In his final book titled “Strategic Vision,” the late Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested that the analyst of international affairs should view international problems as falling within “concentric circles.” These concentric circles stretch from a core all the way out to a periphery. Starting from the periphery are international problems like the competition between the United States and China for global preeminence. Between the periphery and the core are regional conflicts like the China and Japan dispute, as well as the Pakistan-India conflict that rears its ugly head quite often and continuously manifests within local conflicts like the Afghan conflict. Resolving the Afghan conflict would most likely require mediation between Pakistan and India and the inclusion of Pakistan into a regional cooperation scheme between South and Central Asia. As long as there are tensions between Pakistan and India, the conflict in Afghanistan will most likely remain unresolved.
At the core of the world’s problems, however, is the Middle East and the tensions between Jews and Muslims stemming from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and the creation of nation-states in the Middle East by European powers. As mentioned in previous essays, states in general are born out of war. When a state is created, its foundation is based on an identity that is exclusive and ousts others who do not share that particular identity. Clashes of identity lead to the creation of states based on identity, and in turn the creation of states lead to the perpetuation of war in the international system. Europe caught on to the main cause of war, namely the issue of identity, and sought to foster a Pan-European identity after World War II through a regionalization scheme that was based on the life and activities of Erasmus. In a deeper sense, the solution rests in undoing much of the psychological damage humans have wrought upon themselves over decades and centuries.
Ideally, if Middle Eastern leaders were to put aside religious differences for the good of the many and foster a regionalization scheme in the Middle East similar to the one that exists in Europe, the Middle East as a result would overcome a number of social, economic, and political dilemmas that pervade all nationalities and societies in the Middle East. The number of problems plaguing the Middle East are becoming insurmountable, which are problems stemming from basic human security to water security and even nuclear weapons, not to mention the psychological and social problems such as lack of education, extremism, and poverty that underlie the bigger issues mentioned before.
As Hannah Arendt once wrote, if people’s needs are met, there is no need for politics. Moreover, the state system is foreign to a region of the world like the Middle East, which throughout its history was ruled by one empire after another. Under the rule of these empires, ethnic and religious groups were mixed and dispersed throughout the region, and they tended to co-exist peacefully for centuries. For example, many Jews still appreciate Saladin al-Ayobi’s efforts in liberating both Jews and Muslims from the occupation of the Holy Land by European Crusaders in the Middle Ages; thus, there is a shared history between Jews and Muslims that only leaders can recount and present to both communities.
War became commonplace in the Middle East only after the imposition of a state system based on national and religious identity in the Middle East by Europeans in the 20th century. The nation-state is a European idea borne out of European wars, not a Middle Eastern idea. For one, the intellectual father of the Jewish state, Theodore Herzl, was European, not an Israeli in the historical sense of the term. One can argue that Herzl was the Jewish equivalent to Jinnah in Pakistan, who was also a British citizen and came from an intellectual milieu that was totally different than that of traditional South Asian figures. Moreover, the Jewish experience is something more expansive and profound than an identity based on a state. There are American Jews, European Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, and even Afghan and Central Asian Jews who have more in common with cultures outside of Israel than with Israeli culture per se. Israel, Persia, Turkey, and Arabia were once empires that were ruled by Kings, Prophets, and Sultans who are familiar to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.
Regionalization would minimize both the importance of the European nation-state as well as the salience of the recurring issues of the Jewish-Arab dispute such as borders, security, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. Perhaps a regionalization scheme would also address the most existential issue facing the Middle East, namely water scarcity, which can only be addressed through regionalization and the funneling of underground sources of water from the Arabian Peninsula into places like the Levant and Yemen where there is an increasing need for water in order to keep these places habitable for human beings in the long run. All religious groups should have equal rights in a Middle Eastern regionalization scheme. After all, it was the Prophet Muhammad who ordained that the “Dhimmi” system be abandoned for the sake of brotherhood and equality between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle East.
Through pinpointing the core problems and critical areas of the world and then zooming out into peripheral issues, one begins to establish a criterion for dealing with the world’s problems and then one can set a number of objectives that ought to be accomplished for the betterment of humanity and the establishment of order and stability on a global scale. Henry Kissinger, in his last book titled “World Order,” sets out a vision that he called “The Promised Land of Politics” which he hopes can be attained by statesmen and common folks alike:
- The end of hostilities with Russia
- Re-definition of the Atlantic Alliance
- Partnership with China
- Middle East Peace (Including Afghanistan)
- Beginning of Russia’s reintegration into the international order, primarily through its inclusion into the European economic community
Kissinger believes the “promised land of politics” is attainable if statesmen were to abandon what he called “old diplomacy” that is aimed at hegemony in favor of a new form of diplomacy based on universal principles such as equilibrium and global order. The loss of a vision based on a meaning and purpose for international politics and relations stems from a loss of leadership on the part of the United States, which is a nation that was supposed to be the anchor of global stability since the end of World War II. Neoconservatives in the early 21st century managed to lure both George W. Bush and Barack Obama into a policy of hegemony and out of a policy of equilibrium.
This policy of hegemony led the United States into a number of foreign policy blunders, such as the war in Iraq as well as the cancelling of a peace deal that was set to take place between Israel and Syria in 2010. The issue of Afghanistan was also managed haphazardly. But at a time when many Americans are fatigued by heavy-handed involvements around the world, it is still important for Americans to be cognizant of the need to remain somewhat engaged with the world. Pulling America out of the world completely after decades of American support for the establishment of global order could lead to global chaos that would inevitably have negative externalities for the American people.
