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Geopolitics of Energy: The Hydrocarbon Status Quo and Euro-Asian Imperatives. What really Springs in the Arab world?

world map.jpgVIENNA, February 11, 2012 - The months long reporting on the unrest in the Arab world misses one important point: each and every country engulfed by the popular revolt is a republic, while monarchies (situated predominantly on the Arabian Peninsula, GCC) remain largely intact.

(All what looks now as over-determined was not necessarily pre-determined in its beginnings...)

Freedom, Democracy, Sovereignty, Integrity – the Arab ‘Spring’, London ‘Summer’ and Wall Street ‘Autumn’  

The difference between countries like Libya or Tunisia and entities such as Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. is not only geographic – it is fundamental. The first are formal democracies of a republican type, originally promoting a secular (and egalitarian) pan-Arabism. The latter are real autocracies of the hereditary monarchy type, closer to the rightist Islamic than pan-Arabic ideology.

Ever since independence, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have kept democratic election process and the institutional setup of executive, judicial and legislative branch – in formal sense. However, in reality these nations have often been run by the alienated power structures of over-dominant party leaders (so-called ‘guardians of revolution’, or some other ‘father of the nation’ designation). Authoritarian monarchies have been, and still are, ruled by direct royal decree without even formally electable democratic institutions.


Modern political history analyses provide us with a powerful reminder that the most exposed and most vulnerable states are countries transitioning from a formal to a real democracy.  


Despotic, absolutist regimes are fast, brutal and decisive in suppressing popular revolt. Some of them have been even declining over decades to observe the fundamental Charter on Human Rights. After all, the source of their legitimacy is an omnipresent and omnipotent apparatus of coercion (police, royal guard, army), not a democratically contested popular support in the multiparty scenery, that is represented in the civil state organs.


Real democracies with well-consolidated institutions, civil society and matured political culture of electorate enjoy larger system legitimacy. They are electable and able to channel any popular grievances into the mainstream political process. Democratic institutions with a large participation base also increase the transparency of particular political decisions, and are capacitated to place necessary constraints on any eventual alienation of the executive branch (be it its armed organs or financial segment).


Notably, the consolidated real democracies can translate mass protests from a street event into a democratic, participatory, institutionalized process of socio-economic compromise and political reform – for the lasting benefit of all societal segments and an acceptable, enduring outcome for most, if not all, stakeholders.


An authoritarian regime will brutally crack any protest and deploy army and police without any hesitation, as to preserve the status quo (e.g. Bahrain). Even if the street prevails over the regime’s forces, transformation will be a personal, not a structural change, and often only when the armed forces (or other alienated structures) themselves decide to tilt their support and back another frontrunner.


For the fragile systems that are transitioning from formal to real democracies with developing,  but still weak institutions and evolving political culture, the street revolts are posing a  particularly tedious challenge. Neither can they turn the street events into a viable institutional process, nor can they brutally suppress the popular revolt. This neither-nor afloat situation is exactly what we are now witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia.


Along the barricades, opposing protesters (organized or spontaneous) are inexperienced as well: Freedom is more complex than the Facebook feed-news and Aljazeera may tell. The essence of freedom is greater than free choice; it is actually to hold full responsibility for the choice made. Taking arms and blocking key city avenues for months is neither an expression of freedom nor of democratic choice – it is an autarkic anarchy, deprived from any responsibility. Making a choice without consequence is anarchy. By the same token, democracy is more than a lame slogan from the social network site, which lately inspired and mobilized the street protesters; it is not a one-time ‘cool’ flashmob socializing event. (After all, FB is just a communication tool, not a replacement for critical independent thinking.)


Democracy is both: the procedure and the content . It is a fine-calibrated social contract that ties all horizontal and vertical segments of society. This is a truly comprehensive and sustainable way to conceive its past, live the presence and pursuit the future of a nation.


Many protesters sweeping the streets of Arab cities, or cities elsewhere are often mixing anarchy with freedom. The end game fleshes a painful, paradoxical lesson: there is no democracy at the expense of the sovereign integrity of the state. Fractured social cohesion does not build up the nation. In short, the overheated spring ends up in a cold long winter for many in the Arab world.


The present borders of Arabic states are the legacy of colonial interference – a feature evident in the SEA, Indian sub-continent and other parts of Asia too. The Arab world is still absorbing the shock of the loss of its universalistic world. Notably, living in more than one state is a historical novelty for the Arabs, and the intellectual elite of the Arabic world remained divided for decades on the question of which size, ideological and socio-political content as well as the socio-economic role, the state should be in the Arab civilization. To make the trouble worse, there are two additional factors currently undermining the Arab state: One is a neo-liberal dogma, which generally preaches an end to étatism and a free liberated, borderless corporate world. The second – locally very important – is the so-called revolutionary appeal. The aggressive Wahhabism-powered Al-Qaida, identical to the early Bolsheviks, treats a state as a revolutionary cause, not as a geopolitical and geo-economic reality. Nowadays, fewer and fewer forces are supporting the Arab (republican) state, internally and externally.


Libya is losing its territorial integrity, Egypt is losing its economic sovereignty, Syria and Yemen, fracturing their cohesion, are each on a dangerous collision course to lose both, and Tunisia is unapt to translate the wishes of the street into badly needed political reform.


