A China model for the Arab Spring
By Benjamin A Shobert
The fall of Arab authoritarian states comes at a unique moment in American diplomatic history. Not necessarily because the events themselves dwarf challenges the State Department has faced over the past decade: after all, this is much of the same group of professional diplomats who dealt with 9/11, the ongoing irritant that is North Korea, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
No, this unique moment for American foreign policy comes because American politics have hardened in ways that make engagement with those we disagree with – whether domestic or foreign – almost impossible to achieve. The demands of ideological purity have become shackles that threaten to impede and emasculate American policy.
This problem is particularly noticeable as American foreign policy must make decisions about how to engage the newly forming Arab governments, many whose democracies will inevitably elect leaders whose religious values, cultural standards, and orientation towards the United States will be poorly received in America.
There is perhaps no older problem which plagues students and practitioners of diplomacy than how to engage those foreign leaders whose ideology is odious. Purists believe in isolating those they disagree with. Their hope is that by doing so, they will rob those they oppose of any legitimacy that would come from being acknowledged by, or accessible to, the world’s stage.
Conversely, pragmatists such as the classic realist Henry Kissinger believe engagement usually softens hardliners and ultimately creates a more stable environment for peace and prosperity than anything that comes through confrontation and isolation.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring is going to force upon the world a realization of how deeply divided the countries remain: around religious versus secular, nation versus tribe, the people versus the military, the poor versus the rich. And, what the world may likely find in the aftermath is that the heavy-handed totalitarian – evil and vain as he may have been – played a necessary role in keeping the lid on these tensions.
Americans, so deeply wedded to the idea that democracy cures all ills, are likely to find that the new Arab governments are a long way away from what they hoped. As Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs, “Washington tends to question whether Islamists’ religious commitments can co-exist with respect for democracy, pluralism, and women’s rights.”
More troubling still is the possibility that, as a means of keeping these newly liberated nations from fragmenting, Arab governments will need to embrace hardliners in the Islamic religious community who are likely to present America as an existential enemy. Once American bewilderment at this about-face fades, it is likely to be replaced by a very strong reluctance to do business with those who feel they need to characterize American policy as inherently flawed.
American diplomacy has faced a similar dilemma in the past, most notably when it chose to engage the Mao Zedong-led China, propelling Kissinger as national security adviser to president Richard Nixon to make a secret trip that paved the way for entente. Just like leaders of the new Islamists are likely to do, the United States was vilified by Mao for his own purposes. And just as China’s communist philosophy stood in stark contrast to the free-market economy and politically democratic values America held dear, so to will many of the cultural, religious and political values that the next group of Islamist leaders choose to align themselves with.
It is worth noting that the Chinese attitudes towards America which greeted Nixon and Kissinger were not all positive and could have quickly soured: after all, the US had played an important role during the Chinese civil war supporting General Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.
In the aftermath of this, Mao’s politics had made frequent portrayals of America as central to the strife and conflict during that period. Similarly, it will take many years for Arab citizens to forget that, as Shadi Hamid writes, ”[They] have been protesting an authoritarian order that the United States was, in their view, central in propagating.”
Perhaps most troubling, just as China had fought America through proxies in Korea, and had fueled skirmishes around the world which had made it clear that the country entertained expansionist ideas about where it could seed the world with other communist revolutions, so to will many of these new Islamist governments have questionable relationships with Islamic political groups who have connections with what many in America will see as terrorists.
It would be very easy to see how American politics could quickly make it impossible for American diplomats to successfully engage their new Arab counterparts.
Even in this respect, America’s engagement with China illustrates the great good that can come when limited and gradual engagement is chosen over isolation and confrontation. Certainly the easier political choice for Nixon would have been to further isolate China.
But Nixon chose to take the domestic political risks in the US that would allow China to pivot towards a more open relationship with America. And to his great credit, Nixon was right. He lived long enough to see this initial tentative opening on both countries’ parts towards one-another blossom, turning China from a desolate, famine-struck country, into an economic powerhouse.
In many ways the Arab world of today is very similar to the China of 1972: both had the potential to shatter, fragmenting into smaller discontinuous pieces along ancient cultural lines, both were in dire need of economic growth and political reform, and both had as many reasons to distrust America as they did to trust that engagement would benefit them.
Both had political institutions that were at various stages of collapse: China’s was just around the corner, while the Arab world has fully gone round the bend.
China chose to engage the US in large part because America made it so easy to do so. The US largely avoided demagoguing China’s Communist policies when it would have been very easy to score easy points by tearing into Nixon’s plan.
This was all possible because the American engagement with China was largely motivated by a belief that the US could triangulate China against the Soviet Union. Today smart American diplomats suspect that engagement with the new Islamists will allow a similar triangulation against both Arab failed states and hard-liners within their own countries.
The new Islamist leaders are likely to at times find it necessary to vilify America. It is all but inevitable these same leaders will have very harsh words for Israel. Probably many of these leaders will harbor beliefs about religious freedom, pluralistic culture, and political Islam that American politicians find impossible to swallow.
Yet, American diplomats know that just as the US did with China, engagement is necessary. American foreign policy has always had to pursue its objectives against the backdrop of American politics. That both groups were able to work together productively over an engagement with China should be a reminder they can accomplish the same thing once again today with the new Islamist governments rising from the authoritarian ashes of the Middle East.
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc (www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses bring innovative technologies into the North American market.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)