In the discussions about the right reaction to the Arab spring, it has been argued that a revised cooperation with the affected countries can help to put them on a better path towards democracy (see Atlantic Memo 39). One overarching argument of the necessity of support is the need for stability: Europe cannot permit new "Somalias" or failed states at the southern margin of the Mediterranean, which in turn justifies strong financial and also military means to intervene in the affected countries.
Andrea Teti criticized the memo for its strong focus (or better, justification) based on stability. He further outlined that the recipes for current Western policy-making, such as privatization or 'carrot and stick' policies in cooperation with Middle Eastern governments, are ill-suited to reach the desired effects. I agree with his arguments and feel that his case needs to be made stronger since much of the discussion remained on an abstract level. From the point of view of the Atlantic Community editorial team, Joerg Wolf pointed out that Atlantic Memo 39 is not proposing to continue with "business as usual", but to do everything new and better. Other commentators agreed, and pointed out that democracy cannot be introduced without stability, so we have to help achieve both. According to Andrea Teti's article and my impression, however, we have old wine here that is served in new wineskins. We should not enter into an abstract discussion about the meaning of stability that ends in a logic resembling "either you are with us or you are against it". Realities in the Middle East are more complex and in my opinion poorly understood, which is why our attempts to influence events there are so often flawed.
First, it is important to point out that the problem is not insufficient Western help. We have poured millions and billions into Middle Eastern countries in order to help solve the most pressing needs, for example Yemen's and Jordan's water problems. And what is the result? That these countries are now dependent on Western aid, and the coming collapse has only been moved back a few years. We cannot pull out any more, even if we wanted to, because the result would be an immediate collapse. It is not possible to address the needs of these countries by just pouring more money into them or sending more experts. In fact, we have reached the point that the moment of failure is so close that it can be sensed, and yes, may result in failed states.
Let's have a look at practical examples: Jordan is a pretty well developed country in the Middle East which has managed to maintain stability despite the surrounding wars and turmoil. However, groundwater in Jordan will be depleted within the next 20 years. During this time, the population will have doubled again from the current 6 million to about 12 million. Several proposals have been brought forward in the past which predicted this development and sought to develop solutions. The prospects are, however, not very encouraging. The reality is that we are continuing business as usual and nobody knows what's going to happen in 20 years. At the moment, nobody has even thought about future disasters because the local elites are busy with the current political situation while Western governments are occupied with the financial crisis.
In Yemen, water scarcity is even more dramatic. The groundwater table under Sana'a has dropped several hundred meters and it is likely that the capital will be dry within the next decade. What happens then? Nobody knows. I argue that NATO as a security organization has very little capacity to provide solutions, and we must not forget that the water issue is only one of many problems facing Middle Eastern societies. I think that NATO can only fix the most pressing security needs, but cannot enforce the development which Middle Eastern society actually needs: an efficient administration with the right people in the right place. Those who will first run out of water are the same people now in the streets, the weakest and most neglected members of society. It is honorable to try and help them, but it is to some degree naive and idealistic because the current structures do not permit the West to reach them. In fact, the societies' structures have to be changed dramatically and rapidly, but no foreigner can do that.
In self-regulating systems, a certain level of instability usually results in a period of turmoil during which a new balance is established. Then development can resume on the basis of the new order until this order is unable to address the needs of a system grown even more complex again. If you prevent instability, you can stabilize the old order to a certain degree and for a certain time, but the amount of energy which has to be invested grows exponentially. Then, at some point, instability will strike anyway, and the later it strikes, the more devastating the period of transition.
To repeat, we have poured billions into Middle Eastern societies during the last decades. I don't say that this was all bad, and I don't say that we can stop that now because any pullout would mean immediate collapse. So to some degree, it is true that we have little other choices than the ones outlined in Atlantic Memo 39.
However, let's be honest: the idea of a
profound stabilization of these countries is daydreaming. As long as
the present, grossly inefficient administration and societal systems
remain in place, collapse is only a matter of time. We should prepare
for it and be ready to embrace it.
Dr. Bernhard Lucke is a researcher at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg and has spent many years working in the Middle East.