Theme: Divergent policies and threat perceptions in the US and the EU concerning the Muslim world, as well as differences in strategic culture and historical experience, make transatlantic cooperation less relevant than is required by current challenges.Summary: Radicalisation processes affecting Muslim individuals and groups are inevitably related to the political and economic situation in the Middle East. This makes them, to a large extent, reversible. Islamism is becoming an ideology of resistance in different parts of the world. The more the focus is placed on religion rather than politics to explain Middle Easterners’ discontent with authoritarian rule and Western foreign policies, the more democracies run the risk of validating the discourse of Islamist radical ideologues in the sense that it is religion that separates us from them. The US and the EU have many similar strategic interests in the Middle East and North Africa. However, differences in strategic culture and historical experiences still continue to affect transatlantic perceptions, priorities and approaches towards the region.
Analysis: Since the beginning of the current decade, international relations and domestic politics in North America and Europe have been marked by a growing threat perception linked to the radicalisation of Muslim individuals and groups world-wide. Although 9/11 was a turning point, the ‘clash of perceptions’ had been building up for decades between people belonging to Western and Muslim cultures, but also among those of the same cultural background.
Radicalisation processes are inevitably related to the political and economic situation in the Middle East. This makes them, to a large extent, reversible. Factors such as the persistent climate of conflict, the absence of prospects for a lasting peace, the accumulated frustration and rage caused by the population’s unmet expectations, the continuation of authoritarian rule and the foreign policies of Western powers are used by radical ideologues to feed a solid narrative of exclusion and confrontation. The little interest shown by authoritarian regimes –including Arab ‘moderates’– in promoting critical thinking and the respect for diversity has solidified the radical narrative by which the West is responsible for all that is wrong with the region.
Over the past four years, the Middle East has been suffering a constant deterioration in regional security and stability, as well as in the domestic conditions of the various countries. Tension is growing rapidly and the region may well be approaching an explosive summer. The effects of such a climate are felt beyond the region. Events in the Middle East are connected to the radicalisation of Muslim individuals and groups in other parts of the world, including Western countries. Projections do not give many reasons for optimism. Demographic imbalances, unemployment and underemployment, authoritarian rule, ethno-sectarian power struggles, absence of peace and radicalisation processes will continue to shape the region in the predictable future.
Why Does the Muslim World Need to be Engaged?
Religion is gaining a prominent role in international politics. However, by itself, the religious dimension cannot explain the origins of the ongoing ‘clash of perceptions’. By insisting on the ‘Islamic’ character of current Middle Easterners’ discontent with authoritarian rule and Western foreign policies, aren’t we validating the discourse of Islamist radical ideologues in the sense that it is religion that separates us from them? Don’t we run the risk of giving ideological fuel to all the Bin Ladens of the world who would like to be seen as spokespeople for the entire Islamic Ummah? By placing religion at the centre of the debate, what prospects are left for those who do not want to live in a theocracy? At a time when Islamism is becoming an ideology of resistance, the more the focus is placed on religion rather than politics the more we risk adding to the frustrations that strengthen the radicals’ world-view.
Engagement needs at least two parties. Who should the interlocutors be to have an effective engagement? Is there such a thing as a Muslim public opinion, or for that matter a Western one? What is needed to improve mutual perceptions? What can make radicalisation a reversible process? Is public diplomacy a sufficient tool to offset the adverse impact of certain policies?
Anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism in the Middle East are directly linked to what many feel are harmful direct or indirect consequences of US and Western policies in the region. Although some of this anti-Americanism is structural, to a large extent the sentiment is reversible. Admiration of the West for its democracy, technology, science and culture exists in Middle Eastern societies. However, admiration has been rapidly diminishing in recent years. Attitudes towards the US have become increasingly negative, not only among people in the Middle East but also in different parts of the world, including other Western countries. It is no secret that, under the current Administration, the US is viewed by many world-wide as provoking more conflict than it prevents.
