Atlantic Memo 39, "Partners in Democracy, Partners in Security: NATO and the Arab Spring", invokes a call for the creation of a new paradigm in Western relations with both the Arab world and the broader Middle East. Previous relationships have been viewed through a narrow prism, one which continued neo-imperial linkages to corrupt authoritarian elites. Furthermore this external interaction in the global sphere allowed for patrimonialism to flourish and impose a harsh political and economic reality on the people of the Arab world. I must agree with Andrea Teti when he eloquently states that previous interactions between the West and Arab authoritarian regimes played a large factor in inciting the Arab Spring protests and have led to a mutually distrustful relationship between the "Arab Street" and Western states. One who overlooks this causal factor is surely doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and thus continue the current structural deficit that strains West-East relations.
Another area in which I have to agree with Professor Teti is when he states, "...any descent back into authoritarianism will depend in part on the policies of the regional community and global powers." It is in the way the Western world approaches the current and sadly ongoing revolutions (Syria in particular) that will to a large extent determine the composition and political structure of newly emerging regimes. Atlantic Memo 39 does just that, it provides a new multifaceted approach built upon a foundation of mutual trust, open dialogue, and an exchange of expertise.
As my colleague and co-writer of "Partners in Democracy, Partners in Security", Josiah Surface, has already at length and persuasively tackled the broader issues under discussion in his rebuttal, I shall focus upon some of the intricate details which Professor Teti discusses. This must begin firstly with a discussion of the core essence of the policy brief to understand the way in which the Arab Spring was viewed by the authors while shedding light on many of the misinterpretations by its opponents. The memo, which I had the pleasure of writing with a variety of skilled and experienced commentators from around the world, takes into consideration past mistakes of propping up authoritative governments. Either out of necessity, historical continuation, or economic and political advantage, the West has primarily dealt with the Arab world through interlocutors of an authoritarian nature. These relationships have scuttled any attempt at political and cultural "bridge building" at both the individual and official levels. Anti-Western sentiment has thus flourished. Such relationships created further misunderstanding of the Middle East's political structure and from the perspective of the Arab Street a misinterpretation of Western attempts to positively interact with this new civically emboldened group.
Professor Teti takes a negative view of an incentivized approach to interaction with the post-Arab Spring countries based on previous historical failures. An incentivized approach being one that trades beneficial rewards from the West in exchange for liberalization initiatives in the Arab domestic political sphere. Positive conditionality has failed to work in the Arab world due to one core element that is no longer at play in post-Arab Spring countries: authoritarian leaders including those ousted by popular revolts and violent conflict. Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Moammar Gaddafi and Ali Saleh were not affected by incentivized calls for reform. This was due first and foremost to the political makeup of their regimes and the neo-patrimonial politics they relied on to remain in power. Any opening of the political sphere posed a strong and certain danger to their rule and or legitimacy, ensuring that a domestic carrot and stick strategy was employed, a safer and less costly alternative.
In this climate, Western attempts to push democratization on these leaders were quickly dismissed while foreign aid, investment and oil contracts continued and gained traction in turn creating a multiplicity of Arab states with increased rentierism of various natures. While this economic facet of the equation is still at play, it is largely nullified in post-Arab Spring states given the push for representation by an agitated and emboldened populace. Governments whether democratized as in Tunisia, or in the transitional period and thus on the way to present a modicum of participation as in Egypt, are hard pressed to deny any positive initiatives put forward either domestically or internationally that would allow for increased participation by their populace in the methods of governance. Atlantic Memo 39 is foremost an exercise in adaptation to quickly shifting circumstances and the openings they create for the entrenchment of representative government in the Arab world.
Interacting with political kingmakers is not a recipe for the re-entrenchment of authoritarianism in the post-Arab Spring world, as posited. Rather, as mentioned above the possible come back of dictatorial rule is partially based on how the West deals with these fragile transitional states. Analysis of the post-Soviet sphere has shown that there are two key factors to stable transitions from authoritarian rule to democratic governance: linkages with democratic countries, and elites willing to allow for a full fledged transition to this system.
Regarding the first point, polities wishing to transition to democratic governance require both the expertise and moral support of the West in order to present an alternative to the entrenched interests of the previous regime. Mobilization strategies, campaign development, and political platforms among other facets of democratic processes are not primordial. Rather they are the result of a long and historically intricate process. To ensure that democratic practices take hold in these countries and present initiatives which reflect the will of the people, there must be a period of Western involvement in order to help establish these structural facets - a period that is quickly passing. Fears of a loss of monetary wealth, political involvement, and even of one's life are prevalent among elite actors. As "kingmakers" they hold the key to safe and secure transition if these fears can be quelled and remnants of the old regime believe that their interests are best served through a democratic process with free and fair elections. The only way in which to establish a common ground between pro-democratic forces and the incumbent elite is to allow for the role of an impartial and trusted interlocutor. The West must provide this role, as it is composed of democratic countries on the one hand and given its intimate dealings with Arab leaders on the other.
For the West to take a "hands off" approach to the ongoing Arab transitions would be disastrous to the eventual outcomes of these transitions. This is not to argue that Western interaction should be forwarded in a subversive manner (lessons learned from the past), but rather that countries in the West have the ability to support those elites and populaces calling for democratic change vis-a-vis vested interests remaining from the overthrown structures of power. Democratic elections should be respected no matter their outcome and transfers of governance should be domestically implemented while non-interference is upheld as the overriding paradigm in the international sphere. "Partners in Democracy, Partners in Security" should be reread through this lens, for it is a call for the active engagement of the West in order to support these transitions and move away from neo-colonial paradigms.
Alexander Corbeil is a Senior Middle East Security Analyst at The Atlantic Council of Canada and a co-author of Atlantic Memo 39 "Partners in Democracy, Partners in Security: NATO and the Arab Spring".