New eras seldom arrive with fanfare and the “turning points” and “bright lines” that historians later draw are often just short-hand, memory aids for future generations of students. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered the beginning of the First World War, but the conditions that led to the conflict were decades in the making.
So it is with the new era that has begun in the Middle East. One might argue it began with the moment Saddam Hussein was captured and America’s withdrawal from the region was inevitable. Or was it the moment America’s combat troops were for the most part withdrawn from Iraq? Was it the moment that it became clear there was no “red line” that would trigger action from Barack Obama in Syria or his tacit acceptance of the greater involvement of Russia in that country? His deal with Iran? Or was it Donald Trump’s recent trip and his meeting with leaders from the Gulf and his embrace of their playing a much greater role in shaping and policing their region than at any time in recent memory?
Of course, it was all of these moments. And it was the end of colonialism and the gradual obsolescence of Sykes-Picot and the 100-year-old ideas behind it. And the end of the Cold War. And America’s rise as an energy producer. And the world’s diminishing dependence on fossil fuels. And 9/11. And the rise of extremism in its wake.
However you weave these factors together, their collective implication is the same. The nature of the involvement of great foreign powers in the Middle East, a fact of life in the region’s history for generations, has changed. The spheres of influence that were the organising principle behind Sykes-Picot that were once the province of Britain and France and later of the US and Russia, are increasingly being transferred to powers from the region.
This is, of course, as it should be. True self-determination, a foundational ideal of the international system, is impossible without real self-reliance. Dependence on foreign powers whether for economic or security support transfers influence away from local governments to those powers. Further, of course, it is as it should be, because the record of the foreign powers who have intervened in the Middle East and sought to involve themselves in local affairs and “solve” local problems has been uniformly miserable.
But there are pitfalls and risks to all historical transitions and this one is no different. First, as in all periods of change, there is uncertainty and a degree of chaos. Old institutions and alliances and doctrines and policies don’t work anymore and new ones have yet to be formulated. Bad actors seek to take advantage of this void. New leaders with new ideas take time to emerge, be tested and prove themselves. And nostalgia for that which will never return is another enemy of such eras.
In the current transition, it is clear that the countries of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are playing a new and important leadership role. If foreign powers will not rise to the challenges posed by extremism or they view Iran through rose-coloured glasses, then it is naturally up to those at risk to take action to protect themselves. Working with other allies throughout the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait, is common-sense and should be welcomed by all powers elsewhere.
Countries like the US and those of the EU who are made uncomfortable with the approaches of these nations will need to swallow hard and accept that as they play less of a role and transfer responsibility to local leaders, they will not always get the approaches they want, nor will they see policies that mirror their own or are even founded in the same values. That is the nature of such changes. But if the broader interests of the US and the EU, for example, are advanced because the inchoate alliance’s approach ultimately advances their interests — whether those are containing Iranian efforts at regional dominance or the spread of ISIL and other extremist groups or, in the longer run, promoting stability and more equitable burden-sharing on security issues — then they will not only grow used to the new situation, they will come to appreciate it.
That said, the leaders shaping this new era in order to win broader support at home and abroad and to produce better outcomes need to ensure their efforts focus not just on what they are against but on what they are for. Among their priorities need to be establishing effective regional institutions that are as inclusive as possible and create mechanisms for both peaceful problem resolution and for promoting growth. Two great missions are urgent and create an opportunity here. One is creating jobs for the region’s young people in a changing global economic environment. Another is rebuilding the parts of the region laid waste by years of conflict. There is no effective regional development institution to lead this process — and in so doing create incentives for regional players to work together. But the example of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank suggests one could be created swiftly and that it might help build important new relationships like that with China, a country that is certain to play a more important role in working with the region’s emerging leaders than it ever has before. A strong security mechanism is also needed. And common goals for improving the lives of all citizens through promoting education and tolerance are also vital.
The period immediately ahead won’t be an easy one. Conflicts must be resolved. The risk of two competing blocs in the region — one Shiite-dominated, one Sunni — must be defused and a regional Cold War (or more hot wars) must be seen as the greatest of all looming risks. But what is critical to recognise is that there is no going back. Old power relationships, reliance on foreign nations, passivity in the face of threats are all going to fade into memory. The measure of the success of the new era will be the degree to which a new generation of leaders seizes this moment to build rather than tear down, to create institutions and promote the rule of law rather than pursue less productive and even more destabilizing options. The opportunity is real and the leaders who can do this are well known. They are now entering the era that will define their legacies.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a columnist for the Washington Post, a visiting professor at Columbia University, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace