by Adam Garfinkle
It is a truism to claim that the world is changing, but it is not a helpful one left at that, because it is always changing and always has been. The point is to understand how things are changing, and, as Maurice de Tallyrand once said, “expedite the change to one’s benefit.”
Neither individuals nor governments can buck major historical trends, but they can sometimes bend them and otherwise prepare for their effects. At least within broad limits, choices that matter are ours to make, as becomes obvious when we study the choices made by our forbears, for better and for worse.
In the Arab world today, some leadership cadres are better at identifying the key choices before them and making the right ones than are others. Some at least try, while others seem frozen in the rush of daily crises and executive function deficits.
The predicament is hardly unique to the Arabs. The Spanish-speaking world bears an ethno-linguistic situation similar in some ways to that of the Arabs: people divided not only into territorial states but also “divided by a common language and culture.” Outsiders may fail to appreciate the day-to-day linguistic and eco-geographical diversity within such regions, not to speak of the path dependency diversions of history within them. But those inside are acutely aware of such diversity, not only among countries but sometimes too within them.
And then there is Europe. Europe has many languages, many cultures, diverse physical features and varied histories. And yet today Europe coheres beyond national boundaries in a way that neither the Arabic-speaking nor the Spanish-speaking cultural zone does. Why?
It’s complicated, and it no longer matters much because all three groups—Arabs, Hispanics, and Europeans—and others now share a common challenge. Even the more far-sighted leaders of the former two groups still think mainly in national terms (or sometimes in subnational ethnic and/or sectarian terms) rather than, as well, in larger regional or cultural ones. Europeans today are stuck between historical epochs, unsure of which way to go.
The way the world is changing will not reward thinking tied too closely to national mindsets. That is the contemporary meaning of the dictum that those who do not shape destiny will end up being its victim. Here is why.
Nationalism is no simple evil, as many believe, or even necessarily an evil at all. There are good reasons, including explicitly moral ones, why people of kindred culture and language want and should be allowed to form their own political communities. Social trust is critical to the sound functioning of societies, and expectations of reciprocal behavior, honed over many centuries, is a social asset not to be dismissed lightly. It conduces to stronger communities and families, better care for the young, the infirm, and the elderly, more stable commercial relations, and less crime and violence. And if these communities are large enough and live in a common territorial space, we grant it legitimate that they may form self-governing units.
Moreover, there are stable deep-rooted liberal forms of nationalism as well as illiberal ones, and political units based on liberal nationalism are so far the only ones that have succeeded in creating mass-based democratic political cultures—the only ones that have successfully created stable systems of procedural accountability.
But nationalism alone is no longer enough, and a little history shows why. “Nation-state” is a normative term created in the 19th century by those Europeans who strove to undermine the legitimacy principle of multinational empires and replace it with the idea that a given ethno-linguistic group should rule itself. The pressures to re-divide the world’s political order into such nation-states arose from many sources, but the principal one was newly articulated group identity and pride.
Nevertheless, very important and often underappreciated, the emotional sources of modern nationalism were buttressed by both a rising economic and security logic based on a rapidly evolving technological shift. In the wake of the spreading Industrial Revolution, modern economic systems and both administrative and defense capacities lent themselves to functionally effective territorial units smaller than the sprawling empires of the earlier epoch. Many groups came to believe that they could more readily generate both prosperity and security within nation-state units than they could as ethnic-minority provinces of some vast empire over whose policies they had little influence. The two world wars of the 20th century, partly caused by nationalism rising, eventually gave most peoples their chance.
The fit between the size of most technologically advanced political units, economic markets, infrastructure, and modes of production, and cultural affinities was never perfect, not by a long shot. And some places—notably the Arab world—suffered economic conditions inferior to what had come before: in that case, the larger and generally beneficial economic space that had been provided by the Ottoman Empire before 1919. But on the global whole it was, as we sometimes say in the United States, good enough for government work.
There was nothing necessary or natural about those fitting conditions, where they prevailed. It was a happy contingency for those sufficiently well placed who put their faith in nationalism and its institutional expressions; as noted, it worked out less well for those not well placed. But that was then, and this is now: Things have changed again, for nearly everyone.
The increasingly connected nature of the world, in which communications, goods, services, and ideas rush across the boundaries of the world’s 195 territorial units has undermined the capacity of national governments to control reality within their borders. This goes for large and powerful states as well as for small and more fragile ones. It goes not only for economics, but also for security and information, as the mass phenomena of terrorism, population movements, and cyberhacking clearly show.
