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Manama Dialogue and the challenges of the 21st century

Hassan Abou Taleb

Published: Updated:

The Manama Dialogue 2021 was recently held over the course of three days in the Bahraini capital, under the auspices of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The 17th edition of the summit presented an opportunity for an array of ministers, security officials, intellectuals, and researchers to present their ideas and visions on security issues pertaining to their countries and the ideal ways to address them. Despite the numerous statements and the discussion of major headlines, all the attendees seemed to agree on the importance of collective confrontation of challenges facing all countries, regardless of their geographical distance and the variance of each country’s direct theater of operations.

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Of course, superpowers subscribe to the perspective that the entire world is a direct theater of operations for their forces and influence, as well as their diplomatic and security alliances.

As for middle-sized and smaller countries, they see things from two overlapping angles. The first is the direct impact that the security policies of superpowers relating to the world as a whole has on their direct interests. The second is a direct regional angle related to the immediate threats these countries face from neighbors or transnational terrorist organizations.

Despite their diversity, all the statements pronounced in the conference emphasized on the principle of joint collective action, at least in facing major challenges, such as pandemics, climate change, terrorism, the protection of the environment, and the security of maritime waterways.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry emphatically highlighted this notion in Egypt's speech, pointing out that these challenges differ from previous ones and require a review of the governance mechanisms available to the international community.
The collective effort required for common challenges is indisputable, but the question of which mechanism is appropriate to crystallize this much-needed collective effort remains.

For example, many international agreements were put in place to confront the consequences of climate change. The most notable of these is the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which set specific goals and international commitments to reduce carbon emissions that cause global warming and the resulting melting of snow in the North Pole and South Pole, which threatens to inundate coastal cities in dozens of countries. These commitments were not taken seriously, especially on the part of major industrial nations such as China, the US, India, Brazil, and others.
During the Glasgow Summit held a few weeks ago in the United Kingdom, new commitments were made that fall below the threshold of the Paris Agreement and are yet to turn into concrete international conduct and commitment. The importance of the COP27 summit that is due to be held in Egypt next year stems from the country’s role in following up on the commitments of all countries and refining these commitments to help humanity preserve itself.

The significance of international collective behavior on climate change primarily pertains to the fact that signatory nations do not necessarily strictly adhere to international treaties and agreements and quite often renege on them. Hence the importance of the ideas and policies that were showcased at the Manama Dialogue on security issues of concern to a large number of countries, especially in our Arab region, in terms of their applicability and transformation into a reality that supports both regional and international stability.

One of the most important addresses at the last Manama Dialogue was by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The truly inclusive speech, which discussed the US strategy under President Biden vis-à-vis various security crises and international challenges, calls for a deeper contemplation and reading between the lines.

The media focused on Austin’s message regarding America's commitment to protecting regional allies and strengthening security partnerships with them, as well as his confirmation that the US is staying in the region, despite the recent US moves in Afghanistan and the Gulf that indicate otherwise. However, Austin’s speech stressed that this pledge of continued US presence in the region is linked to a change in the modus operandi, a focus on diplomacy to resolve crises, particularly with Iran—regarded as an explicit adversary because of its nuclear program and regional expansion—, and the encouragement of regional parties to engage in collective talks to build new and unprecedented security commitments in the region, as is the case between Israel and some Arab states.

Austin associated such new security commitments with a general improvement in the regional security environment and with Washington's upholding of the two-state solution to the Palestinian cause. However, Austin did not explain how diplomacy would be employed to reach the two-state solution while the Israeli government continues to practice intensive settlement policies in the occupied West Bank, which radically complicates reaching this solution.

US reassurances to regional allies are inseparable from the major shifts in US strategy globally. This must be taken into consideration when contemplating the possible results of the catchphrase used by Austin: “diplomacy is the first line of defense.” Austin linked diplomacy and forging partnerships with allies as the ideal way to confront crises and rejected the principle of unilateral action on the part of any nation, because it does not achieve success, but rather reflects a lack of self-confidence.

A closer look at these key arguments means that hard force will only be used when absolutely necessary, when diplomacy fails and US national security comes under direct threat.

This shift from diplomacy to deterrence by force does not necessarily require a direct presence on the ground in the upcoming stage, as was the case during the past four decades. Rather, it could be achieved through the US Navy, which is capable of moving from one location to another as necessary.

Here, we observe an implicit sign that strengthening the US Navy and its missile and air attachments will be the focus of the US deterrence strategy in the coming decades, alongside cyber and space deterrence.

Such an upcoming change does not only mean deployment in the seas, but also a quest for naval bases in strategic areas that allow rapid movement and transition from one sea or ocean to another in a safe environment, as well as access to fuel, maintenance and joint training. From an American point of view, many Arab countries are candidates to this important role in implementing this strategy.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Egyptian newspaper al-Watan.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.