Mark Leonard Wed, 17 Sep 2014 06:42:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why Scotland looks like the canary in the independence coal mine Tue, 16 Sep 2014 14:48:22 +0000 RTR462TE.jpg

Scotland’s drive to independence has been interpreted by many as a throwback to ancient identity politics – but many of the trends on display in the Scottish referendum have more to do with the politics of the future than those of the past.

The polls show that this week’s vote is too close to call. There is still a chance that the “No” campaign will ultimately prevail – something that I dearly hope will happen both for the sake of the Scots and the rest of the Britain.

But whatever the result of the vote, I think we must recognize that the “Yes” campaign has done more to shape the agenda of Scottish politics. And it is the forces it tapped into that will also change politics around the world.

So far, the commentary has focused on whether a Yes vote in Scotland will have resonance among other minorities in search of statehood – from Catalonia and Flanders to Taiwan and Quebec.

But the truth is that the political trends in Scotland are also reshaping many nations that do not face imminent break-up – from America to Zambia.

I would point to four trends in particular:

1. Self-government will increasingly trump economics 

The Unionist ‘No’ camp have stressed all of the economic benefits of being part of the union as well as the uncertainty about the future of a Scottish currency as well as Scottish membership of the EU and NATO. This week has been full of talk of dangers to Scotland’s financial services industry from independence (several banks just announced that they would relocate their headquarters to London). The UK treasury estimates that Scots received between 14 percent and 16 percent more in public spending per head than people in the rest of the UK.

However, many of these arguments pale into insignificance when compared to the power of their pro-independence ‘Yes’ camp’s argument that Scotland has not voted for a Conservative government since 1935 and yet has spent more than half of the last century being governed by Conservatives (at the last election, David Cameron’s Conservative Party won only one out of 59 seats in Scotland). As Owen Jones argued in the Guardian, “to most Scots, living under a Tory-led government seems absurd, like being forced to live under a hostile foreign occupying force.

These sentiments are increasingly felt across the world. Despite casting ballots, people still feel unrepresented. In the European elections, populist parties from the Front National in France to Syriza in Greece argued that though people could change the government, they can not change the policies that shape their larger world. It is a feeling applies to all countries that feel battered by uncontrollable global forces, however valid elections may be in their own backyards.

2. Nationalism will increasingly clad itself in progressive clothing.

Rather than proclaiming far-right ideas, pro-independence campaign videos paint a picture of Scotland’s future as a socialist utopia – a British version of Sweden. The campaign video counterposes Scottish fairness with Britain’s growing inequality; Scottish public spending against British austerity; Scottish opportunities against the tyranny of English privilege; and Scottish internationalism with the ‘illegal wars’ of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Britain. For the “Yes” campaign, the yes box on the the ballot paper does not just imply that Scots will be free from Tory government – it is an invitation to join in building a socialist paradise north of the border.

The power of the Nationalists argument is that it is only partly powered by historic grievances and the nostalgia of Braveheart kilts, tartan and the Gaelic language. This path has also been followed by many other nationalist parties in Europe that are seeking to rebrand themselves in order to widen their appeal. The success of these campaigns, according to pollster Peter Kellner, is that they are a political expression of the economic trends highlighted by Thomas Piketty in his best-selling book Capital. They are an effort to stave off the spiraling growth of inequality.

3. Elites are not as persuasive as they used to be.

At the beginning of the campaign, most thought that the ‘No’ camp would benefit from the fact that all the mainstream parties in Westminster and most British businesses oppose independence. Rather than fighting each other, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party have worked together to pour cold water on the idea of independence and narrow the political choices available to the Scottish National party.

This has spanned from joint statements that Scotland would not be able to use the pound as its currency to a decision last week to cancel Prime Ministers Questions in order to allow all three parties to campaign in Scotland.

But, as the campaign has gone on, it has become clear that the “Yes” campaign has drawn a lot of its energy from opposing this elite consensus. They have argued that the “No” campaign has colluded with vested interests to spread fear and talk down the Scottish people.

The leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, has been able to present himself as a defender of the Scottish people against the British elites. His arguments have added force because so many successful Scottish people have chosen to make their careers in London – allowing the Nationalists to become the spokespeople for those who have been left behind.

The dynamics of the Scottish campaign are increasingly true of many other democracies where established parties huddle together to defend the current order from insurgent political forces that paint themselves as popular tribunes in the face of entrenched elites.

The idea of “One Nation” is dead.

Whatever the legal decision of the referendum, Scotland is already de facto independent. It has been striking that none of the (English) leaders of the mainstream parties in Westminster have been seen as legitimate voices in Scotland’s debates. The most powerful arguments for the Union have come from Scottish politicians.

This is not surprising given the fact that the Scottish have consumed different media from the rest of the UK for a number of years, and that their political arguments have long been different from those in other parts of Britain.

In many ways, the cultural and intellectual secession of Scotland from the UK has been going on for a number of years. And it echoes The Big Sort that has seen people in many established democracies clustering into like-minded groupings that live and work and pray together while consuming media that reinforce their bias and preferences.

I share all of the sentiments in John Lloyd’s thoughtful critique of the case for independence, but I recognize that I live in a country that may no longer exist by the end of the week. Even though the UK is one of few working multinational democracies in the world, its 300 years of being ‘better together’ may end up counting for little when people go to the polls on Thursday.

Whatever the result of this week’s vote, I fear we will find that across the world, where people once celebrated their ties to one another, they will increasingly dream of independence.


PHOTO: A boy marches with a flute band during a pro-Union rally in Edinburgh, Scotland, September 13, 2014. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

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Clashes with Russia point to globalization’s end Wed, 30 Jul 2014 14:35:06 +0000 RTR2TV82.jpg

As the European Union and the United States ramp up their sanctions on Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s plans for retaliation seem to include an attack on McDonald’s. There could not be a more powerful symbol that geopolitics is increasingly undoing the globalization of the world economy.