One of the most evident side effects of nation building (especially in early, constituting years of nationhood) is the eventual alienation of the despotic or/and omnipotent heads of states. Legacies are always mixed, and public opinion is per definition emotional when reflecting upon these past leaders. In the aftermath of these regimes, unselective condemnation flies over furiously, and responsibility shifts on a handful of individuals. Nevertheless, a cult of personality appears when a leader’s personal charisma meets the rings of numerous, eager poltroons and enduring tacit supporters. Intellectuals and media in the post cult years play an indispensable role. Scholars and media should perform independent, yet still respon- sible and constructive, thinking and acting. An objective, unbiased valorisation of the past must come from academia, while media has a mandate to enlarge the platform of such debate – at the same time to discharge emotional, irrational elements from this discussion. It does not come overnight. It is a time and space consuming process. However, this is the only possible way for self-realization, for emancipation of nation. Without such reflection (and relief from the national trauma), no society can move forward to find elementary social cohesion. 

MENA, SEA and the Thai Elections 

Current events in the Arab countries are particularly instructive for South-East Asia. Nearly all of the SEA countries have moved (in the past decades or years) from formal to real democracies. For the first time in history, the economic growth is higher than the demographic growth in most SEA states. This means that a massive formation of the middle class is on its way, in societies that traditionally were run by (enlightened) elites.


This newly arriving, inexperienced middle class is an especially sensitive segment of society. The new wave of economic egoism and of nationalism across Asia, often replacing the fading communism or disillusion with overly-consumerist (the McDonalds–Facebook) McFB-way of life, puts additional stress (and confusing distortion) on the emerging middle class.

It was not an upper, but a middle class, which brought a worldwide-admired prosperity and stability to Sweden or Denmark. However, it was also a middle class that voted for and durably supported Mussolini and Hitler. The middle class is like a dual-use technology, it can be deployed peacefully, but it also might be destructively weaponized, for at home or abroad.  


Some SEA countries, like Malaysia and Singapore (following an impressive economic growth and demographic transition), with an already well-established middle class, are facing a different challenge: to institutionalize the paramount figures of their “fathers of the nation”. The post-Bismarck Germany failed to manage it. Provincial, insecure leadership around new Keiser did not know what to do with the strong Germany, and repeatedly contested all structures inside and outside Germany. The post-Tito Yugoslavia ended in the bloody civil wars as the incompetent elites found their legitimacy only in confrontational clerical-nationalism. However, the post-Deng China has managed to institutionalize the paramount figure of a bold and brave reformer.

Looking ahead the Thai parliamentary elections, the main issue should not be a choice between the political colours of red and yellow. It is far more important to domesticate premises over which the political debate will be conducted: confrontational or co-operative, permissive and affirmative or dismissive, visionary or shortsighted, distortional or focused.


For further sustained economic growth, and overall social coherence, each and every of the SEA states needs to mobilize and empower its middle class further (whose passions and affiliations will inevitably challenge established elites domestically and question their policies internationally, in a related search for a new social consensus). Ignoring or hindering the massive arrival of the middle class would be a socially costly, politically dangerous and historically irresponsible gambit.


Tens of millions of young individuals will be closing their tertiary education all over SEA in the following few years. It is on the established elites to offer to these young people – a socially mobilized and educated middle class in forming – either an opportunity (fair political environment as well as economic and social security) or to hand them over to a hope (often associated with the radicals from left and right). In (a lasting) absence of opportunity, any hope is welcome.


This necessitates fundamental adjustment in the socio-economic and socio-political program of political parties as well as the skilful enlargement of participatory base, not only in Thailand but elsewhere in SEA too. Emotional charges (including nationalism, irredentism or religious fanatism), exploitation of residual fears by the populist demagogy would pollute the climate in which the newly arriving middle class is to cultivate its own political culture. Established elites have a new call of responsibility: to accommodate arrivals, set up and capacitate the frame  and finally to determine the direction of conduct.

Therefore, if you ask me what is my political preference for Thailand tomorrow and for the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia the day after tomorrow, I would say that the matured, responsible and broad-participatory political process should win. It should be a resolute vote for a climate which consolidates (rather than tears apart) societal consensus. Killing the political culture and its entire process for an electoral term in office is a too heavy price to pay. Neither political parties nor voters can afford it.  

Hydrocarbon Status Quo and the Gulf – Petrodollars and petro-security  

For the disciplinary scholars of geoeconomics and for the geopolitics chessboard practitioners, the current events in (and around) the Arab countries are particularly instructive. Since we are lacking a critical time-distance and sufficient information (the region is still in flux, far from being settled and calm), the following lines are a combination of descriptive notes and predictive claims – which certainly pose a risk of inaccuracy. With this proviso, let us start by examining the Gulf countries’ constellation.


The US has a lasting geoeconomic interest in the Gulf, which is inevitably coupled to its security interests of a rather extensive agenda. As is well known, oil is the most traded commodity in the world– roughly 12% of overall global trade. By far the largest portion of internationally traded crude originates from the Gulf. Hence, the US imperatives in the Gulf are very demanding: (i) to support the friendly local regimes (with their present socio-political and ideological setups); (ii) to get, in return, their continued approval for the massive physical US military presence and their affirmative vote in international foras; (iii) to maintain its decisive force in the region, securing unhindered oil flows from the Gulf; (iv) to remain as the principal security guarantor and tranquilizer, preventing any hostile takeover – be it of one crude-exporting state by another or of internal, domestic political and tribe/clan workings; (v) to monitor closely the money flow within the Gulf and to recycle huge petrodollar revenues, usually through lucrative arms sales and other security deals with the GCC regimes ; (vi) will not enhance, but might permit (a call for) any gradual change of the domestic socio-economic and politico-ideological frames in the particular Gulf state, as long as it does not compromise the US objectives in the region as stated above – from (i) to (v). 