Both Jews and Muslims that I have spoken to with immense life experience and wisdom have told me that a leader is necessary to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims and bring both groups together in a spirit of cooperation and peace. Since Kissinger, there is virtually no one on the American side who is able to win the hearts and minds of both Jews and Muslims alike. As a result, American clout is diminishing in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that were initially created by Americans and were a major tool of American influence globally, and these IGOs are slowly beginning to tilt in China’s favor as in the recent case of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Much of the world is losing faith in America also as a result of the acknowledgement that America has more of an interest in keeping Asia weak and hindering economic and human development there in order to tilt the balance of power against China due to the zero-sum thought paradigm that is prevalent in international relations. The rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, imperialistic behavior, and the totalitarian nature of governance that arises from imperialistic behavior will ultimately result in America acting in accordance with Arendt’s chronology of the rise and fall of societies outlined in her famous book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”
However much the United States disdains China, eventually the United States will have to find areas of mutual interest and cooperation with China in order to solve trans-national problems that affect both countries. When I met the late Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2015 at an event in American University, I asked him about how the United States would be able to rollback Russian influence in the Middle East and break Russia’s connection with Iran. His answer was that the United States must get China more involved in the Middle East through a joint venture. We both acknowledged that Iran’s influence in the Middle East has been more harmful than good, and unfortunately Iran’s influence has only grown since America’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Ultimately, Iran will have to be talked out of the messianic dimension of its ideology through diplomatic engagement if the goal is the cultivation of peace between Iran and its Middle Eastern neighbors, and the Iranian state should understand that the messianic figure who they believe is purported to have the capability to precipitate the return of Jesus Christ in the Islamic tradition is actually a cosmopolitan figure who will build bridges between different religious communities and will usher in a period of prolonged peace in an otherwise turbulent Middle East.
The Islamic tradition does not purport this messianic figure to be an apocalyptic figure who will bring forth the end of the world. Rather, he is an individual who will cultivate peace and mutual understanding between people from different nationalities and religions. Descriptions of this figure can be found in the writings of Abdul Karim al-Jili, a Shia mystic during the Islamic empire’s heyday who was a disciple of Abdul Qadir al-Jilani and is known to have systematized the teachings of the famous Islamic mystic Ibn Arabi which are based on the interconnection and interdependence of humanity.
Convincing the Iranians to drop the messianic dimension of their ideology will require an all-encompassing dialogue between the West, Israel, and Iran, mediated by authoritative religious figures from a wide range of communities. Also, any new deal with Iran should be contingent upon Iran’s cessation of support for non-state terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. In Syria, major powers should encourage Bashar al-Assad to step down and allow the multitude of Syrian ethnic and religious groups to form an all-inclusive government wherein all groups are fairly represented.
At this point, Assad is a symbol of a bloody and turbulent past based on secular philosophical underpinnings in a region of the world where there is a steady rise in religious sentiment, and for Syrians to start fresh it would be necessary for a new face to assume leadership of the country. As far as Iraq is concerned, it is now very much within Iran’s sphere of influence as it was many centuries ago during the era of Persian empires due to American blunders there. The goal now should be mediation between Israel and Iran and to treat the Israeli-Palestinian issue as one that is somewhat contingent upon an Israeli-Iranian peace agreement.
Finally, there is the issue of the never-ending feud between the United States and Russia. Much of the tension between the two major powers stem from recent events such as the installation of the infamous crime boss Petro Poroshenko in Kiev by the United States in 2014 that resulted in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. America’s involvement in Georgia, a largely insignificant Central Asian state when it comes to American strategic calculations, is also a major provocation of Russia. These actions are the equivalent of China or Russia supporting anti-American terrorist groups along the U.S.-Mexican or Canadian border or even separatist movements and anti-federal militias within the United States.
Russia’s historic connection with Europe is very much obscured by recent events, given the fact that Russia was once a major part of the historic “Concert of Europe” that emerged after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, only to be disrupted by World War I and the ensuing Bolshevik Revolution that took place in Russia in 1917. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, there was an opportunity to bring Russia back into the historic “Concert of Europe” and re-establish Russia’s historic ties with Europe.
But as mentioned in previous essays, there are psychological factors on the part of the United States that impede the attainment of this this particular goal. Some would argue that racism and xenophobia are driving America’s policy of hegemony. Bertrand Russell once shed light on the Anglo-American mind by stating that Russians were uncivilized brutes and the Chinese were godless materialists.
In a recent book titled “Has China Won?” the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani explains that there are perhaps subconscious factors in the Western mind that trigger fear of what can be called a “Yellow Peril” and the expansion of Chinese and Russian power which are largely unfounded. There is also the fact that a number of people in the foreign policy apparatus have a chip on their shoulder due to life experiences or an inferiority complex that they are seeking to overcome. However, I would argue that most people in the foreign policy apparatus are driven by factors that fit into an acronym known as “MICE” – money, ideology, compromise in the sense that one will join forces with unsavory characters in order to exact revenge on an adversary, and ego.
Traditionally, these have been the primary psychological factors driving individuals towards hegemony and power. But hegemony is an illusion, and power is transitory. With this realization, a more constructive approach towards international relations, the promised land of politics, and the establishment of global order are within sight. The question is, who will take us there?