A version of this article appeared in Arabic in the Al-Hayat newspaper on Friday, October 31.
As 2014 draws to a close, it is striking to reflect on the parallels between 1914 and 2014, and to consider that the global and Middle East regional orders could be in the process of undergoing changes as profound as the changes that were unleashed in 1914.
A century ago a long period of British global hegemony was declining and new powers were challenging its predominant position. The British navy dominated the seven seas, and Britain led the world in technology and industrialization. It had presided over a fairly stable global order for decades. As other countries in Europe, Asia, and North America caught up with Britain, this unipolar world began to fall apart. Today the United States is the declining global power, and its brief period of unipolar hegemony after the collapse of the Soviet Union might be drawing to an end, albeit slowly. Stymied in the Middle East and challenged in Eastern Europe and East Asia, the U.S. grip on global power is slipping.
A century ago powerful social upheavals were challenging established political orders that had prevailed for centuries. Peoples were revolting against social injustice, poverty and unemployment, and corrupt government. These profound social problems challenged the established political orders of the day and fuelled powerful ideological movements of the left and right, including socialism, communism, and ethnic and linguistic nationalism, as well as pro-democracy movements and religious or sectarian extremism. Today we see similar upheavals, not only in the Arab world, but also recently in Iran, and intermittently in China, Russia, and parts of the Americas.
Today we have the rise of terrorism; a century ago it was called anarchism. But the methods of using theatrical violence, car bombs, and assassination are in many ways the same. The assassination of a symbol of old world power, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, is not altogether dissimilar to the attacks on the symbols of power on September 11, 2001. Both acts unleashed years of armed conflict.
Today we have the Internet, which spreads news and moods across the globe in a flash; a century ago the world was waking up to the power of instant communication brought about by the telegraph. Shots fired in Sarajevo were suddenly heard around the world, and developments raced forward furiously, much faster than old political systems were able to manage and contain.
A century ago rapidly changing military technology was destabilizing power balances that had been established on the basis of large wooden fleets and armies on horseback. Mechanized artillery and infantry and the rise of air power would change all that. Today the dominance of naval fleets and modern air forces is being challenged by the asymmetrical methods of non-state actors, the slow proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the changing dynamics of drone and cyber warfare.
A century ago, the disintegration of the Balkans provided the flash point for global conflict; today the many crises of the Middle East are testing the stability of global order. Yesterday, East and West almost went to war over the expansion of Israel and recurring Arab-Israeli conflicts. Today, global and regional powers are drawn into the war against ISIS and for control of the Levant. Tomorrow, East and West might clash over the future control of Gulf oil as U.S. needs decline and the thirst of Asia for the region’s hydrocarbons escalates.
The Middle East itself is going through crises today not altogether different than those of a century ago. An old Ottoman order was being challenged by domestic demands for progress and change and by external pressures and incursions from a shifting global order. Old imperial principles of government were being challenged by new movements of ethnic, linguistic, and territorial nationalism as well as by religious movements. The role of religion in politics was being contested from both sides—from those who pushed for secularism and from those who thought religion should be revived and more strictly enforced. The role of women was also being contested between those who sought women’s full and real equality and patriarchal traditionalists who sought to keep women confined to a subordinate and second-class position.
A century ago the collapse of the old order began with great promise in the Arab revolt but ended bitterly with the Sykes Picot agreement, the Balfour declaration, and years of Western colonial domination. Read more recently the uprisings against the established Arab order started with great hopes for a better future, but have ended bitterly for too many countries that have collapsed into state failure and ethnic or sectarian civil war.
The world will have to contend with the challenges of global change, the rise of China, the gradual decline of Western power, and the many challenges of global economic growth, security, and climate change.
The Arab world must contend with many of the challenges that are still unresolved from the last century. In the Levant the state borders that were established by the Sykes Picot agreement are gone, perhaps never to be revived. Lebanon and Jordan are still managing to survive, but Syria and Iraq no longer exist as nation states. In effect there are two Shi‘i/Alawi states, a rising Kurdish state, and an emerging Sunni state of “Syriaq” in between. Yemen is also disintegrating along sectarian and territorial lines, while Libya is tearing itself apart along territorial, tribal, and Islamist/secularist lines.
The question of governance has also been left unresolved between various models of Islamist authoritarianism, monarchical or military rule, and delicate experiments in democracy. The role of religion has come back with a vengeance with claims to rebuild the caliphate, while women still struggle to assert their rights for full political and economic participation, or at least against being sold into slavery or not being sexually harassed or assaulted in public.
The Arab regional order itself is also broken. For most of the past century, an expansionist and interventionist Israel was the main challenge; today, Iran’s interventions from the Levant and Gaza all the way to Yemen pose the strongest threat to Arab order.
Change brings risks but also new horizons, and every crisis can also be turned into an opportunity. The upheavals of World War I ushered in a new world for the Middle East that eventually created conditions for national liberation and many forms of socioeconomic progress. But unlike most countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, the Middle East did not take advantage of the opportunities of the last decades of the twentieth century, and instead of leaping forward in terms of economic and political development, most Arab states stagnated. Let us hope that the region learns from the lessons of the past and the crises of the present to look for ways to build a more stable and sustainable future.