The US hegemony in the Gulf, a combination of monetary control (crude is traded exclusively in US dollars, predominantly via the New York-based NYMEX and London-based IPE) and physical control (the US Navy controls all transoceanic oil transports), is the essential confirmation as well as the crucial spring of the overall US global posture. In exchange for the energy inflow security, the US anchors a loyal bandwagoning at many places around the globe. As long as oil remains priced in USD, it will represent the prime foreign reserve currency (globally some 68% of reserves is held in the US$), as the functional tie between the major currencies’ exchange rates, (economic and politico-military) security and fossil-fuel energy cannot be derailed and delinked. 


Finally, it is not only the exclusivity of oil currency; it is also about the very policy of pricing. Throughout most of oil’s short history, the price for “black gold” was high enough to yield profits (via the 7-Sisters, mostly for Wall Street – besides the US military, another essential pillar of American might), still without pricing it overly high which would in return encourage sustained and consequential investments in alternative energy sources. Basically, the main problem with Green/Renewable (de-carbonized) energy is not the complexity, expense, or the lengthy time-line for fundamental technological breakthrough; the central issue is a geopolitical breakthrough. Oil and gas are convenient for monopolization (of extraction and international flows, of pricing and consumption modes) – it is a physical commodity of specific locality. Any green technology (not necessarily of particular locality or currency) sooner or later will be de-monopolized, and thereby made available to most, if not to all. Therefore, the overall geopolitical imperative for the US remains preservation – not change – of the hydrocarbon status quo .


Ergo, oil (and gas) is far more then energy. It is a socio-economic, civilization-cultural, financial and politico-military construct that architectures the world which is currently known to, permitted and therefore acceptable for us.

“…bold Russian Arctic policy is (yet) another signal that the Federation… will increase its (non territorial leverage and geopolitical) projection as a major energy supplier of the world throughout the 21st century…” – I noted in 2009 . On the other side, the Chinese vertigo economy is overheated and too-well petrodollar-integrated, that Beijing, presently, cannot contemplate or afford to allocate any resources in a search for an alternative.                                                              


To complete the picture, both Russia and China are supporting the hydrocarbon status quo. Other major theaters are all geo-economically too dependent; on a supply end (Central Asian republics, Brazil, Canada, Mexico) and on a receiving end (India, South Africa, etc.) – none geopolitically emancipated enough to seriously consider any significant de-carbonization tilt.

Less explicitly, the EU will turn consensual to the hydrocarbon status quo, too . However, besides Japan, the EU will remain a main promoter of the “Kyoto II” mechanism .


Within the OECD/IEA grouping, or closely; the G-8 (the states with resources, infrastructure, tradition of and know-how to advance the fundamental technological breakthroughs), it is only Japan that may seriously consider the Green/Renewable-tech U-turn. Japan’s external energy dependencies are stark and long-lasting. After the recent nuclear trauma, Japan will need a few years to (psychologically and economically) absorb the shock – but will learn a lesson. For such a huge economy and considerable demography, situated on a small land-mass which is repeatedly brutalized by devastating natural catastrophes (and yet by another disruption of the external-dependency-maintaining Arab oil), it might be that a decisive shift towards the green energy is the only way to revive, survive and eventually to emancipate .


Iran is a unique country that bridges the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South Asia, Far East, as well as it links the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that all throughout its millennia-long glorious history up to the pre-modern times, Persia/Iran was among the most influential and strongest Euro-Asian powers. Logically, the regional hegemonic ambitions were renewed by the Shah regime, and simply continued with the Revolutionary Ayatollah Iran.


Hence, the US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran– geopolitical and geoeconomic. Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, with the G.W. Bush administration being most vocal, have formally advocated regime change in Teheran. On the international oil market, Iran has no room for maneuver, neither on price nor on quotas.


Within OPEC, Iran is frequently silenced by the cordial GCC voting . 


Besides an excellent geographic position, formidable conventional armed force (after Turkey, the largest of the region), the firm collective memory of its ancient past, Iran is economically very potent and is also the most populous state in the Persian Gulf. History teaches us that demographically and/or economically emerging player will inevitably press its peripheries to project itself beyond the given limits. Apart from its military support to the state and non-state actors in the wider Middle Eastern theater, Teheran is keen on its soft projection (politically/ ideologically, but culturally too).


However, Iran is an island of Shiite Persians in a sea of predominantly Sunni Arabs (also of the Farsi Pashtuns, Hazara or Turkophonic Sunni Caucasus and Central Asians). Bahrain and Iraq are the Shiite majority countries, but importantly their Shiites (likewise the Lebanese, Syrian and Yemeni ones) are the Arab, not the Persian Shiites. Further on, Iran has no major territorial claim towards any of its neighbors (but has a significant minority of Azeris and 30,000 Jews ) and is not antagonizing the Anglo-American presence in its neighborhood at all, neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. Having more than the 2/3 of its population below the age of 30, the nation’s identification with the 1979 revolution is increasingly difficult. Clearly, the regime in Teheran is just trying (and so far, manages) to survive. Consequently, the nuclear armament program (if any) would serve primarily for deterrence– to defend (in the absence of projectable soft powers), and to stabilize the regime, increasing its chances for long-term survival. It wouldn’t necessarily bring the significant hard-power projection to Iran.   


