The Middle East in the “Age of Globalization'

At the end of the twentieth century, historians began to look back and assess what had taken place and what the meaning of it all was. One of the questions they raised concerned the problem of periodicization, that is, where to put the historical boundaries of the twentieth century.

Chronologically, of course, the twentieth century began in 1900 (or 1901, if you are a stickler for details), just as the nineteenth century had begun in 1800 (or, again, 1801). But most historians do not plot history simply by referring to a calendar. In the case of the nineteenth century, for example, many historians use a periodicization that places the beginning of the century in 1789—the year of the French Revolution — and the end of the century in 1914—the year World War I broke out. Historians call this the “long nineteenth century.” According to their accounts, the long nineteenth century was distinguished by a number of characteristics. During the long nineteenth century the modern world economic system reached the far corners of the globe as workers and formers on every continent came to participate in a worldwide division of labor. The nation-state replaced the empire as the prototypical political unit and spread throughout the world. Certain dogmas, such as a belief in progress, standards of civilization, popular sovereignty, and nationalism, gained almost universal currency as a result of European global dominance, also a hallmark of the long nineteenth century. Finally, new social classes — the bourgeoisie and the working class — appeared on the world stage for the first time as a result of the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization.

If all or some of these phenomena have come to mark the long nineteenth century, what phenomena mark the century that followed? Some historians have placed a “short twentieth century” alongside the long nineteenth century. The great British historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, begins his twentieth century with World War I and ends it in 1991. His timing of the twentieth century coincides with the establishment of the first great “socialist experiment” in Russia, which divided the world into rival socialist and capitalist camps. According to Hobsbawm, the rise of Soviet communism not only created a socialist state, it affected the entire world. To save capitalism, he argues, nonsocialist states had to undertake reforms. These reforms led to the emergence of the welfare state in the West and to the rescue of liberal capitalism. Hobsbawm ends his periodicization of the twentieth century with the demise of the Soviet Union, the end of the cold war, and the emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower.

As we have seen, the welfare state idea did leave a lasting impression on the states and citizens of the Middle East. In other ways, however, this periodicization ill suits the Middle East or other regions outside Europe. It is likely that states in the Middle East would have gone down the road of state-directed development and would have assumed many of the attributes of welfare states no matter what was going on in Europe. As a matter of fact, some historians and political scientists, following in the footsteps of economist Alexander Gerschenkron, have proposed a model of “late development” for nations that emerged in the wake of the industrial revolution. According to Gerschenkron and his followers, nations as diverse as nineteenth-century Germany and twentieth-century India commonly found market forces an insufficient basis for industrial development. Instead, there had to be some central mechanism — a state or a group of industrial elites— that took charge of industrial development and that won over various classes to its endeavors by extending promises to them. None of this can be attributed to the rise of the socialist bloc. And while the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union did leave an imprint on the region and did aggravate regional conflicts, it hardly provides the hallmarks of an epoch. Instead, as we have seen, American-Soviet competition in the region was more akin to “new wine in old bottles.”

Like Hobsbawm, other historians and political scientists have tried their hand at defining the twentieth century. Some have opined that Hobsbawm's notion of the short twentieth century should be replaced by a long twentieth century. Historian Charles S. Maier, for example, has proposed a twentieth century that stretches from 1850 to 1970. His twentieth century coincides with the rise and fall of the territorial state. How this periodicization would deal with the problem of defining the boundaries of the nineteenth century is not clear. Nor is it clear whether the highly touted weakening of the territorial state in the wake of an increasingly globalized world economy marks an irreversible trend or a shortsighted infatuation on the part of social scientists.

These bold attempts to figure out the central theme of twentieth-century history illustrate the principal problem historians confront when they attempt to divide history into bite-size pieces. For historical periods to have any meaning, historians assign to them certain attributes that distinguish them from earlier and later periods. This means that historians must make choices and stress certain events or phenomena at the expense of others. We all know that the Renaissance was a period of great artistic achievement in Europe, but just how much did social or economic life during this period differ from daily life in the Medieval period that preceded it or in the Reformation period that followed it? The division of history into periods is thus both helpful and deceptive. On the one hand, it enables historians to highlight elements of change. On the other, it compels historians to privilege some types of change over others and to lose sight of historical continuities.

