Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Secretary General of NATO Javier Solana discussed how the United States and Europe can support core transatlantic values while also taking a practical approach toward the Arab uprisings in the second Rafik Hariri Debate on the Arab Transitions on September 25, 2012.

Rafik Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne moderated the discussion.

Engaging on the Basis of Universal Rights

Michele Dunne launched the debate by reflecting on the speech given earlier that day by President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly, in which the president framed US support for the Arab transitions in terms of universal rights and said the United States would continue to support such changes in the region despite recent differences over how to define freedom of expression. Dunne asked Powell and Solana to evaluate the substance of these remarks – is this the correct stance for the US, and Europe for that matter, to be taking? If so, are they effectively implementing these values?

Powell and Solana agreed that standing for universal rights was appropriate – Powell forthrightly stating we should “never shrink from our belief in universal rights” – but also that more could be done. Solana pointed out that in today’s dollars the Marshall plan would have been ten times what has been spent on supporting the Arab transitions. Reflecting on European initiatives to support the Arab world in the past, Solana noted that previous diplomacy was unable to accomplish what the people of Egypt and Tunisia did themselves in terms of breaking the status quo. Now that they have succeeded, Solana argued, we have to help. At the same time, he explained, there are cultural differences that we should be able to live with. Powell added that “we can’t rush in and tell them how to do it – we need to recognize that with the dictators gone and given that people now have representatives, we have to be delicate.”

In Search of Historical Context

Powell and Solana used different historical analogies to frame the Arab uprisings. Powell used the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, a set of accords aimed at building ties between the Communist bloc countries and the West, as a point of departure. He argued that after these accords, which included basic human rights, Eastern European citizens began demanding more from their governments. This demanding of rights spread to the whole world, and the information revolution only sped this process up. When people began seeing everyone else prospering but themselves, “they realized they didn’t have to live this way.” Change began to spread globally, and with the Arab uprisings this process, according to Powell, finally reached the Middle East and North Africa.

Solana commented that the “Middle East is a little more difficult than Eastern Europe.” Eastern European countries, he pointed out, knew they wanted to end up in NATO and the EU. By contrast, there is no such obvious landing point for the Middle East. These countries thus have to move forward without a particular prescription in mind. Moreover, the European countries currently trying to assist Arab countries are former colonial powers; this implies the need to grant assistance without giving the impression of a desire to take control. Powell agreed with these nuances, but highlighted the commonality of “yearning for a better life to enjoy the fruits of the 21st century” and “no longer being satisfied with the oppression” these individuals were living under.

Trade and Economic Assistance

On the question of how best to support economic development, Powell explained that during his time as secretary of state, he “always recognized that trade is more important than aid.” Solana, on the other hand, said that “help should be a mixture, but proportions [of trade versus aid] should depend on the country – based on development, historical experience, and institutions.”

Regarding the question of prerequisite institutions, Powell stressed that “certain things must be done before there can be a proper trading relationship,” giving the example of corporate commercial law so companies can feel safe investing and democratic courts so recourse under law is available. Powell noted that the United States can assist in this process by helping organize courts, elections, legislative bodies, and even education systems. Traditional aid, Powell argued, is still relevant, but we need to look at new forms as well. One such example of alternative aid programs, according to Powell, is the Millenium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency started in 2004 under President Bush. Javier Solana reiterated the importance of institution building, calling it the “new headline by which development aid should be given.” He voiced some caution, however, explaining that aid recipients must be sure the donor is there to construct the recipient country’s institution, not simply a version of the donor country’s institution located abroad. Powell also underscored the relationship between strong education and economic development, noting that currently “one of the great deficiencies is in educating young people for the 21st century economy.”

Regional Integration

Building off the discussion of trade and economic assistance, Dunne asked whether prospects for regional economic integration have improved following the uprisings. Neither Solana nor Powell was particularly optimistic about integration progressing, though they agreed that it would be greatly beneficial. Solana commented that “it’s hard to understand why south-south trade doesn’t happen,” referring to trade amongst North African countries. Reflecting on some of the biggest challenges on this front, Solana listed the closure of the Morocco-Algerian border as well as Egypt’s economic structure not being sufficiently open. He argued it is difficult to have meaningful Mediterranean development without better economic integration. Powell added that these countries should drop their barriers and reach out to one another in order to create the proper environment for regional trade. The speakers agreed that the international community should take a role in this process, Solana saying “the IMF and others must be engaged” and Powell remarking that “we have to be there with them – it would be disastrous given the last year if we let democratic nations like these slip away.”

The Syria Question

Turning to the conflict in Syria, Powell and Solana agreed on the difficulty of coming up with a solution, Solana calling it “a messy situation,” and Powell referring to Syria as “more complicated than Libya or any of the others.”

For Solana, two factors in particular were complicating the process of international agreement on solving Syria. The first was its timing after the Libya conflict. He pointed out that China and Russia were left feeling that the West “overdid it” in Libya after intervening, and are thus unwilling to cooperate again, particularly given Russia’s strategic interests in Syria. Secondly, Solana pointed out that the conflict is colored by the ongoing work of the P5+1 – Germany, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and their negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. “If we continue with the Syria situation,” Solana explained, “it weakens the ability of P5 to deal with Iran.” Powell added that “Russia and China will not change their mind on this.” Powell was also skeptical of the proposed solutions, arguing it is not clear that arming rebels and imposing a no-fly zone would do anything other than exacerbate the conflict. Offering a touch of optimism, the former Secretary of State said we should “hope for the point of fatigue” to be reached, so we “can then find a peaceful resolution.”