By Jamie O’Connell, Senior Fellow, Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law
“Common Interests, Closer Allies” analyzes the impact of democratic change in Arab countries on the national interests of Western countries, including the United States. It synthesizes empirical social science, social science theory, and policy analysis. Its key conclusions are:
Democratic change in Arab countries would advance Western countries’ key interests in the region, as well as their ideals. Western governments should consider it an important foreign policy goal.
- Democracy would have a stabilizing impact inside Arab countries, reducing the risk of civil war and internal terrorism, at least in the long run and quite possibly in the short run. (See Part III.A, pp. 357-365.) The stability that serves Western interests does not require citizens to be politically passive. To the contrary, democratic political activity, including non-violent protest, promotes government responsiveness and accountability. The absence of such responsiveness and accountability have been primary causes of popular discontent and instability.
- Militarized interstate conflict – such as war or the threat of force – would likely diminish over the long run as more Arab states became democratic. (See Part III.B, pp. 366-375, including original data analysis on incidence of militarized interstate conflict involving Arab countries.)
- Terrorist attacks that originated in Arab countries and targeted Western interests would be likely to decline if Arab countries became solid democracies. (See Part III.C, pp. 375-379.)
- In the long run, Arab citizens are likely to be better partners with Western countries than Arab dictators have been, if Western countries treat them as such. Thus Arab democracies’ foreign policies ultimately are likely to align better with Western countries’ fundamental interests in the region than Arab dictators’ foreign policies have. There is likely to be some divergence in the short term, however, and Western policymakers will have to overcome ordinary Arabs’ understandable skepticism about their intentions. Their first step must be to transform their attitudes and adjust their policies to demonstrate greater respect for Arab citizens and their priorities. (See Part IV.D, pp. 380-386.)
Western countries should not withhold support for democratization out of concern that elected Islamists will use state power to harshly oppress women and minorities. Substantial forces may inhibit Islamists from trying to do so, or from succeeding if they try. Furthermore, the alternative to supporting democratization would be counterproductive: continued or renewed autocracy is likely to strengthen Islamists’ support over the long run. Western countries should engage major Islamist groups, before as well as after they gain power. (See Part IV, pp. 386-398.)
Democratization processes will unfold unpredictably and may take many years (even decades). Those processes, their timing, and their short-term impacts on Western interests will vary by country.
President Obama’s apparent personal instincts about U.S. policy toward Arab democratization are correct: the United States and other Western countries should support Arab democratization, but carefully and with sensitivity to context. Western countries’ power is limited and they cannot be the primary drivers of change. Their efforts to shape events must be guided by subtle analysis of local power dynamics and of how their influence functions in each national context. (See Part V, pp. 398-404.)
Stanford Journal of International Law, July 2012
Available at http://www.law.berkeley.edu/arabdemocracy