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.