The Iranian imperative is to increase the economic and socio-political costs of the US military presence while avoiding any direct military confrontation. Military modernization, with its noisy nuclear program and missile tests, as well as the anti-Israeli (holocaust-denial) rhetoric are domestically used as a morale booster, while externally it is only aimed at costs exposure of – not for open military collision with – the US, Israel or any of the GCC states.


That is where Iran’s consideration goes along with Russian and Chinese geopolitical agendas. Neither China nor Russia is interested in overt confrontation with the US over the Gulf. But to see the regional US presence suffering from costly overextension would not be bad news for the heavily dependent countries; of oil-gas exporting Russia and of (African) oil-hungry, importing China. As in the case of North Korea, neither China nor Russia is enthusiastic to witness the country going nuclear, but they are still far away from wishing for and permitting any regime change. North Korea as well as Iran (and Syria) on the Russian south-west flank is serving as a pivotal security buffer .


Nuclear North Korea has paid a huge political price for its security self-assurance: it has alienated the neighbors, isolated itself internationally, and endorses a perfect pretext for keeping a considerable conventional (and non-conventional) US military contingent on its periphery – all elements present in the Iranian case too. Paradoxically enough, further pressures from Iran (also the recent cooling of Israeli-Turkish relations) and American overextension in the region (including the Afghan and Iraq limbo), puts Arabs and Jewish state closer to the negotiation table, which in return decreases the Iranian appeal across the Middle East to exploit anger for its own ideological and geopolitical ends. Finally, if the two-state solution succeeds one day, it will be only the threat from an increased Iranian military strength that implicitly fuels the American arms sales in the Gulf.

Syria, Israel, Libya and International foras 

The US induced GCC has so far managed to contain the Yemeni turmoil and tribal-clan clashes from spilling over deeper into the peninsula. Simultaneously, Bahrain (an absolutistic monarchy of the ruling Arab Sunni minority over the Arab Shiite majority) has been effectively silenced and other revolts within the GCC are not presently lurking on the horizon.


Counterbalancing the GCC, the Russia-backed Iran–Syria axes (which influences Lebanon, but also stretches on Cyprus, including the Cypriot Greeks–Turkish Kurds links) is heavily challenged. It’s not only Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party that has much at stake. Any significant change in inflammatory Syria would mean encirclement of Iran, worsening of Russia’s anyway modest access to the Mediterranean and its position towards Turkey on the Caucasus and elsewhere. Finally, it could also lead to a total end of pan-Arabism. Following the domino-theory ratio, Russians in Syria are ideologically and geopolitically protecting their own ‘soft belt’ – the Caucasus and Central Asian backyard.  


Undeniably, there were ideological complementarities between Soviet communism and the anti-colonial, leftist, egalitarian and republican pan-Arabism. Still, the post-Soviet and post-communist Russia remains on the same position, following its geopolitical rationale. Pan-Arabism is the only Middle Eastern counterbalance, an alternative to the Wahhabism-powered (or newly arriving, neo-Ottoman- powered) Islamism. Muslimhood might have an appeal among the Sunnis in Central Asia, Caucasus and within the Russian Federation, but pan-Arabism does not hold the same allure (which additionally seals-off Turkey and protects the Russian strategic Turkophonic backyard from that side too). On the other hand, the republican pan-Arabism was felt as a direct threat to the US-backed GCC monarchies. Rather unchecked, the Al Qaida cluster has managed to self-prescribe an exclusive monopoly on Islamism. By self-proclaiming an alleged struggle for the Sunni Ummah restoration, it actually corrupted and silenced all important debates within the Arab world, and effectively diverted the Arab attention from their real issues. In fact, the Al Qaida construct is only a radicalized and weaponized ideology of Wahhabism – of a sect that originates from the 19th century peninsular Arabian tribes on its anti-Ottoman emancipation quest, which finally demolished the centuries-long Caliphates-Ottoman Ummah. With religion per se, it has very little to do.  


Syria’s (Egyptian too) inner constellations traditionally influence the neighboring Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and of course Israel. By far and large, the symbolics and meanings of Israel are considerably larger than its tiny territory (approximately half the size of the Netherlands). Its real strength, power and influence resides outside its state parameters – these features, besides the Vatican, make Israel a unique state in today’s world.


So far, Israel secured a separate peace treaty with Egypt, and with Jordan. It also has a rather comfortable and predictable truce with al-Assad’s Syria (as it cohabitated a livable modus with the previous Tunisian and to some extent with Gaddafi’s, regime). Finally, it still (formally) holds a close politico-military alliance with Turkey, which is the Israeli bridge to the NATO security block. During the entire ‘Arab Spring’, Israel remained silent and calm. Beneath, the official Tel Aviv was conducting a discreet but very intensive and extensive diplomatic offensive to hinder the international recognition of Palestine .


Since its creation 1948, Israel exploited every military opportunity and every diplomatic occasion to outmaneuver its neighbors. By doing so, it has managed to subsequently enlarge its territory and to keep a constant influx of migrants (predominantly Ashkenazi from Central and Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet republics). Presently, nearly half a million of Israeli settlers are living beyond the 1967 borders – a ‘Gordian knot’ related to any international recognition of Palestine today. After a series of unsuccessful war campaigns and diplomatic deadlocks, the Arab neighborhood, primarily Palestinians, eventually bitterly accepted a de-facto tradeoff: territories for a lasting peace and statehood. The Israeli governments of past decades (requesting a special explicit security guaranty from Palestinians and other neighbors as a precondition for any talks about the two-states solution) have found every reason to postpone (implementation of subsequently agreed) peace accords for a possible win of more settlements – meaning more territories. Admittedly, this was well-resonating for some Arab regimes which feared that a full-fledged recognition of Palestine would mean an important regional problem off agenda – a possibility less to divert citizens’ attention from the pressing domestic problems .


