Friday, February 11, 2011

Some Cursory Thoughts

When I was a freshman at UCLA, I took a class on International Relations with one Dr. Steven Spiegel. At the outset of the course, Professor Spiegel told us that one of the overarching themes in contemporary international politics was the existence of the twin forces of fragmentation and integration. I was perhaps too young to understand whether the good professor was suggesting something about the world beyond international politics, and if he was perhaps suggesting something of a metaphor for the general trajectory of civilization or the species. Nonetheless, his words ring particularly prescient to me at this particular historical moment.

Fragmentation, as Spiegel described it, could be understood as the breakup of previous constructs. Examples abound, but in the late 90’s, the experience of the war in the Balkans and the subsequent disintegration of Yugoslavia loomed foremost on the topical horizon. In Africa, Eritrea declared itself an independent state, breaking away from Ethiopia. And in Asia, East Timor broke from Indonesia. Peoples in Chechnya, Kurdistan, and in the Indian Punjab sought independent homelands in the midst of a major reorganizing of the global structure.

The opposing force, as Spiegel described, is integration. In this context, integration refers to the process of creating increasing interdependence's between states, and thus creating institutions and instruments that reinforce stability within these interdependent relationships. This process has come to be generally termed “globalization.” This process integrates states into larger systems, be they political, economic or geostrategic. The creation of market “blocs,” such as the European Union and the North American free trade zone, trend towards bringing the functions of individual state political-economies into uniformity, inasmuch as that uniformity and the instruments by which it is created increase political cooperation and produce efficiencies in trade and economies of scale. The dramatic decrease in transportation and communication costs at the end of the 20th and into the beginning of the 21st centuries accelerated this process of integration, which perhaps represents the greatest re-organizing of human affairs in our species history.

If integration and fragmentation describe general global processes present in the post-cold war period, then another buzz word of the 21st century may well describe the looming multi-polar moment, and the diminished global hegemony of The United States. This word is sustainability. Of course, we typically think of sustainability as a way of describing the relationship between economic growth and environmental concerns. However, increasingly, sustainability can be turned to understand the process by which the post-colonial world was generally ordered and maintained during the cold-war period. There is very little debate about the role that the United States and the Soviet Union played in supporting non-democratically elected leaders throughout the world. These dictators and juntas were justified as being necessary to hold back the oncoming “red-wave” (or the powers of the capitalist imperialists). In many cases, these dictators were also supported in their efforts to control artificially constructed nation states, countries carved from post-colonial concerns with little or no thought given to existing demographic realities.

In the emerging multi polar moment, we increasingly see the word “sustainability” used to describe foreign policy. Since the revolutionary spirit first took hold in the streets of Cairo, the question of Israel emerged at the forefront of many minds. While Israeli fears of a Muslim Brotherhood dominated government in Cairo warrant consideration, the real question is one of sustainability. What does it say about the position of both Israel and the United States in the Middle East if the Israeli status quo can only be maintained by having a ring of dictatorships surround it? Clearly, this is not sustainable, and is in fact a relic of an older, diminishing world order.
This is particularly true in light of the other global forces described earlier. In a very real sense, we are seeing a potentially new moment of fragmentation; the breaking up of the unsustainable power structures that defined the geo-strategies of the cold-war and subsequent American global hegemony. While it may be soon to declare the twilight of the empire, it is clear that the international standing of the US has diminished and we are moving into a multipolar world. Furthermore, integration very much plays a role I defining the new sustainability. Those very same forces that drive globalization – cheap transportation and cheap communication – are connecting people all over the world in new venues of exchange, new communities that can share experiences of freedom, experiences of repression, yearnings and hopes. In a simple way, it means that young people in the Arab world can see what life is like in North America and Europe and say “We want that.” There are fewer blind spots, and while propaganda and information wars are still very much real, the truth is out there, and its available in a highly integrated and fast moving global culture.

This Arab Spring may well signal a historic moment, not just for Egypt, but for an emerging global order.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Coming Storm

As events continue to unfold in Egypt, the million dollar question remains, "What's next?" The future shape of Egypt, and indeed the entire region is receiving a proper going over by the information machine. One topic in particular - the role of the Muslim Brotherhood - highlights the vast range of opinion and analysis and the inability to forecast when so much remains uncertain.

One thing is clear: there exists a momentum for change that does not appear to be abating anytime soon. Given Egypt's proximity to Gaza and its historical relationship to Israel, there is a strong sense that the outcome of the events in Tahrir Square will have cascading effects beyond the Rafah Crossing.

A confluence of forces, a perfect storm of sorts, may be bringing the plight of the Palestinian people to another significant historical moment. I had written on this very blog about the futility of the Obama administration's desire to jump start the peace process when it did. There were simply too many obstacles, and the momentum was towards a deepening divide between the sides, rather than rapprochement. As was to be expected, the peace talks fell flat. In December of the past year, Mahmoud Abbas threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, placing the responsibility for administering the territories in Israel's hands. While this was seen by many as a bluff or an act of desperation, it did indeed signal the continued futility with which the PA attempted to steward the Palestinian cause.

At that time, many observers believed that dissolving the PA represented the best outcome for the Palestinians, as it may allow the resistance to enter a new phase, and press the UN directly for state recognition, or else move towards the One-State solution as both a practical and ideological matter. The recent release and dissemination of the "Palestinian Papers" put the final nail in the coffin of the PA. As Abdul Hadi, Palestinian rights advocate in Israel recently said, the papers revealed what the Palestinians had long feared: that the occupation was nothing more than imprisonment, and that the "PA Leaders are there only to negotiate the terms of imprisonment."

The idea of a rudderless resistance, without the PA, and with Fatah and Hamas still locked in seemingly intractable conflict would have potentially deadly consequences for the Palestinian cause. However, with the "Arab Spring" apparently upon us, it is possible that progressive and leftists elements in Palestine seize the moment to usher forth a third Intifada. Indeed, it may happen spontaneously and in populist fashion, as did the first Intifada. The PA leadership in general and Fatah in particular are suffering a deep crisis of perception, and it is likely that Hamas will align with the Muslim Brotherhood, from whence it was originally spawned. The MB may not be the winning horse in this race towards a free Egypt, and it is clear that groups like the PFLP, which had up till now operated largely in the shadow of Fatah, are siding with the "people of Egypt" and their democratic aspirations above all else.

A momentous shift in Palestinian affairs is likely for a lot of obvious reasons, and the protests in Egypt and Tunisia (Yemen, Jordan, Libya?) simply add to the probability of the Palestinians seizing the moment. It may not pretty. The Palestinians are among the most repressed and harassed people on Earth, and Israel may well use the opportunity of a shifting balance to pre-emptively punish the Palestinians to prevent the mobilization of their aspirations. Indeed, the schism between Hamas and Fatah may flair into a conflagration of dire proportion if a spontaneous rebellion emerges with no clear leadership.

Its clear change is upon us, and this change will undoubtedly change the face of the region for some time to come.