The burger chain was celebrated in the 1990s by the journalist Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention,” which argued that the spread of McDonald’s around the world would bring an end to war. But almost 25 years after a McDonald’s restaurant opened in Moscow, it seems that deep interdependence has not ended conflict between great powers – it has merely provided a new battlefield for it.

As in any relationship that turns sour, many of the things that initially tie the parties together are now being used to drive them apart. For the past two decades we have heard that the world is becoming a global village because of the breadth and depth of its trading and investment links, its nascent global governance and the networks of the information age. But those forces for interdependence are degenerating into their opposite; we could call it the three faces of ‘splinterdependence’:

From free trade to economic warfare

Economic interdependence was supposed to defuse geopolitical tensions over time – or at least allow the two to be compartmentalized. But today the West is using Russia’s participation in the global economy to punish it for its actions in eastern Ukraine. The EU has announced sanctions that will hit Russia in the banking, oil and defense industries. When China felt its interests were threatened, it was also willing to use economic sanctions in its territorial disputes with the Philippines and Japan. In May, Beijing found itself on the receiving end as Vietnam turned a blind eye to anti-Chinese riots targeting Chinese plants when China put an oil rig in the disputed Paracel Islands.

From global governance to competitive multilateralism

Many saw global trade relations as a prelude to global government, with rising powers such as Russia and China being socialized into roles as “responsible stakeholders” in a single global system. But multilateral integration now seems to be dividing rather than uniting. Geopolitical competition gridlocks global institutions; the Ukraine crisis came about because of a clash between two incompatible projects of multilateral integration -- the European-led Eastern Partnership and Russia’s Eurasian Union.

There is a global trend of competing mini-lateral friendship organizations. On the one hand, the “world without the West” encompasses the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and a host of sub-regional bodies. On the other, the West is creating new groupings outside the universal institutions -- such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- that deliberately exclude China and Russia. Rather than seeing international law as a way of de-escalating disputes between countries, people are increasingly talking about its use as a weapon against hostile countries -- “lawfare.”

From one Internet to many 

Even the Internet is leading to hostile fragmentation rather than a global public square. Putin might have offered Edward Snowden refuge, but it is America’s closest allies -- such as Angela Merkel in Germany and President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil -- who are the most concerned about the National Security Agency’s prying into their citizens private lives. Anupam Chander and Uyen P. Le of the University of California at Davis contend that “Anxieties over surveillance … are justifying governmental measures that break apart the World Wide Web … the era of a global Internet may be passing.” They claim that countries such as Australia, France, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Vietnam have already moved to keep certain types of data on servers within their national borders.

After the end of the Cold War, when the apostles of globalization argued that trade would soon eclipse warfare, the military strategist Edward Luttwak predicted that they would soon be proved wrong. Although capital would replace firepower as a weapon of choice, and market penetration would play the role that bases and garrisons had in earlier generations, the driving force of international relations would be conflict rather than trade. As he put it, we would have “the grammar of commerce but the logic of war.” Luttwak’s prediction seemed misplaced at a time when countries such as Russia, China, India and Brazil were rushing to join the global economy.

The post-Cold War world these countries entered was marked by the development of an U.S.-led unipolar security order and a European-led legal order that sought to bind the world together through free trade, economic interdependence, international law and multilateral institutions. Today, we can see that the U.S.-led security order is fraying both as a result of war-weariness and the emergence of new powers internationally. As a result, great powers such as the United States are increasingly trying to weaponize the international legal order through sanctions to compensate for their unwillingness to use military force.

Interdependence, formerly an economic boon, has now become a threat as well. No one is willing to lose out on the benefits of a global economy, but all great powers are thinking about how to protect themselves from its risks, military and otherwise. China is moving toward domestic consumption after the threat of the U.S. financial crisis. America is moving toward energy independence after the Iraq War. Russia is trying to build a Eurasian Union after the euro crisis. And even internationalist Germany is trying to change the EU so that its fellow member states are bound into German-style policies.

In the years after the Cold War, interdependence was a force for ending conflict.  But in 2014, it is creating it. After 25 years of being bound together ever more tightly, the world seems intent on resegregating itself.

PHOTO: People walk under heavy snow in central Moscow November 11, 2011. REUTERS/Anton Golubev 

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Decline of U.S. influence means Iran and Saudi Arabia may just have to get along — eventually Wed, 25 Jun 2014 15:34:43 +0000 RTR3U96U.jpg

Thirty-five years ago Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran chanting “death to America.” But today Iran wants to work with the United States to stabilize Iraq while negotiating a deal on its nuclear program. The journey from death threats to diplomacy is both a triumph of U.S. statecraft and a symbol of its declining power.

When I spoke to thinkers, politicians and business people on a recent trip to Tehran, I was struck by the strong consensus that America’s hegemony in the Middle East and in global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order in which power is more widely shared and where its nature is changing. Not long ago, they said, the United States bestrode the Middle East as a unipolar power, the main source of order and disorder, the biggest consumer of hydrocarbons and the most active military power. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed the “Great Satan.” But today the United States is but one of many players in the region’s security struggles, and its purchases of oil are eclipsed by China’s.

The real Great Satan for today’s Iran is Saudi Arabia. As Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University, explained to me in an interview last week: “It is the Saudis who are challenging us almost everywhere – increasing their oil output and bringing down the prices; forming a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) oriented against Iran; challenging us in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Syria and building infrastructure inside Iran.”

When I travelled to Riyadh a few weeks ago, I found that Iranian suspicions of Saudi interference are more than reciprocated, with a litany of complaints about Iranian activism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.

This geopolitical struggle shows the extent to which the dynamics of the region are now set within it. The United States is no longer the main definer of order but rather a resource that Iran and Saudi can use in their struggle against one another – with Saudis encouraging the United States to conduct military strikes in Syria, while some in Tehran may secretly be hoping for them in Iraq.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq set off a chain of events that are dissolving the post-World War I order of the Middle East that the United States has guaranteed in the post-colonial era. In its place we are seeing a resurgence of sectarian identities that were subordinated to nationalism during the mandates in the colonial period and by autocratic governments during the Cold War. If you want to see these in action, you could do worse than travel to Qom, Iran, the Shiite religious center.

