tarabieh headed the initiative’s project to map community perceptions, which led researchers to conclude that much work needs to be done to connect AUC with its neighbors. Part of the problem, Tarabieh said, is AUC’s physical isolation, due to the high walls and heavy security ringing the campus perimeter. Many Egyptians think the campus is connected to the U.S. Embassy, he said, rather than realizing that AUC is an Egyptian-American institution of higher learning that has turned out Egyptian graduates for almost a hundred years. “When you have a place with tall fences, you can cycle any rumors about what goes on inside because you are unable to see what actually happens,” he said.
Heightened security concerns following the 2011 Tahrir uprising have further isolated the New Cairo campus, Tarabieh noted. “We came out of the revolution with strains and stresses on security everywhere,” he explained. The question facing AUC is how to be secure while open to the community, he added.
Another challenge for the Neighborhood Initiative is that while AUC runs hundreds of community projects, many reach far and wide in Egypt and don’t necessarily resonate in the campus surroundings. “When you speak to our immediate, proximal neighbors, they see AUC as a center of excellence and a very prestigious institution, but they don’t see how it links to them and to their needs and their everyday lives,” said Magda Mostafa, an associate professor of architecture who is also a lead researcher on the Neighborhood Initiative.
As part of the initiative, AUC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cairo governorate to promote sustainable urban development. Mostafa also sits on the Cairo Heritage Development Committee working to revitalize downtown Cairo and historic districts. “That positioning helps us try to engage in these conversations, and help guide them,” Mostafa said.
The planners of the New Cairo campus certainly had good intentions for AUC’s community engagement. The original blueprints called for the extension of the Cairo Metro to New Cairo, with a station to be situated outside the university’s main entrance. Meant to connect campus and community, the metro line was never completed and the station remains only a hope.
From Cairo to Tokyo
As a schoolgirl in Kobe, Yuriko Koike took an interest in a volume that her father, a trader in the oil business who often traveled to the Arab World, kept on his bookshelf. It was an edition of the Middle East Almanac, which she proceeded to devour from cover to cover. In 1972, with the encouragement of her parents, she took an unlikely step for a young Japanese woman: at age 21, she boarded a plane for Cairo, where she enrolled in the Arabic language program at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Thus began a journey that would bring good fortune to Egypt and Japan. A former journalist who went on to serve as a member of parliament for twenty-four years and stints as defense minister and environment minister, Koike in 2016 became the first woman elected governor of Tokyo. In all her positions she has continuously strived to further understanding between Japan and the Middle East. “The strong relationship I’ve been able to help build between Japan and Egypt is my repayment for the kindness I received in Egypt,” she told the Cairo Review in an email interview.
Koike, 64, credits her experiences in Cairo for giving her deeper knowledge of politics and culture in the Middle East as well as a “bird’s eye” view of the world that shaped her outlook as a Japanese decision-maker. At AUC, she particularly loved “the exchanges I had with my classmates—being able to interact with people from around the world, such as researchers on the Middle East from America, British pastors, Pakistani diplomats, and others.” After completing her language studies, Koike then enrolled at Cairo University, where she earned a degree in sociology in 1976. Living in Cairo through the October War in 1973 left a lasting impression on her. “As a student from Japan, a country that had enjoyed peace since the end of World War II, I was unfamiliar with war,” she recalled. “The Middle East has experienced so much bloodshed, and I pray that the region can return to peace.”
It wasn’t long before Koike was covering Middle East conflicts as a journalist for Japanese media organizations such as Nippon TV and Japan TV. She scored interviews with the likes of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi; thanks in part to her Arabic language skills (she’s also fluent in English), she won the Japanese female broadcaster of the year award in 1990 for her coverage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Koike’s high profile as a respected TV journalist helped her win a term in the upper house of Japan’s Diet in 1992 before capturing the first of eight elections to the lower House of Representatives the following year. She served as environment minister from 2003 to 2006 and briefly as defense minister in 2007. In those roles, she cites her Middle East experience in policies such as supporting Egypt’s efforts to improve air and water quality, and sending Japanese peacekeepers to the Golan Heights. She proposed that the Japanese prime minister open his official residence for an iftar meal during Ramadan every year, a practice which has continued for a decade. This year as governor, she hosted an iftar at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices.
Koike is a strong advocate for the 2016 Egypt-Japan Education Partnership, which will send twenty-five hundred Egyptian students to study in Japan in the next five years and introduce Japanese learning concepts into Egyptian schools. The two countries collaborated in the 2010 launch of the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology, a new research institution in Alexandria. Japan provided a $760 million development loan to cover the costs for constructing the new Grand Egyptian Museum. (The Cairo Opera House, which opened in 1988, was a gift from the Japanese government.) Recently, Japan announced an $18 million grant for the construction of a children’s hospital in Cairo.
The governor of Tokyo, one of the world’s most populous cities with 13.7 million residents (and most livable, according to Monocle magazine), is known for her love of anime, baseball, and her Yorkshire terrier, So-chan. Koike has a reputation as a fighter, once comparing herself to Joan of Arc, and won her bid to become governor in a landslide without receiving the endorsement of her party. Public approval ratings nearing 90 percent recently led the Financial Times to call her the most powerful woman in the country and predict that “Koike’s blend of charisma, conservatism, and civic populism could yet make her Japan’s next prime minister.”
During her gubernatorial campaign, Koike vowed to promote better conditions for women including daycare and work-life balance, and “bring happiness” to Japan’s capital. “I aim to create a ‘New Tokyo,’ what I call ‘three cities in one,’” she told the Cairo Review. “I want Tokyo to be a safe city where people feel more secure, more at ease, and can live more vibrant lives; a diverse city where everyone can actively participate in society and lead fulfilling lives; and a smart city that is open to the world, and a leader in the fields of the environment, international finance, and business.”
High on Koike’s agenda is Tokyo’s preparations to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. “The world’s eyes will be on Tokyo,” she said. “I want to use this opportunity to enhance Tokyo’s presence in the world, and make Tokyo a city where every citizen can build a bright future.” She intends to use the spotlight to showcase how Tokyo is handling urban issues such as social welfare, the environment, and community development, and offer Tokyo’s experience, technology, and expertise to major cities around the world facing similar urban problems. Koike leaves little doubt that she is ready for another challenge. “As the head of the host city, I am leading preparations with the determination to make the Tokyo Games the best Olympic event ever,” she said.
The International Rescue Committee, one of the world’s largest refugee aid agencies, provides humanitarian relief to displaced persons in more than forty countries. As IRC’s president and CEO since 2013, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is a global leader in confronting an unprecedented crisis—sixty-five million refugees afflicted by war and famine from Afghanistan and Myanmar to Syria and Somalia. Miliband faces obstacles, not least of which is President Donald Trump’s resistance to allowing refugees to find safe haven in the United States. Yet Miliband, based at IRC’s headquarters in New York, believes he is making a difference—and repaying, in “a small way,” the people who helped his Jewish refugee parents resettle in the United Kingdom after escaping the Nazi Holocaust.
The Independent has called Miliband the “prince across the water” for those in Britain’s Labour Party looking for an alternative to Jeremy Corbyn’s leftward march. Unlike his father, Ralph, among his generation’s leading Marxist intellectuals in Britain, Miliband forged his political career on the back of Tony Blair’s New Labour movement, which reconciled the left-leaning party with a new era of unbridled capitalism. As a member of Parliament and a junior minister in Blair’s cabinet, he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq—whose disastrous outcome, he has admitted, “induces a high degree of humility.” Having resigned from Parliament to head the IRC, Miliband has not ruled out a return to British politics.
In June, Miliband traveled to Cairo where he delivered the 2017 graduate commencement address and received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the American University in Cairo. Cairo Review Senior Editor Amir-Hussein Radjy interviewed Miliband on the AUC campus on June 10, 2017.
CAIRO REVIEW: The world is facing, according to the United Nations, the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War ended in 1945. What are the reasons for the failure of the international response?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think you have to look at that in two aspects. One is the generators, the drivers, of refugee crises, and the other is the response to it. I think it’s important not to forget that the refugee crisis itself is the product of civil wars that are going on for longer, [and] new civil wars that are starting, and so it’s important—although I don’t have any easy answers—not to forget that there is a crisis of peacemaking and peacekeeping, and peace-building. That is part of the original explanation for why we are living in a time of unprecedented flows of people, at least since the Second World War.
In terms of the response, I think there are two or three things that are especially important in understanding the gap between the needs of the refugees and the level of provision that’s been made. First is the sheer scale of the needs—because although the amount that’s being spent has gone up, the needs have gone up faster, so part of the growing gap between needs and responses is the sheer scale of the needs. Second of all, the world hasn’t come to terms with the long-term duration of displacement of refugees, the fact that refugees are out of their own country for an average of ten years—twenty-one years in the case of refugees who’ve been out for at least five years—so the duration of displacement is an enormous challenge to the focus of a humanitarian system that traditionally has been about helping people survive rather than helping them thrive. I think that’s the big shift we need to see in humanitarian policy.
I suppose the third element is that the traditionally big donors in the West have their own economic challenges that have led to a philosophy of quote-unquote “charity begins at home.” I would say to people, you should be careful, while charity begins at home, it mustn’t end at home.
CAIRO REVIEW: So you think there is a fundamental shortcoming in the design of the global humanitarian system we have today?
DAVID MILIBAND: Yes I do. The fundamental mismatch is that the system is designed for short-term displacement of people in camps who go home quite quickly. And the system therefore has an implicit or explicit assumption—that people will go back—but actually we are living in a world where displacement is long term, displacement is urban, and people don’t actually go back. That means education, employment, become extra important. That’s not what the humanitarian sector has been practiced in over the last forty or fifty years, and one of the changes we are trying to bring in at the IRC is to get better at those things.
CAIRO REVIEW: More than 80 percent of refugees are hosted in poor or developing countries, whether in Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere—what is the burden for these countries?
DAVID MILIBAND: High. Although I don’t like thinking only in terms of burden of refugees, especially when they are coming to Western countries. It ends up becoming a very zero-sum analysis. I am going from here to Uganda; Uganda has an extraordinarily positive attitude toward refugees. It gives them land, it gives the right to work, it gives them freedom of movement, but it’s now got 1.2 million refugees. So you can call that a challenge, but in other words, the challenge is burden. It is tough.
Now, Uganda has shown you can turn refugees into employers, not just employees, they are productive contributors for the local economy. It’s very important that the Western world gets reminded that, whatever the media coverage of eighty-five thousand refugees coming to the U.S. and resettling last year, or Germany dealing with a million asylum claims, which is a slightly different thing—the distinction between refugee resettlement and personally claimed asylum may not be where you want to go into detail here—the numbers are small, since some 80 percent are in lower-middle income, or poor countries. And I think that has prompted the World Bank to start to take their responsibility to states that are not poor, but are hosting refugees, are delivering the public good of refugee hosting. One of the brightest spots on the humanitarian horizon is the growing interest of the World Bank playing a role in respect to refugee-hosting countries.
CAIRO REVIEW: What is the responsibility of wealthy countries in Europe and North America to take in refugees fleeing countries like Syria?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think they are real responsibilities. I think it is important to applaud when countries give humanitarian aid, but it’s also important to say that welcoming refugees is a substantive and symbolic act. The UN identifies only the most vulnerable refugees as being those who are suitable for refugee resettlement, and the fact that only 120,000 places or so were available for refugee resettlement last year is very damaging, both substantively and symbolically.
We’re an international humanitarian aid organization that’s also a refugee resettlement agency in twenty-six U.S. cities. We know the value of what refugees can bring to communities, and so I have no hesitation in saying it’s not enough to be a good aid provider; you should be, richer countries, Western countries, should be good at welcoming refugees as well. And, by the way, that’s not only for Western countries. That could apply to countries in the Gulf as well, who I would like to see sign the UN convention on refugees, and do their own part in not just accepting workers into their economies, but also taking in vulnerable refugees.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you see a role model in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door response to the refugee crisis?
DAVID MILIBAND: You’ve got to say, a role model for what? She clearly showed a big heart in her decision, but remember we were dealing with the consequences of desperation. People were fleeing directly from Syria or from its neighbors, and paying all of their savings to smugglers, and ten thousand people have died en route to Europe. So I think that Angela Merkel did something very striking in 2015, but I think that she would probably say that there needs to be more coordination and planning between European and frankly with other countries as well. It’s very important to applaud the big heart that she showed, but also important to say there needs to be a big plan.
CAIRO REVIEW: Looking at the other side of the Atlantic, how is the Donald Trump administration affecting the International Rescue Committee’s work in resettling refugees in America?
DAVID MILIBAND: So far the impact has been limited. The president has announced he wants to reduce the number of refugees who are coming to the U.S. We resettled about thirteen or fourteen thousand last year. He was threatening for this year to cut the numbers, but because of the court cases that have been brought against his executive orders, that hasn’t yet come through in the kind of swingeing cuts I think he hoped for.
Obviously we are concerned that something which was bipartisan and successful in America is going to become partisan and less successful—and that’s a real pity. There’s a symbolic aspect to it, there’s a real domino aspect to it, as a result of America withdrawing its support for refugee resettlement. And we’re hoping that Congress will be active in trying to persuade the administration that this is not just a false economy, but this is a false step, in taking—not really vengeance—but taking action against the most vulnerable, the most vetted population that comes to the U.S. I would say it’s harder to get to the U.S. as a refugee than any other route. It’s perfectly reasonable for any U.S. administration to review the security procedures, but there’s no need for them to suspend the program as they are seeking to do in order to do so.
CAIRO REVIEW: In the Middle East, you have extensive operations in Iraq and Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Yemen. What are your greatest challenges in the region?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think it’s worth flagging that we were set up in 1933 by Albert Einstein to rescue Jews from Europe, and today more than half of the world’s refugees are Muslim. Now we see refugees as a cause irrespective of religion, and one of the most striking things to me is that now more than a quarter of our work is in the Middle East, and we found mainly a warm welcome for what we do. We don’t discriminate on the grounds of religion, and as it happens we are a secular organization, and the refugees don’t ask too many questions about who it is delivering the aid, as long as it’s high quality. It’s also worth saying we’ve recruited very high quality local staff; most of our staff are local staff, not Americans or Europeans, so we have twelve hundred local staff inside Syria and they’re Syrians—ditto in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
I think the challenges are to do with the presence of armed opposition groups in some of the areas where we work—we had eight hospitals bombed in Syria last year.
CAIRO REVIEW: Who was responsible for those bombings?
DAVID MILIBAND: I haven’t got a list with me of where they were, but they were all in rebel-held areas, so there are basically two potential culprits for the bombings: it’s either the Syrian government, the Russians, or both of them. So that, by any stretch of the imagination, is a major challenge. Secondly, the shifting conflict lines of the Syrian conflict have been very tough. For all aid agencies it’s been very tough to get cross-line aid in. Thirdly, the scale of the burden in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, means there are quite a lot of administrative restrictions that are being brought in on the refugees and that obviously affects our work as well—so there’s an absorption capacity issue.
CAIRO REVIEW: One of out of four people in Lebanon now, I think, are refugees.
DAVID MILIBAND: It’s a lot of people. They’re really trying, and we are trying to help them.
CAIRO REVIEW: Your own parents were refugees. Could you tell us about your family’s story?
DAVID MILIBAND: Yes. My dad was a refugee from Belgium in 1940, he came to England when the Germans invaded Belgium, he came with his father. My mother spent the war hiding in Poland, and came in 1946, on her own actually. In a small way really, I’m repaying the debt for some of the people who helped my family along the way.
CAIRO REVIEW: Your mother and father had a positive experience coming to the United Kingdom?
DAVID MILIBAND: Yes, I think so, in the way that the UK made them who they were.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you think things have changed in that respect? Are people less willing to help today?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think that these things go in flows. There’s often a confusion between refugees and immigrants—and obviously there was much less immigration in the 1940s and 50s in Britain than there is today, including European migration. I don’t like to go with the idea that the British people or American people have become less compassionate. I think that these are times of economic stress in the Western world, and it hasn’t helped—but I wouldn’t want to say that there was less compassion. I think that the 40s were an extraordinary time—my dad came in 1940, my mum in 1946—it was a unique period when needs were that much more evident.
CAIRO REVIEW: But it would seem, looking at the popular pressure on governments today in Europe and America, that Islamophobia has become a real problem in government policy toward refugees.
DAVID MILIBAND: Now I didn’t say compassion wasn’t a problem today—I said I don’t think that there was necessarily less compassion than there was. It’s always been polarizing. Remember there was an anti-Catholic agitation in the U.S. in the 1950s. There’s a history of animus toward refugees and migrants, and there’s also a history of people welcoming them. There’s always been polarization. I think that today there’s obviously a new factor in the refugee equation—maybe less than in the immigrant equation, because looking at the U.S. the biggest concern is immigrants coming from South America and Mexico, that’s not a Muslim issue, and the biggest concern in the UK is about immigrants coming from Europe. But there is a new factor in the refugee question which is to do with the fact that half, or just over half, of the world’s refugees are Muslim, and obviously there are issues about the integration of generations of Muslim immigrants who have come to Western countries over the last thirty or fifty years. One has to be specific really, and one has to be careful about talking about Islamophobia across the Western world. I think there are particular examples of hate, but there are also particular examples of extraordinary compassion and outreach.
CAIRO REVIEW: A lot of the conversation has become about the integration of Muslim communities, whether in Britain, whether in the United States, whether in France. Do you see integration as a real issue? And looking at Britain, are British Muslims accepted by British society, or do they have problems?
DAVID MILIBAND: Your question makes my point about the need for specificity, because the truth about the UK example is that some British Muslim communities have integrated very well, and other British Muslims have not. And I think in that sense, one has to say, integration is always a process, always a challenge, and it’s always ongoing. I think that the UK experience has some very positive examples, but it’s also got examples where there hasn’t been enough integration. There hasn’t been enough language learning, there hasn’t been enough shared activity, there hasn’t been enough shared schooling, there hasn’t been enough sharing of the workplace and integration at the workplace, and so one has to be open to that. There’s not a legislative fiat that can resolve all those problems, but it’s right to use the word integration as the goal, because that connotes to me a contribution to society, but also a respect for the heritage of where people are coming, because it speaks to plural identities, not singular identity. I think Americans are much more comfortable with the notion of a hyphenated identity, even if by no means in all cases it is successful.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is there, out of that, not enough shared values? Would you describe that as a failure of multiculturalism in the UK?
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that multiculturalism is one of the isms that gets thrown around without proper specificity. Personally, I’m happy to speak openly about the benefits of a multicultural society and the challenges of building a multicultural society. I don’t seeing the building of a multicultural society as an ism. It’s not an ideology or theology.
CAIRO REVIEW: It has policy implications. The classic example is contrasting the French Republic’s model of assimilation with the British one of multicultural communities.
DAVID MILIBAND: I don’t think that either of them are an ism. I think that in the French case, the ism would a republicanism, and the demand that new arrivals shed their identity. One of the reasons that I said the goal is integration is that I think that integration is the right goal, and that assimilation is the wrong goal. Now, interestingly enough, I think assimilation requires you to think two things: one, that there is a singular identity to which people are arriving at, and second that they have to shed all their previous identities when they do so. Neither of them I think are true. There was a very good speech by Roy Jenkins when he became home secretary in 1966, which makes integration the goal for public policy, and I’m very comfortable with that.
I think that you’re right, ironically, that the French quote-unquote “republican” effort has led, far from the most assimilated communities, to some of the most separate and balkanized communities, and that’s something you want to avoid under any circumstance.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you explain homegrown terrorism in Britain inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, such as in the recent attacks in Manchester and London?
DAVID MILIBAND: First of all one has to have a degree of humility about this, because the reason why anyone would want to go and blow up fellow citizens of all religions, and citizens of all around the world, is obviously something that is far beyond the understanding of any of us. I think that, in addition to professing humility and explaining it, one has to accept or understand that there is a high degree of alienation and humiliation, on the one hand, among some of these people. It takes a high degree of alienation to go and blow yourself up. And, on the other, they are being inspired by a strain of Salafist messianism that is very dangerous. One has to look at both sides of this.
CAIRO REVIEW: You supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq when a minister in Tony Blair’s cabinet. With hindsight, did that war create the current refugee crisis? Are the United States and Britain being held responsible?
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think it was wrong, the war in Iraq, but I don’t think it is the sole reason for the refugee crisis today. There were obviously no weapons of mass destruction, which was the reason the government took the decision to do so. I think that if you look at Iraq today, you can’t understand it by ignoring the 2003 invasion, but you can’t understand it if you only look at the 2003 invasion. And so it’s a very consequential episode but not the only one.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is the doctrine of armed humanitarian intervention justified, given the results of these adventures since 2001?