These changes have created new markets for international governance functions. No one country, no matter how powerful, can be economically autarkic and fully prosperous at the same time, and no one country can be fully secure left entirely to its own devices. No one country can deal with the challenges of global warming, or the potential spread of pandemics, or the power of international crime syndicates, or the sophistication of the international shell economy system of plutocratic-corporate tax evasion, or the effective organization of the global economic or communications order. The methods of the past in coping with challenges that stretched the capacities of the national order—alliances, bilateral trade arrangements, and yes, even espionage in its own way—still work, but are no longer adequate.
The tension between nationalism and transnational ambitions is on vivid display in Europe, where complaints about the “democracy deficit” of the European Commission are by no means baseless. The populist surge in Europe did not fall from the sky. Sound reasons account for it, and, as in the United States, reasons with which one may sympathize, at least to a certain extent. And so a series of balances must be struck by national leaderships. Societies must cohere, and elites cannot browbeat people into becoming cosmopolitan sophisticates over night, or at all. So it is unwise to want to outsource most forms of executive functionality to some transnational level. Nor is it often even possible to create effective solutions on a truly global level.
For these reasons, regional cooperation is often seen as a sweet spot between the parochial and the global. And, as already noted, Europe exemplifies the most advanced effort in this respect. But as also already noted, Europe has its problems.
Not so long ago, many thought that the European Union was the wave of the future, and that European efficiency and soft power would be the indisputable global model of emulation. Only reality untethered optimists still think such a thing. EU institutions have proven inadequate for effective economic management and for a range of security issues, internal and external. Quite beyond Brexit, seething discontent has fed populist movements in virtually every European country, and every one of these movements is anti-EU to one extent or another.
So the shine has definitely come off the European apple, not just because problems have arisen—after all, all political units experience problems from time to time—but because European leaders have repeatedly failed to master these problems. So a basic question has arisen: Is the problem just a batch of atypically mediocre leaders, or is there something about the very structure of the European enterprise that makes the recruitment of effective leadership too rare for necessity?
* * *
That remains an open question, but one man, President Emmanuel Macron of France, seems determined to find out. On March 4, Macron made an unusual speech, addressed not to Frenchmen alone, but to all of the citizens of the European Union in advance of elections for the European Parliament in Strasbourg. https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2019/03/04/for-european-renewal.en He affirmed the value and the historical success of the European Union, but he admitted that the entire enterprise had stalled out, and that its inability to adapt to change had stimulated rising hostility toward the enterprise itself. He therefore called for a program of European renewal, and in so doing pointed to several specific challenges to be overcome.
It is worth reviewing Macron’s analysis and his proposals for renewal, because their value may transcend Europe. Despite the many differences between Europe and the Arab world, Arabs with imagination and an orientation toward the future may find something of interest in them.
Macron framed his proposals around three core principles of renewal: freedom, protection, and progress.
As to freedom, Macron proposed, with all the following bold print in the released original transcript of the speech, “creating a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies, which will provide each Member State with European experts to protect their election process against cyber attacks and manipulation. In this same spirit of independence, we should also ban the funding of European political parties by foreign powers. We should have European rules banish all incitements to hate and violence from the Internet, since respect for the individual is the bedrock of our civilization of dignity.”
As to protection, or security, he insisted that “no community can create a sense of belonging if it does not have bounds that it protects.” He then suggested that the Schengen Zone be rethought: “[A]ll those who want to be part of it should comply with obligations of responsibility (stringent border controls) and solidarity (one asylum policy with the same acceptance and refusal rules). We will need a common border force and a European asylum office, strict control obligations and European solidarity to which each country will contribute under the authority of a European Council for Internal Security.”
As to external security, Macron urged his EU colleagues to make the tough decisions to finally create “a treaty on defense and security” to define the EU’s fundamental obligations in association with NATO and its non-EU European allies (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and, technically at least, Turkey). He also called for increased defense spending in the context of a truly operational mutual defense clause, and a European Security Council, with the United Kingdom included despite Brexit, to prepare collective decisions.
As to trade, Macron called for no new institutions, but he did propose two deliverables. First, he argued for “the adoption of European preference in strategic industries and our public procurement, as our American and Chinese competitors do.” And he urged reform in EU “competition policy” so as to “reshape our trade policy with penalties or a ban in Europe on businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values such as environmental standards, data protection and fair payment of taxes.”
As to progress, Macron called for a “a social shield for all workers, east to west and north to south, guaranteeing the same pay in the same workplace, and a minimum European wage appropriate to each country and discussed collectively every year.” This represents a massive initiative, in essence to create a device both for countercyclical smoothing, as in the U.S. economy, and for homogenizing “real income” through subsidies, as some economists describe the segmentation of wage and price levels within markets—as for example between urban and rural areas. It is not clear that Macron understands just how sweeping, and expensive, this would-be promise really is.
The environment makes up the core of Macron’s proposals under the progress rubric. He calls for targets of “zero carbon by 2050 and pesticides halved by 2025” and urges that the EU “adapt its policies accordingly with such measures as a European Climate Bank to finance the ecological transition, a European food safety force to improve our food controls and, to counter the lobby threat, independent scientific assessment of substances hazardous to the environment and health.”
