How Arab states build their foreign policy

Abdel Monem Said

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In courses first taught at any school of international affairs, it is said that in their foreign policies, countries adopt one of three great strategies.

The first of them is self-reliance, since the country does not need other countries with regards to its own security and basic needs. The country produces its own weapons and it has production capabilities which help endure, regardless of other parties. And even if it does need another party for one reason or another, it has enough money and economic means to attain what it wants, or forcefully take it.

Dissatisfaction is always the result when one power ends up controlling the world, like what happened with the U.S. after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed

Abdel Monem Said

The second of them is attempting to create a state of regional and international balance in which the country cancels capable powers one after the other. It rather competes to attract small powers to support it in order to create a balance that serves its interests. This grants small powers few power factors that they cannot possess on their own, but actually come to as a result of competition circumstances.

The third available strategy is joining the strongest and most influential power, or powers, in order to attain features which provide security at low costs and high economic interests, in exchange of reasonable services.

The strategies in practice

In essence, the idea of Arab nationalism and unity was an attempt to adopt the first strategy on the basis that Arab countries united can achieve a level international power which would allow them to rely on themselves. But when it turned out that this goal was difficult to achieve, the second and third strategies became Arab countries’ favorites when building their foreign policies. The Cold War (1947-1989) was the phase of prosperity for the balance strategy between the Soviet and American giants and the parties allied with them. Many major Arab countries found that adopting policies similar to those of “positive neutrality” or “non-alignment”, and having different sources for weapons and economy, are effective means to attain an international status and maximize their private interests.
The Arab-Israeli struggle played a role in this strategy as the American Western alliance with Israel was a reason to resort to the Soviet Union and its socialist bloc to request arms and factories. This was the total opposite of strategies adopted by countries like Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, Cuba and others which did not play the card of altering balances between the two camps but chose to join either of them to achieve their aims.

Practically speaking, countries do not purely adopt these strategies and do not adopt them at all times. What is probable is that they choose a mixture of all them depending on the phase they are in. But Arab countries in general took the side of a world where there is more than one bloc and more than one balance. Dissatisfaction is always the result when one power ends up controlling the world, like what happened with the U.S. after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. During a certain phase, there were many wishes that a five-power sharing bloc, including the U.S., the EU, Russia, Japan and China be established. This was not practically possible. Europe and Japan are part of the huge Western alliance in arms, economy and democratic values. And after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was not a rival of any significance. As for China, the situation was not only that it considered itself a third-world country, but it also did not possess any universal policy.

Living with American control

In all cases, the Arabs lived with the American control of the world, this was especially apparent during the operation of liberating Kuwait in 1991. It was also revealed, later, in managing the Arab-Israeli struggle and in global wars against terrorism that targeted Arab and Western countries alike. But two decades of taking the side of the U.S. and West did not provide comfort to Arab countries. And so the search continued for other balance factors across the world. When the situation changed in many Arab countries in January 2011, more efforts were made, on the level of international relations, to find another party that can form a balancing bloc against the Western bloc. It seems that the BRICS bloc which includes Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and China possesses the features that makes it suitable for the required strategy, they thus hinder the West from freely acting in the international arena.

Egypt dissociated itself from military camps during the Cold War and adopted the policy of positive neutrality. But perhaps after the January 2011 changes, it is enthusiastic to take this new path. Egyptian President Mursi’s visits to China, Russia, India, South Africa and most recently Brazil is a message to those whom it may concern that Egypt is no longer the captive of relations with one camp. It is a message that there is a new international strong party that grants Egypt a fair amount of flexibility and freedom of movement. Mursi also has a lot of lessons to learn that can be useful, especially when it comes to economic development.

Although it is still too early to evaluate this orientation on the level of achieving Egyptian aims, there are some objective limits that must be highlighted. First of all, the BRICS bloc is not a homogenous military alliance in political, economic and cultural systems - a feature that distinguishes the Western alliance. In Brazil and South Africa, democracy is still modern, whilst it is ancient in India. In Russia, democracy mixes with the governance of the old intelligence state and the modern mafia politics. In China, which is governed by a communist party, democracy is absent.

On the pure economic level, although these countries - except for Russia - live amidst high growth rates, there are also high poverty rates. There are around 700 million people who live below the poverty threshold in China. And a number similar to this lives in India. South Africa still has a long way to go before colored people come close to attaining wealth, like they came close to attaining authority. Although Brazil made achievements on the level of economic growth, it is considered one of the worst countries with regards to the distribution of wealth. What is surprising is that according to the standards of distributing wealth, the situation in Egypt is better than BRICS countries, particularly better than Brazil. Not to mention that the average income of Egyptians (in dollars) is better than that of citizens in China and India. Most importantly, all these countries, except for Russia, do not have an active Middle Eastern policy, and they are a lot more concerned about their relations with the U.S. than most Arabs think.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 15.


Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.

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