Take, for example, the common practice of using World War I as the dividing line between two historical eras. Part III of this book argued that World War I was perhaps the most important political event in the history of the modern Middle East for four reasons: the creation of the state system; the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio; the spread of a variety of nationalist sentiments throughout the region, many of which were embodied in states; and the consolidation of Iran as a modern nation-state under the guidance of Reza Shah. These are certainly important developments, but there are two things that are worthy of note. First of all, the roots of all these post-World War I developments might be traced to developments in the second half of the nineteenth century. It would have been impossible for nationalist movements to spread in the region had the Ottomans not already introduced modern institutions and structures of governance into the region, the Zionists who came to Palestine put themselves squarely within the tradition of European colonialism and the imperative to spread “civilization,” and recent scholarship has demonstrated that many of the innovations attributed to the Reza Shah period — nationalism and defensive developmentalism, for example — also had their roots in late nineteenth-century Qajar rule. In addition, while World War I may have been the most important political event in the history of the modern Middle East, the war did not substantially change the social and economic history of the region. As we have seen, the region remained locked in a colonial relationship with the industrialized world, and the social and economic structures that had defined Middle Eastern society during the nineteenth century remained pretty much intact until they were disrupted in the 1930s and 1940s and reconstituted in the 1950s and 1960s.

So if World War I did not mark the beginning of a new twentieth-century dispensation, what did? Perhaps nothing. Turning Maier on his head, it is possible to argue that there was no twentieth century in the Middle East. This does not mean that the Middle East is backward in some way. Rather, it means that after the twin Middle Eastern revolutions of the nineteenth century — the integration of the region into the modern world economy and into the international state system— historians have not been able to come up with a yardstick for historical periodicization that has any true meaning for the region. The current Middle East — the Middle East of strong, authoritarian governments, of Islamic movements, of the Iranian and oil revolutions, of the unsolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is a product of these twin processes. And, for better or worse, it is the Middle East of the foreseeable future.

Thus, dividing the history of the Middle East into centennial units may not be particularly useful. Nevertheless, there are some historians, like Charles S. Maier, who argue that even if we chose to privilege\the continuities of modern Middle Eastern history over discontinuities, the region is on the verge of an epochal shift. Some attribute this epochal shift to globalization. Others attribute it to new electronic media such as the Internet and satellite television or to the global impact of newly established international principles of human rights and democracy. Still others argue that this epochal shift is coming as a result of some combination of the aforementioned three. Let us take a look at each of these forces in turn.

First, globalization. Globalization enthusiasts claim that the current trend toward freer trade will have revolutionary effects. They predict that this trend will break down international boundaries, making the world a smaller place and, in the eyes of the most optimistic among them, a more tolerant and peaceful one. Or, to put it in the glib words of the journalist Thomas Friedman, no two countries that have McDonald's have ever engaged in war (forgetting for a moment that while the United States was bombing Belgrade, Yugoslavia, local McDonald's franchises were handing out free hamburgers to crowds at anti-NATO rallies).


Wave of the future? Flyer distributed by McDonald's Corporation urging the citizens of Beirut to break their daily Ramadan fast with a “Mac Combo.”

If we look at globalization historically, however, the prediction that globalization will bring about an era in which states and conflicts between them will disappear appears a bit overly optimistic. The first great period of globalization took place during the nineteenth century, meaning, in this case, the period between 1815 and 1914. According to a number of indicators, globalization during this period was even more successful than during the so-called second period of globalization that began in 1950 or 1970, depending on your point of view, and continues to this day. During the first period of globalization labor was more mobile than it is today. Hardly any countries issued passports (one interesting exception: the Ottoman Empire), and people could and did move freely from continent to continent to find work. Before 1815, the greatest migration of people in history had been the forced migration of enslaved Africans to the New World. Between 1815 and 1940, an astonishing 150 million people migrated across borders, mostly for employment. One result: In 1900, about 14 percent of Americans were foreign-born. Now, the figure is about 8 percent. Free trade ruled during much of the nineteenth century and exports boomed. But, at that time, exports provided only 7 percent of the gross national product of the United States — a figure that, at the turn of the twenty-first century, only increased one percentage point. According to the International Monetary Fund, capital flow across national lines still has not reached the same level it had in the 1880s. This was, of course, during the golden age of imperialism, which was also the golden age of foreign investment.