DAVID MILIBAND: Well in some cases it is, but if we’ve learned anything else over the last twenty years, it’s that you have to win the peace, as well as win the war. The lesson of all of these successful or unsuccessful adventures, whether it be in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya, is that if you don’t have the goal of a political settlement founded upon the legitimate and credible sharing of power between different stakeholders in a community, then whatever your military effort, whatever your development effort, whatever your diplomatic effort, it won’t work.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is the Trump administration destroying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or British and European confidence in American leadership?
DAVID MILIBAND: I hope not. I hope the fact that President Trump didn’t mention Article 5 ten days ago, but did mention it yesterday, tells the Russians not to play any games with Baltic states or any Eastern European states. NATO has been a very successful part of global security over the past seventy years, I would argue. America is the anchor of the global system in many ways, and certainly the anchor of NATO, and NATO is an alliance of values, and I think it would be tragic if it was undermined. I think that it’s very important that the new administration sees that its words matter, because everyone’s listening.
CAIRO REVIEW: With Brexit, how do you see Britain’s role in Europe and the world changing?
DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I was very strongly against Brexit. I said it was the greatest single unilateral, voluntary renunciation of political power in world history, but the British people didn’t listen to me, and they voted for it anyway. It leaves major questions about how a medium-sized country, albeit one that’s the seventh or sixth largest economy in the world, plays a role in foreign policy, and the danger is that Britain ends up without a foreign policy.
CAIRO REVIEW: The stunning June 8 election results in Britain reversed Conservative Party fortunes and saw a surge in Labour’s support. What’s your reaction?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think that it’s good that Labour has more MPs, it’s good that a brutal Brexit has been rejected, and it’s good that young people voted in such numbers. But obviously one’s got to have fears about the consequences for Brexit negotiations.
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you expect from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn?
DAVID MILIBAND: Anyone who predicts the future now, given the inability to predict the election results, is inviting derision.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you think the result, especially among the youth vote, vindicates Jeremy Corbyn’s swing to the left, which I believe you were very critical of?
DAVID MILIBAND: Yes, well—I think that he undoubtedly struck a chord with parts of the country, and that the commitment to relieve students of their tuition fee costs is, according to the commentators, one of the explanations for that, so I am happy to be generous about that, and obviously the challenge for all the political parties in Britain now is to figure out how to become majority parties, not just minority parties.
CAIRO REVIEW: When will you be back in Britain, and active in British politics again?
DAVID MILIBAND: Oh well—really the truthful answer to that is I don’t know. I’ve got a job I’m really committed to, it’s a job that is addressing some of the most challenging global crises, and it’s actually making a practical difference. One of the things I’ve learned in my career is that it’s important to combine an interest in ideas with an interest in making a practical difference.
Trump versus Globalization
For the first time since 1930, trade became a high-profile issue in the U.S. elections in 2016 as the postwar consensus around the liberal order of global economic cooperation and openness seemed to unravel. Three underlying reasons can be identified: anemic growth in median household income since the turn of the century; continued loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector; and evident prosperity of the top 1 percent income bracket and Wall Street. It became all too easy to wrap these grievances into a “blame the foreigner” anti-globalization message, even though the sources of malaise were at home, not abroad. Automation and artificial intelligence have displaced far more jobs than imports, and the absence of a meaningful social safety net and adequate retraining programs have been features of American public policy for decades.
Rather than address the basic causes of the economic problems, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump advocated policies that would reverse years of trade liberalization and overturn the U.S.-led rules-based system. He threatened to unilaterally impose high tariffs on imports from major U.S. trading partners (China and Mexico), renegotiate or terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and even pull out of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U.S. trade deficit, some $500 billion in 2016, along with alleged “unfair trade practices” of U.S. trading partners, were blamed for stunting the U.S. manufacturing sector and causing lost jobs and lower wages. Trump denounced U.S. companies like Ford, Nabisco, and Carrier for investing and producing overseas, and threatened to penalize offshoring decisions. His indictments made no economic sense but they contributed to Trump’s victory over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the November presidential election.
In her campaign, Clinton also criticized NAFTA and the TPP, but with less strident rhetoric than Trump. As First Lady in 1993, Clinton had been privately skeptical of NAFTA, which was ratified under her husband President Bill Clinton. Subsequently, in her 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton promised to overhaul the agreement, as did her rival, then-Senator Barack Obama. Senator Bernie Sanders, in competition with Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, demonized NAFTA and the TPP, linking trade pacts to corporate greed, the top 1 percent, and Wall Street.
As a consequence of the common political front in the presidential campaign against trade pacts, U.S. trade policy is now constrained by bipartisan sentiment: in Congress, as many Democrats as Republicans oppose fresh liberalization and new international rules. These were popular themes in the 2016 campaign, good for stump speeches and rounding up votes. Anti-globalization sentiment will not disappear anytime soon.
This is unfortunate. Globalization and the expansion of international trade and investment have delivered enormous benefits to the U.S. economy. The expansion of global trade has been spurred by eight rounds of multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the WTO, and new regional pacts, such as the European Union, NAFTA, and other trade agreements that further deepened trade and investment liberalization. Meanwhile, technological advances in transportation and communications slashed economic distance between countries.
As a result, in the United States, trade as a share of GDP has more than tripled since 1960. Analysis shows that the U.S. economy is $2.1 trillion larger today (about 11 percent of gross domestic product) owing to globalization since World War II. Equally important, the huge payoff to any nation from participating in global commerce explains why so many countries have switched from command-and-control systems to market economy systems with freer trade. At the same time, the post-World War II period has been a golden era for U.S. leadership, with great success in promoting liberal economic policies and democratic politics. These achievements are now at risk, given President Trump’s agenda.
A serious problem is that along with increased economic openness, U.S. policy did not combine trade liberalization with a strong social safety net for workers who lose out, mostly from technology but also from globalization. Displaced workers have a hard time criticizing robots or automatic teller machines, but they can denounce imports from China or Mexico. Like its predecessors, the Trump administration shows little support for policies that might relieve the underlying economic anxiety of American workers and enable them to cope with change. One such policy would be “wage insurance” for workers who are displaced from their jobs through no personal fault, and subsequently accept a lower paid job. Wage insurance would compensate these workers, through public funds, for part of their lost wages for a defined period, say three years. But instead of constructive solutions, the Trump administration blames trade for a vastly disproportionate share of workplace woes.
The president has broad executive authority to impose barriers to imports and exports, along with international investment and financial flows. But, as research by the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggests, major trade restrictions would inevitably prompt foreign retaliation and significantly damage U.S. firms, costing millions of American workers their jobs. Drastic trade actions would disproportionately affect core Trump constituencies, namely blue collar workers and farming communities. Such actions would also risk confrontation with Congress, just as Trump seeks to build consensus for major domestic reforms related to corporate taxes, infrastructure, and healthcare. Congressional misgivings could serve as a check on major trade restrictions, at least in the near term. On the other hand, in the medium term, fiscal stimulus combined with tax cuts and a stronger dollar would contribute to larger trade deficits, increasing protectionist pressures—as happened during the Ronald Reagan administration (1981–89).
Since his election, Trump’s tone has moderated and actions have been less drastic than campaign threats. During his first hundred days in office, Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP, as he had promised, and he took the first steps toward launching a renegotiation of NAFTA. He signed several executive orders to bolster trade enforcement and initiated new investigations into U.S. imports of steel and aluminum products, hinting at similar investigations of copper and solar panels. Trump announced a 100-Day Action Plan with Chinese President Xi Jinping, committing Beijing to resolve certain trade disputes and facilitate greater U.S. exports. But Trump pulled back from his campaign rhetoric that denounced China as a “currency manipulator.” Most of these initiatives will not have an immediate impact on trade but could set the stage for changes during the next five years.
The Trump administration released its trade agenda in March 2017, based on the overarching goal of expanding “trade in a way that is freer and fairer for all Americans.” As operational guidelines, Trump seeks to reduce bilateral trade deficits (preferably by expanding U.S. exports but if necessary by contracting imports) and ensure that foreign barriers on specific U.S. exports are no higher than U.S. barriers on imports of the same products (“mirror-image reciprocity”).
Trump is particularly alarmed by U.S. bilateral trade deficits with five named countries (China, Mexico, Germany, Japan, and South Korea). However, in a world of multilateral trade flows, bilateral trade deficits do not illuminate win-win opportunities for trade liberalization. At best, they couple potential leverage with an implicit threat: “I’ll buy less from you unless you buy more from me.” Trump’s predilection for mirror-image reciprocity can only work, if at all, as a two-way proposition: the United States must be prepared to reduce its barriers on products that are out of line with its partners’ barriers. At a conceptual level, Trump’s operational guidelines do not provide a promising framework for trade negotiations.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration has announced four priorities to ensure a level playing field for U.S. companies and workers: defend U.S. national sovereignty; strictly enforce U.S. trade laws; use leverage to encourage other countries to open their markets to U.S. exports and enforce U.S. intellectual property rights; and negotiate new and better trade deals. To advance these priorities, Trump’s first one hundred days in office were marked by early actions on trade negotiations, executive orders, and “self-initiated” investigations into U.S. imports of dumped or subsidized products.
Trump Trade Negotiations
Trump pledged to reject multilateral trade deals and negotiate new bilateral deals “to promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages.” Consistent with campaign promises, on January 23, 2017—his fourth day in office—Trump instructed the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw the United States from the TPP, which was signed in February 2016 by the Obama administration after five years of negotiations, but not ratified by the U.S. Congress. The TPP mega-regional trade deal was negotiated between the United States and eleven countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Vietnam, and others, which collectively account for more than one-third of global economic output. The TPP was lauded as the most comprehensive regional trade deal negotiated between developed and developing countries as it not only eliminates a broad array of barriers to trade and investment but also establishes new trade rules in innovative areas like digital trade and e-commerce, state-owned enterprises, and labor standards. Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP means foregoing economic benefits: the other eleven TPP partners promised substantial reductions in their barriers to U.S. exports of goods and services, and econometric estimates suggest that U.S. real income in 2025 would have been $131 billion higher per year, or 0.5 percent of GDP, owing to plurilateral liberalization.
Moreover, U.S. withdrawal from the TPP has undermined American credibility as a negotiating partner, and ceded to China and Japan erstwhile U.S. leadership in the dynamic Asia region just as initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, One Belt One Road Initiative, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) move forward without U.S. participation. China is already a major trade and investment partner of countries in Asia and worldwide, and TPP countries are moving forward to deepen ties; Canada and Mexico are seeking to open talks with China while Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia are seeking to expand existing deals, and seven of the original TPP-12 are participating in the RCEP talks. The other eleven TPP partners are exploring ratification of the pact among themselves, without the United States; if this happens, U.S. firms and workers will lose out on fresh opportunities and face new discrimination since tariffs and rules for trade between the eleven would be more favorable than those for trade with the United States.
Trump’s draft executive order in late April to terminate NAFTA entirely was quickly rescinded after he talked with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. NAFTA was a contentious agreement from its inception, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. In 1993, Bill Clinton had to twist the arms of his fellow Democrats to secure ratification by the House of Representatives, in a close 234–200 vote. The primary goal of NAFTA was to spur two-way trade between the United States and Mexico by eliminating tariffs, since the earlier Canada–U.S. free trade agreement had already eliminated most tariffs on America’s northern border. A secondary but related goal was to foster direct investment in Mexico. NAFTA succeeded on both counts: two-way goods trade between the United States and Mexico expanded from about $80 billion in 1993 to $240 billion ten years later. The stock of direct investment in Mexico—mainly by U.S. firms—leaped from $41 billion in 1993 to $163 billion in 2003. But U.S. opponents of NAFTA continued to blame the pact for creating job losses and depressed wages, even though the adverse effects were modest.
Candidate Trump promised to renegotiate NAFTA, which he called a “disaster” for perpetuating a bilateral trade deficit with Mexico and weakening the U.S. manufacturing sector. As president, he has also criticized specific Canadian trade practices, notably in the lumber and dairy industries. Serious economic analysis rejects the claim that NAFTA is responsible for the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico: there is simply no association between bilateral trade deficits and free trade agreements. More fundamentally, a bilateral trade deficit is no proof of economic disadvantage. Households incur bilateral deficits with their grocery stores, and bilateral surpluses with their employers, but these imbalances do not signal economic losses or gains. The same is true of trade imbalances between nations. The claim that NAFTA has weakened the U.S. manufacturing sector ignores the overwhelming impact of automation and information technology on manufacturing jobs, even though U.S. manufacturing output reaches new heights every decade. Trump is on stronger ground when he points to specific trade practices—for example, Canadian subsidies to its softwood lumber firms and dairy farmers—but in this traditional realm of trade policy he also needs to acknowledge longstanding U.S. trade barriers, for example restrictions on government procurement and coastal shipping.
Canada and Mexico strongly disagree with Trump’s negative characterization of NAFTA, but all three countries have concurred that the agreement can and should be modernized. Under U.S. law (the Trade Promotion Authority of 2015), the president must give ninety days notice to Congress before NAFTA talks can begin. A draft notice of U.S. negotiating objectives was circulated to Congress in March 2017, signaling priorities in the new negotiation. After Robert Lighthizer was confirmed as the new U.S. Trade Representative on May 11, he delivered the formal notice to Congress.
Most of Trump’s objectives for the new NAFTA talks are consistent with past practice. But a few goals expressed at times by Trump officials could derail the trade talks, foreshadowing a possible withdrawal from NAFTA by the United States. In particular, potential breaking points include strong demands on Mexico to eliminate its trade surplus with the United States, highly restrictive rules of origin in the automotive sector (no imports of parts from Thailand, China, Japan, or Korea), denial of access to government procurement contracts in favor of Buy America requirements, and “level the playing field” in tax treatment, a reference to Canadian and Mexican border tax adjustments for their goods and services tax and value added taxes, respectively.
Termination of NAFTA would entail a major setback in U.S. relations with its southern and northern neighbors, and would probably undermine cooperation on drug trafficking, illegal immigration from Central America, transit through the Arctic Ocean, and other issues. The economic dislocation from the termination of NAFTA would likely embitter an entire generation of Mexicans and Canadians.
On the other hand, modernization of NAFTA is a very different proposition, with potential benefits to all three countries. In updating NAFTA, the three trade negotiators can profitably draw from TPP chapters that addressed a range of new issues that were out of sight when NAFTA was ratified in 1993: digital commerce; state-owned enterprises; currency manipulation (a theoretical problem in North America, but a real problem elsewhere); defects in the investor–state dispute settlement framework; liberalization of Canadian agricultural barriers and U.S. cabotage rules; and stronger enforcement of labor and environmental standards.
A renegotiated NAFTA could in turn set the framework for engagement with other trading partners. Trump officials have suggested a revised U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and new bilateral trade deals with Japan and even the United Kingdom. But these face major hurdles, namely Korea’s reticence to alter the terms of KORUS, Japan’s strong preference for the TPP rather than a Japan–U.S. bilateral trade agreement, and the UK’s pending Brexit negotiations with the European Union. More broadly, a bilateral approach to trade talks, premised on significant U.S. demands for concessions from trading partners without reciprocal concessions by the United States, seems unlikely to succeed.
Trump Executive Orders
On his own initiative, without asking for congressional assent or negotiating with foreign countries, Trump can issue executive orders that shape the direction of trade policy and, if he so decides, restrict U.S. imports or exports. Although he has ample statutory authority, Trump so far has not limited U.S. trade. But he has issued several executive orders that direct new reports, assessments, and policy proposals by the U.S. Trade Representative, Commerce Department, Customs and Border Patrol, and others, throughout much of 2017, with a view to tightening trade enforcement. A summary of major actions and their motivations:
Presidential Executive Order Regarding the Omnibus Report on Significant Trade Deficits (March 31, 2017). The order directs the Commerce Department to “assess the major causes of the trade deficit,” focusing on “unfair and discriminatory practices” of U.S. trading partners. But bilateral trade deficits make little economic sense as a guide to trade policy in the twenty-first century. Because the United States persistently spends more than it produces, it must borrow or attract investment from abroad, reflecting a low savings rate. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross claims that underlying the deficit is the fact that the “U.S. has the lowest tariff rates and the lowest non-tariff barriers of any developed country in the world.” However, as economist Joseph Gagnon has demonstrated, trade policy, reflected in tariffs and free trade agreements, has little impact on the overall trade balance. Rather, fiscal policy and currency intervention are far more important determinants. Economist Caroline Freund concludes: “The aggregate U.S. trade deficit may be of concern, but it should be considered in the context of macroeconomic not trade policy.” That said, the Omnibus Report will probably serve as the “wish list” for U.S. demands in forthcoming trade negotiations.
Presidential Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American (April 18, 2017). The order directs U.S. agencies to “scrupulously monitor, enforce, and comply with Buy American laws” including use of domestically produced iron, steel, and manufactured goods in public projects, and to minimize waivers and exceptions. The U.S. Trade Representative and Commerce Department are directed to evaluate whether U.S. free trade agreements and WTO commitments weaken or circumvent “Buy American” laws. The other half of the order relates to “Hire American” and mandates stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws and visa programs. While politically popular, “Buy American” can be economically costly, and the United States itself has long criticized the promotion of domestic content and other discriminatory “buy-local” policies by other countries.
Presidential Executive Order Addressing Trade Agreement Violations and Abuses (April 29, 2017). This order was motivated by the alleged failure of U.S. trade and investment agreements to “enhance our economic growth, contribute favorably to our balance of trade, and strengthen the American manufacturing base.” Within 180 days, an interagency effort led by the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department will conduct “performance reviews” of all bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements—including trade relations with countries in the WTO with which the U.S. does not have a free trade agreement and also runs a trade deficit. The United States already issues several reports of this nature, most prominently the annual, five-hundred-page National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, which highlights problems facing U.S. exports, foreign direct investment, and intellectual property rights. The new executive order could lead to demands for modifying WTO rules. Secretary Ross has claimed that “there has never been a systematic evaluation of what has been the impact of the WTO agreements on the country as an integrated whole.” As a presidential candidate, Trump questioned the value of participation in the WTO, threatening to withdraw the United States from membership.
Presidential Executive Order on Establishment of Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy (April 29, 2017). The order establishes a new office to be run by economist Peter Navarro, which will advise the president “on policies to increase economic growth, decrease the trade deficit, and strengthen the United States manufacturing and defense industrial bases” and serve as a liaison between the White House and the Commerce Department. The new office is directed to implement “Buy American” and “Hire American” policies in particular. It’s not clear how influential the new office will be in shaping U.S. trade policy.
Presidential Executive Order Establishing Enhanced Collection and Enforcement of Antidumping and Countervailing Duties and Violations of Trade and Customs Laws (March 31, 2017). The order is intended to rectify some $2.3 billion in uncollected antidumping and countervailing duties. This happens because the final AD/CVD duty assessed by Commerce can be higher than its initial estimate, leaving a balance due years later. Meanwhile, some importing companies have since gone out of business or were dissolved to avoid paying additional duties. The executive order requires the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the departments of Treasury and Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative, to implement a plan to impose bonding requirements that better cover antidumping and countervailing duty liability for importers at higher risk of noncompliance. It also orders a new strategy to narrow violations of U.S. trade and customs laws.
More broadly, action against U.S. imports of goods dumped at unfairly low prices or subsidized by foreign governments—such as the recent imposition of preliminary countervailing duties against Canadian softwood lumber—is a Trump priority. The United States is already a major user of antidumping and countervailing duties, with nearly four hundred active orders in place. But the administration has pledged to ramp up “self-initiating trade cases, which speeds up the process of taking corrective action while allowing the Commerce Department to shield American businesses from retaliation.”
In the case of steel and aluminum, the Trump administration is invoking a far-reaching, and less commonly used, statute. Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 permits an investigation by the Commerce Department regarding whether imports “threaten to impair” U.S. national security. The administration announced investigations for steel and aluminum as “critical elements of our manufacturing and defense industrial bases,” with instructions to Commerce to expedite the study. The national security exception, rarely used, faces little or no WTO scrutiny (owing to GATT Article XXI) and is thus hard to challenge. As economist Chad Bown cautions, “New import restrictions arising under that area of U.S. law really are akin to the ‘nuclear option’—their use really puts the entire system of international trade law at risk.”
U.S.-China 100-Day Action Plan (April 7, 2017). China is the single largest source of the U.S. trade deficit owing to its strong comparative advantage in a broad range of manufactured goods. China’s bilateral trade surplus was more than $300 billion in 2016, accounting for more than half of the U.S. global trade deficit of about $500 billion. This surplus, concentrated in sectors like computer hardware, cellphones, apparel and footwear, and steel coupled with China’s reluctance to open its markets to U.S. agriculture and service exports, have made China a pointed target of U.S. trade disputes over the past decade. In the 2016 presidential campaign, China thus became the object of severe criticism. Strident views were voiced by Ross and Navarro, who accused China of stealing intellectual property, dumping goods in the U.S. market, manipulating its currency, and unfairly restricting imports from the United States.
A comprehensive U.S.–China trade deal may be a distant reality, but managing bilateral frictions and improving the economic relationship remains crucial. The 100-Day Action Plan pledged to work toward “rebalancing trade.” On May 12, both sides issued a progress report on the U.S.–Chinese agreement highlighting, among other things, Chinese commitments to import U.S. beef, increase market access for U.S. credit rating and credit card services, and accelerate “science-based evaluations” of pending U.S. applications to export biotech products (such as genetically modified organisms). The agreement aims to resolve specific trade disputes to a limited extent; more importantly it signals the intent to work together to “avert a trade war.”
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with Foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” However, thanks to successive statutes stretching back a full century, prior congresses have given presidents ample power to restrict both trade and financial flows. To be sure, Congress is parsimonious when it comes to liberalizing trade. Liberalization requires a specific time-limited delegation of power, enabling the president to negotiate trade agreements (such as the Trade Promotion Authority of 2015), and the president’s handiwork must then be endorsed by congressional ratification of implementing legislation. But a president who wants to restrict trade enjoys almost carte blanche authority.
Just because Trump possesses the legal power to carry out his campaign declarations does not mean that a trade war is around the corner. Equally important are congressional considerations. Trump’s legislative priorities include repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, enacting corporate tax reform, and launching a massive infrastructure program. Such landmark measures can only be passed using the budget reconciliation process for the 2017 and 2018 budgets, thereby requiring just fifty-one Senate votes, not the sixty needed to overcome a filibuster by naysaying Democrats. Why would Trump muddy his priority agenda by starting a trade war, thereby infringing on congressional sensibilities, risking a global recession, and possibly losing the votes of traditional Republicans?
Even targeted trade restrictions will attract vigorous court challenges by affected U.S. business firms and possibly some states. Most of Trump’s actions would likely survive these challenges, both because he would have the constitutional foreign affairs powers of the presidency on his side and because he could cite multiple statutes giving him authority.
But foreign countries will not patiently wait for U.S. court proceedings or litigation in the WTO to vindicate their trading rights. Targeted retaliation is almost certain, and would be carefully crafted to hurt states, companies, and communities that count themselves as Trump supporters. For example, in the current softwood lumber dispute, Canada has quietly threatened to restrict imports of packaging materials from Oregon and not allow transshipment of coal from Wyoming and Montana. The larger the battlefield of trade conflicts, the greater the opening handed to China to lead the world trading system. This should not be a welcome outlook for Trump’s diplomatic and security advisors.
Trump will surely open aggressive NAFTA negotiations with Mexico and Canada, and put demands on China and South Korea. He has already dumped the TPP, and will likely shelve the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. His administration will initiate multiple antidumping and countervailing duty cases and probably disdain adverse WTO rulings. These actions bring no joy to free traders. Great opportunities for boosting the world economy and lifting American living standards will be lost. Globalization—reflected both in escalating trade-to-GDP ratios (annual trade in goods and services has reached nearly 60 percent of world GDP), and in the vast growth of foreign direct investment (the FDI stock is now 35 percent of world GDP)—has been a major driver of global prosperity since World War II. Despite contemporary discontent, the past seventy years have been the best period of comparable duration in world history.
Skepticism toward multilateral trade deals combined with more protectionist U.S. trade policy would stunt fresh policy liberalization at a time when the pace of global trade growth has been disappointing. Since 2008, the global economy has seen its longest period of relative trade stagnation due to a combination of sluggish global economic recovery, shorter supply chains, the lack of new liberalization, and rising micro-protectionism. The WTO projected a slight uptick in growth in 2017, but cautioned that policy uncertainty, namely the potential for restrictive trade policies and the uncertain outcome of Brexit talks, could undermine a rebound.
Whether world prosperity flourishes in the next decade is clearly an open question. But if Trump limits his actions to the measures so far announced, they will not bring the United States to the brink of a global trade war. At the same time, his policies are sure to diminish America’s standing as the preeminent global leader and undermine U.S. ability to influence the decisions of foreign leaders.
Gary Clyde Hufbauer is the Reginald Jones Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Previously, he was the Maurice R. Greenberg Chair and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Marcus Wallenberg Professor of International Finance Diplomacy and deputy director of the International Law Institute at Georgetown University. He served as deputy assistant secretary for international trade and investment policy at the U.S. Treasury from 1977 to 1980. He is the coauthor of Bridging the Pacific: Toward Free Trade and Investment between China and the United States; US-China Trade Disputes: Rising Tide, Rising Stakes; and NAFTA Revisited: Achievements and Challenges, among other works.
Cathleen Cimino-Isaacs is a research associate at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and manages the institute’s “Trade & Investment Policy Watch” blog. She is coeditor of Trans-Pacific Partnership: An Assessment and coauthor of Local Content Requirements: A Global Problem.
The Case for Open Markets
When Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson was challenged to name one proposition in economics that is both true and nontrivial, his answer was “comparative advantage.” Comparative advantage is the main force driving international trade: countries open to trade would export what they are comparatively “good” at producing, and import what they are comparatively “bad” at producing. “Good” and “bad” refer to production costs, which, in competitive markets, define prices to consumers.
Economists argue (and, in fact, have also empirically proved) that international trade makes countries, in the aggregate, better off; through imports, consumers living in countries open to trade have access to goods and services at lower prices than they would have in the absence of trade. The increase in the purchasing power of consumers—and thus their welfare—achieved through international trade is what economists refer to as gains from trade.
When digging into the distributional effects, we also know that while international trade makes some people better off, it also makes some others worse off. Thanks to trade, consumers will be able to enjoy lower prices due to increasing competition from abroad, but workers in those industries might lose their jobs. Yet, the phrase in the aggregate implies that the welfare improvement of consumers who benefit offsets the losses of workers who are hurt if their wages are reduced or they lose their jobs (even though workers are also consumers, and also benefit from the lower prices).
This tradeoff prompts a number of questions: How is welfare measured, and how is it aggregated? How can one possibly argue that allowing some people to save a few bucks when buying car parts offsets the fact that workers in local factories could lose their jobs? The difficulties in responding to such questions with simple answers—that is, without fancy mathematical models and highly complicated data analyses—is part of the reason that international trade is being questioned by large sectors of populations and exploited as a scapegoat for economic woes by populist politicians.
To be sure, some discontent with globalization is nothing new. But today we are seeing widespread dissatisfaction as reflected in such global events as the triumph of Brexit or Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president. Until now, international trade—and more broadly, globalization—was not such a controversial issue. On the contrary, the world as a whole embraced international trade, and most countries progressively eliminated trade barriers and created global institutions to further free trade. A large-scale multilateral effort to reduce trade barriers between countries resulted in the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT, signed by twenty-three nations. The World Trade Organization (WTO), founded in 1995 as the successor to GATT, today has 164 member states. According to the WTO, more than four hundred regional trade agreements covering trade in goods or services have been created or reformed since the establishment of the WTO.
In 2017, it certainly feels like the free trade party is over. With the European Union about to formally lose its second-largest economy, and the Trump administration pushing (or at least saying it will) a protectionist agenda—withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), possibly imposing tariffs on China—international trade might slow down in the years to come.
Can protectionism revive the manufacturing jobs lost over the last decades in advanced economies such as the United States? Probably not.
To understand why, let’s look first at the rationale behind the claim that links trade to job losses. President Trump’s rhetoric suggests that American firms, by taking advantage of both wage differentials between the United States and countries like Mexico or China, have moved their factories abroad while serving U.S. consumers by exporting from those locations to the United States at no additional costs (as the result of low or no import tariffs due to trade agreements) beyond transportation.
Indeed, since NAFTA came into force in 1994, imports from Mexico to the United States have increased at a much faster pace than exports from the United States to Mexico. The U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has increased considerably, and stands today at about $60 billion. And since then, the United States has lost about five million jobs in the manufacturing sector. A similar case is made about China, with which the United States has its largest trade deficit, about $350 billion a year. The figures may seem to bolster President Trump’s argument, but the story is not so simple. Trump’s view of international trade is, to say the least, very unsophisticated. He is looking at the trade deficit to claim that the current trade deals are “unfair.” But there are a number of angles, and many more data points, that should be taken into account before making those claims and, more generally, before assessing the benefits from trade.
The Import-Export Conundrum
The notion that running a trade deficit is not a good thing is, at first sight, not outrageous. After all, in our day-to-day lives, we don’t want to spend more than what we earn.
Yet, is this the right logic? Not necessarily. Let’s look first at bilateral trade deficits. Often, the trade deficit with a particular set of countries is offset by a trade surplus with other countries. Overall, the United States has a trade deficit of about $450 billion a year. Bilateral trade surpluses with Hong Kong, Australia, Chile, and Brazil, for example, offset part of the deficit with countries such as China, Mexico, Germany, and Japan, among others. Thus, in this sense, the bilateral trade deficits are meaningless as they do not reflect the big picture.
President Trump’s obsession with the trade deficit might push his administration to take steps that might change bilateral deficits but won’t impact the overall deficit, which is the one that matters. For instance, imposing import tariffs on Chinese or Mexican goods will not really affect the overall trade deficit. Yes, goods and services from these two countries will be more expensive to the American consumer, and they might decide not to buy them. But will consumers find substitutes for those goods in America? Likely not. American producers rarely compete with Chinese and Mexican producers on the same goods or varieties of goods. Following the imposition of import tariffs, consumers will have to rely on countries other than China and Mexico that can competitively produce those goods and services. Even if imposing tariffs on China and Mexico could potentially reduce the U.S. trade deficit with them, it will most certainly increase it with other countries that are competitors of China and Mexico. The overall trade deficit will, at best, remain the same.
Now let’s turn to the aggregate trade deficit: is it bad for the United States to run a large trade deficit? It depends. America’s trade deficit accounts for about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product. Not too high, but not too low either. Naturally, deficits create debt. But debt is not good only when either of two things occur: when it cannot be paid, or when others suspect it cannot be paid. That is not the case with the United States. In terms of public debt, judging by the markets, America is the safest country of all.
This takes us to the next, and perhaps more crucial, point—the overall trade balance won’t be affected by renegotiations, taxes, or tariffs. This is because the trade deficit reflects the existence of a more structural characteristic of the U.S. economy: the low levels of domestic savings. Basic macroeconomic accounting shows that the trade deficit equals the difference between domestic savings and total investment in the economy. The low level of savings is partly encouraged by the monetary policy put in place by the Federal Reserve following the Great Recession of 2008; low interest rates encourage consumption and discourage savings. Thus, monetary policy—which is not controlled by the executive—could play a role in reducing the trade deficit by encouraging Americans to save more. But this is particularly delicate in a still-recovering economy. Increasing the interest rate too much and too fast might roll back the post-recession progress that the economy has made.
All in all, the trade deficit is a reflection of the behavior driving consumption and saving decisions of the American people, and not of the “fairness” of trade deals. It’s as simple as that.
Productivity and Progress
Here’s a fact: all advanced economies lost jobs in their manufacturing sector, regardless of whether they were running a trade surplus or a deficit. The United States is not the exception, but the rule.
While the United States lost five million jobs in manufacturing since NAFTA was signed, it increased its manufacturing output by $800 billion. Thus, this additional data point that President Trump has ignored all along hints of a very, if not the most, important point: the vast majority of American jobs that vanished in manufacturing were lost to higher productivity. On average, American workers are able to produce 50 percent more today than they did in the early 1990s. Thus, most of these jobs weren’t lost to Mexico or China or any other country. They were lost to increases in productivity.
In fact, a few studies have tried to assess what portion of the job losses can be attributed to trade. The answer: not very many. The net job losses that can be attributed to trade with Mexico and China are estimated to be 100,000 and 300,000, respectively—a tiny share, less than 0.5 percent of the overall labor force.
These relative small numbers in net job losses reflect an important reality; while some jobs were being destroyed due to trade, many more jobs were being created thanks to trade. One way to look at this is by examining the nature of imports from Mexico to the United States. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of those imports are considered intermediate goods—capital goods, industrial supplies, and materials destined for production in the United States. On top of that, another close to 20 percent are intermediate goods for the U.S. automotive industry. The largest beneficiaries of Mexican goods are not consumers but rather firms. These firms have access to raw materials and intermediate goods that make them more competitive and able to sell their final goods not only within the United States but also to the rest of the world. It is likely that in the absence of free trade with Mexico, many American firms wouldn’t be able to compete in global markets.
By no means should we minimize the pain and suffering of those who lost their jobs. It is a fact that many workers became unemployed because the firms and industries for which they worked, sometimes for decades, were not competitive enough to survive the increasing competition from foreign imports. This is a very unfortunate outcome of international trade.
Yet, the damage can be contained without giving up on international trade. Given that trade results in welfare gains in the aggregate, redistribution can offset the suffering of those who lost their jobs or saw their (relative) wages decreasing over time. If the Trump administration truly wants to stand out from its predecessors, its response to the valid discontent among those adversely affected by international trade would be to provide safety nets for workers to transition to another career or, if necessary, to retirement. These safety nets are what has been missing from the equation. President Trump has the opportunity to become a champion of the middle class by putting away his anti-trade rhetoric and instead focusing on social programs that can offset the damage created by international trade among some communities.
Republicans and even some Democrats will oppose the safety net option. Why should the government be supporting workers who lost their jobs, many will ask. From the strict point of view of economics, they do have a point. Competition leads to job losses for some people. It is the nature of free markets, and therefore there is no justification for government intervention. But this time is arguably different: providing safety nets to workers who lost their jobs to international trade is the compromise that should emerge so that democracy and globalization can coexist together, and hopefully reduce the likelihood of future “shocks” to the system that can endanger both of them.
International trade is one of the catalysts in the process through which less productive firms die and other more productive firms are born. As part of these dynamics, workers and other resources flow from the least to the most productive companies or industries. The fast growth of South Korea and other Asian economies during the last half of the twentieth century is mostly the result of this process, as documented by many studies.
The world has been experiencing a productivity slowdown since the mid-2000s. While the fundamentals behind this slowdown remain unexplained, most economists agree that it represents the biggest challenge faced by the United States and other advanced economies. Nothing besides productivity growth can sustain long-run economic growth. It is more competition and more trade, not less, that is required to jumpstart productivity growth. Conversely, any policy aiming to reverse the advances the world has seen in free trade could have longstanding negative consequences to global economic growth. No worker, consumer, or politician will be immune to that reality.
Dany Bahar is a fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and an associate at Harvard University’s Center for International Development. On Twitter: @dany_bahar.
These are bad times for free traders. In the United States, the backlash against trade and globalization was central to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. His protectionist message found support across America, even as 370 economists, including eight Nobel laureates, signed a letter denouncing Trump’s economic platform. Anti-trade sentiment, also palpable in the 2016 Brexit referendum vote to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union, appears to be a spreading virus. A 2016 World Trade Organization (WTO) analysis found a trend of increasing protectionist measures around the world.
What accounts for the backlash against free trade? Why is there such a gaping divide between public opinion and economic experts on the issue? Virtually without exception, economists view the free flow of goods and services across borders as the best economic policy for countries at all income levels. In his 1996 book Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade, Dartmouth College economist Douglas Irwin writes that free trade is among the strongest policy prescriptions in economists’ arsenal.
The economic case for free trade rests on the argument that free exchange of goods and services will result in higher national income. In other words, if the object of the game is the biggest pie of wealth, then free trade is a means for achieving the goal. This conclusion has its origins in the work of early philosophers Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and volumes of research have confirmed the principle. Countries with fewer barriers to trade clearly outperform those with high barriers on measures of economic growth. By allowing countries to specialize in those goods and services in which they have a “comparative advantage,” liberal trade is a “win-win” for all countries. Because most economists use a growth metric to assess policies, their pro-trade prescriptions follow directly from this metric. Almost by definition, the policy of free trade, which results in the highest economic growth, is the best economic policy.
Opposition to trade is traditionally explained with reference to two groups—those who are harmed (or expect to be harmed) by trade, and those who fail to understand its benefits.
Trade creates winners and losers. In other words, it has distributional consequences. In wealthy Western countries, lower-skilled workers are often harmed by trade liberalization as they face competition from workers in lower-income countries. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992 and China’s admission to the WTO in 2001, for example, had negative effects on lower-skilled manufacturing workers in the United States.
In developing countries, trade liberalization often creates competitive pressure on local industries when multinationals enter the market with exports or foreign direct investment. Even as a country as a whole becomes richer, particular subgroups will experience adverse consequences. It is natural that these groups will use the political means at their disposal to oppose trade liberalization or to seek protection. This phenomenon was at work in eighteenth-century England when the “groans of the weavers” limited textile imports from India, and it is at work today as the retail industry in India seeks to limit the entry of Western superstores.
Another explanation for opposition to trade has also long been advanced: many simply do not understand the benefits of trade. Harvard University economist N. Gregory Mankiw has proposed a version of the ignorance thesis by suggesting that anti-trade sentiment stemmed from irrational biases.
The Battle of Seattle
Over the past decade, while speaking to a variety of audiences about trade across the United States, I have been continually surprised by the strong anti-trade sentiment I encountered. I have also been struck by how opposition to trade went beyond traditional skeptics such as furloughed workers. In studying this trend, I concluded that four interrelated concerns—about process, sovereignty, risk, and fairness—help explain the recent spread of anti-trade sentiment. In brief, motivated by one or more of these four concerns an unlikely alliance of trade skeptics from across the political spectrum is helping drive the current anti-trade movement.
Concerns about process burst onto the scene in 1999, when anti-globalization demonstrations erupted in dozens of cities around the world, disrupting meetings of a variety of multilateral bodies including the WTO, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. The so-called “Battle of Seattle” protest succeeded in derailing a WTO ministerial meeting and effectively launching the present-day anti-globalization movement. The failure of the WTO to make much headway in trade liberalization since that time can be traced in part to the popular protests that were a common feature of the landscape during the 1999–2005 period.
Multinational corporations (MNCs) indisputably contribute to economic growth in poor countries. Yet because of perceived links between globalization and exploitation of developing countries, the protests brought new elements into the anti-trade camp: social, labor, and environmental activists. Not coincidentally, the protests roughly coincided with the widespread adoption of the global value chain (GVC) approach by MNCs. This entails slicing up production activities and placing them in different countries through offshoring and outsourcing. Environmental and labor abuses have been publicized in the GVCs of a variety of industries, from apparel to agricultural goods to primary products.
In his 2011 book The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik argues that national sovereignty may be sacrificed under certain kinds of trade liberalization. After the end of World War II, trade liberalization took the form of tariff cuts; indeed average tariffs on imports have fallen by approximately two-thirds since 1980. The trend is particularly pronounced in wealthy countries. For example, average import tariffs in the United States and the United Kingdom are now approximately 2 percent. Especially in wealthy countries, then, further trade liberalization must come from reducing non-tariff barriers, known as NTBs. While tariffs are generally a form of trade protection, NTBs have often arisen outside of trade considerations in the context of a country’s political and policy process. Common NTBs include product safety standards or licensing requirements. NTBs thus serve a purpose beyond their role as trade barriers, and are in place at least in part due to citizen preferences. For example, while the European bans on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) serve as trade barriers that limit imports, the bans are motivated at least in part by national values. Reducing these non-tariff barriers to trade would effectively surrender some political and regulatory self-determination.
Another issue related to sovereignty—and one which the Trump administration has criticized—is the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) agreement under WTO rules. This is a method of trade-related dispute settlement situated beyond the jurisdiction of the judicial systems of member countries. While the intent is to stimulate trade and investment by streamlining dispute settlement, critics argue that in practice the DSU constitutes special treatment for MNCs. Conservative American commentator and former diplomat John Bolton recently argued that the DSU is part of a damaging long-term trend related to trade and other issues that transfers sovereignty from national to international bodies. The retreat from multilateral organizations in the name of sovereignty is central to Trump’s “America First” trade policy.
The economic volatility induced by trade liberalization is another factor explaining the skepticism of citizens who may favor stability over growth. While free trade creates opportunities and income gains, trade flows are more volatile than other components of economic activity. Caroline Freund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics has estimated that world trade dropped nearly five times as much as gross domestic product during the recessions of 1975, 1982, 1991, and 2001. The drop in trade in the 2008 recession was far more dramatic, reflecting the recent widespread adoption of the global value chain model of production. It is likely that the emergence of GVCs amplified the income gains from trade by allowing more efficient distribution of tasks, but at the same time increased the responsiveness of trade flows to economic conditions. While extensive research has documented the income gains from trade liberalization, research evaluating the risk is in its early stages.