If the sunny ‘Arab spring’ day is clouded in Tunisia by the incapability of domestic forces to turn the popular revolt into viable and badly needed socio-political reform, and if such a ‘Spring’ in Egypt is shadowed by the military uniforms and old faces with new rhetorics that are effectively running the country (jointly with the USAID and IMF), then the spring skies over Libya are full of pelting rain, across tribal lines. The inability of (coalition of the willing dressed in) the NATO to bring about a fast and decisive result in the Libyan episode put Russia and China into a very comfortable position – to recapture initiative and lead moral condemnations on the international scene. (In the bold demonstration of solidarity ordered by Beijing, every morning China’s ambassador accredited to Libya was even visiting all the sites bombed in Tripoli in the night raids.) Nevertheless, in practical terms there was no real difference between the affirmative vote on the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of France, the UK and the US, and the non-blocking abstention of Russia and China – both combined were needed for the adoption of the resolution and for the rapid intervention that came along. To complete the puzzle, Brazil and India – contrary to their vocal anti-Western moralization – also casted abstentions, not negative votes, on the Resolution.   


The logics of You do not touch Syria (Russia) and You don’t touch Sudan (China), in exchange for a free upper hand in Libya presents itself as a seductive guess to the possible grand bargaining of the P-5 behind closed doors (offering comfort to the question of discrepancy between the loudly declared and factually committed). Still, from this short time distance with a lack of conclusive information, it is a highly speculative hint. Admittedly, up to this writing there has been no Security Council resolution followed by concrete action to stop mass and repeated atrocities in either Sudan or Syria. An additional international legitimacy burden steams and rings: a slow and weak response on the side of the Libya-intervention eager coalition of the willing to the colossal humanitarian catastrophe in the East/Horn of Africa–an outbreak that was mounting since the early spring of 2011 (not to mention Bahrain and Yemen) .    


It is not clear whether the popular revolts triggered by the austerity measures and the grave socio-political situation in Tunisia and Egypt have been therefore preempted (or diverted). One thing is certain: both societies have failed to translate the street demands and to broker lasting political reform. Besides the personal shifts in the presidential palaces, additional exposure to the foreign creditors (and implosion of neighboring Libya), pretty much everything remains the same in both countries – they are sinking further into a socio-economic quagmire . “We are the suckers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones– and the eternally disappointed ones ...”


Young generations of Europeans are taught in schools about a singularity of an entity called the EU. However, as soon as serious security challenges emerge, the compounding parts of the true, historic Europe are resurfacing again. Formerly in Iraq (with the exception of France) and now with Libya; Central Europe is hesitant to act, Atlantic Europe is eager, Scandinavian Europe is absent, Eastern Europe is bandwagoning, and Russophonic Europe is opposing. The 1986 Reagan-led Anglo-American bombing of Libya was a one-time, head-hunting punitive action. This time (19 March 2011), Libya has been given a different attachment: The considerable presence of China in Africa, successful circumventing pipeline deals between Russia and Germany (which will deprive Eastern Europe from any transit-related bargaining premium, and will tacitly pose a joint Russo-German effective pressure on the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine), and finally the overthrows of the EU friendly, Tunisian and Egyptian regimes –all combined– must have triggered alarm bells across Atlantic Europe.


The economically  prosperous (the most developed African state, and a provider of solid jobs for many in the region, including Egyptians and Tunisians – in total, half a million of their guest-workers), but of socio-politically spent clan-cronyism regime, of a jovial leader who championed pan-African unity, Libya emerged as an easy and appropriate target  for the Anglo-French-led coalition: (i) to reassert the presence in the Arab world (from Libya to damage-control the affairs and the Facebook revolution outcome in the Francophone and Anglophone Maghreb); (ii) to renew the presence in Africa and to slow down China there; (iii) to send a bold message of prestige (glory of colonial past) and strength elsewhere in the world, in particular to Central and Russophonic Europe – to essentially disagree that Russian oil/gas, (geo-) politically and socio-economically, is the most affordable for (all in) the EU.


Nothing describes the dualism of life and personal faith of the founder of the Great Socialist Jamahiriya better than the famous quotation of Albert Camus: “every revolutionary ends up either by becoming an oppressor or a heretic”. Al Muammar was passionately both; in the world of economy and finances he was internationally too heretical, domestically in socio-political everyday life, he was revolutionary oppressive.


Hence, Gaddafi’s reign was a totalitarian one, but the post-Gaddafi government will be dysfunctional (like in other countries where NATO brokered a change in the last 15 years). The post-Gaddafi Libya will be – unfortunately – a territory. It will be a mare space of the grave political, territorial, economic and social problems, energized by a growing and nearly self-perpetuated sectarian (ideological and racial) violence and inter-tribal blood revenge.


Surely, the conduct of Libyan affair neither will help to maintain secularism and introduce democratization locally, nor will it assist the war against Islamist radicals regionally .  