If the current period of globalization is to be considered successful then, so must the first period. But the first period of globalization hardly broke down international borders and made the world a smaller, more tolerant place. To the contrary. The first period of globalization ended with World War I, the bloodiest international conflict until that time. There is no reason to think that the current impulse toward globalization, if it continues, would not produce a similar countercurrent. Indeed, that countercurrent — expressed in movements as varied as neopopulist, nativist, and neofascist movements — is already at work today. Furthermore, the suspension of multilateralism as a central plank of American foreign policy during the Bush administration and the defeat of a Europe-wide constitution in 2005 and again in 2008 hardly seem to point to a new era of international cooperation and the onset of a new, non-national future.

Even if globalization were somehow to have the miraculous effects that enthusiasts predict that it will, it is not likely to be embraced either by governments or populations of the Middle East. What government in the region is likely to embrace retrenchment or transparency in anything? Populations in the region are no less adverse to a doctrine which, according to recent research data, is more commonly viewed as a threat than as an opportunity, and is more likely than not to be associated with imperialism and the imposition of Western values. Indices used to measure globalization find that next to sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East remains the least globalized region in the world. And little wonder, when economists argue that the only competitive advantage that the Middle East holds over other regions is its proximity to Europe.

If globalization does not bring about an epochal shift in the history of the Middle East, perhaps new technologies, such as the Internet or satellite dishes, will. After 9/11, many in the West became aware of the explosion of new technologies in the region by watching images originally broadcast by the al-Jazeera television station based in Qatar. Some technology enthusiasts argue that access to international television stations like al-Jazeera or the Internet will render international borders ineffective and hasten the end of the nation-state, in the Middle East as elsewhere. This argument is not a new one. According to sociologist Claude Fischer, the prediction that new technologies will break down international boundaries was foreshadowed by a similar prediction made in the 1940s, when it was prophesied that the invention of the telephone and access to long-distance calling would weaken local ties and hasten the emergence of a borderless international community. One might go even further back to a prediction made by Samuel F.B. Morse, who confidently wrote that his new invention, the telegraph, would “annihilate] space and time... bringing mankind into a common brotherhood.” Hope for a peaceful international order based on a global public sphere, it seems, springs eternal.

What technology enthusiasts fail to note is that the Internet and satellite television cannot break the monopoly over information that governments in the region hold today because governments in the region have never held such a monopoly. For example, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, residents of Baghdad were able to keep abreast of the news by reading local newspapers, listening to local radio, and (for a time) local television broadcasts. But they also supplemented these sources of information with sources outside the country. Not only did they tune into the relatively new al-Jazeera, they relied on the same news sources — the B.B.C., Radio Monte Carlo, and the American Armed Forces Radio — that their parents had during previous crises. This did not make the job of the “coalition of the willing” any easier. Likewise, strong states emerged in the Middle East in spite of the public's access to alternative sources of news. After all, getting to know one's neighbors and hearing their viewpoints does not necessarily mean accepting those neighbors and adopting those viewpoints.

It would, of course, be foolish to discount the arguments of technology enthusiasts out of hand. There have been technologies in history that have provided the wherewithal for epochal social or political or economic change. As we have seen, harnessing gunpowder allowed for the emergence of large-scale, long-lived empires throughout the Eurasian continent. Along the same lines, historians have cited the epoch-making significance of the stirrup, the compass, the printing press, and the steam engine. But even if these inventions have had the power to transform history, as some historians claim, more often than not technological change merely reinforces already existing social, economic, and political relationships. From the inception of al-Jazeera, for example, the U.S. government has argued that images of Israeli tanks attacking Palestinian towns or injured Iraqi civilians were amplifying existing nationalist passions that the U.S. government was desperately trying to dampen. The Internet has already been used by nationalist movements such as the Kosovar Liberation Organization and the Zapatista Army for National

Liberation (EZLN) in Mexico to garner international support and create a national public space in cyberspace, which would have been impossible to achieve in real space. Hence, rather than breaking down national boundaries, the Internet can and has been used to reinforce national allegiances and movements. Or, in the words of anthropologist Benedict Anderson, the Internet has made it possible for people to become “long-distance nationalists.”

Finally, democratization. In the immediate aftermath of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama, a neoconservative who has since renounced the faith, wrote an influential article titled “The End of History?” According to Fukuyama, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end the threat to liberal democracy posed by the second great “ism” of the twentieth century — communism (the other “ism” was fascism). Although the new order may take a while to sort itself out, he wrote, we should nevertheless expect the eventual emergence of an international system in which democratic principles reign supreme and uncontested. For Fukuyama, this meant that history will have reached its final destination (hence the title of the article), and while life may be a bit duller, it will certainly be more tranquil.

