The New World Order and the Future of the Middle East

By David B. Dewitt

Observers of Middle Eastern affairs agree that conflict and strife will continue in the region for years to come. To speak of a "New World Order" in relation to the Middle East implies that the international community will determine the future of that region. I will argue to the contrary: that the future of the Middle East is based primarily on the material conditions and the ideological and political dynamics of the region. The larger international arena provides at most a setting within which Middle East actors pursue their interests.

The Conflict Goes On

Having recently acquired Western forms of political organization, the governments of the Middle East assert the sanctity of their borders (although almost all of them were imposed arbitrarily by outsiders), the legitimacy of their governing regimes (although few have an organic connection to the community), and their right to use force in defence of the regime. Besides this pseudo-statehood are older myths that arose from the historical struggles between Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo as centres of power.

One hears the rhetoric of sovereign state nationalism, of pan-Arab nationalism, and of the pan-Islamic movement-all together. Factor in Turkey, Israel, Iran, and the other minorities, and it becomes clear that the dynamics of the region defy any effort from outside to direct political outcomes. Advanced technology and oil-based wealth have defined inter-state politics of the contemporary Arab world and brought the Cold War into the region. Oil revenues, spent for weapons, gave regimes the means to remain in power.

Solving the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts would not eliminate war in the region. Still, until Arab-Israeli bilateral relations are normalized, regional security will remain precarious and Israel will continue to rely on a combination of international diplomacy and the use of force to ensure its security.

The Arab plea for weapons parity will continue to fuel an arms spiral between Arab states and with Iran and Israel. The arithmetic of twenty-one Arab states will continue to provide a rationale for Israel to retain a superior armed force. Israel must be able to show, and not just say, that it can handle serious military attacks. This will prove to many Arabs that Israel is their principal security threat. Without a fundamental change in the political relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, we will continue to witness distorted development, as arms win over food, housing, education, and medical care.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not Israel's fundamental security problem. However, the Palestinian movement strains Arab regimes and their relations with the West. Thus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires resolution.

The Prospect of Progress

Does the Gulf war augur well for a "New World Order"? Only recently was Iraq expelled from Kuwait, and the fighting and suffering continue. The infrastructure of Iraqi society has been destroyed, but Saddam's military has not, and we have not seen the last of Baghdad's ambitions.

The aspirations of the Shi'i majority and the Kurdish minority within Iraq are optimistically interpreted as signs of democratization, that this war will yield a different style of politics. Further, commentators have noted strains within Saudi Arabia as a result of the free movement of Westerners through the cities and towns. Finally, the fact that the governments of Egypt and Syria banned all major demonstrations and closed the universities in efforts to contain pro-Saddam rallies, shows that the people are demanding to be heard.

If this is the legacy of the Gulf War, then we must hope for some means to sustain such indigenous movements. However, I fear that our own feelings distort our interpretation of events after the dramas we have been watching in Central Europe and the Soviet Union. Although many within the Middle East desperately desire freedom of expression and more participation in the critical decisions affecting their lives, I do not expect democratic movements to be welcomed by most Arab regimes. My interviews with Arab leaders and their statements in the press suggest that democratization will not take root easily in the shifting sands of the Middle East. Positive movements may be possible, but this war is not likely to produce progressive political movements capable of changing the habits of the past half-century.

If democratization is not a product of the war and the emergent "New World Order," perhaps peace is. Here, too, Western political thought cautions against optimism, arguing that a system of non-democratic countries is more war-prone than a system of democracies. The recent increase in arms transfers, in the shadow of the war, shows how remote are the odds of limiting arms effectively. This problem is deepened by the unbalanced distribution of wealth, of strategic resources, of water and arable land, and of technology, and is complicated further by the Palestinian movement, the state of Israel, and the contradictions between Islamic fundamentalism and the modern secular state system.

While President Bush's "New World Order" might be unable to address many of these structural and material conditions, arms transfer is certainly a candidate for superpower leadership. Anatol Rapoport's analysis of "the war machine" (the weapons industries) without which modern warfare would be impossible, argues persuasively for addressing the military-industrial complex, regardless of one's ideological perspective. Yet the politics within the region remain tied to the classic security dilemma. The powerful rationale for relying on the military for security is unlikely to change until the political alignments are transformed. Without the Soviet-American strategic umbrella to protect them, client states might not be so ready to launch wars. This, however, assumes that the Soviet-American dynamic has been a precondition for Middle East wars-a conclusion that is probably unwarranted. It places undue emphasis on the politics of the international system.

The legacy of the Gulf war that may have the most lasting results is in the arena that has been most criticized. The United States, by pulling together a coalition sanctioned by the United Nations and acting in support of U.N. resolutions, is prompting a renewal of international institutions. In a region suspicious of multilateralism, where neither the United Nations nor the Arab League can claim strong adherents, this strange war coalition may be the prime vehicle of change. Cooperative problem-solving would be a welcome new habit and the political elites may come to realize that they cannot manage many of their challenges in any other way. Food, water, technology, trade, ecology, education, and health are relevant to a country's "security," but not amenable to unilateral action.

The war has provided a rare example of coalition politics working in this troubled region. There is evidence, however nuanced, of movement in Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia concerning regional and international relations. The recent Arab League meeting in Cairo-the first there since the signing of the Camp David Accords-gives some hope that the League may discard its old habits in order to engage more effectively in the politics of the area. One could envision a multilateral conference, co-chaired by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Egypt, bringing together all the actors in the Middle East to discuss many issues, including Arab-Israeli, and Israeli-Palestinian-Arab relations. Palestinian representation is manageable if the possibility of real progress is evident. It is a stumbling block only when there is no desire for basic movement. But all such hopeful musings must be placed in the context of the enduring political, economic, and social inequalities and insecurities.

External Support

The "New World Order," to be meaningful, must transcend the interests of the United States and offer some sense of what the members of the international community wish to strive for. Democratization has become a favored standard for appraising this new order. Yet the Middle East is not likely to democratize. More probable is the increase of new relationships within the region and beyond. Assistance from the United States and Europe will be needed if the countries are to foster progressive political movements and overcome their tendency to go to war. External incentives, through the OECD and maybe the Soviet Union with the U.N. as the possible agent, will be required to support a regional framework for "common or cooperative security."

Does any of this need the rhetoric of Bush's "New World Order?" Probably not. I, for one, see no such order. But I do see a new opportunity brought on by a combination of the war, events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the emergence of East Asia as a principal partner in the world economy. I remain convinced the Middle East is fundamentally determined by its own internal contradictions. Unless the peoples of the region seek common ground, no "New World Order" can do more than manage some of the conflicts more effectively. This is not likely to be an enduring legacy.

If a "New World Order" is to make a difference, it must create the external conditions in which local leadership can transform the political relations between states. This will require a commitment from the principal countries in the international community, and a willingness for elites in the Middle East to take greater risks with uncertain rewards. Otherwise we are likely to witness a rapid return to war, a habit all too familiar.

David B. Dewitt is the director of the Centre for International and Strategic Studies at York University.
Peace Magazine May-Jun 1991

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1991, page 18. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by David B. Dewitt here

Peace Magazine homepage