The uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 were a historic political awakening of peoples long held captive by decrepit systems of control and oppression. However, the United States and its European allies have so far failed to reckon with this geopolitical earthquake. This lack of appreciation is exemplified by a recent White House policy review that pared Middle East priorities down to three issues, only one of which was related to the uprisings. Rather than adapting and coordinating long-term policies to account for the political mobilization of the masses and its causes, Brussels and Washington have largely reverted to pursuing short-term stability and security. This failure not only threatens the West’s ability to influence the region, leaving other actors to fill the void, but it risks losing the region to greater instability and insecurity in the future.
However, there is still time for leaders to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the uprisings and formulate win-win, long-term policies. This will require the same paradigm shift found in U.S. foreign policy after World War II. After the war devastated Europe, the stability, democratic nature, and equity of today’s Europe were far from a certain outcome. Yet acting out of enlightened self-interest, the United States remained engaged economically and politically with the continent. This engagement fostered a mutually beneficial partnership and flowered into an alliance that has predominantly shaped the international framework since. Following their uprisings, North African countries face the same watershed moment as their northern neighbors did over half a century ago. The Transatlantic partnership, looking at its own history and success as a model, ought to engage with Arab reformers as real partners instead of following the failed policies of the past, namely embracing as clients whichever strongman emerges from the entropy.
In practice this means helping to tackle the primary roots of the uprisings: inequitable economic growth, stagnating employment figures, corruption, and ossified, unaccountable state structures. In Egypt this requires withdrawing support from a military junta whose stranglehold over political and economic life perpetuates the very terrorism it claims to fight. In Libya and Tunisia, this means building a more organic and multilevel partnership. The allure of authoritarian governance is illusory in light of the evidence that, after decades of such rule, the region can hardly be described as stable.
One U.S. diplomat notes that, with the exception of Egypt, “the United States would typically see [North Africa] as an area where the Europeans should take the lead from a policy perspective, and especially financially.” However, serious engagement requires close transatlantic coordination.
There have been some steps in the right direction. European leaders revived the European Union’s proposed “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean.” The German government has set a best-practice example by providing financial support to local projects aimed at reinforcing democracy, the rule of law, and civil society particularly in Tunisia, which is seen as “the country of hope.”
Especially in the economic and educational sectors, there are several practical and easy to implement policies that, pursued by the United States and Europe in collaboration, can help North African countries develop their economies and societies equitably, robust enough to provide a positive feedback-loop of mutually beneficial trade, investment, and innovation:
- Remove trade barriers to allow for more market opportunities for North African small and medium size enterprises while also adapting restrictive visa policies to facilitate trade in the services sector.
- Abet the flow of foreign direct investment to the region through steps like expanding the responsibility of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to North Africa or augmenting the resources of the European Investment Bank.
- Quickly identify and return the ill-gotten assets of former regime members. Additionally, assist in exposing and correcting corrupt private-sector links.
- Increase funding for educational exchange programs which currently suffer from very low participation figures. Higher participation rates in programs such as Erasmus Mundus would expose North African students to the culture of civic responsibility undergirding democracies in Europe and the United States.
- Support regional economic integration by participating in multilateral negotiations and shun the current, predominately bilateral, model.
A committed Transatlantic partnership with North Africa’s new societal actors and governments is not merely a case of humanitarian goodwill. The United States and Europe will reap the benefits of fostering lasting peace and security, supporting the emergence of young, dynamic market economies, and maintaining influence in a key region of the globe. Just as the Transatlantic partnership shaped the continent after 1945, just as “the European Community played a key role in consolidating democracy in southern Europe,” Europe’s neighbors on the southern shore of the Mediterranean today need the help of committed partners.