Finally, a rallying cry of the past decade or so has been for “fair trade, not free trade.” Significant emerging research in social psychology shows that most people value fairness, and in fact will often give up income gains if they feel they are being unfairly treated. Similarly, people are accepting of losses if they believe the process by which income is allocated is fair. In the realm of trade, the most common concern is focused on various forms of government involvement in economic activity, particularly in countries with strong non-market elements. For example, China’s management of the renminbi was a headline fairness issue for most of the early 2000s, as were Beijing’s state subsidies of a variety of export industries. An undervalued currency and state subsidies can create gains for China’s trading partners by making Chinese exports less expensive. But the attraction of these gains is often swamped by criticism of unfairness. Donald Trump repeatedly raises the fairness issue when discussing trade with China.
The opaque manner in which trade agreements are negotiated also raises doubts about fairness in the minds of many citizens. Since the disruption of the WTO agenda in the early 2000s, many countries have initiated bilateral and multilateral agreements. In the United States, for example, twenty free trade agreements are currently in force, most of these negotiated since the year 2000. Such agreements are normally negotiated in secret, and as a result it is difficult for voters or policy makers outside the discussions to voice concerns or provide input. The resulting suspicion creates concerns about the disproportionate involvement of special interests. Opinion surveys in the United States indicate much more skepticism about trade agreements than about trade itself.
While it would be an overstatement to argue that these four concerns about trade are completely new, it is clear that they have gained force in recent years. What is noteworthy about these sources of skepticism is that they generally arise from disparate groups, with the trade issue often providing the only common ground. It is difficult to imagine policy issues about which President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders can agree, yet on the issue of trade their policy statements are quite close. Similarly, social and environmental activists have little demographic overlap with furloughed factory workers or populist/nationalist groups, yet their assessments on trade are often similar.
The current headwinds for liberal trade agendas are strong, but it is hard to conceive that the longstanding trend of increasing economic linkages among countries will be reversed. Key forces powering these linkages, especially falling communication and transport costs, are accelerating. Yet given the unlikely alliance of trade skeptics motivated by different factors, advocates of global trade face difficult days ahead. Concerns of workers experiencing layoffs, a traditional pro-protectionist demographic, may be addressed by job retraining and other social protections. But this approach will make less difference to others in the anti-trade alliance such as social and environmental activists. Winning the hearts and minds of voters on trade issues will continue to be a major challenge.
Pietra Rivoli is a professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. She is the author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which was adapted into a series for NPR’s Planet Money. She has contributed to the Guardian, Financial Times, and New York Times Magazine.
Speed Bumps on the Silk Road
China released its first-ever Arab Policy Paper in 2016, detailing the official government approach to the Middle East. “Friendship between China and Arab states dates back to ancient times,” the paper begins. It speaks about the land and maritime Silk Roads linking Imperial China and the nations to its west. Quickly, the paper pivots from the distant past to the immediate present, invoking Beijing’s foreign policy mantra: “Learning from each other, mutual benefit, and win-win results.”
“Win-win” is the official guiding framework for Beijing’s relations with the rest of the world. It is meant to set China apart from the perceived lingering colonialism in the foreign policy of Western nations. It stresses mutual benefit while respecting every country’s sovereignty and right to self-governance. It shuns military brandishing (notwithstanding its current maneuvers in the South China Sea) and emphasizes economic deal-making.
A nice slogan will not be enough for Beijing to pack greater influence in the resource-rich, politically unstable Middle East. For perhaps understandable reasons, China is unwilling to challenge American and Russian power in the region. China lacks the military might to engage in prolonged combat operations in the Middle East. It has no military presence in the Gulf or the Indian Ocean, rendering it incapable of any meaningful projection of hard power. Nor has China been willing to use its position on the international stage to influence political developments in the region, even as its failure to build diplomatic credibility in the Middle East undermines its larger objective of achieving great power status.
The turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring presented Beijing with a challenge and an opportunity to reconsider its studied neutrality and take a more assertive posture. The People’s Liberation Army sprung into action to evacuate some thirty-five thousand Chinese workers stranded by the civil war in Libya. As Enrico Fardella of Beijing University has noted, with conflict also raging in Syria and Iraq, influential voices within China began to agitate for at least “a system of prevention” and “constructive intervention” aimed at safeguarding Chinese interests and Chinese nationals abroad.
Yet little in Beijing’s cautious approach has changed, to the consternation of many in the region who would like to see China’s influence, especially as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, put to constructive ends. “I don’t even need to explain that human rights—including the most basic one, the right to life—means nothing for Beijing,” wrote a commentator in the Turkish daily Hürriyet in 2012, unleashing fury after China vetoed punitive measures against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. “This is simply a mercantilist dictatorship without any principles.” At the same time in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, a commentator called China “an economic giant but a political dwarf.” In international politics, the writer went on, “China’s image reminds one of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, fading away behind an enigmatic smile. Name any issue and you are unlikely to find a coherent Chinese position. In the United Nations Security Council, China seldom goes beyond cryptic and confusing statements.”
Bandung and Beyond
After China’s Communist revolution in 1949, Beijing took an assertive role in the Middle East, in support of anti-colonialism. It was a force at the 1955 Bandung Conference hosted by Indonesia, which brought together twenty-nine countries from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to denounce colonialism as “an evil which should speedily be brought to an end” and lend support to Arab liberation struggles; the gathering inspired the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement six years later.
China took a keen interest in the Middle East for a variety of reasons. It sought diplomatic recognition in its campaign to displace the Republic of China (now Taiwan) as the sole legitimate government of China in foreign relations between countries and admission to the United Nations. Chairman Mao Zedong also feared that control of the Middle East by a hostile power, whether it be the United States or the Soviet Union, would threaten China’s national security. In addition, China was intent on showing support for Muslim causes in order to bind China’s own Muslim population to Beijing’s rule. Besides initiating trade relations with Arab countries, Beijing supported Arab national liberation movements. In 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser made Egypt the first Arab and African country to recognize the People’s Republic, and Beijing in turn provided diplomatic and financial support to Cairo amid the Suez Crisis—the tripartite invasion of Egypt by Israel, France, and Great Britain.
But China’s political overtures have generally failed to resonate with Middle Eastern countries. For their part, as Kurt Radtke of the International Institute for Asian Studies in the Netherlands has explained, Chinese Communists explicitly rejected the kind of feudal, patriarchal, or religious political culture found in much of the region. Arab countries in turn were left unimpressed by China’s relative lack of military and economic power prior to the 1970s. Today, political relations remain tied by many of the principles adopted at the Bandung conference, such as abstention from intervention, interference, or exerting pressure in the affairs of other countries. Beijing, for example, does not pressure Arab states to democratize or reform. The Arab Policy Paper lays out Beijing’s current ideological synergies with the Middle East: “Safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity, defending national dignity, seeking political resolution to hotspot issues, and promoting peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Oil and Arms
Trade remains at the center of China’s relations with the Middle East. After China opened its economy for international commerce in the late 1970s, trade and energy security became the foundation of its foreign policy. China and Middle East nations have reached lucrative deals encompassing oil, infrastructure, and arms.
The Middle East is currently China’s second-largest supplier of crude oil and seventh-largest trading partner. Trade between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and China reached $92 billion in 2010 and is projected to hit $350–550 billion by 2020. To hit that target, China envisions a “1+2+3” development of economic relations with the region. The core will continue to be energy cooperation. Infrastructure construction, trade, and investment will be layered on top, and nuclear energy, space exploration, and new types of energy will be the third phase. The project that encapsulates all three of these areas is the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), a $1 trillion infrastructure development initiative led by China that will span East Asia to North Africa. From Beijing’s point of view, OBOR is critical to securing its energy supply in the Middle East and Central Asia and opening new trade routes should current supply channels through Asia be compromised.
Though it is searching for alternative energy sources as part of a larger drive toward improving environmental sustainability, China’s oil consumption is nonetheless projected to grow over the next decade. The country’s consumption in 2010 was 9.57 million barrels a day (5.5 million of which was imported), second only to the United States. By 2020, China is expected to import 70 percent of its oil needs from the Middle East—5.9 to 6.9 million barrels a day. By 2025, China’s demand for oil will increase by another 30 percent, to 12.8 million barrels a day.
Each Middle Eastern country has received its own share of this demand from China. Saudi Arabia is China’s largest Arab oil trading partner, providing 17 percent of the country’s oil imports. As demand from the United States continues to fall, China is also emerging as the largest importer of Saudi oil, averaging well above 1 million barrels a day over the last few years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), China’s second-largest trading partner in the region, registers comparatively modest oil exports to China but is determined to increase that volume. PetroChina, the third-largest oil and gas company in the world and a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), has incorporated nearly twenty companies in the UAE in less than five years.
Iraq is China’s third-largest Arab trading partner, after Saudi Arabia and UAE, providing 10 percent of Beijing’s oil imports. In 2014, China purchased nearly a third of the oil that Iraq produced that year and was the country’s largest oil customer. The CNPC and China National Offshore Oil Corporation have contracts with the Iraqi government to develop oilfields in Rumaila, Halfaya, Al-Ahdab, and Missan. Iran, meanwhile, is China’s third-largest oil supplier, providing 11 percent of China’s oil imports by 2009. Zhuhai Zhenrong Corporation, a Chinese state-owned oil company, signed a twenty-five-year deal in 2004 with Iran to import 110 million tons of liquefied natural gas.
To strengthen its ties to Middle Eastern nations and facilitate the trade in oil, China has maintained a long-term policy of supplying arms to the region. Since 2005, Iran has been one of China’s biggest customers, accounting for 14 percent of its military exports. From 2006 to 2011, China sold Iran $312 million in arms, second only to Russia’s $684 million. China has similar arrangements with Algeria, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. In turn, these countries offer Beijing economic concessions in the form of equity stakes in oilfields as well as other natural resources and precious metals.
With the global diversification of energy portfolios and resulting drop in oil prices over the past five years, the Middle East has been looking to expand its trade with China into areas outside of oil and defense. Chief among these is construction and infrastructure. Following the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, China took a discount on contracts with the Iraqi government for reconstruction, even building its own airports to provide transport for Iraqi oil workers. The Economic Cooperation Organization, comprised of Central Asian countries and Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, established a rail link between Iran and Kazakhstan that connects with China. Another new rail project led by China Railway Construction Corporation Limited transports Muslim pilgrims from around Saudi Arabia to the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.
Egypt is one of only five countries on the African continent to have a special economic zone with China. In 2012, Chinese–Egyptian trade reached $9.6 billion, though the growth rate of the trade deficit (in favor of China) reached 16.2 percent between 1995 and 2012. During his 2014 visit to Beijing, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi signed a strategic partnership with China for cooperation on technology, economic development, new and renewable energy, and space exploration. Chinese–Egyptian trade reached $11 billion by the end of 2014.
The UAE similarly uses free trade zones to facilitate its trade with China. There are roughly thirty-nine hundred Chinese companies in the UAE, nine hundred of which are registered in these zones. As a result, despite being China’s second-largest trading partner in the region, it is nevertheless China’s hub for business dealings with the Middle East, Africa, and even Central Asia. Because trade between China and the UAE in oil is comparatively low, other goods account for overall volume. China exports manufactured goods such as textiles, electronics, machinery, and solar panels to the UAE while the UAE exports natural gas, merchandise, and services. Emirati companies are also making headway in China. Dubai Ports World, for example, has been managing property construction projects, hotels, and ports in China.
Despite the progress, the China–Middle East trade corridor remains relatively quiet compared to those with China’s other trading partners. China and the Middle East differ on the extent to which the current situation is a “win-win.” While China sees much potential and little downside in the status quo, its Middle Eastern counterparts are more skeptical of the economic gain and wary of China’s official positions on the geopolitical stage.
One issue is that China has a history of exporting its own labor to execute projects in the Middle East, even to the point that the Chinese violate local labor laws protecting local workers. The state-owned enterprises running these projects have lagged behind in market competitiveness, leading to neglect in cost control. In 2004, six GCC states sent their finance ministers to Beijing to negotiate a Framework Agreement on Economic, Trade, Investment, and Technological Cooperation governing the establishment of free trade zones with China. Although seven rounds of negotiations have taken place, there is a lack of urgency of both sides since neither views the other as a crucial economic partner in the short or medium terms.
Another factor holding back trade is China’s search for alternative energy providers, particularly in North America, after having lost tens of billions in investments due to the conflicts in Libya and Syria. Chinese trade officials told their Arab counterparts at an energy cooperation forum in Beijing in late 2016 that they had to diversify their economies and offer more than energy exports if they wanted to expand their trade relationships with Beijing. Even though the Middle East has been explicitly diversifying its exports, China’s message was clear: there is still much to be done, and there’s only so much China can do to support those efforts in the early stages.
Lost in Translation
Historically, China has been confused by the disunity in the Middle East, dating back to the inability of Arab states to form a common position on Palestine after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. China tends to judge the region’s issues in isolation, rather than in consultation with relevant Arab stakeholders. The lack of engagement and understanding about local dynamics ensures a degree of distance between China and its Middle Eastern partners. It practices neutrality to avoid getting mired in regional politics and conflicts, yet blatantly plays Middle East countries off of one another to maintain advantageous positions. For example, China supported both Iraq and Iran during their 1980–88 war and continues to be on both sides of the UAE-Iran dispute over islands in the Gulf.
Writing in 2011 in the International Herald Guidance, a Chinese foreign policy journal published by the Xinhua News Agency, researchers Liang Jiawen and Zhang Bingyang argued that when it comes to the Middle East, China’s policies are “accepted by all parties, but fail to satisfy any one party.” There is no sign that China will abandon that neutrality in the foreseeable future. Not only is China unable to project hard power in the Middle East due to a relative lack of military capacity, Beijing values working within the Western order and prefers to influence international governance institutions with its economic clout.
Yet Beijing does have options for upgrading its standing in the Middle East. One is to improve conditions for the twenty-five million Muslims in China, whose mistreatment by the Communist regime, which officially promotes atheism, angers many in the Middle East. In 1982, the government promulgated Document 19, which discourages the building of new religious structures and brought all existing structures under the Bureau of Religious Affairs. The move exacerbated the conflict in Xinjiang province in western China, where Uyghur separatists are demanding independence from what they consider Chinese occupation.
In 2005, a survey conducted by the Arab American Institute indicated that 15 percent of Egyptians and 41 percent of Saudis held unfavorable views about China. By 2011, the unfavorable ratings increased to 43 percent and 66 percent, respectively. China detractors range across the spectrum from Islamists to militants to more moderate sections of the Arab population. After the Arab Spring, then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi expressed disgust at China for backing Arab dictatorships, particularly China’s veto of a UN resolution for action against the Syrian regime. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has also singled out China for abuse. He called on China’s Uyghur minority to join the jihad against infidels.
Beijing can also improve perceptions of China in the Arab World through extensive cultural and academic exchanges and the facilitation of tourism. China has been slow to establish Arabic-language satellite television channels to reach Arab households. China publishes one Arabic-language magazine, Jinri Zhongguo, and it is distributed only in Egypt.
Finally, China can cultivate its soft power in the Middle East by ensuring that its economic activities do not lead to exploitation and resentment. GCC nations are concerned that the flood of cheap Chinese manufactured goods will lead to an economic form of colonialism and retard the development of local industries. The violation of local labor and environmental protection laws by Chinese-operated firms is another source of resentment. Given the centrality of trade in China’s relations with the region, addressing such concerns will be critical to Beijing’s outlook for winning long-term influence in the Middle East.
Rebecca Liao is vice president of business development and strategy at Skuchain. She served as a foreign policy advisor to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Atlantic, and Dissent, among others. On Twitter: @beccaliao.
Made in Palestine
Two brothers grow juicy strawberries on a patch of land they irrigate with a homebuilt rainwater catch basin.
An entrepreneur organizes farmers into cooperatives and markets their olive oil, almonds, and grains around the world.
Two cousins tend olive-tree groves in a two-century tradition of family farming.
A homemaker nurtures a vegetable garden that helps feed her family.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, land is the ultimate prize. For Palestinians confronted with an ever-contracting landscape, farming is a steadfast expression of presence and heritage.
This year, the Israeli government has announced plans to build six thousand new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, fifteen thousand in East Jerusalem, and the first new West Bank settlement in twenty years. The Knesset passed a law allowing retroactive legalization of four thousand settlement homes built on confiscated Palestinian land.
The toll of the occupation on Palestinians has been constant and consistent, with their agricultural lands shrinking from 2.4 million dunams (approximately 593,000 acres) in 1980 to 1.03 million dunams in 2010—a loss of 57 percent, according to a 2015 report on Palestinian agriculture by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Prior to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israeli forces seized in the Six-Day War of 1967, agriculture constituted more than half of the gross domestic product in these territories. By 2012, it accounted for only 6 percent of GDP.
Expansion of Israeli settlements, restriction on access to water, and confiscation of land are chief causes for the decline in Palestinian land use, the UN report said. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics registered a $918 million trade deficit in food and livestock alone for 2015, part of an overall trade deficit of nearly $4.3 billion.
The gradual decline of Palestinian agriculture is yet another indictment of the Oslo peace accords, which called for a permanent settlement of the conflict by 1999, based on the land-for-peace principle contained in UN Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), and implicitly envisioned the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. With the collapse of the Oslo peace process, population and land ratios have continued to shift, adding a distinct economic overlay to a dispute that draws international attention for its violence and lack of political progress.
While the number of West Bank settlements officially recognized by Israel has remained fairly constant at 126 (not including about a hundred smaller outposts), the settlements have continued to grow in population and area, subsidized by a succession of Israeli governments despite having been deemed illegal by UN Security Council Resolutions 446, 452, and 465.
Today, an estimated six hundred thousand settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—more than double the number in 1993—among three million Palestinians. In May, the Israeli non-governmental organization Peace Now reported a 34 percent increase in settlement housing construction starts in the West Bank during 2016 compared with 2015.
Palestinians continue to work the land, innovating as they go to overcome short supplies of land and water. Most are small family farmers like Rajai and Musaab Fayyad, who grow organic strawberries on less than an acre in Zababdeh, a small West Bank town just south of Jenin. The brothers box their sweet red fruit in pintsize plastic containers labeled “The Brothers Farm, Zababdeh Palestine”; the stickers resemble the motif and colors of the Palestinian flag.
“We are local producers,” says Musaab, 25, who has a degree in finance and comes from a line of family farmers going back two generations. “Our customers come here to pick the berries themselves—and they feel good about it.”
The Fayyads built a rainwater catchment basin and stocked it with with tilapia, or musht, as Arabs call it. The brothers pipe the water into their greenhouse to irrigate the plants and fertilize them with fish waste, saving 90 percent of fertilizer costs. Soon they will add the first tomato and pineapple crops to their harvest.
The Fayyads’ ingenuity is also on display beneath the hanging strawberry crop in the greenhouse, where the ripening red fruit dangles above rows of greens planted in-ground, including arugula, string beans, broccoli, celery, scallions, parsley, and hot peppers. Not only does the combined above- and below-ground cultivation maximize the small growing space, but the greens also divert disease-carrying insects from the cash-crop strawberries. “Each plant attracts specific insects and diseases,” explains Rajai, 40. Varietal intercropping serves to confuse insects, decreasing diseases they carry up to fivefold.
The Fayyads’ farming techniques are born of necessity and heritage. Their paternal grandfather, Assad, was originally from Haifa, where he grew corn, wheat, lentils, and beans. In 1948—when military campaigns displaced approximately 55 percent of the indigenous 1.3 million Palestinians before and after Israel’s War of Independence to clear the way for a Jewish majority—Assad was among the thousands of refugees who migrated to the West Bank. There his son Abdullah, a schoolteacher, continued to farm in Zababdeh on rented land, cultivating wheat, corn, watermelon, and beans.
Abdullah owns the small parcel of land that Rajai and Musaab farm. Rajai also works for the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a security officer. Musaab, a graduate of the Arab American University just up the road in Jenin, turned to agriculture for lack of jobs in his field.
After growing strawberries in the ground for five years, the brothers invested $20,000 to build the greenhouse and buy another eighteen thousand strawberry seedlings to plant above ground. In season they sell seven hundred pounds of organic strawberries a month, about a third to vendors in Ramallah, forty miles south, and the rest to locals. Strawberries grown in West Bank Jewish settlements are also available in Palestinian markets but spoil faster, Musaab says, because Israeli growers use chemical pesticides and fertilizers to get a higher yield. “Not many of our customers are aware of the health benefits of organic food,” he says. “But they like the taste of our strawberries. They are sweeter and won’t liquefy after a few days.” Even so, the Fayyads’ customers carry their purchases home in recycled Israeli-made cartons, bearing markings in Hebrew such as “From the Peaks of Galilee-Golan.”
Land of Olive Trees
Images of young women bearing harvest baskets and water jugs are iconic in Palestinian folk art. Young male balladeers declare their love for the land at Palestinian weddings. Sanabil, or wheat stalks, are ever present in Palestinian embroidery patterns. And so the continuity of Palestinian farming, reasons Nasser Abufarha, an entrepreneur who has built an export business rooted in sustaining this agriculture, is a cultural and existential imperative.