Within a stone’s throw of the Fatima Masumeh shrine and the famous seminary is a street full of Arab shops, houses and conveniences. “It is like a China Town,” said a young resident of Qom, “only it is filled with Arabs.” The “Arab street,” as it is known locally, is a haven for Shiites from the Arab world. It is also a reminder of Iran’s regional role and aspirations — Qom has long been the spiritual capital of global Shiism — aspirations that have led Tehran to offer to defend Shia shrines in Najaf, Samarra, Karbala and Damascus.

After years of relentlessly bad news from the frontlines in Syria, there is now talk that the warring factions of the Middle East might be drawn together in a new concert to keep order in a most unlikely place: Iraq. Is it possible that the battlefield that divided the world during the George W. Bush era could bring bitter enemies together under President Barack Obama?

The rise to prominence of the radical Sunni force, the Islamic State in Iraq the Levant, is probably the only thing that Saudis, Iranians, Americans and Europeans are equally worried about. While it’s true that the Saudis have at least turned a blind eye to the funding of the militant Islamist organization, the group is committed to overthrowing the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s royal family.

Last week, the influential journalist David Ignatius invoked former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to talk about a new concert of powers in the Middle East along the lines of the one drawn up after the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The key then, as now, is reconciling both rising and established powers.

When I asked Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, the same question, he also saw prospects for an eventual grand bargain. “Iran would be willing to cooperate on a battle against extremism as a broader agenda in the Middle East region including Syria.” In fact, he claimed that Tehran would be careful not to get involved in too visible a partnership with the United States on Iraq because “such bilateral cooperation with the U.S. will surely alienate Saudi Arabia and the Sunni world, killing any chance of regional cooperation.”

In a post-American Middle East, this kind of concert of powers is the only way to stop the bloodshed. But my instinct — after talks with Iranians and Saudis over the last few months — is that the prospects for a grand bargain are some way off. Although both sides are frightened of an uncontrolled escalation, they have both gained power and prestige from a Middle East split along sectarian lines. Neither side is yet exhausted by the proxy wars or satisfied with the current balance of power. The potential rewards still outweigh the risks of the struggle, particularly for Saudi Arabia, which sees the conflicts as a means of reversing Iranian hegemony in Syria and Iraq.

However, although the Iraqi crisis will not salve relations between Riyadh and Tehran, it does offer an opportunity for a further step toward détente with the West.

In the end, the success or failure of a nuclear deal with Iran will determine whether this is possible, but there are genuine reasons for optimism. Part of the reason is fatigue with biting financial sanctions. Part of it is the overlap of strategic interests in Iraq. Part of it is domestic change in Iran: more than 70 per cent of the Iranian population was not born when the 1979 revolution took place.

“The paradox of the religious revolution,” argues Tehran University’s Hadian, “is that it has created the most secular society in the region. The new generation in Iran is secular, pragmatic, and more open to the West.”

But, of course, the biggest driver for Tehran’s engagement with Washington is America’s desire to disengage from the region, hardly an open invitation for the United States to linger.

PHOTO: Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16, 2014.  REUTERS/ Ako Rasheed

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Does Europe have a hero waiting in the wings? Tue, 27 May 2014 20:19:10 +0000 Italy's PM Renzi arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in Brussels

What Europe needs now is a hero.

Before the European elections, many predicted a political earthquake. Now it has struck, leaving the mainstream parties of Europe battered, bloodied and in disarray.

As it so often is, the most eloquent signal was the number of European citizens who chose to sit out the elections altogether (almost 60 percent). And those who did vote could not have been clearer in their rejection of the political mainstream — both right and left.

As predicted in the polls, Euro-phobic parties dominated the poll in two of Europe’s most populous and influential countries, France and the UK, and they exerted a strong influence in many others. In France, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen topped the poll with a record 25 percent of the vote.  And in the UK, the insurgent Nigel Farage was the first political leader in 100 years who did not come from the Labour or Conservative parties to top a national poll.

As Matt Browne wrote in his recent piece, from Italy to Denmark, and from Austria to Greece or Spain, centrist parties are being challenged from the extremes. And even in countries like Spain, which seemed immune to the new populist movement, the two main parties failed to get even half of the votes.

The net result of the European elections is that the largest grouping in the European Parliament will neither be the centre-right EPP (which is down to 212 seats from its previous 274) or the Centre-Left PES (which are down to 185 from their previous 196) – but rather a ragbag of anti-establishment Members of the European Parliament (MEPS).

The latest figures suggest that they could number 228. They may struggle to find consensus among themselves, but with 30 percent of the seats, they will change the way the Parliament works, forcing mainstream parties to work more closely together.

For example, the anti-establishment parties might unite to try to block the election of a federalist president of the European Commission, and use their voting power to block integrationist moves for the Eurozone, take a tougher stance on the freedom of movement, and to rebel against free trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

But the biggest impact will probably be at home where mainstream parties will be torn between the two hopeless strategies of aping the populists or clubbing together to protect the status-quo. To see evidence of the first strategy, look no further than the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s article in Le Point on the eve of the poll asking for the suspension of the Schengen agreement for border-free travel. The same dynamic has taken hold in the UK where Labour and Conservative politicians are calling on their leaders to adopt tougher stances on migration.

To see evidence of the mainstream parties clubbing together to support the status-quo, we should look at what Europe’s leaders do when they meet for dinner on Tuesday night to discuss the selection of the next European Commission president.

Before the poll started, the parties agreed that the main-stream grouping which got the most votes would see its leading candidate become president of the European Commission. Given that the centre-right EPP grouping looks like it will be the largest party group with 212 out 751 seats, that would mean that Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier would become the next president of the European Commission. He is already seen as tarnished by his role in the euro crisis.

