lundi 21 février 2011

Our Berlin wall moment

I spent hours trying to figure out which subject should have the supreme honor of being covered in my very first blog post. It should be complex without being obscure; accessible without being simplistic; smart without sounding douchy and pretentious. Man, blogging is way harder than people make it look.

My dad told me that our generation is going through it's own "Berlin wall" moment. At first I found the comparison a little far fetched but after giving the matter some thought, I found 3 interesting parallels between the downfall of the USSR and current events.

1: Caught by surprise. Back in the 1980s, few people saw the collapse of the USSR coming. Sure, post facto analysis rationalized the phenomenon, as it surely will with the current Arab revolutions, and we are now all taught in history class that the Soviet collapse was the logical culmination of a succession of events that started with the invasion of Afghanistan. But with hindsight, rationalization is an easy exercise. The truth is that the mighty empire's fall caught people by surprise. For governments and political scientists, the Soviet Empire was an immutable reality and was there to stay. As it was back then, it is today. Who would have thought as 2011 started that the geopolitical scene in the Middle East, Maghreb and Machrek (Ps: I am always horrified by how often journalists and scholars regroup these 3 regions and 3 completely different realities under the name "middle east") would be forever changed by the ousting of some of the world's most powerful dictators. In less than 3 months, the winds of change swept away some of the planet's most well-entrenched autocrats. To say that we were caught with our pants down is a lovely euphemism. As the surprise passes, it will leave place to the usual finger pointing and rationalization exercise that inevitably ensues when such events occur. (Good article on that here). In the end, our children may learn that the collapse of Arab dictators fits neatly into a coherent timeline of events but the truth is that we are like deers in the headlights right now and no amount of post-facto analysis can erase that reality.

2- Uncertainty about the future. People of my generation (ie: those for whom the Soviet Union has never been more than a historical curiosity and the subject of history exams) tend to forget the climate of uncertainty that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union. What would come next? Would the satellite states regain their independence? Will civil war break out? Would the Communist Party keep a tight grip on power or will a free-for-all liberalization process ensue? Who would step in and rebuild these devastated countries? What would a post-communist Russia look like? It seems to me that we are now getting a taste of that uncertainty. We know what we are leaving but the road ahead is foggy. For decades, corrupt autocrats such as Bin Ali and Mubarak (as I write these lines Kadhafi clings to power but it looks increasingly likely that he, his colorful tents and gaudy tunics will be sent packing) ruled their country with an iron fist, controling every aspect of economic, administrative and social life and leaving little place to other organized groups. The post-autocratic societies in these countries are fragmented, chaotic and lacking in structure. What's more, the revolutions' vectors and catalyzers are more powerful than anything we have seen before, adding to the uncertainty. However hard we try to predict, nobody can really know what will come out of all this. There a numerous questions still waiting for an answer. Will there be a peaceful transition towards liberal democracy or will it be 1979 2.0 (I don't really believe in that scenario but we can't rule it out)? What about the new regimes' attitudes towards Iran and Israel (amongst others)? How many countries will follow the example set by Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Algerians, Iranians and Bahrainis ? (even China is experiencing unrest now). We are on standby, waiting to see how things unfold. The unease of diplomats the world over is almost palpable. Nobody knows how to act anymore and fears finding himself on the wrong side of history when the dust settles.

3- America should stay out of it. George H Bush is one of the most underrated US president in history and America could use a man like him right now. During his only term in office, Bush 1 was lambasted for being to timid and not doing enough to promote American interests abroad. But it was precisely this cautiousness and capacity to know when to keep silent and let events unfold that made his success. During the crumbling of the Soviet Empire, he resisted the temptation to aggressively influence the course of events and, as he put it, "dance on the ruins of the Soviet Empire". He and his secretary of state James Baker understood that the transition was an European issue and let Europe take the helm while quietly promoting their agenda in the background. The result was what historian Nial Fergusson calls a "soft landing" and an Eastern Europe that is today relatively stable, globally democratic and staunchly pro-american. Granted, the similarities between the collapse of the Soviet Empire, an event that marked the triumph of US policy and ideology, and the downfall of Arab dictators, that marks quite the opposite, only go so far. But the temptation to meddle in interior affairs, especially in Egypt and Bahrain, is as strong, if not stronger now. All over Washington people are calling for the state department to make sure that Egyptians elect the right people (ie: not the Muslim Brotherhood) and "use democracy responsibly". But what America should really do is shut up and keep its head down.

So it turns out that my old man's comparison was not all that far-fetched after all. Obviously, one can probably find much more differences than similarities between the fall of the Soviet Empire and the ousting of Mubarak and Co. But still, history has a fascinating way of repeating itself and people looking for a way to manage the current crisis might want to look back for some valuable insights.

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