After earning a doctorate in cultural anthropology and international development from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Abufarha, 53, returned home to immerse himself in the landscape of activism and development. He established his company, Canaan Fair Trade, in 2004 in the village of Burqin, three miles west of Jenin. His light and airy second-floor office in the Canaan factory overlooks olive groves. His mother is from here, but he was born and raised in his father’s native Jalamah three miles to the north, where the family grew oranges, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, and cantaloupe.
Every year, the Canaan factory produces an average of 286,000 gallons of olive oil, and packaged almonds and grains for export, all organic and grown by a network of small family farmers. Forty Palestinians work here year-round; in the fall olive-harvest season, the number swells to seventy.
Canaan Fair Trade aims to bolster Palestinian agriculture by re-tooling traditional farming methods to answer modern demands for organic foods, fair trade, and environmental accountability. “We are not separate from the world,” Abufarha explains. “There is an influx of modern manufactured foods, and there is an acceleration of agribusiness versus agriculture.”
But at the core of Canaan is Abufarha’s belief that the land not only binds Palestinians to their culture but also sustains their future. “Agriculture is very important in Palestinian life, but it lacks support and investment for its sustainability,” Abufarha explains. “The traditional life of making a living off of the land—that’s a culture. And we have that culture. The main thing is to sustain it and benefit from it, to carve a space for it in modern society, in modern economy.”
Maintaining the link between Palestinians and their land is all the more critical in the context of Israel’s occupation. Abufarha believes that people around the world better relate to Palestinians when consuming their produce, and in this bonding, Palestinians are not dismissed as “bad news” or reduced to being victims of oppression.
“It’s not only about how much confiscation takes place,” Abufarha says. “It’s what we do about it that matters—because what defines ownership is the social relationship with the land and how sustainable that relationship is. We’re still producing some of the best treasures the earth has to give. It’s important that the world sees this, including Israelis. The conflict is about land. Israelis know that the relationship between the Palestinian and the land is at the core of the representation and configuration of the place.”
This is the apparent thinking behind the European Union’s decision in 2016 to ban Israel’s “Made in Israel” labeling of exports produced by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency enforces a similar policy on goods produced in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Canaan Fair Trade sells agricultural products to markets in the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Asia. Exports average about $9 million a year, up to $7 million in olive oil and $2 million in almonds and grains including freekeh and maftoul. Sixty percent of the olive oil is sold in the United States, 20 percent in Europe, and the remainder in Canada and Asia. Bulk sales of olive oil and almonds account for half of all revenues. Canaan-branded items account for 35 percent of sales; private-label partners the remaining 15 percent.
Abufarha’s roadmap for sustainability points in many directions. He created the Palestine Fair Trade Association to export members’ crops for above-market prices according to international fair trade standards. Canaan’s tuition scholarship fund for children of farmers has enabled forty-two young Palestinians to attend local universities since 2007. The company has established the Center for Organic Research and Extension in Jenin to promote organic farming and marketing of fruit, vegetables, and grains grown by small family farmers. A program to convert tractors to run on used vegetable oil, used to make falafel, is underway.
Abufarha likes to recall an encounter with a German woman to illustrate his belief in the importance of farming to the Palestinians. After the woman expressed her concern for Palestinians’ welfare, he told her: “Don’t worry too much. We are an integrated social community in the ecosystem of the land of Palestine, and we are organic in it. As long as we sustain this organic relationship, we will remain part of this ecosystem.”
From a rise overlooking olive groves belonging to Faris Hussein and his cousin Rafiq in Tinik, eight miles northwest of Jenin in the northern tip of the West Bank, the plains of Afula and mountains of Nazareth appear in the middle distance inside Israel, beyond the Green Line. Together the cousins farm eighty-six dunams in their village, half planted with olive trees, the rest with melons, alfalfa, wheat, and soft-shell almonds. Their cultivation is bound by kinship, but they farm as members of a larger family as well.
Hussein and his cousin belong to a local Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA) cooperative, which has twenty members and is headed by Rafiq. Earning above-market prices for their crops is a key draw. “The association organizes the farmers, and its marketing program sustains good prices, better than we could get in the local market on our own,” Hussein explains.
Across the northern and central West Bank, the PFTA network comprises fifty-two cooperatives and six women’s collectives—seventeen hundred farmers cultivating eighty-two thousand dunams, mainly in the north between Jenin and Nablus but also in Tulkarem, Qalqilya, Salfit, and Ramallah.
The association trains members in fair trade standards and regulations as well as organic-farming methods; external audits for fair trade and organic certifications are conducted by Fairtrade International in Germany and the Institute for Marketecology in Switzerland. PFTA is also overseen by the Palestinian Authority’s Interior and National Economy ministries.
A nine-member elected governing board runs the association, and delegates represent their co-ops and collectives in a general assembly. A PFTA pricing committee maintains contact with local and international markets and negotiates rates for virgin and extra-virgin olive oil.
Depending on sales, PFTA co-ops and collectives can also receive a fair trade premium each season in additional to fair trade market prices for their crops. Each group decides how to invest the premium; in 2014 the Tinik cooperative donated its bonus to establish a local health clinic.
Since 2006, the association’s Trees for Life program, funded by PFTA olive oil buyers and Palestinian solidarity groups in Europe, the United States, and Canada, has distributed more than one hundred thousand olive and almond saplings to Palestinian farmers, in some cases to replace trees uprooted or burned by Israeli settlers. “We pay a symbolic amount of two shekels per olive tree,” Hussein says. “The market price is ten shekels.”
The Husseins trace their roots in Tinik back two hundred years, and as with most Palestinians, the family has worked the land for just as long. Hussein’s father was a fulltime farmer. Faris, 68, graduated from the University of Jordan in 1974 with a degree in Islamic studies, and returned to Tinik to become headmaster of a local school and only farmed on the side. Now retired, he continues to cultivate the land, but not without difficulties that Palestinian farmers face routinely.
Chief among them is water. “Israelis have as much water as they want,” Hussein says. “We have a problem digging new wells.” In November 2015, the Israeli army bulldozed three small wells that Tinik farmers dug without permits, which are virtually unobtainable. Without wells, farmers cannot irrigate their crops, but without permits such wells are considered illegal, and the army routinely destroys them.
Olive trees can flourish in relatively dry conditions, making them the staple of Palestinian agriculture, accounting for 54 percent of total production. In a good year, overall olive oil yield in the West Bank can reach twenty-six thousand metric tons, some 9.3 million gallons. But in 2015, the yield dropped to 21,084 metric tons, with an estimated value of about $114 million. Factors contributing to the decline included dry weather, restricted access to land, and disruption due to violence between Israelis and Palestinians at holy sites in Jerusalem that spilled into the West Bank. In 2016, the harvest rebounded slightly to twenty-two thousand metric tons, valued at $122 million.
Half the oil is produced for home consumption; the other half is sold domestically and abroad. “The olive tree is a blessing,” says Hussein. “It gives us food, medicine, and heating.” Healers use its leaves to reduce sugar levels and blood pressure, and massage the body with its oil. Artisans carve handicrafts from its wood. Around the world, olive oil is poured atop hummus and both are scooped up with pita bread.
Hussein sighs, then brightens. “We live on this land. We’ll die on this land. We’ll be buried inside this land. It is our mother. It is our homeland. It is everything.”
Water for the Wells
The occupation’s stranglehold hampers Palestinian productivity. Uncertainty about property rights inhibits private investment. Restrictions on movement and access to land and water tie Palestinian labor and food consumption into a knot of dependency. Displacement and disruption ripple through the Palestinian economy, in agriculture and beyond—to the extent that achieving sustainable development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “nearly impossible,” according to UNCTAD.
For lack of other employment opportunities, the number of Palestinians working in agriculture increases even as the productivity of the sector continues to decline. “People have no other place to work,” says Ciro Fiorillo, head of the Jerusalem office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which supports agricultural aid projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “So more people cultivate the same or even less land. Declining productivity per person means declining value in salaries, profits, or any other form of income.”
According to UNCTAD, while agriculture accounted for 15 percent of total Palestinian employment in 2011 and 20 percent of exports, only 6 percent of 292,000 agricultural workers earned income, with 94 percent working as unpaid family members.
The land they are working “has very little value” without water, Fiorillo says. Only 19 percent of Palestinian agricultural land is irrigated, a handicap given that irrigated land produces on average fifteen times the yield of rain-fed land. According to UNCTAD, although Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories have the same climate, the average yield per dunam in the West Bank and Gaza is half that of Jordan’s and 43 percent of Israel’s.
“If you cannot irrigate, the best you can do is dry cropping—olives, low-intensity cereals,” Fiorillo explains. “But with irrigation you can shift from cereals to vegetables.” Vegetable farming is more labor intensive, raising employment, and is more profitable, raising income. “Then you build an irrigation system, and then you build a greenhouse, and you produce much more value,” Fiorillo says. “With a two-dunam greenhouse, a family can live a reasonable life.”
However, Palestinian farmers are blocked not only from digging new wells to irrigate their crops but also from repairing existing ones, for which they must also obtain permission from the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee. The committee’s work virtually ground to a halt in 2010 when Palestinian members refused to agree to legalizing wells constructed in Israeli settlements, illegal under international law. Irrigated agriculture in Israeli settlements continues apace, without permits, while Palestinian wells dug without permits continue to be destroyed and maintenance of old ones hampered.
“There are hundreds of wells, established thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years ago,” Fiorillo says. Most water networks also need repairs, with rust and holes causing leakage and loss of up to 40 percent. Fiorillo reports that in 2015 the Israeli military confiscated FAO-donated replacement pipes for wells, but these were returned and installed after an appeal to Israeli authorities from the Dutch parliament.
Jenin and its environs, the breadbasket of Palestine, lie on the southern edge of Marj Ibn Amr, the Jezreel Valley, a great fertile plain extending north beyond the Green Line almost to Haifa. With about sixty thousand inhabitants, Jenin is the seat of the Jenin governorate and a regional population center of 300,000. Of eleven administrative districts in the West Bank, the governorate is the only one in which the Palestinian Authority has jurisdiction over the majority of the land. (Under the Oslo agreement that established the PA, it has sole control of only 18 percent of West Bank land.) The PA’s wider jurisdiction in Jenin governorate is linked to the relatively sparse number of Israeli settlers in the area, some two thousand.
Conditions for Palestinian farmers become more difficult further south. The bulk of the settler population lives in Oslo-designated Area C, over which Israel has sole jurisdiction and which comprises 61 percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and 63 percent of the West Bank’s agricultural land. Israel has designated 39 percent of Area C for settlements and their future expansion but only 1 percent for Palestinian use. Some 386,000 Israeli settlers live in Area C among about three hundred thousand Palestinians. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that alleviating restrictions on access to land, water, and other aspects of Palestinian production in Area C could add as much as $3.4 billion a year to the Palestinian economy overall, equal to 27 percent of its GDP in 2014.
Throughout the West Bank, Israel has claimed approximately 166,650 dunams for settlements, according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, “Occupation, Inc.”—with 64 percent of this land designated for agriculture and industrial zones. Privately owned Palestinian land is expropriated both outright and by being declared “state land”—either way becoming inaccessible.
For those Palestinians still working their land, holding on to and accessing it can be daunting in areas densely populated with settlements or near the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Israel began building the barrier in 2002 during the second Palestinian intifada ostensibly for security reasons. But the wall—slabs of concrete in some areas, stacks of barbed wire in others—zigzags east of the Green Line, cutting into the West Bank and often separating Palestinian farmers from their lands. An estimated 9.5 percent of the West Bank, including 116,000 dunams of Palestinian land and sixty Israeli settlements, is expected to lie west of the barrier under Israeli control when its four-hundred-mile length is completed, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem.
The section of the separation barrier near Ariel—a settlement city in the central West Bank with a population of twenty thousand, an Israeli-accredited university, and two industrial zones—has separated Palestinian landowners in nearby Salfit and six surrounding villages from nine thousand dunams of their farm and grazing land, according to Human Rights Watch. A Palestinian landowner in the area who once grazed ten thousand head of livestock had his herd reduced to no more than a hundred. Another landowner had fifteen dunams planted with root vegetables confiscated outright. When the military imposed restrictions on access, equipment, and planting in another thirty-five dunams, he stopped cultivating them entirely.
The constricting of Palestinian land prompts tens of thousands of young Palestinians to seek work as unskilled laborers in Israel or in Israeli settlements. The Bank of Israel estimated the number of West Bank Palestinians working in Israel in 2014—with and without permits—at ninety-two thousand; in 2016, Reuters reported that thirty-six thousand Palestinians were working in West Bank settlements, mainly in construction. In Israel, Palestinians earn more than double the average wage in the West Bank. But according to Human Rights Watch, in Israeli settlements daily wages for agricultural work can be as low as $17.50, far below the Israeli minimum wage, with no benefits.
Other factors undermining Palestinian agriculture are not directly related to Israel’s occupation. One major impediment is the inability of small farmers without collateral to obtain Palestinian bank loans, even as annual demand reaches $150 million.
Another problem is the PA’s limited capacity to provide quality control and extension and research services. According to UNCTAD, since the PA was established in 1994, it has allocated a little more than 1 percent of its total annual budget to agriculture, with the bulk of those funds going to Ministry of Agriculture salaries. In 2003, the ministry charted a three-year development plan, projecting allocations of $543 million for 2014–16. However, as UNCTAD reported, recurrent economic, political, and humanitarian crises such as the 2014 Gaza war and its aftermath claimed much of the PA’s scarce resources, energy, and policy attention.
The impoverishing effects of these factors on Palestinians are apparent, with UNCTAD characterizing the result as “forced dependence on the Israeli economy.” They are a captive market, not only as laborers in Israel and Israeli settlements but also as consumers, with Israel sending a steady flow of below-export-quality goods to Palestinian markets at prices with which local Palestinian producers cannot compete.
In 2012, 70 percent of Palestinian imports came from Israel, and 80 percent of Palestinian exports went to Israel, according to UNCTAD. This resulted in a Palestinian trade deficit of $3.7 billion, equal to 37 percent of the Palestinian GDP.
Palestinians also experience a lack of food security, which the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome defined as the physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. “Palestinians don’t have enough income to access in a stable and predictable manner food in adequate quantity and quality,” Fiorillo says. The FAO has determined that 27 percent of households, with 1.6 million Palestinians, experience food insecurity—40 percent in the West Bank and 60 percent in the Gaza Strip. This phenomenon is manmade, Fiorillo says, resulting from dramatic spikes in food accessibility due to periodic wars in Gaza, systematic displacement by the Israeli military of Bedouin communities in the West Bank, and low income levels throughout Palestinian areas.
Okra and Thyme
Basma Qablawi, 42, cultivates a home garden begun with the support of the Japanese government. In 2013, Imm Qaisar, as she is called, planted a 4,500-square-foot garden outside her back door in Zababdeh with aid from the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCOD).
Qablawi grew a dozen varieties of vegetables and herbs before the funding ran out in 2016, but now raises only okra and thyme. The yield is mostly for home consumption but sales brought in up to $75 a month at their peak. “I trust what I eat because I planted it myself,” she says of the organic mallow in her mulukhiyah and the cauliflower in the makloubeh she cooks for her family of eight.
International aid for Palestinians extends to agriculture, but this support has been relatively minimal. According to UNCTAD, from 2000 to 2006 it amounted to $30 million, or less than 1 percent of $4 billion in total foreign aid received by the Palestinian Authority.
From 2013 to 2016, NICCOD provided $450,000 for projects in Zababdeh including a sixty-dunam organic farm that sprouted rows and rows of more than two dozen types of grains, vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Country representative Naoko Inagaki explains that the organization’s objective was to foster income generation. In 2015, revenues from the projects reached $20,000.
Land for the organic farm was rented from local owners, and sixteen local men worked the soil with stock, equipment, and expertise provided by NICCOD. Local food markets in Jenin and cooperatives elsewhere in the West Bank bought the yield. Twenty women including Qablawi tended home gardens. Other local women produced and sold organic herbal teas, barley cookies, and zaatar mixes.
The home garden and processed-foods initiatives were also designed to boost women’s empowerment. “Arab society is patriarchal,” Inagaki says. “We wanted to provide opportunities for women to work, even right next to their houses.” Qablawi and her husband, an accountant, have three sons and three daughters ranging in age from 7 to 21. “It’s better to work at home so I can be available for my family’s needs any time,” she says.
Echoing the frustration of other Palestinian farmers, Qablawi says that water is the main challenge for cultivating her small garden. At one point, NICCOD covered half her $60 monthly water expenses, which went to irrigating her crops.
Local Palestinian organizations have stepped in to support the big farm as well as some home gardens and food processing. “Farming is our heritage and culture,” Qablawi says. “It’s the main address for the Palestinian people. It’s like a crown on our heads.”
Flowers or Thorns
The current generation of young Palestinians is the third to grow up under occupation. The current Israeli government, bolstered by the rise of nationalist and religious parties, is one of the most uncompromising toward Palestinians in the country’s history. Peace negotiations came to a halt in 2014.
And confiscation of Palestinian land continues apace. In March 2016, Israeli military authorities declared 2,340 dunams south of Jericho as state land. At the start of the access road leading to Kibbutz Almog, which is about five miles south of Jericho, a large sign shows a young Israeli girl hugging a white dog. In Hebrew, the sign reads: “Now’s the time to make a good life decision. The Almog expansion: Come live in your own home on a half dunam in the enchanting north of the Dead Sea.”
Against such a backdrop, Nasser Abufarha remains optimistic for his people, inspired by the Palestinian determination to persevere and live vibrant lives, and driven by his own sense of the longue durée.
“In farming, every field has flowers and thorns,” Abufarha says. “You can either see the thorns and put your hands up, or see the flowers and weed your way through. I see a lot of flowers in Palestine.”
Marda Dunsky is the author of Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. She is a lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Previously she served as a national/foreign desk editor at the Chicago Tribune and Arab affairs reporter for the Jerusalem Post.
Is There Hope for Iraq?
Iraq’s quest for a stable and inclusive political system remains elusive fourteen years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The end of thirty-five years of Baath Party rule has seen the country lurch from one crisis and conflict to another, with no clear path to a peaceful future. The looming military defeat of the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be a welcome development for many Iraqis. But it will also usher in a new set of challenges that complicate the outlook for the country as Iraqis head toward parliamentary elections in 2018.
It should be noted that Iraqis have resisted a complete breakup of their country, and have persevered through the 2003 American-led invasion that brought down Saddam, an all-out civil war from 2006 to 2007, and the takeover of much of western Iraq in 2014 by ISIS. Violence over the past fourteen years has taken the lives of some 268,000 Iraqis, including nearly 200,000 civilians. The resilience of a society that has learned how to survive often goes unnoticed amid such political upheaval, destruction, and death. Post-Saddam Iraq has managed to write a new constitution, and has witnessed four national electoral cycles, four peaceful transfers of power, and three constitutional governments in which Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds have been consistently represented. Iraq today can claim a flourishing civil society, a thriving media, and expanded civil and political liberties. By the standards of the Middle East, these are no small achievements.
Unfortunately, an entrenched communal struggle continues to divide Iraq and frustrate the evolution of a fully democratic system. The bargaining for power and standing among Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish communities has been a feature of Iraqi politics since Iraq’s independence from Ottoman rule in 1920. And until the collapse of Saddam’s regime, the Sunni Arab minority, constituting roughly 20 percent of the population, dominated majority Shiites (60 percent) and Kurds (20 percent) in a struggle for control of Iraq. This engendered a sense of privilege among Sunnis and resentment on the part of Shiites and Kurds. Nearly all the leaders who ruled modern Iraq, including Saddam, paid lip service to an inclusive state, yet favored their own tribe and sect to create a curtain of total allegiance and security.
The chaos that gripped Iraq soon after Saddam’s fall reflected poor planning on the part of Washington’s war strategists as well as the fragility of state institutions under Saddam. Faced with near-collapse of the Iraqi state, American and Iraqi post-war planners designed a multi-confessional federal system that has turned out to further entrench the communal divisions.
Iraq’s state institutions and middle class were critical elements for Iraq’s recovery and reconstruction. But both had been weakened by Iraq’s engagement in many long wars, and the international sanctions and isolation that followed Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait and Iraq’s subsequent military defeat in Operation Desert Storm. In 2003, regime change laid bare a festering discord among Iraq’s communal groups that had been long suppressed by Baathist dictatorship.
Under Saddam state largesse had gone disproportionally to family members and a few Sunni loyalists. Opposition by Shiites and Kurds was always met with brutal force including the use of chemical weapons—notoriously in the regime’s attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. The Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 left Iraq’s Shiites uneasy about fighting their neighboring coreligionists. Shiites also decried the killing and disappearance of many of their revered clerics and leaders during the era of Baathist rule.