One troubling trend is that few of Europe’s leaders even seem interested in finding someone who can cut through the populist discourse and re-launch Europe.  Even amongst those who want to think big, there is a failure to look for political heavyweights.

But they need to.

One political figure that has emerged through the European elections with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished. His name is Mateo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister.  With over 40 percent of the vote, he got a record result for the centre-left in an Italian election, crushing Beppe Grillo’s anti-mainstream party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

The magic of this young charismatic leader – nicknamed the bulldozer – is that he has managed to offer change from within the system rather than becoming a force for conservatism. He is a new-comer to the European stage and is not being considered by any one for one of the top slots in the EU institutions.  But Europe’s leaders could do worse than ask him to become president of a European Commission which is in desperate need of an injection of insurgency and energy.

The alternative to Renzi, of appointing Juncker or another exhausted creature of Europe’s past will be to allow the Euro-skeptic surge to metastasize and eventually overwhelm the entire EU system.

PHOTO: Italy’s PM Renzi arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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The revolution in Putin’s head Thu, 24 Apr 2014 20:37:57 +0000

When Ukrainians took to the streets to protest their government in late November, they hoped to launch a revolution. What they didn’t realize when they toppled President Viktor Yanukovich in February is that a larger revolution would be in Vladimir Putin’s head.

While the president of Ukraine has been replaced, most of the people running the country are part of the permanent political class. The chances of a major break with the past are small. In Moscow, in contrast, the ideological, geopolitical and economic rule book is being rewritten.

Former Kremlin operatives, serving officials, diplomats and dissidents that I recently spoke to in Moscow all agreed that Putin, who is a pragmatic leader, has been reborn as a true revolutionary who will challenge the West in the following ways.

1) Putin confronts Western utilitarianism with a newfound ideological fervour. In the 24 hours before Yanukovich’s fall, Putin was contemplating two options, according to a political operative. One was setting the Ukrainian president up as a “legitimate government in exile” in the eastern town of Kharkiv. The other was annexing Crimea.

Putin was drawn to the potential of ethnic nationalism in Crimea. He knew its power and he feared that if he did not tap into it, someone else would. Once Crimea had been reclaimed, Putin became a prisoner of that nationalist fervour as much as he benefitted from it. He now needs to meet the expectations he has set in motion. What may have started as a tactic to ensure his political survival has transformed into a mission that will secure his place in Russian history.

Putin’s new ideology seeks to combine ethnic nationalism with a neo-imperial project of building a “Eurasian Union.” The result is an explosive combination that has allowed Putin’s regime, which had been steadily declining in popularity, to ride high on a wave of mass mobilization.

One of the pollsters I spoke to said that the only parallel to today is Putin’s surge in popularity when he launched the war in Chechnya shortly after becoming president in 2000.

2) Putin has a revolutionary belief in his own agency. He does not believe that history just happens — he thinks that people make it happen. That is why he genuinely suspects the West of being behind the protests that toppled Yanukovich.

Putin will do all that he can to ensure that Ukraine’s elections on May 25th are seen as illegitimate. “Expect to see the spirit of the Maidan in the East,” a Kremlin operative joked, implying that Russia will organize enough popular protests to create chaos in Ukraine. The operative explained that the experience of dealing with Yanukovich has left Putin fearful of dealing with local interlocutors, so Russia will need to organize the protests itself.

Putin does not trust local political leaders to protect Russia’s interests. This explains his decision to push for talks with the West in Geneva. For the Kremlin, the purpose of these talks is not the stabilization of Crimea, but its disintegration — either violently through protests or peacefully through negotiations for a federalized state.

The recent escalation in eastern Ukraine will not necessarily lead to an annexation. Putin would prefer the West to pay to keep Ukraine solvent, while he keeps his levers for undermining the government in Kiev, making Ukraine a failed state like Bosnia.

3) Putin is using his unpredictability to increase his leverage over the West. He knows what Western countries will do to stop him (to be more precise, he knows what they won’t do). Not a single person I spoke to in Moscow had anticipated the annexation of Crimea. After being so badly wrong-footed, they are wary of placing any limits on what Putin will do next — in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or anywhere else in the post-Soviet world. As one foreign policy adviser put it, in today’s world, “exceptions have become the rule.” The foreign policy order has been exhausted by Kosovo, Iraq and Crimea.

Putin has made domestic politics equally uncertain. An academic who was tapped to write a speech for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last year was — in an unconnected event — interrogated by the Public Security Bureau. “In the old days,” he said, “you knew where you were. Either you were in with the regime or you were interrogated. No one knows where they are any more.”

Putin has introduced the language of “foreign agents” and “fifth columnists” to make illegitimate the intellectual elite who are skeptical toward his regime. The favored phrase in the Kremlin at the moment is “manageable chaos.” Putin has travelled a long way from the stability of his “managed democracy.”

4) Putin is seeking to answer Western attempts to contain the costs of the Ukraine crisis with a domestic ethic of sacrifice. Russian economists talk dismissively about Western sanctions. They stress that in the short term, the devaluation of the currency, import substitution and “patriotic” consumption could provide a stimulus to the economy. In the long term, the sanctions might force Russia to move beyond a carbon-based economy, pivot from an over-reliance on the West to develop Asian markets, devalue the rouble and take steps to reindustrialize the economy.

Politicians close to the Kremlin argue that if the United States boots Russia out of the global economy, the BRICS will show solidarity with Moscow. A Kremlin sympathizer said that the U.S. and Europe no longer speak for the world. “The international community is not the same as the West,” he said.

Pugnacious politicians talk of “modernization against the West” in an echo of Russia’s policies in the 1930s.

