POMED Notes: “Global Authoritarianism and the Arab Spring: New Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy”
On Tuesday (1/29), the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) held an event entitled “Global Authoritarianism and the Arab Spring: New Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy.” Steven Heydemann of USIP and Daniel Brumberg of USIP and Georgetown University presented the paper they authored of the same name and Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution offered comments. Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center moderated.
For full event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.
Steven Heydemann opened the event by discussing a trend that he called “the globalization of authoritarianism.” He argued that relationships and collaboration between authoritarian regimes have strengthened and increased. China, Russia, and Iran have worked together to achieve common goals, including challenging the Western hegemony, establishing ties to the other BRICS and Turkey, and gaining more economic independence. Heydemann said that they focus particularly on the issue of how power is distributed globally and talk of “breaking the Western dominance of globalization,” including its manifestation in international institutions. Their “argument contains strident claims of the imperative of defending…state sovereignty and non-interference.” They cooperate more flexibly than traditional allies and Heydemann contended that they have contributed to a diplomatic environment that has direct challenges for the U.S. and its allies, especially in the arena created by the Arab Spring, where the regional order has become destabilized. Their regional policy objectives include containing the U.S.’s strategic influence and using their resources to exploit anti-American sentiment.
Daniel Brumberg summarized the paper. It describes the assets, liabilities, and economic relationships of the network of authoritarian regimes. Its core examines the dynamics of global authoritarianism in the context of the Arab Spring, and in particular the struggle over intervention in Libya and Syria. Brumberg described the “diplomatic dance” that both the regimes and the Middle East’s transitioning states must execute. The global authoritarians must be careful to couch its anti-hegemonic language in ways that will not offend the newly democratic leaning states, while the transitioning countries must strike a balance between honoring their popular movements and challenging overbearing Western and liberal influence. He said that implications for the U.S. include dealing with a more complicated map where the use of force is likely to be much less effective. Brumberg said that the U.S. must consider how to engage on the issues of conflict with Iran and in Syria. He cautioned that we may see backsliding in the transitioning countries, and that Egypt specifically might end up as an elected autocracy. Brumberg ended by quoting the paper: “U.S. global diplomacy will continue to be framed by a multiplicity of conflicting interests…viewing the on-going domestic struggle in Bahrain with concern, they probably welcome evidence of the enduring constraints that impede any bid to consolidate norms of global governance that conflict with a traditional notion of state sovereignty.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes made four concrete comments about how much the autocracy-democracy axis matters to the shape of the Middle East going forward. First, she said that the cooperation between authoritarian regimes seems to be based on a negative—the opposition of the globalization of democratic norms and values. She said the backlash is real and worrisome, but it is pushing uphill against the historical progress of democracy. Second, Wittes argued that the collaboration is less a strengthened desire to sustain autocracy, and more a response to the opportunities of globalization and multipolarity. Third, she asked what else in the Middle East affects U.S. security interests, such as Iran’s role in the region. Finally, she asked what the interests of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia were, noting that despite anti-American sentiment and distaste for the past patron-client relationships, the West is closer and has more to offer democratically and economically. Wittes said she remains of the view that there is still plenty of opportunity for U.S. engagement. She said she could possibly be swayed if more coherence emerged between the authoritarian regimes, or if they offered a comprehensive plan for offering these Arab countries what they want, especially politically.
Heydemann responded that the authoritarian regimes have a well formulated, positive argument for how the international system should be structured, and that they offer an opportunity to gain more influence on the international stage than possible individually. He characterized what has emerged as a framework that facilitates their coordination, but said cooperation remains completely dependent upon mutual interest. Brumberg agreed that history is on our side when it comes to democracy. In terms of economic issues, the Arab Spring was to some extent a rejection of neo-liberal economic reform that was viewed as extremely unfair. He noted that China especially is holding fast to, and offering up, a different model.
During the Q&A, Brumberg conceded that there are echoes of the non-aligned movement, but said the major difference is the changed international context. Heydemann commented that we are coming out of an era where authoritarianism had nothing to offer, to one where democracy has misfired enough times as to rob it of the immediate credibility that it once enjoyed. Wittes added that the non-aligned movement gained much of its traction because of its anti-colonialism aspect, which mirrors the current backlash against Western neo-imperialism. Brumberg agreed that multilateral organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could have a negative influence on democratization. Wittes saw a lot of potential in U.S.-Egypt relations because their international interests are aligned and the underlying fundamentals are still positive. However, she said that anti-American sentiment is a major factor because Egypt’s president may need to rely on nationalist sentiment, so the U.S. risks becoming a political football. Heydemann said that the U.S. military bases stand out as symbols of the relationships that have come under criticism, leaving them as a thorn in the side of these relationships but that there are segments within these new government structures that view the bases as a security blanket. Therefore the U.S. must be careful with its diplomatic efforts. Brumberg said that the U.S. needs a nuanced, nimble diplomacy that plays on tensions between the authoritarian regimes in the correct ways.