Welcome to the main stage in the world’s ongoing search for a new political order.
- By Stephen R. GrandStephen R. Grand is the executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. The task force’s final report can be found at mest.atlanticcouncil.org.
Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has inherited a world in which the tectonic plates are perceptibly shifting. Power, long centered in Washington, is radiating eastward toward Moscow, Tehran, New Delhi, and Beijing. Meanwhile, the rules and institutions of the international system that have for 70 years maintained some modicum of order are visibly under stress, as are the states that make up that system. Whether it recognizes it yet or not, the Trump administration will likely be forced to confront the ongoing challenge of how to restore stability.
The unraveling is most apparent in the Middle East. Four states have failed and collapsed into civil war (Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen); others are at peril of the same. In Syria, it is now Russia, not the United States, that is calling the shots, having brazenly inserted its military — together with Iran and its proxies — into the conflict in 2015 to save Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad from defeat. As in the region’s other civil conflicts, the breakdown of order has led to unmitigated chaos: up to a half-million Syrians killed and more than 11 million displaced. The Islamic State and al Qaeda have profited from the mayhem to secure territory and recruits while committing unspeakable atrocities of their own.
But the unraveling is evident in Europe as well. Europe is dealing with a not dissimilar crisis of political legitimacy, most noticeably on its periphery, as weak states such as Greece and Bulgaria struggle to provide their citizens with jobs and services in the face of severe fiscal constraints. Europe also is coping with the consequences of the Middle East’s civil wars in the form of massive refugee flows and terrorist attacks. The fear these consequences have generated has strengthened far-right political parties with anti-immigrant, law-and-order messages, contributing to the Brexit victory in Britain and threatening ultimately to undermine the European Union as a whole.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his preference for the more multipolar world that is starting to emerge from these dark centripetal forces of disorder. He appears to want to revert to 19th-century balance-of-power politics, wherein a few large states broker among themselves issues of war and peace and maintain order within their respective spheres of influence, often by aligning with local strongmen.
Some people in the new administration have suggested they would not be interested in arresting the unraveling of global politics in this direction. But they will ultimately find themselves compelled, for the sake of American power and prosperity, to try revitalizing for a new era the rules-based international order constructed following World War II. At that time, the United States, eager to prevent Europe’s bloody wars from ever recurring and the scourge of communism from spreading, helped design a web of international and regional institutions to shore up its European allies and encouraged cooperation rather than armed conflict among states.
A somewhat analogous challenge faces the United States today in the Middle East. The region is likely to be the fiery cauldron in which the global order either gets reforged for a new era or melts down entirely. Syria may provide the first test. The Russians would like the United States to accept Assad’s continued rule of that shattered country, in return for a partnership to fight the Islamic State and al Qaeda together. But that is not how stability will be achieved in the Middle East. Assad has alienated too many Syrians through his misrule and brutalities to be able to put his country back together. In the absence of a viable and vibrant Syria that offers its citizens some hope for the future, any battlefield gains against the Islamic State and al Qaeda are likely to be ephemeral.
Instead, the United States should seek to negotiate a resolution to the Syrian conflict that safeguards the interests of all parties and provides broad latitude for local and provincial self-government. The Russians need to be persuaded that the war is unwinnable and that Assad is not capable of stabilizing the country. If words alone fail to sway them, then a policy of greater humanitarian protection for civilians trapped in the conflict — combined with a stepped-up U.S. effort against the Islamic State in tandem with regional partners — should provide greater leverage to nudge them toward a negotiated settlement.
For the region more broadly, the agenda needs to be no less ambitious. The measures required to put the Middle East on a more positive trajectory resemble those undertaken in Europe 70 years ago: stop the fighting, negotiate equitable and inclusive political settlements (in this case to the region’s other civil wars), shore up weak states to make them resistant to subversion, encourage political leaders to govern in ways that strengthen their legitimacy and unleash the talents of their people, and develop regional institutions that help mitigate conflict and enhance the prospects for cooperation. To achieve this, the United States should partner with states in and outside the region that share its interest in a more stable Middle East. It is high time that those in the region took the lead, providing the vision and doing the lion’s share of the work, but the United States, Europe, and potentially Russia and China should help, as a matter of self-interest.
This may seem a tall order, but the benefits could be substantial. A more secure and prosperous Middle East would undercut radical Islam’s ideological appeal, stabilize Europe’s southern border, and open up a market of more than 300 million consumers. Such a project could give new purpose to the transatlantic relationship while reinvigorating and expanding the existing international order for a new era.
As it contemplates how to deal with an increasingly chaotic world, the new administration will ultimately face a choice: Do you throw your lot in with strongmen who offer the semblance of order but cannot provide lasting stability, or do you double down on a rules-based international system that has been far from perfect but delivered 70 years of peace and prosperity in an otherwise anarchical world? No other choice could be more consequential.
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