Moscow is preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the West. After years of defending the status quo, Putin seems to have decided that he is better served by overturning it. Russia has a genius for revolutions. It was convulsed by political change in 1905, 1917 and again in 1991. But while the earlier revolutions were about changing the leadership of the country, Putin’s revolution aims to correct the order around him.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with Ben van Beurden, chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow April 18, 2014. Putin on Friday pledged to support Royal Dutch Shell’s Russia expansion plans at a meeting with the company’s chief executive. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/POOL

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Why Crimea matters Wed, 09 Apr 2014 15:30:38 +0000  

“We have spent thirty years trying to integrate Russia into the international system, and now we are trying to kick it out again.”

These words — from a senior British official — sum up the disappointment and bewilderment of western diplomats struggling to handle Russia. They face two imperfect options: inaction in the face of Russia’s territorial aggression, and reacting so strongly that they unravel the international system that has sustained order for the last five decades.

As pro-Russian protesters declare a “people’s republic” in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Western leaders are smart to focus on deterring Putin from expanding beyond Crimea. But the West needs to think more about how its actions are seen beyond the Kremlin. The consequences of Crimea could be even more dramatic at a global level than within the post-Soviet countries.

In his March 18 speech, Putin expressed three ideas that Europeans have rejected since World War Two — nationalism that is not tempered by the guilt of war; identity defined by ethnicity, rather than geography or institutions; and social conservatism based in religion.

Yet these ideas remain popular outside the West. Just look at the Middle East, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are both defending their “people” across borders. China may one day want to defend its citizens overseas, in the same way that Putin sees himself as the defender of ethnic Russians. If other countries view Russia’s actions as cost-free, they could carry out copy-cat incursions.

America’s allies could also react in worrying ways if they lose trust in western deterrence. I recently spoke to well-connected military strategists in Tokyo and Seoul, who were disappointed by the West’s reaction to Russian expansionism. They predicted that within Japan and South Korea, security hawks might call for nuclear weapons as a hedge against American withdrawal from the world.

But if the West’s attempts to preserve its credibility are too clumsy, they could also lead to disorder — in particular, if the West throws Russia out of the global economy and the institutions that govern it.

For the last few decades, western powers have benefited from international institutions that they designed and policed. They have exerted political influence by threatening to cast nations out of the global economy, as they’ve done by using sanctions to cripple the Iranian, Burmese and Serbian economies.

Western countries have used access to their economic benefits as a lever for political change. The nations of central and Eastern Europe were forced to implement 80,000 pages of European legislation — governing everything from gay rights to the genetic code of soy beans — in order to join the European Union and get access to its single market.

It is this experience that has led the West to believe in the transformative power of its institutions. Western countries often cite others’ embrace of their norms as proof of the West’s “soft power.” But the reality is that the embrace of these norms has had as much to do with the hard power of capital, technology and access to markets.

The rise in former western colonies — such as India, China and Brazil — has not led to the overturning of these post-war institutions. These countries have reluctantly supported sanctions to punish Iran and North Korea.

But these rising powers are uncomfortable with the way the West has used global institutions to advance its interests. As a result, they increasingly circumvent global institutions by creating bilateral arrangements. Look at how the WTO has been marginalized, while a new generation of bilateral and regional trade deals is emerging in its place. In the G20, the BRICS have formed a new caucus to help drive an anti-Western agenda.

If the West now tries to use these institutions to act against Russia, it may provoke the rising powers to side with Moscow. According to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, an attempt by President Obama to sanction the world’s ninth-largest economy could blunt U.S. financial power. Cole asks: “Who would want a U.S.-dominated international currency exchange regime if you knew at any moment it could be weaponized against you?”

Putin’s speech emphasized how selectively the West has adhered to international norms — backing the principle of non-interference when others intervene, but developing new norms to justify its own interventions in Kosovo and Iraq. His critique of western hypocrisy resonates with many countries outside the West, as we saw in the March 27 U.N. vote on the annexation of Crimea.

The result appeared to be a defeat for Putin: 100 countries voted to condemn the invasion, while a dozen outcast countries (headlined by North Korea and Venezuela) voted on Putin’s side. But when you look at which countries abstained from the vote — including EU hopefuls and protectorates like Serbia and Kosovo, as well as emerging powers such as Brazil, India and China — the picture is less rosy.

This is the essence of the dilemma facing the West. React too meekly, and encourage further territorial expansion and regional arms races. But react too strongly, and risk driving other countries to sidestep global institutions and blunt western power.

Small events can have huge, unintended consequences. The assassination of an archduke in the Balkans led to the dissolution of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

The annexation of Crimea could begin the dissolution of the western-led international order.

PHOTOS: A man and children look at Russian tanks on freight cars after their arrival in Crimea in the settlement of Gvardeiskoye near the Crimean city of Simferopol March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer MILITARY)

Ukrainian servicemen push military vehicles before loading them on freight cars to transport to other regions at a railway station in the Crimean city of Simferopol April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer 


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How to help Ukraine help itself Wed, 26 Feb 2014 19:31:39 +0000

According to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the front-runner to be Ukraine’s acting prime minister, there is a simple way for the country to avoid the fate of a failed revolution without a leader: “take responsibility.”

But, though Ukrainian leaders like talking about it, taking responsibility is not something they are fond of doing. In fact, they have built an entire political and foreign policy machine to avoid it.

The courage of Ukrainian citizens must be met with generosity from the West in the form of open markets, visa-free travel and help in reforming a broken system. But Westerners must do it in a way that empowers Ukrainian citizens. The key to a successful Ukraine government now is for responsibility to become a reality — particularly among the political and business elite.

After the adrenaline and sacrifice of a revolution, the business of reconstruction and administration can be prosaic. But in Kiev, the contrast between the bravery of the street protesters and the venality of Ukraine’s permanent political class is pronounced. Today the political class is seeking to absolve itself of responsibility for Ukraine’s problems by pinning as much blame as possible on Viktor Yanukovich, the run-away president who has been indicted with mass killings.