With Saddam and the Baathists gone, the old order was turned upside down. As Shiites and Kurds ascended, Sunnis, having grown accustomed to power for decades, found themselves on the sidelines. A violent struggle among Sunnis seeking to regain power, Shiites trying to consolidate power, and Kurds working to expand power has been the pattern in Iraqi politics for the past fourteen years. The formidable sway of communal factions undermined Iraq’s nascent democracy, a dynamic explaining the country’s frequent lapses into political and security crises.
In July, a combined force of Iraqi army troops, Kurdish peshmerga, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias battled to eject ISIS militants from Mosul, their last stronghold in Iraq. The victory will be a landmark achievement for Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s Shiite-dominated government, but it will also bring momentous political and economic challenges.
Post-ISIS, Iraqi leaders will have to re-accommodate minority Sunni Arabs, normalize the political role of majority Shiites, tackle anew the question of Kurdish autonomy and even independence, and address the rampant corruption and mismanagement in the petroleum-dominated economy. They will need to manage a plethora of issues related to the rise and fall of ISIS whose resolution will be critical to long-term stability. Among the issues are the continuing role of American military forces who trained Iraqi troops, the fate of Shiite militias that grew in strength during the fight against ISIS, and the future of the Iranian Quds Force involved in bolstering the Shiite militias.
Iraqis also face steep challenges in rebuilding the territories liberated from ISIS, about a third of the country. Political leaders will grapple to secure billions of dollars from an impecunious Iraqi treasury to reconstruct cities whose institutions and infrastructure have been ravaged by ISIS rule and the liberation battles. An even greater task will be creating a sustainable governing formula for the liberated territories. The future structure, for example, will undoubtedly need to minimize the role of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government, whose interference under former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is seen by many as a factor enabling ISIS to find a haven in Sunni Arab regions of the country.
The Sunni Arabs
Real and perceived, poor accommodation of the Sunni Arab community constitutes the single most critical failure of post-Saddam planners. It turned out to be a strategic blunder that has undermined political stability up to the present moment. It may be argued that no amount of accommodation could have tempered the response of Sunnis to the loss of a century of political dominance. But the punitive posture adopted toward aggrieved Sunnis by Iraq’s new power brokers accelerated the risk of reprisal. It wasn’t long before resentful Sunnis, utilizing the ousted regime’s manpower and knowhow, launched a lethal insurgency that, in one iteration or another, has plagued the country ever since.
Reactionary attitudes, fueled by a new sense of entitlement and fear of the Baathists’ return to power, had blinded Shiite and Kurdish leaders to a more inclusive vision of post-Saddam Iraq. For Sunnis the writing on the wall appeared shortly after Saddam’s fall when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi army and barred former Baathists from jobs in the Iraqi government sector. Vast numbers of Iraqi Sunnis were tossed out of work. The drafting of the constitution in 2005 was then accomplished with remarkably little Sunni Arab representation. Discontented with the unfolding political trend, Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 election and came close to voting down the constitutional referendum in October 2005.
The Sunni Arab grudges gradually evolved into an armed movement that drew thousands of foreign jihadists to the cause. The insurgency culminated in the sectarian war from 2006 to 2007 that left thousands of Iraqis dead and derailed an ambitious state-building project. After a short respite, Sunni grievances manifested more ruinously in 2014 with the rise of ISIS, a development that exposed the continuous failure of the Baghdad government to accommodate the restive Sunni Arab minority.
As Iraqis contemplate a more successful post-ISIS approach to the protracted Sunni dilemma, the initial success of the Sahwa (Awakening) councils, set up by the U.S. military in 2006 as a bulwark against foreign jihadists, suggests that the Sunni question is indeed amenable to economic and political solutions if carried out with enough determination and sincerity. The Sahwa councils sought to delink Iraqi Sunni insurgents from foreign jihadists through material incentives coordinated by tribal chiefs such as salaries and promises of rejoining the national security forces in return for deserting Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But during Al-Maliki’s second term in office, as American forces withdrew in accordance with President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge, the Baghdad government emasculated the Sahwa councils. Salaries were stopped and the plan for reincorporating fighters into the army did not materialize. Al-Maliki pursued a campaign of random arrests on suspicion, held prisoners without trial, and his troops were implicated in a shooting incident in Hawija Sunni camp in 2013 killing dozens of protesters. This pushed many alienated Sunnis to welcome ISIS fighters as a counterbalance to Al-Maliki’s rule. ISIS’s epic rout of the Iraqi army in capturing Mosul in 2014 became a moment of reckoning for Iraq.
The stabilization of Iraq will greatly depend on the extent to which Sunnis are accommodated economically as well as politically. The full reincorporation of Sunnis into the national life requires ingenuity, generosity, and vision by all sides. Shiites and Kurds must recognize that it is in their interest to see Sunnis stable and thriving; Sunnis, humbled by the disaster brought on the country by ISIS, should be more eager to secure their place in a new political reality.
Decentralization in Iraq is likely to become a goal for Sunnis. The community is not short of representation in the current national system. They occupy a quarter of the seats in parliament and a third of the places in government ministries. But the political turmoil and security collapse brought on by the Sunnis underlines the ineffectiveness of Sunni representation in central institutions. Post-ISIS recovery in the Sunni region necessitates promoting local leaderships able to coordinate with national and provincial authorities in addressing demands. But longer term, Sunni Arabs may advocate decentralization as an effective means for addressing their need for political accommodation. Iraq, the argument goes, will benefit from letting people of distinct cultures and beliefs define their own security and development priorities while limiting the federal government’s heavy-handedness in servicing their needs.
Any prospect for a Sunni regional autonomy on the model of Kurdistan, though constitutionally acceptable, will be hindered by the paucity of natural resources in the Sunni provinces. The prospect of autonomy therefore may encourage Sunnis to vie for a share of Kirkuk’s oil fields when the fate of the city is finally decided among its Kurdish, Turkmen, and Sunni Arab inhabitants.
If managed well, the Baghdad government’s $100 billion pledge for the reconstruction of Mosul and other Sunni cities should provide ample opportunities for Sunni youth to reenter Iraq’s economy and help restore public services and repair infrastructure. Another crucial aspect of recovery is the need to establish judicial and rehabilitative processes for Sunni youth captured and imprisoned during the insurgency.
The Kurds are the supposed winners of post-Saddam Iraq. The northern region administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is praised as the only normal part of country. It possesses world-class infrastructure and services, thanks to the nearly three decades of relative stability, development, and American economic, political, and diplomatic support.
The end of Baathist rule in Iraq presented the Kurds with a historic opportunity to consolidate the proto-state they had begun quietly building even while Saddam was in power. The focus of the Kurds’ efforts has gradually moved from constitutional and democratic issues to control of land and oil. The KRG enjoys its own government, parliament, army, foreign representation, and flag, but it still depends on the federal government in Baghdad for money. According to the 2005 constitution, KRG is required to sell the region’s oil production through the central government in exchange for 17 percent of the national budget allocated in proportion to population. When the KRG sought independent oil investments in 2012, it entered into a protracted conflict with Baghdad. The Iraqi government withheld budget allocations to punish the Kurds for selling oil on the black market, and the Kurds in turn threatened to sell more oil if payments were not received. There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to reach a settlement of the dispute.
The other bone of contention is land. Though the constitution restricts Iraqi Kurdistan to the three historic Kurdish cities of Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah, Kurdish leaders lay claim to all cities and districts where Kurds form a majority of the population—including the oil-rich Kirkuk. In the battle against ISIS, Kurdish peshmerga took control of disputed territories including Kirkuk and eastern Nineveh. Kirkuk’s final status was meant to be finalized in a 2007 referendum required by the constitution, but the referendum has been postponed until a census can be completed.
It seems unlikely that Kurdish forces will withdraw from Kirkuk and Mosul, which would complicate relations with the Baghdad government and perhaps more importantly with the Sunni Arabs of those cities. Such a move would come in the context of Kurdish plans to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence, to be held in both KRG jurisdictions as well as in contested areas. Kurdish leaders do not intend to automatically declare independence in the event of “yes” vote, but would use the outcome as leverage in talks with the federal government on oil and land.
Factors weighing against Kurdish independence include increasing doubt about landlocked KRG’s economic self-sufficiency, given recent lower estimates of the region’s oil reserves. The U.S. and Turkish governments oppose Kurdish secession from Iraq; Washington’s declared strategic objective is a united Iraq, and Ankara fears that a move toward Kurdish independence by Iraqi Kurds will embolden Turkey’s own Kurdish separatists. Iraqi Kurdish leaders themselves exhibit differences in their positions on independence, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party taking a harder line than the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The majority Shiite community, which inhabits large quarters of Baghdad and nine provinces in the south of Iraq including the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, have not fared as well in post-Saddam Iraq as is commonly believed. Large numbers have fallen in the sectarian fighting, and many Shiite areas remain as impoverished as they were under Saddam’s rule. But their biggest shortfall is lack of meaningful political representation. While Shiites have certainly made political gains, the fruits of victory have gone to a small network of Shiite factions that tightly controls power and resources. The bulk of Iraq’s oil reserves, estimated at 153 billion barrels, is located in Iraq’s southern Shiite provinces. Although Iraqi oil revenues neared $100 billion for a few years prior to the price collapse in 2014, Shiite communities in Iraq have little to show for it.
Shiite parties have made financial fiefdoms out of government ministries allocated to them according to Iraq’s political system of appropriation (muhasasa). These parties whose political survival depends on the money siphoned from the ministries under their control have resisted any attempt at reform despite public outcry and calls from the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the country’s highest Shiite religious authority.
To accommodate loyalists, party leaders have padded the public payroll at the expense of a disappearing private sector. Many of the government’s eight million employees are ghost workers who do not show up for work or whose salaries go directly to the party. Of course, Sunni Arabs and Kurds are also implicated in government corruption. Iraq consistently ranks among the worst countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index (166 out of 176 in 2016).
The mismanagement of the economy has disproportionately affected the traditionally poor Shiite majority. Local industry is unable to compete with cheap Chinese and Iranian products, while a weak banking sector and poor infrastructure in addition to security problems have discouraged foreign investment. Iraq’s economy is heavily dependent on the oil sector, making it vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices and rendering long-term development planning difficult. The current 20 percent budget deficit caused by low oil prices is partially mitigated by loans from the International Monetary Fund, but related austerity measures will squeeze Iraq’s poor further.
The growth of Shiite militias is another serious challenge to Iraq’s future stability. The militias were initially formed to defend Shiite communities and holy sites in Baghdad, Najaf, and Kerbala after the disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003. The militias have risen in might and stature through the 2006–2007 civil war and especially in the battles against ISIS. The prominence of the militias gives Shiite parties another tool of influence in their struggle for power in post-ISIS Iraq. Some of the leaders of militias have become so popular they may win positions in the 2018 national elections. However, such further securitization of Iraq will face opposition from other Iraqis, risk greater Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs, anger Arab neighbors anxious to see Iraq return to the Arab fold, and pose a challenge to America’s future involvement in Iraq.
Shiites have grown weary of political nepotism and are increasingly disenchanted with the new ruling class. While there are no signs of new Shiite parties strong enough to compete in the 2018 elections, awareness of the need for change is growing among the youth. The new generation is demonstrating a willingness to relax their religious sentiments in favor of a more secular and less corrupt leadership that will bring effective governance and better management of the country’s resources.
What to Expect
Whether Iraq’s state institutions can rise above confessional politics will largely determine the next phase in the country’s long quest for stability. Collective and sustained efforts will be needed to transform the post-Saddam political order into real progress in governance, communal peace, and economic development—especially for communities devastated by war. It is unrealistic to expect a swift overhaul, given the repeated efforts for political and economic reform that have been frustrated by the narrow interests of powerful individuals and small groups of the new political class. Perhaps the best hope is that Prime Minister Al-Abadi and his eventual successor will push for incremental measures toward securing Sunni communities and settling disputes with the Kurds. For fundamental change that includes an end to corruption, Iraq may have to wait for the birth of a new political generation.
Muhamed H. Almaliky is the director of the Iraqi American Institute and a research fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He has been a contributor to Foreign Affairs.
Rise of the Militiamen
For Iraq, the year 2014 is a painful memory. A band of jihadists, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), swept through the Euphrates Valley and conquered several Iraqi cities, including Mosul, the second largest. Militants numbering in the thousands forced the retreat of Iraq’s newly built national army and seized control of one-third of the country. Considering that the often-used definition of a state is an entity capable of controlling legitimate violence or wielding coercion, to many Iraqis the fall of Mosul signified the failure of efforts to reconstruct the Iraqi state following the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
Leading the invasion of Iraq fourteen years ago, the George W. Bush administration destroyed the state. In ending Saddam’s Baath Party rule, it also replaced the centralized and unitary state fashioned by the British in 1920 after the collapse of Ottoman control with a decentralized, federal state. The logic of the new state was that a weak central government could prevent a return of the horrors of the past, when a dictator ruled the county with an iron fist. It was also imagined that weak central authority could facilitate a new democratic system representative of the diverse ethno-sectarian social fabric of Iraq.
Rather than producing a central government able to grant power to its provinces and regions, however, this federal system created a weak central government unable to control much of its territory. In these ungoverned spaces, where the government in Baghdad could not provide security or legitimate representation, ISIS emerged.
The new Iraqi state was a compromise between a Shiite leadership guided by a history of political disenfranchisement and a Kurdish leadership interested in autonomy and eventual independence. The new state had very little accommodation for minority Sunni Arabs, who as a group had enjoyed relative privilege during Saddam’s rule. Many Sunnis initially rejected the state-building process, while Shiites and Kurds resisted intracommunal conflict and presented unified Shiite and Kurdish fronts in creating the new Iraq.
The new Iraqi state was defined by ethnic and religious identities. A quota system meant that the Shiite and Kurdish elite dominated posts in the security sector’s senior leadership. Not surprisingly, Iraq’s new rulers were wary of the Iraqi army, which had a long history of persecuting Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. This helps to explain why since 2006, under the governments of Nouri Al-Maliki and then Haidar Al-Abadi, the posts of minister of defense and interior often remained vacant. In negotiating the construction of the new state, the priority of Shiites and Kurds was to prevent the reemergence of the Sunni-led unitary state, which meant in part guarding against a strong army that could take power by force.
For Kurds, pushing for a weaker central government translated into a stronger Kurdistan, a prerequisite for eventual Kurdish independence. With the goal of keeping the Iraqi military out of Kurdistan, Kurds won a provision in the 2005 constitution that legalized the peshmerga as the region’s national guard. The constitution stipulated that “the regional government shall be responsible for all the administrative requirements of the region, particularly the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces, and guards of the region.” The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) also angled to prevent the U.S. and other international policy makers from supporting the development of a strong Iraqi air force.
By his second term in office from 2010 to 2014, Al-Maliki, a longtime senior member of the Shiite Dawa Party, sought to keep state institutions weak and his personal power as prime minister strong. Dawa policy was driven by the ideological thinking of Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr, who argued that the state needs to be strong and not reliant on paramilitaries. Dawa even refused to form an armed wing throughout the years of resisting the Saddam Hussein regime, in contrast with Shiite counterparts such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq with its Badr Corps. Al-Maliki initially adhered to the Dawa ideological line during his first term from 2006 to 2010; he targeted both Sunni groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite groups such as Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. To symbolize his policy, Al-Maliki even called his Dawa-led electoral list in the 2010 parliamentary elections the State of Law Coalition.
But Al-Maliki reversed Dawa’s statist approach in his second term and undertook to take control of state military power and to overtly support paramilitaries as an instrument of personal influence. The defeat of Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition in the 2010 elections left him wary to the point of paranoia about all political opposition, whether Shiite, Sunni, or Kurdish, and he undertook steps to insulate himself from a possible military coup. He drew closer to Iran, which had successfully brought the Shiite parties, including rival Muqtada Al-Sadr, together to support Al-Maliki’s retention of the premiership. Al-Maliki’s closer alliance with the Iranian regime headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shaped many of his security considerations after 2010.
To ensure a weaker state security apparatus, Al-Maliki took power away from the official institutions that fell under the Council of Ministers, such as the ministries of Intelligence, Interior, and Defense. He created the Office of the Commander of Chief, which housed the Iraqi Special Operations Force (ISOF), and other elite intelligence and security forces. Al-Maliki’s moves made the strongest military actors in Iraq accountable to himself as prime minister rather than to state institutions susceptible to the checks and balance of the parliament, which had no oversight over the executive’s prerogative during these years.
To further undermine the state security apparatus and also to head off any potential threat to his rule, Al-Maliki began forming alliances with paramilitaries in coordination with Iran. Pivoting from his “state of law” campaign, he established relations with groups such as Hadi Al-Ameri’s Badr Organization, a former wing of Ammar Al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and Qais Khazali’s League of the Righteousness, a former part of Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In 2011, in a policy endorsed by Iran, new Shiite paramilitaries began forming with the objective of fighting to support the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. Prior to 2014, seven Shiite paramilitary groups loyal to Al-Maliki and Iran had become operational: Badr, Asaib ahl Al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyid Al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, Kataib Jund Al-Imam, and Kataib Imam Ali.
Due to demographic realities, the reconstructed Iraqi army following Saddam Hussein’s ousting took on a Shiite character. By December 2014, polls indicated that only 28 percent of Sunnis and 14 percent of Kurds believed that the Iraqi army was representative. Some even called it “Al-Maliki’s Army.” These groups preferred working with their own security organizations. The Kurds relied on the peshmerga. During the Sahwa (Awakening) Council campaign to fight jihadist insurgents, drawn up under U.S. commander General David Petraeus, Sunni Arabs rallied behind tribal and local security forces rather than the unstable Iraqi army. With the collapse of the Iraqi army during the ISIS onslaught in 2014, even the Shiite majority turned to local groups and paramilitaries.
In June 2014, as ISIS fighters were capturing Mosul and threatening to roll onward to Baghdad, Al-Maliki formed the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an umbrella organization of some sixty predominantly Shiite paramilitary groups with approximately 110,000 fighters. Many Shiites believed that the PMU spared the Iraqi capital from an ISIS assault, and rallied around a military organization that evoked national pride. By 2015, every political party in parliament had lost popular support except the Badr Organization, which was largely due to its affiliation with the PMU.
PMU paramilitaries answer to different leaderships, which can be broken down based on allegiances to Iran, Muqtada Al-Sadr, or Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq. The pro-Iranian factions receive considerable funding from Tehran. It is represented by powerful figures such as Al-Maliki, the Badr Organization’s Al-Ameri, the League of the Righteousness’s Qais Khazali, among others. The group behind Al-Sadr includes the remnants of the Mahdi Army under a new banner, the Peace Brigades. The remaining militias consist of fighters who answered Al-Sistani’s 2014 fatwa calling for volunteers to fight ISIS.
One of Al-Maliki’s last moves before giving up the premiership was creating the PMU Committee within the Interior Ministry. After Prime Minister Al-Abadi assumed office in September 2014 he recognized the PMU Committee and agreed to provide it with $1 billion in annual funding. He further legitimized the PMU in February 2016 by issuing an order describing it as “an independent military formation and a part of the Iraqi armed forces, and linked to the general commander of the armed forces.” Finally, in November 2016, Iraq’s parliament recognized the PMU as an official security institution of the state.
In Sunni-majority areas, the PMU has become the main administrator of money and weapons for local security forces taking up the fight against ISIS from their communities. This effectively is a move to implement a law favoring local security forces as an element of Iraqi state-building, as non-Shiite groups are included in the PMU. In the battles against ISIS, Sunni fighters went to the PMU for funding and arms. This amounts to a reemergence of the Sunni Awakening Councils, which were initially set up in 2008; in his second term, Al-Maliki abandoned the program and withheld funding for the Sunni tribes, claiming concerns about Al-Qaeda collaboration.
The expected defeat of ISIS in the Battle of Mosul will hand Iraq’s leaders another chance to rebuild the state. But the demise of Iraq’s unitary system has resulted in a blurred line between state and non-state security actors and a reconceptualization of the Iraqi military. The predominance of the paramilitaries became the norm as Iraqis moved toward the defeat of the jihadists. Though integral in the fight against ISIS, the establishment of the PMU now carries huge risks for Iraq’s future.
Building respect for the rule of law is one challenge. Human rights groups allege that various militias within the PMU have committed war crimes. Similarly, Iraq’s police in the Defense Ministry have been accused of crimes during the war.