Although Fukuyama's optimistic prediction faced a number of harsh critiques, his article captures well the spirit of the time. Even some scholars of the Middle East joined the democratization bandwagon. They pointed out that the ardor with which broad segments of the Middle Eastern population had first greeted the revolutionary regimes during the 1950s and 1960s has long since dissipated. They attributed this to chronic repression and unfulfilled promises. The time will come, democratization theorists argued, when long-awaited democratization movements would emerge in the region and effectively challenge authoritarian governments and their equally authoritarian (mostly Islamist) opponents. When this did not occur and 9/11 did, the Bush administration and its supporters linked those two phenomena. They also added a new twist to democratization theory: Sometimes, they asserted, it might be necessary for the United States to force the hand of history. Although many observers were skeptical about America's commitment to transforming the authoritarian regimes it had aided and abetted for years, democratizing the Middle East became the stated goal of American policy. In some abstract sense, it still is.

Thus, some have argued that democratization in the Middle East will occur by natural evolution. For others, it will be, as a recent essayist has put it, “a gift of the foreigners.” Let's look at each in turn.

First, democratization-as-evolutionary-process. As political scientist Lisa Anderson has argued, democratization enthusiasts assume that democracy is in some way preordained and that a “country's failure to embrace it is evidence of political perversity or moral obtuseness on the part of its citizenry.” Such assumptions are not new to the social sciences. Democratization enthusiasts are following in the footsteps of their nineteenth-century predecessors who predicted the inevitable triumph of liberal values or communism or whatever. Wishful thinking, as reflected in theories of inevitable progress, was not borne out by events then and is unlikely to be borne out by events now. The power of states in the Middle East still remains far greater than the power of those seeking expanded democratic rights. Governments in the region have been quite successful not only in increasing their own power but in diminishing the power of their opponents. For example, states in the region have been able to divide their populations into competing groups, pitting city against countryside, religious sect against religious sect, ethnic group against ethnic group, province against province. They are certainly not likely to relinquish any of their hard-earned power voluntarily.

That seems to leave it up to the United States or even a concert of nations to impose democratic structures in the Middle East. So far the United States has applied a number of tactics in its democratization campaign. It invaded and occupied Iraq. It encouraged the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005. It coerced the regime in Egypt to hold elections. And it midwifed the Oslo process which led to democratic elections in Palestine. And, so far, American democratization efforts have borne unanticipated consequences at every turn. The case of Iraq is too well-known to merit further comment. In Lebanon, the spirit of the Cedar Revolution soon dissipated and politics returned to business as usual, with one exception: A reinvigorated Hizbullah entered the Lebanese government for the first time. In December 2005, the Egyptian government held what President Hosni Mubarak bragged were the freest elections in modern Egyptian history (Mubarak himself won only 88.6 percent of the vote). In spite of widespread intimidation of opposition candidates, ballot-stuffing and vote suppression, and government control over the media, candidates affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood won close to 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament. Were it allowed to organize itself as a political party, the Muslim Brotherhood would represent the largest opposition party in that body. And as we have seen, elections in Palestine handed a resounding victory to Hamas, although this was probably more an indication of Palestinian anger at PLO corruption and inefficiency — and a flawed electoral strategy on the part of the PLO — than of support for Hamas's program (at the time of the election, polls indicated that only 2 percent of the population of the territories wanted to see Islamic law applied there).

Overall, even if America's commitment to democratic change in the region is genuine and not mere window dressing, it faces daunting challenges: the unanticipated popularity of Islamic political parties, the tenacity of governments in the region, America's fear of offending or destabilizing its allies, and fatigue felt by many Americans facing the prospect of further foreign adventures.

What all this portends for the future of the Middle East is unclear. What is clear is that one should be wary of those who claim that all it will take to transform the region is the application of the right magic formula — whether the ingredients of that formula are to be found in globalization, new technologies, or elections. And whatever policies the states of the region pursue, one other thing is clear as well: If modernity is defined by the dominance of the world economic and nation-state systems, the Middle East is firmly entrenched in its modern moment and there it is likely to stay. There does not appear to be a postmodern moment yet on the Middle Eastern horizon.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!