Just an hour’s sail from Gibraltar to the north and 3 1/2 hours by car from Casablanca to the west, immortalized in the movie of the same name, Tangier, a city of 3 million has hosted for the past four years, a conference called “MEDays” sponsored by the Amadeus Institute, a Moroccan think tank dedicated to expanding better understanding of the region.
This year’s conference was titled “The role of the South in global governance.” Among the 450 attendees were current and past presidents, prime ministers, foreign and finance ministers, ambassadors and other luminaries.
For three days, the conference explored a range of global issues from climate change to governance and from terrorism to the Arab Spring. The most insightful takeaway was the nearly unanimous view of the Arab Spring.
Specifically, the phrase was seen as oxymoronic in that the term “Arab” is by definition pluralistic as no two Arab or Muslim states are identical and the word “Spring” implies a far more positive connotation and outcome than events and history suggest as likely or even probable.
As the conference unfolded, violence continued in Egypt and Syria. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam was arrested. And the Middle East peace process was described by an accomplished former U.S. diplomat akin to the famous Monty Python skit about a 100-yard dash in which each of the runners scurries off in different directions and none of whom is headed toward the finish line.
For all of the hype that persists in the United States and West over the Arab Spring and the victory lap NATO hopes to take after the Libyan campaign successfully removed the Gadhafis from power, this conference was a cold water immersion in reality. The most striking conclusion was that in both Libya and Egypt, violence and chaos far outweighed the likelihood for a smooth transfer to democracy and stability.
One panelist, a highly respected journalist for German television and special correspondent for The New York Times, had literally just left Libya and reported a highly dysfunctional and disorganized situation dominated by tribal and personal rivalries rather than agreement on unifying and modernizing the country.
Part of the conversation touched on substantial numbers of Libyan weapons, including surface- to-air, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which had disappeared, been sold or stolen outright. And given the inability of the ruling army leadership to address the expectations and needs of the Egyptian people who refilled Tahrir Square with protesters, the cynical conclusion was the only consequence of the revolution was to replace an air force general with an army field marshal.
While these prospects have been reported in the Western press, it was the seeming agreement by a large majority of conference goers of the largely negative future that looms in the region.
This disparity of perceptions has many roots. Clearly, NATO wants to use the removal of Gadhafi and the prevention of a civilian bloodbath as understandably positive achievements. However, these are tactical, not strategic and nor are either enduring.
Similarly, conditions in Egypt are in freefall for the obvious reason that the country has few resources. Main sources of foreign income are from tourism and the Suez Canal. Because of the revolution, both revenue streams have been greatly reduced and promised foreign aid is still forthcoming. As a result, public expectations for a better life have not and may not be met.
Another important insight was provided by the leaders of several small island states ranging from the Seychelles to Granada and Dominica. Climate change has altered dramatically and comingled wet and dry seasons as well as eroded much of the small land mass in the Seychelles and other island nations.
As NATO has set 2 percent as the goal of gross domestic product to be allocated to defense spending, U.N. goals for spending on “green technologies” for the environment are identical percents of GDP. As states won’t meet the former, surely the latter will be also ignored.
Dialogue and understanding form the basis for joining north and south. MEDays reiterated the importance of keeping neither hemisphere in isolation or separation. That the United States, NATO and EU countries sent no high-level official representatives to this meeting, although invited, is symptomatic of this separation. Of course, merely expanding participation isn’t the same as action.
As argued in earlier columns, one reality of the international order today is an antiquated structure that stemmed from the Cold War. Much of this structure, including the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other organizations and agencies, simply cannot deal effectively with the avalanche of challenges and dangers facing mankind. Reform at best will be difficult.
However, the start must be better understanding of the issues. Such forums are enormously useful in spanning these yawning gaps.
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.