Modern history

A RETURN TO EMPIRE?

This window of opportunity will not remain open forever. Even when its oil and its transit routes, so crucial in the past, are outdated by modern technology and communications, the Middle East will still be important—as the junction of three continents, the center of three religions, a strategic asset or danger to be coveted or feared. Sooner or later it will again become an object of interest to outside powers—old powers reviving, new powers emerging. If it continues on its present course, the region, lacking the capacities of India and China, on the one side, or the technology of Europe and America, on the other, will once again be a stake rather than a player in the great game of international politics.

For the moment, the peoples or governments of the Middle East can to an increasing extent determine their own fate. They may choose the way of Yugoslavia or Lebanon, of fragmentation and endless internecine strife. They may launch—there are some who clearly desire this—a new holy war, a jihad, which could again provoke, as it did a thousand years ago, the response of an opposing holy war, a crusade. A militant movement or power that defines itself in religious terms will also define its opponents in religious terms, and these opponents may sooner or later accept that definition. The so-called Islamic fundamentalists fight for Islam and explicitly reject the notion of patriotic or national loyalties, which they see as pagan, divisive and—worst of all—the result of Western influence. And since their cause is Islam, their enemies are those whom they see as the enemies of Islam—the followers of other religions or of none. Among nationalists and patriots the struggle was waged against Zionism and imperialism. In the language of the fundamentalists, these have resumed their earlier names—the Jews and the Christians. No one has a better claim to be called "Egyptian" than the Copts, the native Christians of Egypt. But attacks on Coptic churches and villages have become a common tactic of the Islamic fundamentalists, acting not in the name of country, but of the faith. Struggles of this kind can only exacerbate relations between the Middle East and the outside world and increase the possibility of a return to empire.

As long as conflict and repression prevail, there is little hope of the Middle East achieving a real equality with more advanced countries and therefore of preserving its independence from them. When vibrant and torpid, stronger and weaker, societies live side by side, some form of penetration and perhaps even of domination becomes inevitable.

Who would be the players in such a renewed game of great power politics in the Middle East? The United States has clearly demonstrated its lack of imperial ambition, at least in this region. Even when American power is pulled in by chaos, the Americans do not stay long. Important American economic interests remain, and their protection at times requires a military presence, usually at the solicitation of local rulers. But these two interests will dwindle when the oil era draws to its inevitable end. Apart from some promising developments of high-tech industry—on a small scale and in a few places—there is little else in the Middle East to attract the attention of either investors or predators. The total amount of American private investment in the whole Middle East is about one-third of the amount invested in Australia, one-fifth of the amount invested in Japan and less than one-tenth of the amount invested in Canada. These disparities have been increasing for a number of years and are likely to become greater in the years to come.

America's major strategic interest ended with the Cold War. Terrorism, and the engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave rise to a new American concern with the region. As of this writing, American forces are on the ground in Arab and Muslim states as never before. But by all indications, the American public bristles at this new engagement and yearns to leave that arc of discord to deal with its own troubles.

The European powers, singly or jointly, are unlikely to return to the scenes of their former imperial failures. The crises in Bosnia and Cyprus demonstrated their inability to cope unaided even with problems on their own doorstep. More probably they will content themselves with financial and commercial dealings, with perhaps a little occasional political profit taking when opportunity offers. There will be no European answer to Iran's nuclear drive, and Europe can be expected to avert its gaze from the misdeeds of Middle Eastern tyrannies.

Russia is another matter. For the moment Russia, crippled by its internal problems, is out of the game, and its weakness is painfully revealed in the few unsuccessful attempts by Russian leaders to assert a role in the peacemaking process. But there can be no doubt that at some time in the near or distant future this will change. A country with the resources and numbers and the scientific and technological sophistication of Russia will not indefinitely remain on the sidelines. Sooner or later Russia will be back, and we do not know what kind of a Russia it will be. It may fall subject to some form of totalitarian tyranny, fascist or communist; it may resume its earlier role as the leader of pan-Slavism or of Orthodox Christianity; it may succeed, after so many failed efforts, in establishing a Russian liberal democracy. It may resume or reject its former imperial ambitions. But this much can be said with certainty—that whatever kind of regime rules in a resurgent Russia, it will be vitally concerned with the Middle East—a region not far from its southern frontier, wherever that may ultimately lie, and linked by ties of history, religion and culture with important elements of the Russian population, including both Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.

The rulers of a new Russia would have several choices of Middle Eastern policies. They might follow the Western European example and try to keep on reasonably good terms with as many different groups as possible while offering effective help to none of them. They might revive the Soviet policy of encouraging and supporting those elements that are opposed to the West and to Israel. Alternatively, they might conclude that militant Islamic fundamentalism is more of a danger to Russia than to the West. Conceivably, they might discover and develop the cultural affinity that exists between Russia and Israel—a society founded by immigrants from the former czarist Russian empire and recently reinforced by a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The new century has already witnessed the emergence of two new superpowers—India and China. Both possess in ample measure the numbers, the resources and the cohesion for such a role. Both—far more successfully than most of the countries in the Middle East—are facing the challenges of modernity and accomplishing the transition to a new age. Both still have major problems to overcome. These may delay but will not prevent the rise of these two new superpowers to a world role.

Both will inevitably become involved in the Middle East in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the European powers in their day. Bordered by Europe in the west, Russia in the north, China and India in the east, the Middle East will be of vital concern to all of them. Like the great powers of the past, the great powers of the future will meet in the Middle East as allies or rivals, as patrons or masters.

Russia, China and India all have significant Muslim minorities. In the Russian federation, even after the loss of the predominantly Muslim republics, Muslims still amount to some 15 percent of the total population. A significant proportion of these Muslims, notably the Chechens, the Tatars, and the Bashkirs, live in autonomous political entities of their own within the Russian federation.

China, unlike the Soviet Union, has not broken up and retains imperial control over its Central Asian conquests. These include extensive territories predominantly inhabited by Muslims, most of them speaking Turkic languages. The new-found independence of their kinsfolk formerly under Soviet rule has roused new hopes and expectations among China's Muslim subjects; Beijing's policy of setting great numbers of ethnic Chinese in Muslim territories has aroused new resentments. Increasingly, China will have a Muslim problem and a growing area of friction with both the Turkish and Iranian worlds. Russia's experience with the Afghans may perhaps give a foretaste of how this will develop.

India has a vast Muslim minority, much greater than those of either Russia or China. India's Muslims have indeed been described as the second largest Muslim community in the world, after Indonesia, greater than Pakistan or any Middle Eastern country. Indian relations with Islam have been embittered by a long struggle and, more particularly, by the wars with Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan are now nuclear powers, and the subcontinent lives under the constant threat of a major war. As with Russia and China, but perhaps differently, India will be affected one way or another in its dealings with the Middle East by its own Muslim population. So far, successive Indian governments have been remarkably successful in establishing good and peaceful relations with their Muslim compatriots.

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