08/05/2009 12:13 PM

A New Division of Labor?

How Europe and America Can Work Together in the Middle East

By Zoé Nautré

The US and the EU could make serious progress in fostering regional stability in the Middle East. Both should emphasize the other's strength and help offset any shortcomings. With its soft power, Europe could also aid Washington in rebuilding its tarnished reputation in the region.

The challenges faced in the Middle East still require attention and common trans-Atlantic strategies. Greater cooperation between the United States and Europe is hampered by a lack of honest dialogue about common goals and the means to achieve them.

Although Europe has a lot to offer, it needs to become more unified and proactive. Political and economic reform in the region is in the trans-Atlantic, national, and humanitarian interest. Supporting domestic endeavours to achieve this goal remains an enormous challenge that can only be met by working collectively and on a cooperative basis.

US President Barack Obama at Cairo University's Grand Hall in June: With the Obama administration in place and the EU preparing the Union for the Mediterranean, the time is ripe for assessing how trans-Atlantic policies can complement each other.

US President Barack Obama at Cairo University's Grand Hall in June: With the Obama administration in place and the EU preparing the Union for the Mediterranean, the time is ripe for assessing how trans-Atlantic policies can complement each other.

Reform in the Middle East may not be the highest priority for the Obama administration. But the underlying issues in the Middle East -- most notably the lack of political and economic opportunities -- demand attention sooner rather than later. The Middle East (especially North Africa in the case of Europe) represents a ticking demographic time bomb. The majority of the population is under the age of 25, and most face unemployment in countries that offer poor economic prospects. Many countries are rampant with corruption and cronyism, leading to political alienation and frustration in an environment where freedom of assembly and speech remains restricted; thereby contributing to wider social unrest and radicalization.

The root causes of the region's problems are more widely acknowledged and addressed today. However, according to the most recent Freedom House " Freedom of the World" index, none of the Arab countries have made significant progress in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Although reforms have taken place, observers note that they do little to challenge the real distribution of power. Conversely, as a response to external pressure, Arab regimes have become smarter in dealing with outside pressure, which has led to "staged reforms" for external consumption, such as those in Morocco, which European Union and US donors have overwhelmed with praise. The Bush administration's bold reform initiatives have not had the anticipated results and there seems to be a general uncertainty about how to proceed across the US political spectrum.

US agencies dealing with the region are currently in a transition and re-assessment period. The post-9/11 paradigm that reform in the Middle East is now an issue of national security for the United States faces many obstacles in terms of implementation. The United States has lost much of its leverage in the region because of its unpopularity, the obstacles it faces in Iraq and its reduced capability to influence key actors. The United States may now welcome external help to deal with the region's challenges. This is where Europe could step in and shoulder some of the burden.

What Europe Can Offer

Europe can offer a whole range of soft power tools to complement domestic reform efforts and US efforts to address challenges in the region. Europe's soft power is difficult to define in exact terms, but it broadly consists of a "better" awareness of the region's historical trajectories and an allegedly more 'respectful' tone of engagement.

Europe also has less of an image problem in the Middle East than the United States. US actions during the Bush Administration (e.g. the specific problems the US encountered in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and renditions) have tended to undermine US credibility and increased resistance to US involvement in the region. Europe has managed to distance itself from the so-called war on terror -- and still views terrorism largely as a law enforcement issue.

Consequently, Europe's reach into Arab civil society has not suffered. Institutions such as the Anna Lindh Foundation display an impressive network of actors and range of activities that are geared towards shaping the Euro-Mediterranean region as "an area of cooperation, exchange, mobility, mutual understanding, and peace." The foundation was created in 2005 by governments engaged in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Its activities range from discovering Islamic art to promoting Euro-Arab cinema and youth mobility. The foundation goes beyond the classical development assistance framework by focusing on cultural dialogues such as "Dialogue 21," which was launched at the peak of the Danish cartoon crisis, allowing young people to discuss issues with peers on both sides of the Mediterranean. This is a key issue given the displays of ignorance on all sides and the deliberate attempts by radicals to widen the perceived gaps between "them" and "us."