However, many of Ukraine’s opposition leaders, such as Yatseniuk, Petro Poroschenko and Yulia Tymoschenko, have been complicit in the creation of the current system. Even people newer to political life, such as Vitaliy Kitschko, have been trying to keep up with civic leaders like Volodymyr Parasiuk, the youthful leader, rather than setting the pace of events in Maidan Square.

As Andrew Wilson argues in a paper “Supporting Ukraine’s Revolution,” the European Union must offer all the help it can so that Ukraine can build a sound democratic system on a legal basis – one seen as legitimate by its citizens. The EU should also offer help in the investigation of crimes, collection of illegal weapons and conduct of elections.

Unless the leaders of Maidan are encouraged to form political parties and run for office, the response to the crisis will be politics as usual, along with a growing cultural chasm between civic and political leaders.

People in Kiev do not even need to look to the Middle East to see how the hope for a new beginning in the Arab Spring was gradually extinguished in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain or Syria. For this marks the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s own failed uprising —  the Orange Revolution. Ukrainians saw their popular demonstrations betrayed by ineffective and corrupt leadership.

Ukraine’s political leaders have also sought to avoid responsibility by hiding behind the international organizations. As Ukraine teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, the EU has offered a combination of grants and loans. But it wants to link the majority of its aid to conditions set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The fund has three main concerns: to bring down Ukraine’s exchange rates; to get Kiev to embrace a flexible exchange rate regime; and to end the subsidies for gas prices.

These policies, however, will allow the ultra-rich to skim off profits while making exports uncompetitive and wasting billions — the energy subsidies allegedly redistribute an extraordinary 8 percent of Ukraine’s annual gross domestic product. Under these sorts of policies — combined with 57 varieties of corruption —  the Ukrainian economy has collapsed while its debt levels have sky-rocketed.

In 2008, Ukraine had a 12 percent public debt to GDP ratio. Today it is 60 percent. It is not hard to understand why the West does not want to throw good money after bad, but the IMF conditions will likely make life worse for many Ukrainians before it gets better; driving savings down, fuel prices up and eliminating thousands of jobs.

If the West wants to impose conditions that have popular resonance and make a difference in addressing the basic problem, it may explore a different tack. Robert Cooper, the scholar-diplomat who used to be a senior EU official, points to the corruption of the Ukraine’s Parliament as the root of many problems. “The technocratic conditions of the IMF will make no difference,” Cooper explained. “The only conditions that would change behavior would be a law forcing all parliamentarians to disclose all their assets and income and account for them.”

The biggest escape for Ukraine’s elite is geopolitics. Over the last few years, Kiev has sought to off-load responsibility for its country’s problems onto Moscow and Brussels — playing the two against each other and extracting rent from both sides. The one thing more awkward than losing Ukraine, the two sides discovered, is winning it and discovering one has to pay the bill for a corrupt elite.

Now the EU faces the risk of owning Ukraine’s problems. If Europeans press home their advantage, Moscow could make it even more expensive through a mix of trade sanctions, energy cut-offs and financial pressure.

Some western capitals view the Kiev revolution as an act of emancipation from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago allowed Germany to  escape the Soviet Union. But Ukraine’s history, its economic profile and its demography all make it unrealistic to expect a clean break between Kiev and Moscow.

Now that Yanukovich is gone, Europe should try to recruit Moscow as a stakeholder in an economic settlement for Ukraine. This will be difficult, but Europeans should remember that Ukraine has a genius for turning victories into defeat.

Just look at the fate of Yanukovich, who declared victory in the 2004 elections, only to be pushed out of office by the Orange Revolution, which was sparked by his vote-rigging. The Orange leaders suffered an equally hopeless fate in the 2010 elections when they were trounced by their old rival.

As Europeans contemplate their next move, they must recognize the fragility of their own fate. If history shows that Ukrainians revolt in poetry, they also govern in prose.

But Europeans must encourage them to take responsibility for both prose and passion. Rather than aiming to drag Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence and absolve its elites from national responsibility, the goal of the West should be to help Ukraine to help itself.

PHOTO: A boy poses for picture as he squats on an armoured vehicle at Independence Square in Kiev February 25, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili 

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To see Obama’s legacy, look to Europe Wed, 19 Feb 2014 17:04:40 +0000

This week the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, was invited by his party to form a government in Rome. If he succeeds, he will be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. Renzi has never had a job in central government or even been a member of parliament. His governing record in Florence is paper-thin. But lack of experience was not a setback in his quest for the top job in Italian politics. It was, in fact, his main qualification.

Renzi’s rapid ascent shows how completely Barack Obama has changed the global political playbook. Although the U.S. president is often accused by his detractors of being European in style, the reality is that it is European politics that are being “Obamafied.” In the UK, and you can see the youthful Labour Party leader Ed Miliband painstakingly mirroring Obama’s campaign tactics. A new generation of center-left leaders in Europe is trying to replicate Obama’s three laws of politics.

The starting point is Obama’s first law: Have no political past. It’s not just that every first-term senator thinks he can be president. Now that senator realizes that in this anti-elitist age his chances of success will diminish in line with his growing experience. Part of Miliband’s appeal to his party was that he was not his more experienced brother, the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose closeness to Prime Minister Tony Blair and refusal to disavow the Iraq war cost him crucial votes in the leadership election.

Obama’s second law of politics: Create a new electorate. Renzi’s election to the head of the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy was a reaction against the old-school PD leader Pier-Luigi Bersani, who relied on traditional constituencies at the expense of younger voters. When he took over the leadership of the party this week, Renzi called for the old guard of Italian politics to be “scrapped” and reveled in the nickname “demolition man.”

“This is not the end of the left, it is the end for a group of the left’s political leaders,” said Renzi upon his election as party leader. The same was true for 44 year-old Miliband, who won election as Labour Party leader in 2010 on the promise of generational change.

When Miliband launched his leadership campaign in 2010, he quoted the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and talked about turning Labour into a cause that brings new people into politics. “All the great political movements of history,” he said, “have been built from the bottom up; house by house, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community.”