How did the Middle East (un-)use its membership in the regional groupings following the ‘Spring’? Well, the post-Napoleonic’s Alliance of Eastern Conservative Courts – alike, GCC (backed by its bush-hammer; Al Jazeera) was fast and unison, defensive yet decisive and effective on the peninsula. In the LAS, the GCC was influential and punitive (Libya), determined but invisible (Yemen), eager but moderated (Syria). The Arab League was split, indecisive and non-convincing even to itself; but in the end it formally endorsed yet another external intervention against its own member. (Simultaneously, the LAS has even managed to shift the drafts of 4 resolutions on Palestine from its own responsibility, to the agenda of the 16th NAM Ministerial on Bali in May 2011.) The OIC, unnoticed in its absence, ‘overslept’ the entire ‘Spring’. The late-arriving, generalized and cautious words of its Secretary General were more in line with the official Ankara (as the Gen-Sec. Dr. İhsanoğlu is the Turkish national) than it was representing any formulated position of the OIC membership. It is yet another demonstration of inability of the organization without clear objectives, consensus and vision to be more than a lame paper-tiger, a fractured conglomerate of the fading cacophony. The LAS and OIC are on the best way to be remembered as the most inefficient and incompetent entities ever in the history of regional groupings. 

“Do they know, it’s Christmas time at all?”    

Surprisingly, the African Union took – though shy and discreet – some coherent diplomatic actions. The Grouping demonstrated a significant degree of maturity by avoiding the apparent attempt o Gaddafi to shield himself behind the AU, and simultaneously it rested the extern pressures by acting independently. However, the Libyan affair carries the multifold message for the AU, both symbolic and practical.  


This message must be particularly painful for the African continent and is beyond the issue whether Gaddafi should have been condemned at all, as well as when and what an appropriate condemnation in this respect should have been. Gaddafi is politically dead, but what was successively bombed is the economically most successful African state, one of the very few with the universal education-, health- and housing- access, consequently of the lowest income gap disparity in the AU. The notion of the state’s inner cohesion, territorial integrity, peace, welfare and prosperity – so badly needed all over Africa, is collapsing in fractured and de facto partitioned Libya – yet another (possible success turned into a) failed African state. And most importantly, one of the critical questions that kept Europe – its resources and armies both – occupied throughout most of the 19th and early-mid 20th century was: is it liberal to impose liberal values on non-liberal societies?  Africa for itself seemed to be answering that very question: if not through the liberation struggle (anti-colonial movements) of the 1950s-1970s, then surely by the final end of a notorious Nazi-like apartheid regime (of a nuclear bomb eager Botha). Africa looks at the current Libyan affair as if the grand dilemma of liberalism is restaged again on their continent. Is any democracy deliverable by using non-democratic (externally imposed) means and if so, who issues the call (also, who controls the call and who controls the controllers)? Is such an externally brokered democracy achievable on expenses of territorial integrity, of social cohesion and of a state’s sovereignty? Is justice served by fighting a crime with public lynching? Is the humanitarian intervention finally launched only if it presupposes the affirmative military consideration, and other non-humanitarian objectives? No doubt, for Africa this question re-emerges and it is by far bigger than either Côte d’Ivoire or Libya or any of their leaders might (ever) be.  

If the earlier stated speculative hint seduces us to conclude that while permitting the Libyan intervention, Russia saves Syria and Iran (to stabilize its south-west flank) and China saves Sudan (to maintain its primarily, geo-economically driven presence in Africa), the actions of the Anglo-French coalition (besides reasserting Africa, and traditionally considering the Mediterranean sea as its inner lake) shifts the flame from Maghreb closer to the Izrael-GCC region, one question still remains unanswered. What was then a ratio of the US’ direct military involvement? Well, the US role in the Libyan episode was primarily to deter any over-projection of the UK and France, while simultaneously preserving its strategic status quo elsewhere in the MENA. That is hardly any comfort for the financially and politically overextended US. Equally, it is of little justification for Africa, which has been feeling largely ignored and sporadically humiliated in the past two decades.


The election of the first US President ever with Afro-American roots, was a grand sensation all over the globe. Particularly thrilled was the “forgotten continent” of Africa. To see that this young, liberal, democratic President, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, authorizes any military intervention was shocking enough, but the fact that his first military deployment targets the Afro-continent was a disappointing blow for many. The above stated is not a moralization, but a warning. The political price of the intervention in Libya is and will be far higher for the US than for Atlantic Europe. The US imperatives in Africa and MENA were achievable and maintainable without the Libyan Affair. France and the UK, particularly in their strategic neighborhood of the Francophone and Anglophone Maghreb, were running short on their strategic options. Maghreb was their failure! (Although, the blame will soon be reduced –as usual– on Brussels and on the already eroded and abandoned EU Barcelona Process. Indeed, in years to come, all countries surrounding the EU block will revert with some critical questions. To end this, the EU Member States will need an extra diligent effort for the credibility damage assessment to its idyllic-advertized good neighborly /‘unegoistic’, ‘dynamic’ ‘successful and mutually beneficial’/ engagement that offers everything but institutions, from Morocco to Russia, usually referred to as the European Neighborhood Policy.) Hence, for the Anglo-French coalition, it was of utmost importance to cool off Tunisia and Egypt before Algeria and Morocco get ‘infected’ (and the sudden, eruptive strategic loss à la 1979 Iran occurs). As the inflammation of Maghreb progressed, the White House – reluctant and skeptical at first – was losing any contra-argument to hinder the Anglo-French intervention. Still, the Obama administration was not keen to let them act alone unconstrained, outside the US-dominated (but costs co-sharing) NATO.  