Rather than asking ‘how to engage the Muslim world’, it might be better to look for ways to restore the trust between and within nations. Given that the origins of many conflicts are political in nature, solutions should also be political. Any effort in that direction will greatly benefit from sincere transatlantic cooperation. However, for that to happen there is a need for a gradual convergence of approaches towards common challenges emanating from the Middle East. Such a process does not seem to be taking place at the moment.
The EU and the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean is a sum of almost all the major issues with which the international community is currently faced. There is a broad spectrum of concerns, ranging from stability, development, energy security and democratisation to international migrations, terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and environmental protection. Despite having launched different initiatives for the Middle East and North Africa, the EU has been extremely timid in promoting democracy in its southern neighbourhood, favouring a cautious, long-term approach while trying to preserve short-term stability.
When the EU established the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (or Barcelona Process) in 1995, the stated objective was to create a ‘zone of peace, stability and security in the Mediterranean’. The Partnership was forged across a comprehensive range of economic, social, cultural, political and security issues. The process has yielded some positive –although limited– results, mainly due to changes in the regional strategic context. After more than a decade of partnership, the gap in per capita income across the Mediterranean has grown larger, as has the array of challenges facing the region. Many in the Arab world feel that EU initiatives are driven mainly by security concerns, including the fear of migration from the south.
Proliferation of Initiatives
Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of initiatives aimed at addressing the sources of discontent that can destabilise the Middle East. At the European official level, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership is the most consolidated foreign policy tool for the region. The extension of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which purports to foster a ‘ring of friends’ on the EU’s new periphery, to southern Mediterranean countries has created some confusion about how this policy framework relates to the Barcelona Process. Official EU doctrine states that they reinforce each other. The Neighbourhood Policy is based on the principle of pursuing deeper cooperation with those countries that show more willingness to move forward with key reforms, thus creating a competitive dynamic between those who want to receive more European assistance and resources.
Some countries have launched their own political initiatives vis-à-vis the Mediterranean and the Middle East. For example, the newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced during his presidential campaign that he would work for the creation of a ‘Mediterranean Union’, following the example of the EU, which would include eight southern European countries, as well as southern and eastern Mediterranean countries. Talks are underway with officials of all candidate countries. It is yet to be seen how this project will translate into concrete actions and whether it is compatible with those already in existence.
Also at the political and security level, there are sub-regional initiatives such as the ‘5+5 Dialogue’ (which includes the five Maghrebi countries and five southern European countries –France, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain–). The 5+5 setting has been revitalised since 2001 and serves to plan strategies at a sub-regional level, targeting the Maghreb countries, and as a socialisation process in which new ideas are tested with chosen partners in an informal environment.
The Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures was created in Alexandria in 2005 as the first common institution jointly established and financed by all 35 members of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Different European initiatives have focused during the past few years on cultural dialogue, both with the Arab/Muslim world and with Muslim immigrant communities at home. There is a wide variety of settings and philosophies behind those efforts and a considerable number of reports on the need for more cultural dialogue have been issued. So far, the initiatives have been fragmentary and have not yet had any discernible impact on the ground.
One of the initiatives that has received more support is the ‘Alliance of Civilisations’, which is co-sponsored by Spain and Turkey under the auspices of the United Nations. The Alliance ‘seeks to forge collective political will and to mobilise concerted action at the institutional and civil society levels to overcome the prejudice, misperceptions and polarisation that militate against such a consensus’. For sure, well-intentioned initiatives on the dialogue between cultures and civilisations are needed, but they will continue to be insufficient to produce any palpable change as long as political conditions remain the same.
Is Transatlantic Cooperation vis-à-vis the Middle East Possible, or Even Desirable?
Arguably, the Middle East is the Achilles heel of transatlantic relations. Divergent threat perceptions and policies, as well as differences in strategic culture and historical narratives, make US-EU cooperation on the Middle East less relevant than is required by current circumstances.