Although Obama made his political reputation with a pledge of bipartisanship, his genius was his third law of politics: Use new technologies, big data and old-fashioned community organization to maximize the turnout of your followers.

In Italy, Renzi hopes to replicate this feat. His sweeping victory for the Democratic Party candidate was thanks to a campaign heavily based on social networks and grassroots mobilization. In 2012, before launching an unsuccessful campaign in the national primaries for leadership of the Centre-left coalition, Renzi visited Charlotte, North Carolina, to take part in the Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his deep admiration for Obama. Renzi has promised to challenge old-fashioned networks of patronage with new social networks. He has 806,000 Twitter followers, compared with his predecessor Enrico Letta’s 303,000.

Although Miliband’s favorite political slogan is “One Nation,” he is in reality pursuing what his aides call a “40 percent strategy.” Rather than focusing on the political center and trimming his policies to attract its voters, he wants to use political organization to build an electoral majority by mobilizing the left to turn out in greater numbers.

As Marcus Roberts, the former Field Director of the Ed Miliband for Leader campaign,  points out in a paper for the Fabian Society on “Labour’s next Majority,” Labour can count on a core vote of 27.5 percent to which it could add 6.5 percent of center-left defectors from the Liberal Democrats and 5 percent from first-time and new voters. For the final 1 percent, Miliband will try to recruit Conservative Party supporters to switch. This is quite a contrast to Blair’s New Labour strategy in 1997 in which the mainstay was an attempt to woo the “Tory switchers” of the political center.

Since his elevation to leadership, much of the press coverage has sought to portray Renzi as an Italian Blair. He undoubtedly shares some features with the New Labour leader, such as a desire to break with the past and abandon some of the orthodoxies of his party. The Italian party system means that Renzi needs to rely on center-right parties to come to power, unlike Obama, Miliband or even Blair (who succeeded in making a coalition within the Labour party rather than sharing power with others). The elevation of Renzi and Miliband shows that today’s leaders are moving beyond the Blair Agenda.

Of course, Obama’s laws spring from a particular set of circumstances. Race politics is far from playing the role in Europe that it plays in the U.S. Although all European societies are becoming more atomized, they have more of a political center and a national media than the U.S. Europe’s privacy laws are also likely to curb the use of big data in elections. Obama used his community organizing experience to try to create a permanent political movement, but in Europe, permanent political parties have been a fixture for over a century.

But Obama’s star is so bright in Europe that new leaders are shaping themselves in his image. If you want to see Obama’s political legacy, you could look to healthcare, the welfare of America’s middle class and détente with Iran. But to see where he has had the most transformative effect, look to European politics.

PHOTO: Leader of Democratic party Matteo Renzi talks to reporters at the end of the consultations with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinale Palace in Rome February 17, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

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The revenge of the German elite Tue, 04 Feb 2014 15:38:41 +0000

This week, Germany’s foreign policy establishment struck back against a public they say has become increasingly insular, self-satisfied and pacifist. In surprisingly blunt language, German President Joachim Gauck took to the stage last Friday at the Munich Security Conference to declare: “While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”

Gauck asked if Germany’s historical sins mean that it has more, rather than less, responsibility to defend the fragile foundations of an economy and a peaceful world order from which it has disproportionately benefited. In the speech, Gauck was attacking without naming the former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose talk of a “culture of restraint” and strong opposition to euro zone bailouts were attempts to channel Germany’s public mood of disengagement.

Westerwelle’s doctrine reached its apotheosis in March 2011, when he stood in the U.N. Security Council with Brazil, Russia, India and China to oppose an intervention in Libya that was being pursued by the United States and its European allies.

History is “dialectical,” as Germans like to say. It rarely advances in straight lines. It usually takes jagged swings between opposites. One senior diplomat explained to me that if Westerwelle had not embraced the “culture of restraint” so proudly, it would be impossible for the current players to throw it overboard so comprehensively.

The president’s remarks had an impact because they seemed to be part of a broader campaign by the German foreign policy establishment. The new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has talked about “reactivating the German foreign ministry” and has offered to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in Germany.

Steinmeier met with his French counterpart and announced a revival of a Franco-German co-operation policy — starting with joint trips to Moldova, Georgia, Libya and Tunisia. At the same time, the new German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who has been discussed as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel as CDU leader, said that “indifference is not an option.” In recent press interviews, von der Leyen pledged an increase in the German deployment to Mali and her support for a European army.

The challenge now is public opinion. A senior official told me that “eighty percent of the elite agree with this activism while eighty percent of the public oppose it. The gap between the two is becoming unbearable. These speeches are about trying to close it.”

So will it work? And if it does, what kind of foreign policy will Germany promote?

Germany’s newly-elected chair of the foreign affairs committee, a former energy and environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, conceded to me in an interview that so far there has been “more rhetoric than substance,” but he hopes that this will change the public debate. He worries that too much talk is about the use of force, the one area that will meet the most public resistance. “In order to close the gulf with the public, we should talk less about military involvement and more about how more active diplomacy, development spending, and economic policy can help in Syria, Ukraine, Iran and on the NSA,” he said.

Germany is not the only country to deal with questions of introversion. A recent Pew poll showed that 80 percent of Americans think Obama should pay more attention to domestic problems. But Germany is unique in the way that a reluctant public has paid a price for the strategic visions of its elite — from bailing out former East Germany to shoring up the Greek economy; both causes many Germans did not support. On the other hand, Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister, showed that political leaders can shape public opinion when he garnered popular support for the use of force in both Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The nations that have complained the most about Berlin’s inaction may paradoxically find German activism equally uncomfortable. As Berlin reactivates its policy, it will also more clearly define German interests. Germany’s reaction to the NSA affair shows a widening divide between the geopolitical ambitions of the U.S. and Germany’s geo-economic agenda. Germany’s stance on global economic issues, on intervention and on the balance of power in Asia will also continue to be out of sync with Washington, D.C.