Nevertheless, by busily trying to analyse the outcomes in the Middle East, we should not forget the impact of the current crises on Africa. Although the “forgotten continent” is not loudly voicing it (yet), it would be foolish to believe that OIC/LAS-disillusioned and Arab affairs- absent Gaddafi did not manage one thing: to convince the “black continent” that Libya is in Africa (far more than in the Arab world), and that although assertively patronizing, Libya was not ignorant to the chronic problems of the continent. Furthermore, many in Africa – for right or wrong – have thought of China as a hope (for its domestic achievements), but also as an opportunity (for its deeds in Africa). By deterring China while reasserting its influence over Africa will not be lasting and cost-effective nowadays, if only resting on the power to coerce without an attraction of the offer, be it of the Anglo-French dominated Atlantic Europe, the US or Russia.                                                   


Old habits die hard! Neither the Al Qaida nor China is of the global geopolitical and ideological threat as, once upon a time, was the Soviet Union. The very collapse of communism was neither marked by some wall erosions in Berlin, nor was it the day of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A joke that one can frequently hear all over Russia and Eastern Europe goes: “What is worse than communism? That, what comes after it!” Beijing has no such joke. Ergo, the final end of communism was coming when (officially, still Marxist-Leninist determined) China economically blossomed by resting tight on a neo-liberal mantra. That means: China is predictable and integrated. The Al Qaida backpackers are predominantly nationals of the states with considerable and lasting US presence. As seen, even the home address of the Saudi Rasputin has been detected. It reads: the Al Qaida construct is exposed and penetrable. All this, finally, concludes that both China and Al Qaida are (self-) containable. The (pre-Gorbachev) Soviet Union was unknown and unpredictable, socio-economically indigenous and ideologically different, fortified and impenetrable, big and assertive, nuclear and conventional, expanding and hardly containable on earth, bottom of the oceans, in air and in outer space. Past so many years, even Kissinger admits in his memoirs: “…we never knew…the Soviet Union was a black box for us…” 


The Cold War jargon is increasingly regarded as outdated and non-appealing for ever more countries. Most of all, the “good-old” confrontational Cold War rhetoric is neither justifiable at home, nor does it effectively bring the international legitimacy from abroad for ever larger number of actions overseas. So, if the dictatum of the geopolitical imperatives necessitates (continuation of) certain foreign policy moves in MENA and elsewhere, the refreshed and modified wording surrounding them, can perhaps moderate the political costs. 


In the years to come, we will see whether the current African frustrations were exploited for the geopolitical and geoeconomic ends of the non-traditional players in Africa (China, India, Brazil and the like), and what is the cost-exposure faced by the traditional ones.     

Neo-Ottomanism vs. Wahhabism and Russia in between   

If all the above represents a little bit more of the same (the old geopolitical story of history surrounding the Middle East), there is still one novelty in the current events. It is Turkey.


A growing economic and demographic power house, of pivotal geography, and of omnipotent secular army, Turkey has lately recaptured self-confidence by its foreign policy shift, usually coined as neo-Ottomanism. Invigorating its harmonious inter-ethnic Ottoman past, Turkey is airing a bold and appealing soft-power offensive all across the Euro-Mediterranean theatre that is paralyzed by growing clerical-nationalism. The Turkish EU accession is no longer a waiting-room captivity trauma for Ankara, but a drifting problem of the EU perceptions. In fact, Brussels failed to understand previous messages from and to analyze current actions of Ankara, that it is both false and dangerous to simplify the strategic choices of Turkey; either islamization or westernization (joining the EU). Whether right or wrong, the official Ankara concluded that the EU accession process was more of an exercise in humiliating hindrance of Turkey rather than a sincere admission of a reasonable prospect.


Traditionally very cordial, the relations with Israel have also deteriorated lately. It is the same sort of message like that one sent to the EU – no more exclusive relations, we are now open for all. Thus in return, Turkey has gained through intense and skillful diplomatic maneuvers, an equidistant foothold deeper in the Middle East – by talking to Arabs, Iranians and Russians (its NATO partners, the EU and Israelis too). This multi-vector foreign policy (the so-called zero problem neighborhood policy vs. the selective EU’s European neighborhood policy) uplifts Turkey from the confrontational/deterring peripheries right into the center of intl. political arena. It increases Turkish leverage and the number of its strategic opportunities.


The “sick man of Europe” is not on Bosporus anymore: As the last European country that maintains both solid economic and demographic growth, Turkey seems to continue its self-emancipated and awarding, independent foreign policy dynamics. If so, this could mean that the EU has missed its historic chance (to keep its decisive say in the country of indispensable geography for the energy corridors and socio-cultural exchanges), as Turkey might seek a grand accommodation with one (e.g. Russia) or a combination of players in its quest for (revived) regional hegemony.