The US and the EU have similar strategic interests in the Mediterranean region related to regional stability, the secure flow of oil, political and economic reform, and fighting transnational terrorism and WMD proliferation. The EU has some additional strategic interests in its southern neighbourhood, such as combating illegal immigration, fighting against drug trafficking and tackling environmental challenges.
Big projects presented by the US Administration a few years ago to reform the Greater Middle East have been short lived. On the contrary, the EU has already built up an acquis in this area that should maintain its own specificities, to avoid possible confusion in targeted countries concerning the aims and means of each initiative. The EU is currently in a position to encourage Arab countries to reaffirm their commitment to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership principles, which are viewed by many as less interventionist and more respectful of national sovereignty than the policies of the current Bush Administration.
The way in which the ‘global war on terrorism’ has been conducted so far has not helped bring the US and the EU closer regarding the Middle East, certainly not in the eyes of the European public. It is possible that the polarising effects of the GWOT and the disastrous Iraqi adventure can be overcome with the change in leadership over the past –and the coming– year and a half in Germany, France, the UK and the US. However, as mentioned above, differences in strategic culture and historical experiences will continue to affect transatlantic perceptions, priorities and approaches towards the Middle East.
The fact is that, despite exiting differences, European and American democracy-promotion policies tend to display similar shortcomings. Neither the EU nor the US are ready to sanction democratic transitions that might have unpredictable results, nor to accept the outcomes of transparent elections where the winners are not their favoured candidates. Resources devoted to Middle Eastern political reform are quite insufficient considering the seriousness of the challenges facing them. At best, one can initially hope for a greater degree of transatlantic coordination in these fields, before full-fledged cooperation comes into being. One key advantage of transatlantic cooperation is that it would make it more difficult for Middle Eastern regimes to play off the US and the EU against each other.
It is the Foreign Policy…
While the US continues to conduct its foreign policy in a way that is perceived as relatively unilateral and too dependent on the stick rather than the carrot by many in Europe, it is reasonable to ask why the EU would want to associate itself with American plans.
Violations of human rights and international law in Iraq and Guantánamo, and the tacit approval of Israel’s heavy-handed policies against the Palestinian and Lebanese populations are fostering a perception –not only among Islamists– that the US is engaged in a war against Islam, despite official pronouncements to the contrary. For many in the Muslim world, the double standards they see applied by Western policy makers and media coverage reinforce their hostility. A way to break this vicious cycle is to translate the liberties, rule of law and democratic discourse into actions, and at the same time to demand that Middle Eastern regimes honour their international commitments and their obligations towards their peoples. That is, aligning principles with interests.
Is it reasonable to expect that the ongoing ‘clash of perceptions’ can fade away without the US changing its policy in the Middle East, without the EU defining a common foreign policy and showing political will, and without authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes allowing real political liberalisation? At this stage, what is required is not only cultural dialogue, but rather a real paradigm shift that would make it possible to forge common strategic approaches towards and within the region.
Conclusion: A number of forces supporting transatlantic convergence can be used to build cooperative ventures in the future. Engagement in credible peace efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front and in brokering a peace deal between Syria and Israel would have a positive impact on the regional environment. Pacifying Iraq in cooperation with its neighbouring countries would create new dynamics and enhance effective multilateralism. It is hard to imagine the next US Administration as less involved in pursuing peace in the Middle East than the current one. This could provide an opportunity for renewed transatlantic efforts in the search for peace and the promotion of democracy, with the aim of easing the human development crisis in the region.
The ultimate goal of any authoritarian regime is to perpetuate itself in power, almost at any expense. What is badly needed in the Middle East is to expand the economic, educational and political opportunities for its peoples. Rather than ‘engaging Muslims’, transatlantic cooperation should be aimed at expanding such opportunities. If unable or unwilling to do so, a good start would be to stop creating conditions in which radical ideas emerge and thrive.
Senior Analyst, Mediterranean and the Arab World, Elcano Royal Institute
 This text was presented as discussion paper in the panel entitled ‘How to Engage the Muslim World?,’ at the Fifth Annual Think Tank Symposium organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Washington DC, 18 June 2007.