Well, who’d have thought it? Another popular insurgency in the series that started in Tunis in late 2010. The gift that keeps on giving. Only this time it has hit the United States, to the bemusement of those who like their liberal internationalism neat and any populist revolutions a long way from home. The same people who misread the Arab uprisings of 2011 and continue to believe magically that movements based on the word of God will embrace tolerance and inclusivity seem shocked that some Americans have decided to have an uprising of their own.
None of this will be lost on the leaders or people of the Middle East. My guess is they will be a lot less shocked than commentators in the US and Europe are. After all, the blurring of business and politics, the instrumentalisation of identity, ambiguity about where the public good ends and personal advantage begins and an often casual attitude to facts are characteristic of the politics of the region. More fundamentally, relations between states in the Middle East and North Africa are transactional; most significant trade flows are in commodities; and conflict within and between states is endemic. The region politically looks far more like the Hobbesian world of early-modern Europe than it does the Kantian dream of the European Union. Donald Trump talks like a mercantilist: Barack Obama talks like a Rawlsian idealist. Most Arab, Israeli or Iranian leaders are more comfortable with the former than the latter.
Indeed, Obama’s own eloquence has counted against him. His Cairo speech of 2009 in retrospect looks like a cruel illusion, one of Auden’s clever hopes more than the proclamation of a new ethical order, as many wanted to think at the time. It was unbacked by practical policies or even sustained attention. The moral reset never happened. What followed instead was disorder: the public disavowal of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, an apparent assumption that the politics of Islamist revelation were consistent with liberal pluralism and – when the error was realised – grudging acquiescence in the counter-revolution and increasing exasperation with the result.
The Iran nuclear deal may or may not prove to be as great an achievement as its supporters claim. However, the self-congratulatory attempt to sell it to the Gulf states with an odd mixture of scolding and exhortation merely alienated them. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the weight of Iran and the desirability of a negotiated settlement: they did and do. They simply didn’t want to be treated like the most disruptive students at the back of an International Relations
101 remedial class.
So the standard by which they – and Sisi’s Egypt, Erdogan’s Turkey, Khamenei’s Iran and everyone else in the Middle East – will judge the incoming administration is not the one that socially liberal and politically idealistic Americans and Europeans will use. They won’t worry so much about free trade: oil and gas will find their own markets. They’re OK with going bilateral: multilateralism only gives them headaches, which was why the Iranians liked dealing principally with the US over their nuclear programme, why Cairo is flirting with Moscow and why the choice between Algiers and Rabat is always going to be binary. They’re good at negotiating deals. If that’s how the new guys in Washington want to proceed, that’s fine by them.
The energy producers will like a renewed emphasis on industry: the Rust Belt isn’t coming back but it doesn’t hurt to pretend that it might. They will still worry about the resilience of fracking but that was going to be the case anyway. If new areas for energy production are opened up in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, then that adds to the downward pressure on prices. However, it will take a while to start producing significant quantities of oil and gas from the new fields. And at least it reflects an enthusiasm for hydrocarbons rather than waves, wind or water.
The real areas of uncertainty are elsewhere. All the states of the region want their concerns to be taken more seriously than anyone else’s. That will entail having opinions on the conflicts between them – and sometimes taking sides. That may be more straightforward with Israel than has been the case under Obama. Trump on the campaign trail suggested he will tilt much more towards Israel than Obama has done, not just on issues such as settlements and the status of Jerusalem but on hardcore security solutions to the challenges of Palestinian nationalism, Islamist extremism and the more generalised threat from Iran and its proxies.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, will be closely watching what position the new administration takes on the recently passed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which will allow families and victims of the 9/11 attacks to pursue a civil lawsuit against Riyadh. The kingdom will also monitor how belligerent campaign statements about Islamic State and its ideological cousins might play out in power, and how compliant the US approach will continue to be on the Iran nuclear agreement. A unilateral abandonment of US commitments is unlikely: the deal is a Security Council matter, many other states have equity, and they are only too eager to do business, as we have seen for some time with China and now more recent activity by France’s Total and German and British business delegations to Tehran.
It is also not clear that being justifiably suspicious of Iran automatically makes you a friend of Riyadh. Trump has done business with the kingdom in the past but has also criticised Saudi over-reliance on the US for its defence. And hardliners in Tehran would probably be undisturbed if Washington walked away. A resumption of enrichment would hardly look like a victory for the new US administration, especially if European energy firms were the wider beneficiaries.
Trump has displayed a startlingly nativist and isolationist side during the presidential campaign. The test of this will include Iraq, where the US has a highly effective strategy at the moment that involves significant political and military commitments; Syria, where it does not; and Yemen, where it had one but mislaid it. And even in Iraq, the real test will be sustaining an effective political strategy after the fall of Mosul. This will happen on Trump’s watch, not Obama’s.
In the end, the Trump administration will come up against a fundamental and enduring feature of Middle Eastern politics: everything is connected. In business, if one golf-course project is a bust, you can always find another that isn’t. In the international diplomacy of the Middle East, that won’t work. It may be unfair, but US presidents are supposed to do something when 400,000 people die in a civil war somewhere and Iranian-backed militias colonise zombified states. If you recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, you alienate not just Palestinians, but most other Arabs and Muslims and many Europeans. But you need them if you want a proper contain, distrust and verify policy on Iran. You also give movements such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Hezbollah – one of the biggest criminal enterprises on the planet – a perfect alibi. If you think the answer on Syria is to let Bashar al-Assad reassert control with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, you need to be able to persuade those Arabs and Turks who back the largely Sunni opposition to stop doing so. You can’t do that if they think you don’t respect them or their interests. And you might want to ask yourself if making nice with Putin over Aleppo could lead him to think you wouldn’t mind if he helped himself to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius while he was at it.
Full disclosure: I’m a signed-up member of the international relations blob. So I would say this, wouldn’t I? But here goes anyway. The trick is managing political complexity. That isn’t something for which the president-elect is famous, and wasn’t a notable feature of the campaign debates. It may be that his choices of secretary of state, national security adviser, CIA director, and indeed energy and treasury secretaries, will reflect an understanding of the importance in a complicated and uncertain world of competent, experienced figures, and of the central role of the US president in supporting the liberal international order created after the Second World War that underpinned the US rise to dominance. I hope so. If this order collapses it won’t be just because US voters elected Donald Trump. It will be because of demographic, economic and sociological shifts across the globe.
As far as the Middle East and North Africa go, the dilemma is not so much Thucydidean (rising powers challenging established rivals) as Machiavellian: a multitude of rivals with shifting allegiances challenging each other for primacy. We have lacked a common understanding and collective purpose for at least a decade. Determined and smart US political engagement across the region is essential to rebuilding both. Without that we won’t see a new and stable order created by the regional states: we will see more entropy. US partners in the region will feel both abandoned and licensed. US enemies will feel liberated. In both cases, the costs of hedging with other external powers – Turkey, Russia, China, India – will decrease dramatically. Good luck with the aftermath of all that. However bad the region may look today, “the worst is not. So long as we can say: ‘This is the worst.’”
John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London. He is now the executive director (Middle East) of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is based in Bahrain