And last by way of new institutions, Macron proposed “not only to regulate the digital giants by putting in place European supervision of the major platforms . . . but also to finance innovation by giving the new European Innovation Council a budget on a par with the United States in order to spearhead new technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence.” Exactly what kind of supervision he did not say, and what levels of research and development and how they are to be organized he also did not say.
And finally, how to get all of these new initiatives launched and how to generate sufficient widespread public support got them? Macron’s solution is to “set up, with the representatives of the European institutions and the Member States, a Conference for Europe in order to propose all the changes our political project needs, with an open mind, even to amending the treaties,” and to create “citizens’ panels and hear academics, business and labor representatives, and religious and spiritual leaders” to ensure public participation and support.
* * *
Obviously, some of Macron’s ambitions do not readily apply to the Arab world. It would be more resonant with regional culture, but not less noble, to reformulate his three broad principles from “freedom, protection, and progress” to “justice (adel), security (al’aman), and dignity (karama)” for all.
But what about the specifics? Let’s quickly start down the list.
Would it not be possible through the existing, if revitalized, structure of the Arab League for all its member states to agree on at least minimal basic standards for elections, and to create resources for any government seeking help in upgrading election standards to receive that help from other willing Arab governments? Isn’t it better to have election observers from other Arab countries, as well as or possibly instead of observers from outside the region? Is it not possible for the Arab states together to declare a prohibition on interference in Arab elections from outside powers? Can the Arab states not see their way to agree to ban incitement and bigotry over the internet? These seem not only possible innovations in regional policy, but relatively easy ones to put in place if the leadership and will to proceed were to exist.
Common border and asylum policies would be more difficult for all the Arab states to agree upon. The issue is not so much one of principle, but one of practical implementation. First of all, not many people try to sneak into Arab countries as they try to sneak into Europe, and not many from outside the Arab world seek political asylum within it. But some do, some from the outside and some from within the Arab world moving out of one country to another.
Some countries have particular regulations for recognizing such movements. Turkey, for example, recently changed a law concerning naturalized citizens, offering to grant citizenship faster if a person invests a certain amount of money in the Turkish economy. Couldn’t an agreement be reached wherein some less wealthy Arab countries create similar incentives to attract people from wealthier Arab countries, offering dual or all-Arab citizenship in return?
There is, further, a serious refugee problem, both internal to countries (like Syria and Yemen) and among countries (Jordan is a massive net recipient of Arab refugees), caused mainly by wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. And yet there seems to be no formal dialogue among Arab governments assembled together about this problem. The entire issue of the movement of peoples—to include workers in the Arab world that come under contract from outside, as well as the movement of Arabs from country to country—is a fitting subject for discussion and at least some agreement. How should such an effort be organized? Who will take the lead?
A treaty on defense and security that would include all Arab League members is a bridge too far for the time being. But smaller regional groupings are possible. There is already the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose amity and working relations, it may be hoped, will one day soon be fully restored. But a somewhat similar arrangement in North Africa among Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt may be possible and desirable. These states have some differences that need mending, but more important, perhaps, they have common problems with smuggling and border security to their south, with terrorism, with maritime security, and other matters that would reward closer cooperation. Again, how should such an effort be structured, and who will take the lead?
There is no need here to go through each of President Macron’s ideas. It is better that people in the region do such work. But is it beyond imagination that Arab governments could come to common understandings about environmental protection that are in the interest of all states and peoples? About labor standards and food safety? About regulating, without overtly censoring, the internet?
Is it be beyond imagination for Arabs in time to adapt another EU institution to their own needs that Macron had no reason to mention: An Arab Parliament.
The European Parliament has more symbolic importance than it has real legislative power. But the symbol matters, and the informal value of the European Parliament in the personal networks it enables is not trivial. Who will create a vision for an Arab Parliament with perhaps similar benefits? Who, in other words, will create an institutional roadmap for what some will doubtless call pan-Arabism 2.0—but this time a pan-Arabism grounded in the practical management of common problems and opportunities.
- * *
In light of the daily crush of problems in many Arab countries, aspirations like these may sound far-fetched—“pie in the sky,” as we Americans call it. But there is value in aspiring to better circumstances. It nurtures the imagination; it feeds hope. It calls upon the “better angels” of human nature, as Abraham Lincoln called them. Sometimes all that stands between a depressing status quo and a better way is the courage to envision that better way. As it is written in the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The Arab future is ultimately in Arab hands. But maybe the French President can put some tools in those hands. Why not? Wise people know how to lean from everyone. So who will envision the Arab future, and who will bring it into being? Perhaps, dear reader, it will be you.