The consequences within Europe could be equally disruptive. In the past, many assumed that while the EU’s economic policy would be run by Germany and France, its foreign policy would be led by France and Britain (which are both trying to compensate for lost economic power with foreign policy activism). However, Röttgen says that Steinmeier’s outreach to Paris could one day lead to a “merger of economic and foreign policy” under a re-invented Franco-German motor. As uncomfortable as it may be to find a compromise between Germany, France and Britain on military activism, it will be increasingly vital if Europe’s voice is to be heard on the world stage. “We have a choice between being as relevant as Europeans on global issues, or irrelevant as national players,” said Röttgen.

The one voice that has not yet been heard is the most important one — Chancellor Merkel. Many accuse her of being complicit in Westerwelle’s shrinking of Germany’s foreign ambitions (in fact some speak of a “Merkel doctrine” of avoiding participation in interventions while selling weapons to dubious regimes). Moreover, they suspect that she deliberately put her two successors — Steinmeier and her CDU colleague von der Leyen — into rival positions as foreign minister and defense minister so that they cancel each other out. But now the two of them — with help from the German president – seem to be circling Merkel and trying to drag her on to more activist ground. Will she wear this new mantle and satisfy the German elite, or continue pandering to the public that rewarded her in the last elections?

Newly elected German President Joachim Gauck is reflected in a glass barrier as he makes a speech after his swearing-in ceremony at the Bundestag, German lower house of parliament, at the Reichstag in Berlin March 23, 2012. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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Seven reasons why the Arab uprisings are eclipsing western values Tue, 21 Jan 2014 20:31:31 +0000

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall — an event that led Francis Fukuyama to predict the end of history and the beginning of universal western liberal values. It is three years since the Arab uprisings threatened to upend the Middle East and North Africa. Many at that time predicted that the region would embrace liberal democracy and human rights.

Ewan Harrison and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell argue in a new book — “The Triumph of Democracy and the Eclipse of the West” — that the spread of democracy has come at the very moment that the West is experiencing decline — and that the future will see a “clash of democratizations” rather than a westernization of the world.

Harrison and Mitchell argue that the Arab Spring should be seen as a “second struggle for independence” — throwing off the shackles of western-backed dictators in the same way that earlier generations rebelled against direct rule by the West. But the paradox is that these protesters are increasingly using western-style freedoms and technologies to reject the liberal tenets of the West. From the muddled reaction of western governments to the uprisings in the Middle East, we can already begin to see that this awakening is leading to an eclipse of the West. Here are seven reasons why:

  1. The counter-revolutions have been more powerful than the original revolutions — and they may have a longer-lasting effect. Vested interests across the region have been quick to react. Assad’s repression of the protesters has created a regional sectarian struggle with enormous consequences. Rich gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have used their money to buy off their own citizens and to back regressive forces across the region, while poorer monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan have implemented cosmetic reforms. The recent referendum for a new constitution in Egypt was ostensibly about democracy and stability, but it was actually part of a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that seems to have the goal of excluding the group permanently from the country’s political life. This is likely to force some Islam practitioners to become more extreme and embrace violence.
  2. Middle Eastern states may not have changed much, but their awakened societies will be harder to govern. Some leaderless revolutions have not led to the rise of liberal governments or changed the deep structure of their states. However, the youth bulge, high unemployment, satellite television, social media and the role of organized labor have made the power of governments more conditional. The threat of people taking to the streets could mean that unpopular governments will resign. However, the unruliness of these transitional societies will also make it harder for reformist governments to emerge and could encourage some to rely on brutal repression.
  3. Rather than a split between secular forces and Islam, there is a split between different interpreters of Islam — between the Shi’ite and Sunni sects as well as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The French scholar Olivier Roy argues that this religious pluralism could be an antecedent to political tolerance. The idea of a unitary “Political Islam,” he says, is being replaced by “Islam in politics.” However, as in many countries, it seems likely that sectarian strife will have to come before a politics of tolerance.
  4. The Middle East has left the post-colonial era. Before the uprisings, repressive governments diverted popular discontent to American or Israeli foreign policy, leading to a sense of infantilization and disempowerment. Today, external actors such as the United States and Europe seem peripheral to the politics of the Middle East.
  5. The decline of influence of great powers like the U.S. and Russia on the Middle East is leading to a rapprochement between them. This has created a co-operative relationship on Syrian chemical weapons and Iran. As Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argue, the Geneva II talks this week offer an opportunity to form an inclusive international contact group that includes the key regional actors Saudi Arabia and, despite the associated challenges, even Iran.
  6. One of the dividends from the concert of great powers is the chance for a détente between Iran and the West, which could transform the politics of the Middle East. Normal relations could also reduce the dependence of western countries on the Gulf states that are nurturing virulent forms of political Islam, prosecuting a sectarian war, powering a regional arms race and supporting terrorist groups.
  7. From the beginning, Israel has most feared the Arab uprisings. While the world around it has changed, Tel Aviv has refused to engage in the substance of a peace deal, focus on growth and social welfare or reconfigure the relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, the Arab uprisings have made Israel less central to the Middle East and undermined of the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership. If there is no progress toward a two-state solution, Tel Aviv could one day face a “Palestinian Spring” where a peaceful leader makes the case for a “One State Solution.”

When the Arab uprisings started three years ago, many commentators saw this as Fukuyama’s revenge. They predicted that this part of the world — so rich in history — would finally embrace western modernity. But next week, when Egypt holds a constitutional referendum and the leaders go to the Swiss resort of Montreux for talks on Syria, we will see that history is still on the march in the Middle East.

The political awakening is about people claiming democratic rights to emancipate themselves from the traditional influence of the West, rather than trying to join it. In that sense, rather than being a region mired in the past, the clash of modern practices in the Arab World might offer some lessons for the future world order.

PHOTO: A woman flashes the victory sign during a demonstration outside Yemen’s foreign ministry to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa October 17, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

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