The European Union also looks back on a history of successful institution building and the integration of former Eastern European countries into the EU, which helped those countries reach "EU standards" in terms of rule of law, transparency and accountability. The European Union has successfully integrated the economies of 27 different countries, managed monetary stability and established a free trade zone for around 480 million consumers. These are noteworthy achievements, as key impediments to economic growth in the Arab world include the lack of intra-regional trade (which accounts for only 10 percent of the region's total trade), a lack of integration in the global market, and limited foreign investment due to the lack of trust in local institutions. Furthermore, exports from the European Union to the Middle East as well as North African exports to Europe provide a "way-in" for the EU to increase its leverage in the region.

Time for Honest Dialogue

In addition, the Barcelona process initiated in 1995, or more precisely, the recently revived and renamed Union for the Mediterranean, is the only forum where Israelis and Palestinians meet regularly. It is also the only forum where the European Union meets with its southern Mediterranean partners, as well as the Arab League, to discuss issues ranging from transport to the environment and education. Much has been invested in this process: the European Commission alone has supported the Barcelona Process with €16 billion since 1995. Traditionally, Europe also maintains direct channels of communication with states like Syria, in contrast to the frosty relations the country has shared with the United States in recent years.

In short, the European Union can offer more to the Middle East. It has potentially more leverage in the region than the United States in terms of soft power, it is less tied down by binding agreements (such as with Jordan or Egypt) than the United States, and its reserves of soft power can serve to further development and curb radicalization in the region.

While there exists a trans-Atlantic consensus on the need to improve socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab world in principle, in practice priorities and policies to address these challenges differ.

With the Obama administration in place and the European Union restructuring the Barcelona Process into the Union for the Mediterranean, the time is ripe for a sober assessment as to how trans-Atlantic policies can complement each other. This period represents a fresh start where honest dialogue can take place concerning strategic challenges, priorities, and assumptions that lie behind the respective state policies towards the Middle East.

Europe Could Share Burdens in Middle East

The United States and the European Union need not only a unified vision of what the common challenges beyond reform in the Middle East are, but also an agreement as to why change is necessary. This requires a re-definition of common interests and a unified response to the current and future challenges in the region: bad governance; the provision of safe havens for terrorists; the deprivation of human, political, economic, and cultural rights and the failure to provide citizens with basic rights. The European Union and the United States are natural partners in addressing these issues and ensuring that universal rights are not perceived simply as a "Western export," but as inalienable rights for all people.

An additional challenge to any future collective approach should be noted: As the focus on reform in the Middle East has increased in recent years, Arab leaders have become much smarter in dealing with external pressure, allowing only limited political pluralism that does not affect the real distribution of power. The lack of trans-Atlantic coordination and communication towards the region has been manipulated by certain Arab regimes. External assistance has even had the negative effect -- by strengthening the security apparatus to monitor potential terrorists -- of helping to enhance the repressive capacities of the state in some cases. The fact is that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are happy to go along with this situation because it guarantees cooperation and stability in the short term. At the heart of this approach lies a deep skepticism regarding genuine democratic outcomes in the region and the extent to which Islamist parties in power can actually uphold so-called universal human values.

Can the EU and the US Afford to be Shortsighted?

It is in the national interests of the United States and the European Union member states to facilitate sustainable political and economic reforms and greater transparency and accountability in the long-term by supporting domestic reform movements in the region. Consequently, long-term interests such as democracy cannot be compromised at all times for short-term security interests and stability. The implementation of current policies that actually help to strengthen the repressive capacities of Arab states might be short-sighted and in need of re-evaluation.

Besides agreeing on strategic objectives and the need for honest dialogue on crucial issues, both the United States and the European Union need to assess the different assumptions behind their respective policies. Both policies are fundamentally different in their anticipated result. The EU objective is to assist in the build-up of civil society so that when the time is ripe for real democracy, the capacity will already be in place. In contrast, US policy calls for accelerated change. This approach holds that greater justice, accountability, and democracy are not generational challenges, but rather "natural" processes towards democracy that can be accelerated by making it a foreign assistance priority.

