The world was already in flux before the wave of citizen revolts in the Middle East. The Globe and Mail asked five geopolitical thinkers whose recent books are nominated for this year's Gelber Prize two big questions about the shape of things to come:
1) How will unrest in the Middle East reshape the region's relations with the West in the coming decade?
2) Who (or what) will be the most influential figure/idea/technology in global affairs in the coming decade?
Yalta: The Price of Peace
1. Whenever something of the magnitude of the Egyptian and Libyan events takes place, one tends to seek parallels with the past and lessons for the future.
The previous American administration's promotion of democracy in the Middle East helped launch a popular uprising that not only overthrew a dictatorial regime but also potentially threatens Western strategic interests there.
This brings to mind president Jimmy Carter's promotion of human rights throughout the world in the late 1970s. At that time, U.S. policy undermined the legitimacy of dictatorial regimes in general and helped bring to power not only the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but also the current rulers of Iran.
Hosni Mubarak was not the first dictator with whom the West has had to deal to achieve its geostrategic objectives. The most notorious of them was Joseph Stalin, whose courtship by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill I discuss in my book on the Yalta Conference.
Sooner or later, dictators fall, and the West gets an opportunity for a new start with nations freed from tyranny. The Western powers rose to the occasion after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I hope they will also be up to the task in the Middle East.
2. The events in Egypt became known as a "Twitter revolution." All over the Middle East, new technology is helping to empower a new generation of political activists and to topple dictatorial regimes.
At such moments, it becomes easy to assume that information technology will change the very essence of world politics. But any student of international relations knows that they are still rooted in the principles set forth by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, written in the fifth century BC.
Are we then on the verge of going "back to the future"? While the Cold War was fought in a bipolar world, what followed was a unipolar world challenged by international networks like al-Qaeda. The new decade will see the rise of multipolar politics. With China, India, Brazil and possibly Russia on the rise, the world will again become multipolar, as it was for most of its history prior to the Yalta Conference.
The challenge will be the same as it was then: how to avoid war (conventional, nuclear or cyber) and make the new regional powers respect the rights of their citizens and smaller nations in their neighbourhood.
Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
1. Public protests in the Middle East have taken on a life of their own after Egypt's success in removing president Hosni Mubarak and his government. As uprisings continue and violence escalates, there is always the threat of intervention by Western democracies. Yet, based on the experience in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, would they be willing to risk all-out war? Or will they maintain neutrality, in hopes of renegotiating oil contracts with the winning side? Or will business diplomacy trump political diplomacy? There are too many questions and too few certainties.
Western support of Arab regimes was always driven by the need for oil and required a blind eye to abuses of power. Today, there are added complications, namely the uncertain role of Islamic fundamentalism in any newly formed government. Aside from posing a dilemma for Christian leaders, the age-old religious conflict could influence negotiation of future oil contracts.
In North America, there will likely be renewed efforts to reduce dependency on the Arab countries by increasing tar-sands production and offshore oil wells. Some governments may adopt other means to isolate their countries from the social and political unrest. In the interim, relations between the West and Middle East are in limbo and likely will be for some time.