The growth of Iranian influence through the rise of the Shiite paramilitaries represents another serious hurdle for state building and reform of the security sector in post-ISIS Iraq. There is no sign that the PMU’s militias that existed prior to Al-Sistani’s fatwa will disband after the expected defeat of ISIS, and given the PMU’s official state recognition, they will hold considerable autonomy. The pro-Iranian militias have at times worked to undermine Al-Abadi’s rule. For Al-Maliki, Al-Ameri, and Khazali, the ultimate goal is to remove Al-Abadi from power. They will attempt to use the PMU’s legitimacy and popular standing for their own political gain. In 2016, Al-Maliki even tried to change the name of his coalition from “State of Law” to “Popular Mobilization Units” to associate himself with the PMU’s popularity.
Another challenge is the one posed by the internal conflicts within the Shiite community. The Al-Sadr and Al-Sistani factions oppose the institutionalization of the paramilitaries. Al-Sistani, who refuses to refer to the PMU but rather says “volunteers,” is upset that pro-Iranian leaders interpreted his fatwa as justifying the formation of militias when the ayatollah’s call for volunteers was intended as encouragement to join the army or police. Al-Sadr and Al-Sistani are demanding that the militias eventually be disbanded, with their members integrated into the ministries of Defense and Interior. In any case, the Al-Sadr and Al-Sistani factions complain that they do not receive a fair share of salaries from the PMU Committee.
It also remains to be seen what role the PMU will play in the Sunni areas like Mosul once they are liberated from ISIS rule. The fighting resulted in a rare marriage of convenience between the pro-Iranian militias and local Sunni tribal fighters. Fighters loyal to the former governor of Mosul, Athil Al-Nujai, receive cash and weapons from the PMU Committee. And for now, the pro-Iranian militias are eager to showcase a nonsectarian character in a bid to increase their legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis. However, the pro-Iranian group is led by Al-Maliki, who as prime minister cut off funding to the Awakening Councils and precipitated their collapse. Looking forward, the PMU will look for new ways to remain relevant and separate from the state security apparatus. This will include maintaining a presence in areas in Diyala, southern Kirkuk, northern Nineveh, and along the Iraq-Syria border.
The Battle of Mosul may signal the end of the ISIS state-building project, but victory will be the start of a new era in Iraq that is fraught with more hazards.
Renad Mansour is academy fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), senior research fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, and lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was the El-Erian Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center from 2015 to 2016. He has contributed to the Century Foundation Reports, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English, and Al-Monitor. On Twitter: @renadmansour.
Scramble for Syria
Since the outbreak of protests against the Syrian regime in 2011, Iran has been a leading force in the Syrian civil war in support of President Bashar Al-Assad. Alongside its military interventions in crucial battles like the fall of Aleppo in December last year, Iran has grown its economic, political, and ideological influence within Syria.
Iran’s leaders are keen to protect their key ally in the Middle East. They consider the stability of Al-Assad’s regime vital for Iran’s own security, and for the projection of Iran’s power in the region. Tehran’s privileged relationship with Damascus has facilitated its support for the Shiite Hezbollah group in Lebanon, and for Hamas and other Palestinian factions. The constellation of allies, which Tehran calls the “axis of resistance,” or the “front of refusal,” has given Iran strategic depth in the heart of the Arab World, spread its influence across the eastern Mediterranean, and widened its room for maneuver and dissuasion in Iran’s confrontation with the Israel and the United States. Iran’s support of resistance groups has won limited support in Arab public opinion, although that has been mostly squandered by Iran’s decision to support Al-Assad come hell or high water.
Iran’s involvement has helped Al-Assad’s beleaguered regime survive a popular revolt and intense international pressures, enabling it to muster further political and diplomatic support as well as economic and military aid. Until the launching of Russia’s air operations against Al-Assad’s opponents in September 2015, Iran was the Syrian leader’s most active backer in the war effort. Iranian support began during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term as Iran’s president. It has continued, without fail, since Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013.
Iran has been very active on all fronts. Major General Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Quds Force—the extraterritorial branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—has been spotted at different locations on major battlefields in Syria with pro-regime fighters and Shiite militias. The “shadow commander” is said to have a significant influence in shaping the pro-regime military campaign. The Quds Force could therefore be involved in the last operations carried out by the pro-Al-Assad forces in the Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor regions.
Iran deepened its involvement in the Syrian conflict despite the additional stresses on an Iranian economy already weakened by international sanctions, and the international opening Tehran achieved in 2015 through the nuclear accord reached with Washington. Underscoring the importance of Al-Assad’s survival to Iran’s leaders, Tehran has publicly acknowledged the deaths of at least one thousand Iranian combatants in the Syrian conflict, including 486 members of the IRGC.
Iran has leveraged its involvement in the war to significantly reinforce its influence on the Syrian regime, which has long been sensitive about sacrificing independence in the close relations with Tehran. Iran is working toward establishing permanent influence and protecting its long-term interests, whatever the outcome of the war may be, as part of Tehran’s strategy to reinforce its “axis of resistance.”
Iran’s deployment of thousands of military and security personnel is giving the Iranian army, as well as the Quds Force, the Basij, and other units within the IRGC, valuable experience. Iranian forces have improved their operational capacity in fighting a semi-conventional war, and sharpened Tehran’s ability to intervene in other regional conflicts.
The Islamic Republic supported the deployment of non-state forces to Syria, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah group and Shiite volunteer forces drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It has backed the creation of the National Defense Force, a multiconfessional militia numbering in the thousands. These forces have contributed heavily alongside Iranian forces to the Al-Assad regime’s military successes, and could be used to secure Iran’s future interests in Syria and the broader Levant against outside powers—including Russia—regardless of the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
In cooperation with Hezbollah, the Iranian regime has worked since 2012 to reinforce the demographic weight of Shiites in the Syrian capital. Iran has supported the resettlement of Shiite militants and their families especially in the quarter surrounding the Shiite shrine of Sayeda Zeinab in the southern suburbs of Damascus. Iran has sought to fundamentally change the demographic makeup of other regions of the country—notably the zones linking Damascus and other important cities, like Homs, with the Lebanese border—by encouraging the departure of Sunnis and their replacement with Shiites coming from other parts of Syria, as well as, it would seem, Lebanon and Iraq.
Likewise under the cover of propping up the Al-Assad regime, Iran’s interference in the Syrian economy has rapidly grown. Since 2011, Tehran has opened an estimated $6–10 billion line of credit, while local sources cite a $5.4 billion current debt owed by Al-Assad’s government. In January 2017, five protocols were signed on the occasion of the Syrian prime minister’s visit to the Iranian capital, including a mobile network operator license for a company largely run by the IRGC, and a contract for the mining of phosphate in Sharqiya. The Syrian regime allocated Iran some five thousand hectares for agricultural development, and one thousand hectares for the construction of oil and gas terminals, as well as hydrocarbon storage. An accord was signed for the provision of land for animal husbandry. Tehran obtained the right to invest in Syrian ports and, according to a declaration by the Syrian prime minister, in the “reconstruction of Syria,” which would leave the door open to other lucrative contracts in the future.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has said that Tehran treats Syria, increasingly, as “one of its own provinces.” Iran believes that, having saved Al-Assad, it can now help itself to Syria’s economy. The Syrian opposition has denounced such developments as “the pillage” of the country’s wealth by “extremist Iranian militants.” Yet given the current isolation of the Al-Assad regime within the Middle East, such economic penetration could give Tehran pride of place in the country’s reconstruction and help bolster its influence for the foreseeable future. Tehran has attempted to push bilateral commercial relations. Trade between the countries has increased since 2011, but Tehran, as of 2015, still ranked only fourth among Syria’s trade partners, far behind Iraq, which ranked first, and—more surprisingly—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Iranian activities in Syria are not limited to the political, military, and economic domains. Tehran, which has for years developed its cultural diplomacy in Syria, employs soft power to consolidate influence. In February 2017, many Syrian cities officially celebrated the thirty-eighth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution to show the country’s solidarity with Iran. The Iranian cultural center in Damascus, in collaboration with the Iran-Palestine Association, jointly organized an event for the occasion, called the “38th Anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution’s Support for Palestine and Anti-Zionism.” The initiative aimed to improve Tehran’s image in public opinion by turning attention away from its activities in Syria toward its role in the Palestinian cause and criticizing Israel.
All of these activities are clearly aimed at reinforcing Tehran’s ideological pull. Iranian charitable foundations, like the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, are active in Syria and Lebanon, and offer financial and material support to groups that display favor to Tehran. Religious tourism is among the activities encouraged and supported by Iranian authorities to deepen the cultural links between Syria and Iran. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims come to Syria to visit the shrines of Shiite saints—the tomb of Zeinab, the daughter of Ali, the first Shiite Imam, being the holiest such site in Syria. Within a month of the partial truce in Syria in December 2016, Tehran and Damascus began discussions on how to develop further religious tourism and the infrastructure needed to welcome Iranian visitors.
The civil war in Syria has also given Tehran a theater for its cold war with Saudi Arabia, its most important rival in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran, almost without exception, have found themselves on opposite sides of the wars that emerged out of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq and, later, the 2011 Arab uprisings. Both have exploited the increasingly sectarian tone of conflicts across the Arab World to their advantage; Tehran has often found a foothold in Arab countries with significant Shiite populations, like Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, while Riyadh has consistently claimed the mantle of leading the orthodox Sunni world. The cold war includes proxy campaigns in Iraq and Yemen, but Syria is the critical battlefield given its strategic position in the heart of a Sunni-majority region that includes not only Syria itself but Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel. The fall of Aleppo to Al-Assad’s forces in December 2016 gave Tehran an edge in the balance of power with Riyadh, no doubt explaining why Iran refused to accept Saudi participation in peace talks held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.
Arabs and Persians
Tehran has every reason to believe that its moment in Syria has arrived. Al-Assad’s military position appears more secure in Damascus and Syria’s heartland, while opposition forces seem weakened and divided, pushed back toward the country’s peripheries. On the battlefield, Iran’s Shiite allies are forces to be reckoned with—Hezbollah more so than ever, as the organization has gained more field experience and the ability to play an important role in future regional conflicts. Diplomatically, Tehran, in collaboration with Moscow and Ankara, has marginalized not only Riyadh and the other Gulf monarchies, but Washington and the Western bloc in negotiating a settlement in Syria.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether Iran has really secured lasting influence in Syria. Despite its heavy investments and sacrifices, has Iran truly become Syria’s long-term “friend” and “protector”? Such a conclusion would be naive and amount to a fundamental misunderstanding of the regional and international reality. Above all, uncertainty characterizes the current situation facing Iran and other actors involved in the Syrian conflict.
The civil war is far from over, despite the gains made by Al-Assad and his allies. No compromise or settlement between the Syrian regime and the opposition present at the Astana conference can be foreseen so far; it is difficult to predict what parts of Syria that Al-Assad and his allies can ultimately control. Iran, Russia, and Turkey, moreover, do not share identical points of view nor interests in Syria, nor agreement on future conduct of the war. Changes in the situation on the ground may depend heavily on how Russian–American relations evolve under President Donald Trump, who has suggested he could cooperate with President Vladimir Putin in Syria, a possibility which seems to interest Moscow. A general rapprochement between the two countries could occur, ideally from Putin’s viewpoint without undercutting Russia’s deepening strategic relations with Iran. Either way, a Russian–American entente over Syria is an alarming possibility for Tehran, especially given its rising tensions with the United States since Trump’s election in 2016.
There are numerous outstanding questions about Iran’s regional thinking. Will Tehran pursue an expansionist policy, leaning for the most part on Shiite confessional currents, contrary to the initial, ecumenical ambitions of the Iranian revolution in 1979 to unite all branches of Islam? Will Iran continue to concentrate on the Arab World, whereas its geopolitical position should lead it toward a more multidirectional policy, allowing it to benefit fully from its exceptionally advantageous geographical location? Is Tehran even fully conscious that its current interference in Arab affairs is being met with increasing hostility and could turn against Iran with real effects?
Already, unfavorable opinion toward Iran has increased considerably since 2012 across the Middle East. According to several polls conducted at the end of 2016, including in Iraq and Lebanon, a majority of those asked held a negative opinion of Tehran. The degradation of Iran’s image across the Arab World will only increase if it continues to pursue its current policies in Syria—it could even push Arab countries, generally divided and unable to cooperate effectively, to counterbalance and actively oppose Iran. This is already happening to a certain extent, with Saudi efforts—with the Trump administration’s blessings—to give its “Islamic Military Alliance” an anti-Iranian tone. Whatever Iran does in this part of the world, its policies face an insurmountable obstacle: Iran is Persia, which will always be suspect in Arab lands. The Islamic Republic’s leaders may do well to understand this reality.
Translated from the French by Amir-Hussein Radjy.
Mohammad-Reza Djalili is Emeritus Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva). He previously taught at the Université Panthéon-Assas (Paris II) and at the University of Tehran.
Thierry Kellner is a lecturer at Université libre de Bruxelles and associate researcher for the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security. He is the author of L’Occident de la Chine: Pékin et la nouvelle Asie centrale (1991–2001).
Fury in the Philippines
Shortly after winning a landslide election victory in May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte declared that as president he would chart a new course for the Philippines and “not be dependent on the United States.” With a few audacious words, he became the first Philippine leader to openly question the foundations of a century-old alliance, which dates back to America’s imperial foray into Asia in the early 1900s.
Not only did Duterte decide to pursue decoupling from America, his manner of doing so crossed one diplomatic red line after the other, leading pundits at home and abroad to dub him the “Trump of the East” for his blunt and sometimes vulgar rhetoric. Duterte’s most virulent tirades followed Washington’s criticism of alleged extrajudicial killings in his war on drug traffickers. After calling President Barack Obama “a son of a bitch,” Duterte added, “You can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell.” For good measure, he called Secretary of State John Kerry “crazy” and the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines a “gay son of a bitch.” The Obama administration labeled Duterte’s actions “a significant departure” from Manila’s longstanding partnership with the United States. Obama officials said they were deeply troubled when Duterte drew a comparison between his campaign to “slaughter” millions of drug addicts with the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews. Duterte’s bombastic attacks on his critics also targeted the United Nations, European Union, and even the Catholic Church.
Part of the reason for Duterte’s fury is that he sees criticism of his scorched-earth policy against illegal drugs as a direct challenge to his electoral mandate. The core of Duterte’s presidential campaign was a vow to clean up the streets, and his decisive victory made him certain of the righteousness of his cause. Surveys show that the majority of Filipinos, especially in metropolitan Manila area, feel safer due to Duterte’s tough talk against criminality and brutal crackdown on suspected drug dealers, which has reportedly claimed thousands of lives. Yet, despite popular support for the ongoing war on drugs, most Filipinos have also expressed concerns over extrajudicial killings.
For the Philippine strongman, the doctrine of human rights is neither universal nor valid because, in Duterte’s view, it ignores communitarian values such as law and order. Going further, he has questioned the wisdom and utility of the United Nations system, arguing that the global body is out of touch with the realities in developing countries and incapable of resolving global conflicts. Duterte’s latest assertion of strongman rule occurred in May when he declared martial law in Mindanao—and warned he may extend it nationwide—following an upsurge in attacks by Islamist militants.
More importantly, Duterte’s rhetoric reflects his administration’s policy of reducing its reliance on the United States and U.S.-led security architecture in Asia, and rejecting the wider liberal international order in favor of Philippine sovereignty. Although he sometimes parrots the talk of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, he does not aspire to become another Sukarno or Nasser, much less a Filipino version of Chavez or Ahmadinejad. Duterte more closely echoes the so-called “Asian values” arguments once put forth by regional autocrats such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia to justify their suppression of basic civil liberties and democratic rights.
Duterte’s quest for greater independence involves a reorientation of the Philippines’ traditionally hostile relationship with Eastern powers, namely China and Russia. During the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in late 2016, Duterte declared that while his government would not sever ties with Washington, it was ready to open alliances with Beijing and Moscow.
Search for Autonomy
Duterte’s quest for an independent foreign policy is rooted in a long history of Philippine strategic subservience to the United States, which claimed the country as a possession in the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish–American War. Throughout the twentieth century, Manila effectively outsourced its external security obligations to Washington, which enjoyed unparalleled influence over the Philippine media-security-business complex and exploited full access to Philippine military facilities from Luzon to Mindanao. Three key agreements underpinned the patron–client strategic partnership between the two countries: the U.S.–Philippine Military Assistance Pact (1947), the Military Bases Agreement (1947), and the Mutual Defense Treaty (1951). During the Cold War, the Philippines was a key ally and logistics hub for Western military operations in Korea and Vietnam.
The end of the Cold War presented an opportunity for the Philippines to assert greater autonomy. In 1991, the Philippine Senate, in a nationalist frenzy, voted against extending an agreement granting the United States the right to operate its largest overseas military bases, Subic and Clark. In 1992, after years of fruitless negotiations over the Military Bases Agreement, the Cory Aquino administration asked the U.S. government to vacate the bases. Washington complied, evidently believing that the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War diminished the value of maintaining a large and costly forward deployment presence in Southeast Asia.
But in view of developments in the coming decades, Manila alternated between leaning toward non-alignment and maintaining close strategic ties with Washington. A few years after American troops departed, the Philippines confronted creeping Chinese maritime expansion. Beijing seemed keen to exploit the power vacuum in the region. In 1994, it took control of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, which lies close to the island of Palawan (the Philippines’ westernmost province) and the energy-rich Reed Bank within Manila’s two hundred nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Fidel Ramos administration responded by increasing Philippine defense spending and revitalizing Philippine–U.S. military cooperation under the Visiting Forces Agreement.
In the mid-2000s, dismayed by the U.S. government’s narrow focus on fighting terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration sought to diversify its foreign relations and solicit economic support from external partners such as China and Japan. In a short-lived golden age of Philippine-Chinese relations, Arroyo and Chinese leader Hu Jintao expanded trade and investment relations, signed defense agreements, and explored a joint development scheme in the South China Sea under the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement. Philippine-Chinese relations quickly soured, however. Major Chinese infrastructure investment projects became embroiled in corruption scandals, which undermined the Arroyo administration’s legitimacy and enabled the opposition to take power in the 2010 presidential election. And China embarked on more aggressive claims in the South China Sea.
The incoming Benigno Aquino administration took a different approach to China. It showed little interest in attracting large-scale Chinese investments and adopted a tougher position in the South China Sea, specifically refusing to pursue an arrangement similar to the JMSU, which lapsed in 2008 and became mired in controversy and accusations of treason. China hosted Aquino for a state visit in 2011, but relations again quickly deteriorated with a naval showdown over the Scarborough Shoal, which falls within the Philippines’ EEZ but lies nine hundred kilometers from the nearest naturally formed Chinese coastline in Hainan. As the standoff intensified, China imposed non-tariff barriers on Philippine fruit exports, discouraged its citizens from traveling to the Philippines, and began exercising administrative control over Scarborough.
The Aquino administration responded by expanding the Philippines’ military relations with the United States as a deterrence against further Chinese aggression. It negotiated the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which grants American military expanded rotational access to Philippine bases and paves the way for more American military aid, logistical assistance, and intelligence support. The Aquino administration adopted a lawfare strategy, filing a case against China with a UN-appointed international tribunal in The Hague for violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Considering that such tribunals lack enforcement capabilities, the Obama administration’s support for the case was critical and further deepened Philippine dependence on America. To the delight of the Philippines and its allies, the lawfare strategy produced the best possible legal outcome. The tribunal ruled against China’s claim of “historic rights” and criticized its massive reclamation activities in the contested Spratlys for inflicting ecological damage on coral reefs and marine life.
By the time the tribunal ruled, however, the Philippines had another new president. In his election campaign, Duterte had expressed skepticism about the value of the arbitration, questioned the utility of American support in the South China Sea dispute, and called for direct engagement with China.
Meanwhile, U.S.-Philippine relations quickly nosedived over Duterte’s draconian antidrug campaign. In its final months in office, the Obama administration withheld a shipment of American firearms to the Philippine National Police and postponed the renewal of the $400 million Millennium Challenge Corporation aid package to Manila. Duterte cancelled joint military exercises and plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea, and denied American warships access to Philippine bases to conduct “freedom of navigation” operations.
In October 2016, Duterte visited China with great fanfare, and announced his “separation” from America and his interest in joining China’s “ideological flow” in a new alliance “against the world.” Since then, Duterte has been seeking long-term military agreements with both China and Russia—a serious blow to the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia and Washington’s efforts to curb Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Hence, in his first six months in office, Duterte abruptly downgraded Philippine relations with the United States, which has historically enjoyed high favorability ratings among Filipinos, and upgraded ties with China, seen as a strategic threat by a majority of Filipinos and particularly by the security establishment.
How did Duterte pull off this high-wire act? Duterte’s brand of populism is anchored by a wholesale rejection of not only the liberal elite, but also their policy paradigm. Similar to other successful anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump in the United States or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Duterte’s rise to power was based on a promise to upend the status quo. Duterte’s propaganda machine has worked around the clock to discredit elites, particularly American-leaning liberals, as unpatriotic stooges of foreign powers and as rapacious oligarchs. In a country that has one of the highest rates of income inequality, poverty, and unemployment, Duterte’s anti-establishment narrative gets significant traction.