By assuming that US ideals and national interests had naturally merged, the Bush administration neglected to consider how this would be perceived in the region. External policies are not executed in a power vacuum and have serious repercussions. As a result, the Obama administration might have to acknowledge the limits of interest-driven foreign assistance and look at other avenues to promote democracy. Europeans, on the other hand, should recognize that there is a closer link between development assistance and national interest than they would care to admit. Consequently, they need to put more energy and resources into an approach more cognisant of this linkage.

Once differing assumptions have been discussed and overcome, both actors might be able to agree on a new division of labor to tackle challenges in the Middle East. Europe could increase its capacity in assisting domestic reform efforts. Most US policy makers agree that Europeans could be more proactive in the Arab world and beyond. European internal foreign policy coordination also remains a key issue as the United States attempts to streamline policies with its trans-Atlantic partner. As long as Europeans fail to find appropriate mechanisms to consolidate their foreign policy, the positive influence they could have on the region will remain unrealized.

A Battle of Ideas?

Beyond grand common strategies, the European Union and the United States could serve as inspirational models to others who would like to live in similar conditions and enjoy the same opportunities. In this regard, the election of Barrack Obama as US President was inspirational for many Arabs and was received very favorably in the region. Although some tend to believe that democracy is a form of government that follows a natural trajectory, democracy is not on the horizon for many parts of the world. As Thomas Caruthers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, "for the first time in many years, there are almost no more democracies in the world at the end of a decade as there were at the beginning of it."The so-called battle of ideas still needs to be fought, and the United States and Europe are natural allies in this battle. The tone of engagement with the Arab world matters. Instead of perceiving the region only as a headache, the United States and Europe should focus on what they have in common with the Arab world. Radicals should not be allowed to make the gap between "us" and "them" deeper. Cultural exchanges, as well as dialogues on the relationship between religion and the state, should be supported and extended to wider parts of society.

There have been very positive signs from within the region, whereby Arab leaders have initiated regional initiatives to deal with the region's challenges. Take, for example, Turkey's involvement in the peace process, Egyptian efforts to mediate and promote a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and recent activities by the Gulf States to address the stalemate in Lebanon. Putting more energy into supporting regional initiatives and security frameworks instead of just suggesting external (and so far largely unsuccessful) solutions would be a noteworthy option for the European Union and the United States.

There seems to be a growing recognition that local partnership is the key to success in the region. The recent establishment of the Union for the Mediterranean's co-presidency (the EU and Mediterranean partner countries) is a promising sign. Rather than promoting themselves as powers in the region, the European Union and the United States should listen more carefully to what people in the region actually want and what kind of assistance they need.

Assisting Domestic Reform Efforts

Political and economic reforms could solve many of the region's deficits and challenges. Although it might not be a priority for the Obama administration (perhaps because it will be difficult to achieve success in the short-term), this issue will have to be dealt with. Europe has the potential to share some of the burden and increase its efforts in areas where the United States remains simply too unpopular or has not found the right tools or tone to deal with the region's challenges. Although Europe has a lot to offer, it needs to become a more unified and proactive actor to have a meaningful impact in the Middle East. To overcome the obstacles to transatlantic cooperation, both sides need to foster an honest dialogue on long-term interests in the region and how to achieve these goals. Through better coordination, Europe can help the Obama administration improve the US record in the Middle East. Europe and the United States need to agree on a common rationale and division of labor. One option is to place greater emphasis on the recently emerging regional initiatives. Another option is to provide a forum where the US can contribute without dominating the proceedings. Political and economic reform in the region is in the transatlantic, national, and humanitarian interests of the United States and the European Union. Supporting domestic endeavours for reform presents numerous challenges that can be better shouldered and overcome if the United States and the European Union work together.

Zoé Nautré is a visiting fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). Previously, she served as a visiting researcher at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.


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