Turbulence and Opportunity

Turbulence in the Arab world and crisis in North Africa. The Middle East peace process on life support at best. Oil and food prices rising, causing global economic stresses and hardships. Mounting concerns about the sustainability of our growth. In the world’s dominant power, economic doldrums exacerbated by political gridlock; in Europe, policy confusion depressing growth. A competitor power rising, testing America’s weaknesses, probing for vulnerability. And mounting tensions between the West and Iran, risking crisis. Welcome to 1978.

To cite earlier troubles is not to underestimate current ones. The current crisis in
West/Islamic relations is real, and the stakes in the Arab Spring couldn’t be higher. US-
China tensions have been running high, with each side playing to nationalist temptations during a season of political transitions. The scramble for energy overlaid with nationalism and unresolved territorial issues are pulling China and Japan into a very dangerous game. If the Asian powers trip into conflict, the consequences will be harsh. And if the mounting crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons can’t be resolved through a combination of economic pressures and constructive diplomacy, the risks to regional and international security are real.

It does help, though, to remember that we’ve overcome troubles before; and to remind ourselves that we face not only risks, but also genuine opportunities. The Arab Spring may be in turmoil, but that doesn’t change its essence – a billion people demanding their dignity and their rights. Past experience tells us this change won’t happen overnight, but over the course of a decade, and it won’t happen without reversals; but the Arab Spring still constitutes one of the great opportunities for human liberation of our era.

Nor is opportunity limited to the Arab world. Africa stands on the threshold of tipping from a cycle of conflict and lost opportunity into one of stability and growth. My favorite contemporary statistic is this: there are now 400,000,000 cellphones in use in Africa. Just think of what that might herald in terms of economic and political progress. And between economic growth in Asia and economic opportunity in Africa we confront this astonishing possibility: to move from a goal of halving absolute poverty by 2015 to an achievable goal of eradicating absolute poverty in the subsequent decade or two.That is, if we grasp one further opportunity: to continue to wrestle the problem of civil wars into submission, or at least into abeyance. A large portion of the world’s absolute poor live in situations of conflict, and neither the Millennium Development Goals nor their successors can be credibly developed absent still deeper efforts to put internal strife to rest, and to help societies that have exited conflict to maintain a long stability. 

All of this can be achieved if we harness the truly great opportunity of our time: to capture the energy and dynamism of rising powers like Brazil and India and Turkey, and marry that to the will and capacity of the West. That will not be easy: the Security Council’s responses to Libya and Syria have become the test case of quite how hard it will be to navigate the differences even between well-meaning powers, let alone recalcitrant ones. But from Cote d’Ivoire to Haiti to the coast of Somalia there’s counter-evidence, evidence that those differences can be bridged.

The balance between risk and opportunity may come in grand gestures and great summits, but more likely will lie in the hard daily slog of managing international cooperation. There are times when it’s hard to sustain optimism; when the inertia of the UN, the inability of the West to see past its own shadow, and the emerging powers’ temptation to bravado and ill-prepared adventures threaten to overwhelm more positive forces. 

That’s when it’s time to look at the evidence, which is clear: despite recent reversals, if we look with a long lens, growth is up and war is down. Our collective job is to keep it that way.

Vertical Tabs

Jan 09, 2013
Bruce Jones
Middle East, Libya, Syria, United States