Duterte quickly managed to consolidate his power over the state apparatus in what some have described as the authoritarianization of the Philippine political system. With much of the Congress defecting to the president’s party and the Supreme Court struggling to exert its independence, institutional checks and balances have fallen into a hibernation mode. Duterte enjoys extraordinarily high approval ratings, oversees a super-majority bloc in the legislature, and has strong support from the law enforcement agencies.
Duterte risked little backlash for questioning America’s reliability as an ally given what any Filipinos viewed as U.S. waffling in the South China Sea dispute. The Obama administration consistently refused to clarify whether it would aid the Philippines in a direct conflict. During the Scarborough Shoal crisis, Washington refused to offer military assistance and instead encouraged bilateral negotiations to defuse the situation. Recent surveys show that a plurality of Filipinos share Duterte’s doubts about Washington.
Meanwhile, China has been playing a robust game of carrot and stick. Chinese officials are making it clear that the Philippines would benefit from large-scale trade and investment deals if it sets aside the arbitration case in The Hague and reduces joint military exercises with the U.S. Navy near the contested areas. At the same time, Chinese officials are warning they could move ahead with an Air Defense Identification Zone in the disputed areas, proceed with reclamation activities on the Scarborough Shoal, and expand military deployments in Philippine-claimed waters.
Another factor that explains Duterte’s actions is his longstanding personal skepticism about American policy toward the Philippines. He is a self-described socialist with old ties to leading Philippine communists and Moro-Islamic ideologues. Since his days as mayor of Davao City, the commercial hub of Mindanao island, Duterte has had testy relations with Americans. During the George W. Bush administration, when America was involved in extensive counterterror operations in Mindanao, Duterte blocked the 2007 edition of the annual joint military exercises which were scheduled to take place within his jurisdiction. In 2013, he denied the Obama administration access to Davao Airport for conducting drone operations. To Duterte, the United States is contributing to the problem rather than the solution in Mindanao. He often portrays Americans as cruel and arrogant, insensitive to the conditions of the developing world.
“Unbelievable Job on the Drug Problem”
Despite Duterte’s bluster and actions, Trump’s presidency may well lead to another reset in U.S.–Philippine relations. Duterte has praised Trump as a kindred spirit—a fellow strongman populist bent on overthrowing the establishment—and even claimed that Trump supports his crackdown on illegal drugs. Duterte appointed Jose Antonio, a former Trump business associate and the owner of Trump Tower in Manila, as a special envoy to Washington. Duterte has given a green light for the implementation of the EDCA, paving the way for expanded American rotational military access to Philippine bases. Duterte is particularly pleased with Trump’s inaugural promise that America would not seek to impose its values on other nations—interpreted by Duterte as meaning the United States would no longer hound other countries about human rights and democracy. Duterte is also pleased with Trump’s vow to take a tougher approach against China in the South China Sea.
Relations certainly seemed warmer when Trump placed a call to Duterte on April 29 and invited the Philippine leader to visit the White House “anytime you want to come.” No date has been set, but Trump will be traveling to Manila in November for a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hosted by Duterte. In the call, whose content was leaked by Philippine officials and confirmed by a U.S. administration official, Trump began by congratulating Duterte for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” It was a statement that provoked immediate alarm among human rights groups, but appeared to delight Duterte. He told Trump that he was fighting the drug scourge to preserve his nation, to which Trump responded that America “had a previous president who did not understand that.”
The specter of terror—with Philippine groups affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria launching a recent attack on the southern island of Mindanao—is bringing the two estranged allies closer together. In June, the Pentagon provided a new cache of weapons to Philippine troops and deployed special forces to train Philippine counterparts. American drones were deployed to gain intelligence on the movement of the insurgents.
Under Duterte and Trump, the Philippine–American alliance may still have a future.
Richard Javad Heydarian is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific, and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise: The Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy. He is resident analyst at GMA Network and a columnist for the Manila Bulletin. He was an assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University from 2014 to 2016 and lecturer in political science at Ateneo De Manila University from 2013 to 2014. He has written for Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Guardian, among many other leading publications. On Twitter: @Richeydarian.
Climate Change Conundrum
Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming. By Benjamin R. Barber. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. 224 pp.
When President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate change agreement negotiated by his predecessor and adopted in 2015, international criticism was not slow in coming. China and India, major powers whom the Barack Obama administration had pressed into being more ambitious with their international commitments, joined a chorus of disappointed U.S. allies in Europe and Asia promising they would still, at the very least, honor the agreement and, in many cases, attempt to exceed their previously stated emissions reductions goals.
Aggrieved nation-states were not the only ones to articulate defiance in the face of U.S. retreat. American states and cities, many but by no means all governed by mayors belonging to Obama’s Democratic Party, made it quite clear that the Trump administration was not speaking for them. Not only did they see the strategic good sense in having the United States keep its word to the international community, they also saw the economic growth possibilities in becoming the pioneers of sustainable economic growth, to say nothing of the myriad positive health impacts for their citizens.
Such local action on climate change is not new. Ever since the establishment of an international climate regime at a summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, cities in particular have pioneered innovative solutions to address climate change and issues such as energy and pollution. That inclination has only grown as national governments have struggled to find consensus in international negotiations. As a result, the ability and willingness of states and municipalities to become policy entrepreneurs has been the subject of much study in the literature on global governance.
Add to that literature Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming by political theorist Benjamin R. Barber, best known for the 1995 Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy on the struggle between tradition and globalization. In this latest work, Barber reports on how cities could be the vanguard of a new global politics. After the election of Donald Trump, he argues, it is time for cities, in the United States and worldwide, to increase the ambition of their goals, and to organize themselves transnationally in coalitions to share best practices, gauge the impact of their actions, and demonstrate to their superiors at the federal level they will act on the most critical issue facing mankind this century. Barber not only lays out why cities are important, but provides the legal and philosophical foundation for why they should act on climate change even when the federal governments to which they are titularly subordinate fail to act. His argument for the primacy of cities is convincing, as is his comprehensive overview of what coalitions currently exist to leverage urban ambition worldwide.
Cities have numerous advantages over their state and federal counterparts in pushing the envelope. Many cities are already endowed with the authority to make major investment decisions related to transportation infrastructure and housing. Barber cites two examples from Colombia where mayors have adopted transportation solutions like Bogatá’s rapid bus transit and Medellín’s cable car system, which are less carbon-intensive than the model of private automobile use that is ubiquitous in U.S. cities and less capital-intensive than building brand-new subway systems. Both are also environmentally sustainable and popular with the public. Barber rolls out numerous other examples: Seoul turning an eyesore highway into green space to improve air quality and increase the sense of community; Oslo investing heavily in building electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and New York City painting the roofs of buildings white to reflect, rather than trap, solar radiation.
Barber is less convincing on the politics and economics of action at the city level. In portraying cities as the guardians of a new climate politics, he assumes they possess a more democratic nature and, by extension, can move more nimbly to put into place the kind of policies that scientists, engineers, urban planners, and others have said are necessary to turn back global warming. But his contention that city governments are more democratically responsive than national or regional governments because they operate in closer proximity to citizens rests on a shaky foundation.
Despite the numerous admirable examples of what cities are doing, it does not automatically mean that they are always and everywhere able to translate their flexibility into better overall policies. The concept of NIMBY, an acronym for Not In My Backyard, does not make an appearance in Barber’s book, even though anyone in urban policy knows it is a reason why initiatives to advance the overall good often do not gain traction. For every example of the way cities can develop new initiatives and quickly implement them, there are counterexamples of how local politics can be just as polarized and gridlocked as national politics.
To take one example that has become more prominent during the Bill de Blasio administration, New York City has a significant and growing homelessness problem. One of the more efficient and humane strategies for addressing the issue would be to build more homeless shelters, spread throughout the city. Yet such new construction is a nonstarter in many neighborhoods because people do not want transient populations near where they live. Such resistance can be found in other policy areas such as energy. Nuclear power is the second-largest source of electricity generation in New York State, with the Indian Point Energy Center about thirty-five miles north of Manhattan directly supplying New York City. For years environmental activists have agitated for its closure as part of a larger antinuclear campaign. If the activists were successful, New York State’s reliance on fossil fuels (like natural gas, which is the number-one generating source) would increase. While that could be called a victory for democracy, it could be a defeat for efforts to stem climate change.
The economic obstacles to a new paradigm for cities are likely even more intractable. Cities are indeed the wealthiest entities in virtually every country worldwide. Yet their vast resource potential, even when combined with adjoining urban areas, still pales in comparison with nation-states. New York City’s $84.86 billion annual budget cannot stand in for a federal clean energy research and development program, electric vehicles, or agricultural resilience. The reason that nation-states are preferred climate leaders is because they have the ability to pool resources from a variety of economic actors within their jurisdictions to fund research and development, enact policies and regulations, and enforce an all-sectors approach to de-carbonization, while at the same time being able (at least theoretically) to redistribute the economic gains to less wealthy areas.
Cities are less a fix for global warming, as Barber would have it, than a mechanism for persuasion. This is a welcome and necessary contribution, but is not sufficient on its own to create the political space for true de-carbonization goals. Cities can certainly be leaders on climate change and energy policy, as Barber amply illustrates, but the focus must be less on making cities an exceptional set of actors separate from their national context, as Barber seems to advocate, and more as labs for convincing everyone about what is necessary to solve the climate crisis.
Neil Bhatiya is Research Associate for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. On Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.
Donald Trump makes headlines for restricting immigration, repealing Obamacare, and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. With less drama, his administration is working on another issue of far-reaching importance. As Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Cathleen Cimino-Isaacs write in our Summer 2017 issue, the U.S. president’s trade policies have profound implications for the global economy and America’s international standing. Their essay, “Trump versus Globalization,” leads our Special Report: Global Trade in Peril.
Dany Bahar takes a pragmatic look at the upsides and downsides of international trade in his essay, “The Case for Open Markets.” In an essay titled “Anti-Trade Alliance,” Pietra Rivoli reports on the unlikely coalition of skeptics across the political spectrum that is driving anti-globalization trends. In “Speed Bumps on the Silk Road,” Rebecca Liao examines China’s ambitious plans to further trade and influence from Asia to the Middle East with its One Belt One Road Initiative.
With the looming military defeat of the Islamic State jihadist group, we offer a set of three essays that examine the outlook for Iraq and Syria after years of upheaval in those countries. The Cairo Review Interview is with former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who currently heads the International Rescue Committee, a leading group confronting the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
This is my last issue as managing editor of the Cairo Review. I am proud to have been part of an effort here at the American University in Cairo to provide a platform in the Middle East for quality writing on global affairs. I pay tribute to the hundreds of authors from the region and around the world who have enabled the Cairo Review to make meaningful contributions to international discourse. I say a sincere thanks to the many readers of this quarterly print edition as well as our continuously updated online site—thank you for trusting the Cairo Review to balance the narrative with factual reporting and informed analysis. Finally, I am indebted to our small team of incredibly talented and dedicated editors and reporter-researchers. Their daily labors, smart perspectives, and good humor have made the Cairo Review what it is.
Three New Trends in Iran’s Politics
Incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has won reelection, and the world has expressed relief.
International observers and media have interpreted his victory as indicating that a large majority of Iranians favor internal reform over a stagnating conservatism at home, and a policy of engagement rather than confrontation with the outside world. This overlooks the fact that Iranians have sought reform and engagement for decades. At least since the late 1980s, or to be precise since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, a majority of Iranians have been asking for greater social and political freedoms, better economic conditions, and engagement with the outside world.
After the war, successive administrations, under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997) and President Mohammad Khatami (1997–2004), tried to implement a policy of internal reforms and international engagement. However, their efforts were stymied by political rivals within the conservative ruling establishment, and the unwillingness of Iran’s neighbors and the West to respond positively to their overtures. The Iranian people’s desire for both reform and greater international engagement was further strengthened following the unfortunate and highly damaging interlude of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency (2005–13). President Rouhani’s election in 2013 and his reelection in 2017 have only confirmed the long-held desire of most Iranians for reform and international engagement.
The latest presidential campaign did reveal a number of highly significant new social and political trends in the country. These three trends brought to light the still-existing social, political, and ideological cleavages within the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this presidential election campaign was the return of Iranian nationalism, alongside the continued Iran–Islam dichotomy. In his statements, Rouhani mentioned Iran first and then Islam. For instance, he said that he entered the race for president for a second time “for the sake of Iran and Islam.” This subtle emphasis on Iran may not seem significant, for those who do not remember that the Islamic revolution in 1979 had extremely anti-nationalist and anti-Iran aspects, to which many hardline conservatives still adhere.
In the early years of the revolution, its new leaders would not even mention “the nation of Iran” and referred only to “ummat-e Islam,” meaning the universal community of Muslims. Having so-called nationalist tendencies (melligaraei) was considered a sin and a crime. But now many openly say that Iran and its interests should be given priority over vague Islamic ideals. For example, Molavi Abdul Hamid, a leading Sunni cleric from the southeastern city of Zahedan, recently said that religion is a personal matter and the president and the government should focus on Iran and the homeland (“Iran va vatan”). He added that the country’s minority Sunni community was ready for full participation in national life and is willing to make all the necessary sacrifices for the country. Similar statements have come from the country’s other Sunni leaders.
What is encouraging is that this new sense of nationalism is more civic than ethnocentric. It is rooted both in common Iranian cultural heritage and historical memory, and in the desire for a free and law-based society. Still, hardline Islamists, although not as harshly as before, continue to resist the trend toward nationalism, and insist that religion should be the foundation of Iran’s identity. The fact that sixteen million Iranians voted for Ebrahim Raisi, representing religious tradition and revolutionary zeal, illustrates that Iranian society is still divided on the issue of what is a proper balance between tradition and modernity.
This connects with the second trend highlighted in the presidential campaign: Iranians are still divided on the issue of secularism versus religion in the country’s political life. Many Iranians prefer a society in which religion is not overly intrusive and allows for a greater space for the freedom of expression. But conservatives are adamantly opposed to what they see as creeping secularism. The recurring controversy over holding public concerts in cities across Iran is one such flashpoint in this running battle. Old guard figures like Ayatollah Shobeiri Zanjani have urged President Rouhani to make the government’s main concern the people’s religiosity, and the safeguarding of religious values. Such statements betray the 1979 generation’s anxiety over the gradual secularization of Iranian society.
Both the resurgence in nationalism and the divide over religion’s role add up to the third and most consequential divide that came out of this year’s presidential election: what does it mean in today’s Iran to be a revolutionary, and which faction—reformist/moderate or conservative/principlist—best represents the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution?
What remains outside of the domain of discussion is the revolution itself or its foundational principles. They can only interpret them. Yet many of Iran’s current problems derive from the Islamic Republic’s so-called anti-imperialist mission, and its commitment to the liberation of Palestine.
Yet none of these issues were discussed in the election campaign. They were only hinted at in an opaque and roundabout way. The reason for their omission is that these issues are directly linked to Iran’s current power structure. A fundamental change in the government’s Islamic principles could result in wide-reaching alterations in the country’s political structure.
Although encouraging as long-term trends, the election’s results have done little to change the underlying dynamics of Iran’s Islamic system. Even reformists like Rouhani are not willing to go as far as challenging the revolution’s foundational values. They only try to moderate them. This reluctance is because their own fortunes are linked to the current system, and a real opening of the system will challenge their power as well as that of the conservatives. But unless the foundational principles of the Islamic republic and their relevance to Iran’s current conditions are opened up for discussion, and ultimately are altered, Iran’s prospects for progress and peace will remain uncertain.
Shireen T. Hunter is a research professor at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. She is the author of God on Our Side: Religion and International Affairs.
Extremism Watch in Pakistan
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan was one of the leaders of fifty-five Muslim-majority nations attending an anti-extremism summit in Riyadh. So how is Pakistan addressing what President Donald Trump’s speech to the gathering called “the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamist and Islamic terror of all kinds”?
Sharif has spent the last several months reaching out to his country’s religious minorities. In March, at an event in Karachi celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi heralding the arrival of spring, he said that “Pakistan was not made so that one religion can dominate over others.” It was a remarkable statement, because it flies in the face of Pakistan’s history, its laws, and the state’s policies privileging Islam and Muslims at the expense of religious minorities.
Sharif does not invoke secularism when he talks about religious minorities. He calls on Islam to argue for the equality of religious communities. In a January speech at the Katas Raj temples in Punjab, Sharif said that the Prophet Mohammed had declared religious minorities “one nation” with Muslims. The prime minister’s choice of words appeared to be a jab at Pakistan’s founding “two-nation theory” that Hindus and Muslims are fundamentally incompatible because they are two nations—thus creating the need for a Muslim state, Pakistan, alongside Hindu-majority India.
In Pakistan, Sharif’s outreach to religious minorities is unusual, and part of an unmistakable and concerted effort. It is partly driven by the desire to improve the country’s image abroad, one badly marred by terror and extremism. In December 2016, the prime minister launched a festive Christmas train from Islamabad. Also in December, Sharif took actions to recognize Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, the physicist Abdus Salam, a man hitherto sidelined in Pakistan because he belonged to the Ahmadi religious minority. The government, despite significant popular anti-Ahmadi sentiment, renamed the National Physics Center after Abdus Salam almost two decades after his death.
These cannot be steps taken for political expediency, especially before an election year; they will likely harm Sharif’s poll numbers with his relatively conservative base. Yet there might still be an opportunistic motivation. He has been embroiled in court cases alleging corruption after the Panama Papers leak last year revealed his family’s considerable, unexplained assets. In April, the Supreme Court delivered a verdict narrowly ruling that Sharif could stay in power, but ordered the formation of a special commission to continue investigating the allegations. Sharif has resisted calls for his resignation. Cultivating a tolerant image may be the prime minister’s attempt to curry favor with his Western allies for political preservation, given his precarious situation at home.
Whatever his motivation, Sharif is trying to recast himself as a progressive leader, repeatedly invoking Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his vision for the country. Liberals argue that Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a Muslim-majority country, not an Islamic nation. Sharif does not, and won’t ever, go so far as to mention secularism; he is limited to emulating Jinnah’s reputation as the benign “protector general of minorities.”
But speeches addressing minorities, while welcome, won’t accomplish much. Mob and vigilante violence against those accused of blasphemy continues. On April 15, Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old university student, was killed for alleged blasphemy by a frenzied mob of his fellow students on campus. There have been multiple such incidents recently. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores; the legal punishment for blasphemy is death. Religious minorities are particularly vulnerable to allegations of blasphemy. Whether on social media or in the streets, the media and politically powerful conservatives often conflate secular dissent with blasphemy. Sharif’s progressive words on minorities appear to be mere lip service in the face of this negative trend.
Terrorism continues, too. In 2017, the Taliban in Pakistan has displayed a renewed brazenness and capacity, while the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has repeatedly reared its head in the country in recent months. Since February, the thriving city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, has suffered repeated terrorist attacks. In Sindh, ISIS claimed a suicide bomber attack on the historic Sufi shrine of Sehwan Sharif, which killed more than eighty people as they joined together in a devotional dance called dhamaal.
The narrative on terrorism and extremism put forth by the prime minister and the broader Pakistani state remains one-dimensional, skin-deep, and obfuscating. Pakistan’s leaders do not even call the terrorist groups that target its citizens by name; they refer to them obliquely as those who sow chaos, and those who seek to destabilize the country. The strategy is often to blame other countries, notably Pakistan’s neighbors Afghanistan and India, for sponsoring terrorism within Pakistan to these ends.
Until Sharif demonstrates an introspective approach on extremism, countering it will prove elusive. At this point the fight against extremism in Pakistan has come to be embodied in the National Action Plan, a twenty-point list the government released after the 2014 Peshawar school attack. The “plan” combines anti-extremism and counterterrorism policy, and mixes goals and outcomes with actions. On the list are such measures as reinstating the death penalty for terrorists and strengthening Pakistan’s counterterrorism authority, combined with soft measures such as eliminating religious persecution, regulating madrasas, eliminating hate literature, and ending the glorification of terrorists.
Yet the twenty points of the National Action Plan fail to acknowledge the state’s own culpability in fostering extremism. If Pakistan is to move past extremism, it needs to address how the state has allowed fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to thrive in the country. Pakistan, officially an “Islamic Republic” since 1956, needs a national process of reconciliation that directly counters its historical demons. It needs to confront how the very ideology of jihad that it considers useful while fighting India over Kashmir has created the extremists that attack the Pakistani state. If Sharif means what he says, he must follow his welcome words with a wider narrative and action.
Madiha Afzal is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. On Twitter: @MadihaAfzal.