BERLIN – More than a year into the Arab revolts, their outcomes remain highly uncertain. But some initial lessons for international politics – and for Western, particularly European, foreign policy – merit serious consideration.
Almost everyone was surprised by the revolts, although the political and socioeconomic causal factors were well known. As is often true in crises that become systemic, we knew the phenomena, but failed to grasp their interaction, in part because politicians and analysts are unwilling to anticipate ruptures: the familiar is held to be stable even when it is known to be problematic. (Consider Saudi Arabia, which the United States and most of the West continue to regard as an island of “stability.”)
Likewise, the revolts in different parts of the Arab world have made a mockery of efforts to divide states into “moderate” and “radical” anti-Western camps. This false dichotomy blinded US and European leaders to many of the weaknesses that rendered even “moderate” systems unstable. A better rule of thumb would be: beware of regimes that claim to guarantee the West’s geopolitical interests.
In fact, Western states had no power over the revolts’ outbreak, and they cannot determine their outcome. Even in Libya, despite NATO’s decisive intervention, local actors will decide whether a democracy, another dictatorship, some kind of communitarian confederation, or chaos emerges.