by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 3, Ramadan, 1441)
Writing about UAE-Iran relations for the Qatari affiliated Middle East Eye, Dr. Andreas Krieg, a strategic risk consultant working for government and commercial clients in the Middle East, made the following observation: “…the coronavirus crisis is part of a new trajectory to pivot to the East as the US and Europe are forced by Covid-19 to surrender ever more hard and soft power globally.”
The above conclusion is not limited to the UAE. The current pandemic which morphed into a global economic and health crisis has greatly weakened the so-called “first world” status of Western states built on colonialism and imperialism. There are several indicators that point to the end of NATO’s grip on world affairs of which one of the biggest signals is beaming out of the EU.
As the coronavirus was taking a devastating toll of Italy, there was minimal assistance from fellow EU members. The Italian social media was flooded with images of ordinary Italians burning EU flags and town mayors were seen hauling down EU flags from official buildings. Even the BBC, which normally peddles a strongly pro-EU narrative, dedicated a significant portion of its Business Daily podcast to the Italian social media campaign called, “We will save ourselves.” Tensions with Italy got so high that head of the European Commission, Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen issued an apology to Italy for the Europeans’ poor response.
In early April, the economically less fortunate EU member-states—Italy, Spain and France—floated the idea of issuing joint bonds, dubbed ‘corona-bonds’ in order to share the economic burden jointly. However, the idea was quickly rejected by wealthier EU members such as Austria, Netherlands, Germany and Finland.
In March 2020, Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission, wrote in the Brussel Times, that “a corona bond would provide a safe asset for European and international investors, give the eurozone greater geopolitical reach and provide greater protection against President Donald Trump’s abuse of the dominance of the US dollar for harmful political ends.” Legrain’s perspective is an indicator that there is strong divergence in geopolitical and economic vision among the West’s ruling elites, but a growing agreement that US hegemony is in decline and other Western powers should carve a place for themselves in the world taking this reality into consideration.
While there is no consensus about the best way to handle the political, economic and health aspects of the coronavirus crisis, various international relations scholars, analysts and statemen concur that the Muslim world is heading towards dramatic changes in the post-coronavirus period.
Christopher Phillips, Deputy Dean of International Relations at the University of London, opines that “the US, like other Western democratic governments, looks set for a period of internal focus once the pandemic passes” (Middle East Eye). In the same column, Phillips argues that “it seems equally plausible that in the vacuum, states and other players, including the US, will continue to view the region as an arena for competition, subjecting it to more conflict and suffering. The post-US Middle East that Covid-19 could usher in, may prove no more stable than it was under Washington’s failed bid for dominance.”
While Phillips’ argument is plausible, his narrative and that of many other Western observers, ignores the fact that in order to build a new political architecture in the Middle East, it will require the dismantling of the US established order. This process, just like the renovation of a house, will create mess and cause discomfort. One cannot expect to renovate a house without messy plumbing and other construction work. Thus, the instability that might engulf the Muslim world as a result of NATO’s soft and hard power retreat, will be a necessary discomfort in order to establish more people-centered governing systems within the region’s religious and cultural paradigm. The only way to make the post-US period in the region less painful is to hope that a genuine and muttaqi (God conscious) leadership emerges from among the people of the region which will not be afraid to take risks and build something new.
While detractors dismiss the experience of Islamic Iran and point to some of its administrative and managerial flaws, the reality is that it is the only power in the region that has managed to build a governing system independent of Western powers. Thus, naturally the post-US drive for a new regional order will be Iran- and Islam-centered. Whether it is the resurgence of Muslim Brotherhood, the AKP- modeled Muslim governance or even of secular nationalists, the new models, wherever in the region they emerge, will have to cooperate with Tehran in order to sustain themselves in the new regional arrangement.
NATO members were devastated by the coronavirus because of their dismal healthcare systems, cut-throat austerity measures and mediocre public policies. The blow inflicted by the coronavirus is not only empirical, it has also undermined perceptions. Western countries are no longer ‘go to systems’ for sophisticated public policy approaches. Asian countries like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan managed to deal with the health aspect of the coronavirus crisis far more efficiently than many EU members.
The decades-old imposed aura of Western exceptionalism is crumbling together with their neo-colonial systems set up in the Muslim world. NATO systems are no longer viewed with fascination by the developing world, but are seen as ordinary state systems with a poor health care, corrupt politicians and a weak commitment to proclaimed principles. While this might take some time and the narcissist in the White House might choose to launch a regional war with Iran in order to boost oil prices and reward his big business buddies or manufacture other crises to derail the eventual outcome, the process is irreversible. Thus, analysts of the Islamic movement should not be fixated on certain events that might make it seem that NATO regimes are bouncing back, but rather analyze the overall process.