Ankara’s neo-Ottoman, lately also ‘Islamized’ rhetoric, is more of a need for the external projection than it is aimed at or permissible for the domestic Turkish consumption. It is not something that just happened, as witnessed with the current rise of escapist anti-politics (politics in retreat) dressed up in the Western European wing-parties, by which – with all their Right – Europe loses its own right. This pre-meditated and fine-calibrated policy of galvanization steers Turkey (not to the nationalistic, emotionally-charged and retreating, anti-secular right, but) right into the centre of grand bargaining for both Russia and for the US. To this emerging triangular constellation, Turkey wishes to appoint its own rhythm. Past the ‘Arab Spring’, neither will Russia effectively sustain its presence in the Middle East on a strict pan-Arabic secular, republican and anti-Islamic idea, nor will the US manage to politically and morally justify its backing off of the absolutistic monarchies energized by the backward, rigid and oppressive Wahhabism. Turkey tries to sublime both effectively: enough of a secular republican modernity and of a traditional, tolerant and emancipating Islam, and to broadcast it as an attractive future model across the Middle East. Simply, Turkey wakes itself up as an empiric proof that the Islam and modernity goes together. Indeed, Turkey is by large and by far the world’s most successful Muslim state: It was never resting its development on oil or other primary-commodity exports, but on a vibrant socio-economic sector and solid democratic institutions. This is heavily contesting, not only for Russia, but primarily for the insecure regime of the House of Saud, which rules by the direct royal decree over a country of recent past, oil-export dependent and fizzing presence and improbable future. No wonder that on the ideological battlefield, the two belligerent parties will be dominating the Middle East, which is currently in self-questioning past yet another round of hardships. The outcome will be significantly beyond the Arab world, and will reverberate all across the Sunni Muslim world. Ankara is attempting to justify that the Saudi-promoted Islam is actually an aggressive, separatist/sectarian Wahhabistic ideology that self-constrains Muslims and hinders their socio-economic and political development. It does this by keeping Muslims on a permanent collision course with the rest of the world, while Turkey-promoted Islam is not a weaponized ideology, but a Modus Vivendi, which permits progress and is acceptable for all (including the non-Muslims), with the centuries-long history of success.   


Nevertheless, Ankara’s current gambit is not without risks. The serious constitutional (and secularist equilibrium) interference has occurred. Although generally huge, the current policy enjoys a full support primarily from Anatolian hinterlands, while the costal urban regions remain sceptical. If Turkey does not manage to successfully project itself onto the region soon, it might implode under its own government’s massive weight.

Conclusion (towards the disillusioning epilogues) 

“No one governs innocently” – noted de Beauvoir in her 1947’s The Ethics of Ambiguity… After a lot of hot air, the disillusioning epilogue of the popular McFB revolt is more firearms and less confidence residing in the region, and a higher (moral, economic and political) carbon energy price everywhere else . As if the confrontational nostalgia, perpetuated by the intense competition over finite resources, in lieu of a real, far-reaching policy-making has prevailed again. Besides maybe (the Russian oil exporters and government in) Ankara, nobody has anything to celebrate for. Caught in the middle of its indigenous incapability and the global blind obedience to the fossil-carbon addictions, and yet enveloped in just another trauma, the Arab world and the wider Middle East theatre remains a hostage of mega geopolitical and geoeconomic chess-board drama. One thing is certain, if anything springs from the Arab soil, it is the oil. Everything else is (still) up in the (roaring) air.


What is the overall international impact? The regional unrest does not ease the ongoing OECD/IEA debates, yet it may catalyze and accelerate them, primarily between the EU, Japan and the US (the largest economic and consumer blocks). The issues discussed are fundamental: energy security and efficiency (including the diversification of the origin and composition of the PEM – primary energy mix); dependences-reduction, protection capacitation and diversification of the transport routes, and related mega (pipelined or LNG) gas and oil projects for and through the EU, Euromed, Russophonic Asia/Arctic and the East/- Far East; de-carbonization and anti-nuclearization. Finally, the way out of the deadlock on the Kyoto II negotiations, as well as the related roadmap for the comprehensive universal consensus on global climate change. Both for its own ends, clearly surfacing challengers of the status quo are at least the two: Japan and Turkey. 

Post Scriptum 

How can we observe and interpret (the distance between) success and fall from a historical perspective? This question remains a difficult one to (satisfy all with a single) answer... The immediate force behind the rapid and successful European overseas projection was the two elements combined: Europe’s technological (economic) and demographic expansion (from early 16th century on). However, West/Europe was not – frankly speaking – winning over the rest of this planet by the superiority of its views and ideas, by purity of its virtues or by clarity of its religious thoughts and practices. For a small and rather insecure civilization, it was just the superiority and efficiency in applying the rationalized violence and organized (legitimized) coercion that Europe successfully projected. The 21st century Europeans often forget this ‘inconvenient truth’, the non-Europeans usually never do. The large, self-maintainable, self-assured and secure civilizations (e.g. situated on the Asian landmass) were traditionally less militant and confrontational (and a nation-state ‘demarcational’), but more esoteric and generous, inclusive attentive and flexible. The smaller, insecure civilizations (e.g. situated on a modest, geographically remote and peripheral, natural resources scarce, and climatically exposed continent of Europe) were more focused, obsessively organized and a “goal–oriented” (including the invention of virtue out of necessity – a nation-state). No wonder that European civilization has never ever generated a single religion (although it admittedly doctrinated, ‘clergified’ and headquartered the Middle East-revelled religion of Christianity). On the other hand, no other civilization but the European has ever created a significant, even a relevant political ideology.




I would like to thank the following thinkers and practitioners for the important intellectual exchange and their sometimes opposing but always inspiring and constructive comments:

Prof. Ernest PETRIC, Honourable Chief Justice, President of the Constitutional Court of Slovenia and former ambassador  

Amb. Hasmy AGAM Tan Sri, former Executive Chairman of the IDFR (Malaysian Diplomatic Academy), currently Chairman of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) 

Mr. Richard KAUZLARICH, former US Ambassador (the Caucasus and the Balkans) 

Prof. Natalia ZASLAVSKAYA, School of International Relations (St. Petersburg State University)  

Prof. Murray HUNTER, notable author and professor (UniMAP & Prince of Songkla universities)  

However, the views expressed are solely those of the author himself.



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Written by Anis H. Bajrektarevic, Geopolitics of Energy Editorial Member


Chairperson for Intl. Law & Global Pol. Studies - Vienna  
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